The Young Leaders Transforming the 2022 Midterms, with Layla Zaidane

Nov 2, 2022

With less than a week to Election Day, Layla Zaidane, president and CEO of the Millennial Action Project, joins Doorstep co-hosts, Nick Gvosdev and Tatiana Serafin for a preview of changes ahead as young leaders step up to run for office and come out to vote.

With a 57 percent increase in the number of Millennial candidates compared to 2020 (about one out of six Congressional candidates nationwide are Millennials) and expectations of higher voter turnout for those 40 and younger, seismic changes are brewing. Are we entering a post-partisan world? Will 2022 be the year that changed not only the U.S. but also the world?

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: Welcome, everyone, to this special pre-election issue of The Doorstep podcast. I am Nick Gvosdev, your co-host, Senior Fellow at Carnegie Council.

TATIANA SERAFIN: And I am Tatiana Serafin, also a Senior Fellow here at Carnegie Council. Less than a week, Nick, until midterms. I have been telling everybody that midterms are more important than presidential election years. I don't know why they are called "off" years. It drives me nuts. They are so important, and we have so many young people running for office.

In a minute we are going to be speaking with Layla Zaidane from the Millennial Action Project about what is happening with all the new voices rising and a movement that is a decade plus in the making. I love what she tells us in a minute about "widening the aperture" and looking at history and historical change. I think this is such an important discussion today.

Before we go to Layla, I want to also tell all of you listening today that we have an interesting Book Talk coming up, speaking of widening our lens and looking at history and what we can learn from it. The book is called Personality and Power: Builders and Destroyers of Modern Europe by Ian Kershaw, November 16 at noon. The registration link is already up at carnegiecouncil.org. It should be a great discussion and a great look at what is leadership in the 20th century leading into the 21st century as we go into an election and post-election discussion. We're very excited to talk to Layla right now.

Thanks so much for joining us today, Layla, to talk about the Millennial Action Project, which I am so excited to learn about. I want to say first though that we are all Georgetown School of Foreign Service (SFS) grads, so shout-out to Georgetown, shout-out to SFS, and all those in our audience listening from Georgetown and SFS, especially the youth, and that's what we are going to be talking about today with you.

I have so many places to start, but let's start with your Teen Vogue piece. I teach political reporting, and we were reading your piece the other week in class because I thought what you pointed out is so powerful in terms of the numbers—people under 40 or 45; we can define what you are looking at in terms of numbers—of young people running for office. I wanted to ask you about that first and those numbers.

Also the Millennial Action Project has been around for a decade. This is now a movement, and I want to say that first because I think in general in politics people get involved in the media in this horse race reporting so that it seems like it is only happening today and the stakes are only today, but that is not correct. We need to look at politics as a long game.

The other thing we read in our class—and you might have read this when you were at Georgetown—is Jane Mayer's Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right, talking about the libertarian conservative movement and how that started in the 1950s and 1960s and how they have made inroads on the ground, boots on the ground, today. We need to look at other movements, and so Millennial Action Project is that movement. Thank you so much for joining us. What was that Teen Vogue article as a start and intro into the Millennial Action Project?

LAYLA ZAIDANE: First of all, thank you for having me. I don't know if this is the appropriate moment for us to all start singing the fight song or to have some sort of Georgetown cheer. I don't know if that will turn people away from the podcast, so maybe I will refrain myself for now or your production team will edit me out.

This upcoming September the Millennial Action Project will be celebrating a decade of being in existence. It's insane to think about. Just to set the stage, our mission is about connecting, engaging, and mobilizing a generation of young leaders. It is much bigger than just electing any one candidate in a specific election cycle but making sure that the part that we forget about in politics, the part in between elections, the governance part, that young people are set up to be successful when they do the hard work of solving problems for a diverse country.

What the Millennial Action Project does is we help connect them through something we call Future Caucuses. We have a chapter in Congress, and we are in 31 states across the country. Each one is led by a Democrat and a Republican, in some cases two Democrats and two Republicans if it's bicameral. The work is introducing them to each other and giving them a permission structure to build relationships across the aisle and to identify policies they want to work on, and then we will help connect them to the smart people who can help make those ideas a reality.

