The Case Against Running For Office
Or why you should probably become a policy entrepreneur if you really want to fix America
One of the hardest things to figure out when you know you want to change the U.S. for the better, is what path you take to make this change.
As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, becoming a foundational tech entrepreneur or team member can be a great way to go. There's a chance that you and your colleagues could create a new standard for water desalination, election