The Teen Vogue article I think for us was important because all of this movement building—young people operating in a different kind of political framework in 2022 than people are used to in the old playbooks of the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s—we are living in a new world today, so it is important for us to be able to tell that story so that people don't keep repeating the same narratives about what it means to be in politics, what it means to be in our institutions, and what it means to be an elected leader. We were grateful to be able to shine a spotlight on some of the work that young people across the country are doing that I think busts some of the myths that people are used to hearing about the partisanship not just of our institutions but of young people in particular, which I think people tend to get, to give them a little bit of a bad rap or at least stereotype how extreme young people might be.

It turns out they are actually good at bipartisanship. They are statistically better than their older counterparts at building coalitions, working across the aisle, and actually getting things done. I think that is an important story to tell, and for me it is a story that is full of hope, that the next decade might usher in a more functional democracy stewarded by the young people of today and tomorrow.

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: I wanted to pick up on the point that you ended with and to get a sense from you about what may define this next generation or this current generation of political leaders. Tatiana asked: "Where do we draw the line? Is it 45 or 40?” I will pick 40 as the upper limit because I think that reflects a set of experiences. An under-40 politician running for office is not defined by strong memories of the Cold War, of course if they have any memories of the Cold War. That defining issue for American politics which so defines the older generations in some ways is not there. The whole debate of the 1990s, the Clintonian response to Reaganism, is now also in the distant past.

What would you see as some of the defining characteristics, as you said, the greater sense of bipartisanship, greater sense of working on coalitions? What are some of the coalitions that may be forming that you could see would define this next group? Considering that President Biden was once a young politician and was defined as a member of the "Class of 1974" that came in and that has shaped his politics ever since then, when he first entered the Senate, is there a moment that you see now that we are going to talk about a "Class of 2022" or the 2020s as being a decade where Millennials take center stage in politics? What might define some of the issues or coalitions? What are you seeing?

LAYLA ZAIDANE: I love the framing of this question and rooting it in history and the political memories of the people who are at the seats of power right now and how that informs their decision making. When you look at Millennials or increasingly now Gen Z not having those memories, those lived experiences at least—they certainly may have studied it but not lived through things like the Cold War, things like the hyper-inflationary era, and the opposite, like when we experienced the bank bailout after the housing crisis. We are actually seeing an influx of money not necessarily lead to the same situation that so many people had total post-traumatic stress disorder over. I think it is important to center how we think about what informs the perspective and the worldview of this generation.

Millennials came of age—I was just entering high school—when 9/11 happened, and that was the first major breakdown of a national institution that I had taken for granted, the national security apparatus that existed to keep me safe, to keep my family safe. Then you fast-forward to, as I mentioned, the Great Recession, the housing crisis, exploding student debt, a global pandemic, and you start to see time and time again these failures of institutions for things that we were promised would work in a certain way.

At the same time you see an explosion in technology and digital communications and this powerful sense of entrepreneurship, of problem solving outside of the existing apparatuses that we were told is how you solve problems. Now all of a sudden you have young people starting digital media companies, things like Facebook—we can talk about the implications of what that has done in the past 15 to 20 years—and this idea that young people were rolling up their sleeves and felt called to fix a problem, and maybe they were not going to do it through the institutions or the frameworks that we had always thought were the vehicles by which you solved problems.

That is what I see moving forward, this sense of: "You can't really put me in a box. I still have this idealism and this desire to solve things, to fix things, I'm civic-minded, I have an altruism.” I think those are all characteristic of Millennials, and you will see that now applied as we channel that energy into political institutions. I think that is where see a lot of the tension right now in the reconciliation of a centuries-old institution reckoning with the disruptive nature of how we are pragmatic in solving problems and how we cut through the B.S. and go for it. I think Millennials are on the vanguard of that. I think Gen Z is even more well-suited to that kind of outside-the-box thinking.

TATIANA SERAFIN: I do want to highlight one of your initiatives because it interested me when I was reading about it is the technology initiative, to maybe get rid of all that paper in government, modernize, and think about transparency. I think transparency probably—along with communication, which I want to talk about separately—is one of the biggest drivers I see of change in looking at the work that you are doing, this idea that you have to have access to information in order to make better decisions. Can you talk more about that technology project?

LAYLA ZAIDANE: Again I think it is born of our experiences of the reality that if we want to do something, if I want to get in touch with somebody I don't have to get out a pen and a piece of paper, write it down, and put it in the mail. We have email, we can text, we have computers that we carry around with us at all times that can connect us. To bring places where that efficiency and that transparency do not exist into what we have come to expect in every other dimension of our lives, I think that initiative is born out of matching that up within our institutions.

I will also say I think it is something that is bipartisan. You look at the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress, which is led by Congressman Derek Kilmer and vice-chaired by Congressman Bill Timmons, both young people I should mention, and a lot of it is the unsexy stuff of just making the institution work better, making the jobs of staffers a lot easier, and in the process actually rooting out some of the things that in today's day and age have contributed to an acceleration of polarization in Congress just by the nature of how we share information, how we operate day to day, and how Congress was originally set up, so modernizing that to bring us to where we are today, being a smart and yet unsexy way of tackling that.

We also talk about things like—regardless of what you think about President Obama's initiative—Obamacare. I could not imagine trying to get my healthcare by not going on a website and comparing different plans the way I would shop for a flight. It is little things like that that as young people we have taken for granted how technology has made our lives easier in a lot of ways and seeing those applications in government, in the deliberative process, and of course in building that civic flywheel between elected leaders and the people they serve.

TATIANA SERAFIN: I think there is a lot more that can be done there. Nick, did you have a question?

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: I wanted to build on that because it got me thinking. This point about next generation—Millennial and then Gen Z—people running for office are used to a very different set of core assumptions. I was intrigued by something that you said about crossing the aisle, which is that Gen Z and Millennials are not all going to agree on policy, but is there also something that breaks them from their older counterparts on both sides of the aisle. In other words, that as you are working through it, Millennial and Gen Z candidates, whether they are more on the liberal or progressive side or more on the conservative or libertarian side, may disagree with each other, but they are also disagreeing and taking different perspectives than their Boomer and Gen X counterparts? Is there a sense that over the next ten years both the Democratic and Republican parties will evolve differently as Millennials take center stage and as more Gen Z cohorts are recruited to office? Is there something that we can say that, whether conservative or liberal, whether libertarian or progressive, "This is what defines the second-wave Millennial, Gen Z politicians?"

LAYLA ZAIDANE: There are a couple of things that come to mind there. What we have done at Millennial Action Project to try to depolarize and remove the partisan baggage that often gets attached to issues is to use this framing of "future focused.” That empowers an entire generation to see themselves as on the same team, working toward a future in which they will be alive and maybe people 20, 30, or 40 years older might not be around to be a part of that future. That term "future focused" has been a powerful one in bringing people together.

What we are seeing, certainly as Millennials hatch into positions of political power and as Gen Z brings up the rear quite quickly, is climate. Climate, energy, and conservation are issues that are big differentiators, particularly on the right, between younger candidates and their older counterparts. We see at the state level as well as in Congress an appetite for investing in things like energy infrastructure, paying attention to electrical grids, and innovations like battery storage in order to accelerate the adoption of electric vehicles. These are all things that we see a big appetite for among young people.

I will also say that something that tends to get discussed more as a conservative issue or something on the right that we do see a lot of people on the left embrace is this idea of spending and how efficient or inefficient we are with our resources and our government agencies and how we carry out the things that government should be doing, tying it back to this idea of efficiency but also thinking: This is my future we are mortgaging away. If the national debt grows, it is something that is potentially on my shoulders to bear. We see that as a topic that young people on the left are a lot more open to engaging with. Again, there's this idea of what does the future look like and how do we create a coalition of people who are going to be living in that future to build for the long term to set us up for success?

TATIANA SERAFIN: It is so interesting to hear this post-partisan discussion that we are having because that is not what the headlines are screaming, and when I say screaming, that is what I feel the political headlines are doing to me. It's a big scream, and I think it doesn't help what happened to poor Paul Pelosi, and I do want to bring us to that topic. We do see—and your article stated and your research clearly states—that hundreds of Millennials and a couple of Gen Zs are now running for office at the federal, state, and local levels, but do you also see a concern about violence? That is not partisan either, this idea that you are not safe as an elected official. Is that a turnoff for people?

Of all the noise that I am hearing and all the screaming headlines that is the one concern that I have with getting that next generation to want to participate in a very important part of change. You need political leaders who are going to be change makers. Take away the bipartisanship problem because I see and believe that what you are experiencing and promoting is true—does violence stop people from running for office?

LAYLA ZAIDANE: It's a very real concern. My heart goes out to the Pelosi family and certainly anyone who has ever been a victim of political violence. Unfortunately it is something that we are seeing more and more of, certainly threats of political violence. Part of it is that it is so easy to quickly get radicalized by ideas that you encounter in particular online that reinforce perhaps a fear or insecurity that you have, and you can see—as we have seen in interviews and conversations with folks who have themselves gone down that rabbit hole—how quickly that can happen. That is something that current elected officials need to be mindful of in terms of the systemic drivers that enable that kind of misinformation, disinformation, that kind of information ecosystem to exist.

At the same time, well-intentioned candidates are also often part of creating this culture of, "If I don't win, the apocalypse happens," and contributing to a do-or-die situation. Again, speaking about some of the structural changes that might change how people campaign, some of the incentives, we have talked a lot at Millennial Action Project about things like rank-choice voting, which incentivizes different kinds of campaigns. As an individual who might be susceptible to getting swept up in a wave of violence who otherwise is a well-meaning citizen, there are certainly some things that I think our current elected leaders need to be paying attention to in order to break the cycle that we are currently in.

What that means for candidates is, yes, it is a scary time to think about going public in that way, to put your body, your family on the line in order for something bigger and greater. I think that is why the report that we released today, the "Millennials on the Rise" report that tracks every single young person running for office, is actually quite hopeful for us to see that despite this environment where real threats of violence exist, it is hard to get any piece of legislation passed, people don't tend to think about the words "politician" and "honorable" in the same sentence . . . there are a lot of reasons why you might not run for office. To see the growth among Millennials, a 57 percent jump in young Millennial candidates for Congress this cycle, I think is quite hopeful. That tells us that people acknowledge that there is a problem and they are not shying away from throwing their hat in the ring to try to fix it.

TATIANA SERAFIN: Another thing I see is the funding for races. Isn't that holding some back, or do you any work on that? I know that certainly super political action committees fill in a lot of holes, but you still need money to run a campaign.

LAYLA ZAIDANE: There is a bunch of barriers to getting elected certainly, and, let's be honest, money is one of them. The campaign finance that enables certainly the incumbency advantage as well as older voters having more access to networks of wealth are reasons why it is a lot harder as a young person to get your name out there and to get elected ultimately. That being said, we have seen examples of candidates being creative in connecting with voters, getting their message out, and ultimately being successful.

I was just talking a little bit about how technology has a lot of harms. I think this is an area where young people maybe have a slight advantage in how savvy they are with digital media and how they can leverage those platforms to connect with regular people. That being said, I think it takes so much more effort to do that kind of work with less money with which to reach new people, hire volunteers, and do all of those things, that it does put young people and people who do not have access to tons of money at a disadvantage when it comes to winning races.

TATIANA SERAFIN: I don't know how much you look at this in particular because I know you are focused on looking at the people running for office, supporting them, and creating those coalitions, but do you think that for all of the focus on Gen Z and how many more millions of Gen Z voters there are that the politicians that are the incumbents and are part of the old system, that system that we are trying to change, take Gen Z voters seriously? I am looking at some early voting numbers. The percent of early voters from 18 to 24 or 18 to 40 is quite low when compared to older voters. That to me when I was looking at the numbers yesterday was frankly disappointing for all of the hype.

LAYLA ZAIDANE: Yes. I think this is where everything that happens in between elections matters so, so much. We have this backwards, where we are like, "Whoever shows up to vote is who I am accountable to."

No. You are accountable to everybody, and it is your job to give them something to believe in so that they show up to vote for you come election day. Instead we have backed ourselves into a corner where we are fighting over an increasingly shrinking pool of voters, particularly in primary elections, that makes it expensive and I think frustrating for candidates and elected officials.

Gen Z, like every generation of 18- to 29-year-olds going back to the 1970s, turns out at the lowest rate of every generation, and I think that is not unique to the young people of today. That is true of every "youngest" generation, whoever they were at that period of time.

One thing to take note of is that there has been an increase in youth turnout over the past few midterm elections, in particular Gen Z becoming a little bit savvier about what it means to hold elected leaders accountable. I think we saw in 2018 a jump in young people turning out to vote, so we will have to see what happens after Election Day, but we are on a trajectory where we are seeing Gen Z and Millennials outperform where young people were when they were their age in previous decades.

TATIANA SERAFIN: I think that goes to your hypothesis that there is change afoot and that coalitions are being built.

LAYLA ZAIDANE: I don't mean to interrupt, but can I just say it is part of what you opened with in talking about how it's not a short-term strategy to change a centuries-old institution. It is a movement, it is long-term change, and so you have to widen the aperture when you look at what is happening to take in the context of what each individual data point means. This is an example where if you zoom out a little bit there are actually a lot of reasons to be quite hopeful.

TATIANA SERAFIN: I love that analogy. Let's "widen the aperture" now for the world. Let's not only look at the United States but the world. I know that is not necessarily the focus, but you had me thinking about this idea that, okay, we are going to cross party lines, we are going to create coalitions.

Half of the world is under the age of 30. I love saying that. Half of the world is under the age of 30. Widen the aperture and see what is happening in Ukraine, what is happening in Iran, and what is happening in the United States. We are more interconnected than we talk about. Now I am on this new public service announcement to stop saying foreign policy because the word "foreign" means strange, and it is not strange to be global and interconnected.

I am wondering what you see world young leaders talking about in terms of those global connections. You do a lot of work at the state level, and we have talked here at The Doorstep about subnational alliances on climate, where cities are getting more involved with climate, where the State of California has the fourth-largest economy in the world, bigger than Germany, and where states do matter in a way that maybe in the past nobody thought about. I am going to upend this idea of foreign policy and talk about what you are talking about, this post-foreign policy world, this idea of connectedness. How much of that are you seeing on a global level? Are you seeing global connections, whether in your congressional caucuses or in your state caucuses?

LAYLA ZAIDANE: I love that, stop saying foreign policy. I am into it. I will say too, just on a personal note, part of what got me interested in going to the School of Foreign Service to begin with is because both of my parents were born in Morocco, and everyone in my family lives abroad. As I reflected on my place in the world and the people who I loved and where we were there was this sense of, "How do I make meaning of the international nature of how we live? What makes us thrive, what economies link us?” So I love this idea that there is no such thing anymore of foreign policy because everything does connect.

Your example of climate is an apt one because that is probably the biggest example and one that intersects quite nicely with the legislators that we work with as a priority, where there is a lot of interest in both learning from but also understanding the ripple effects of things like trade, technology, and climate policy that impact us at a super-local level. You think even about what the policy toward China means for a farmer in Wisconsin. That is not foreign policy. That is a kitchen-table issue.

So there is I think a savviness about those implications. Also we have grown up having access to understanding that there are other people besides Americans in the world, like go figure, there are others. So I think it is quite natural to be curious about what is happening in this country, and how can I as a young leader learn from what is happening there either to copy or to completely try to not do at all? I don't know how much that translates into voters being motivated to prioritize that in their decision making, but I will say that from an elected leader perspective it is very important.

TATIANA SERAFIN: I am going to be so curious to see what happens next week. We have less than a week to the midterms. Thank you so much for joining us today to help explain how the youth are powering change and "widening the aperture.” I love that. I love that expression. Thank you for doing that with us today.

LAYLA ZAIDANE: Thank you so much for having me. It was a pleasure.

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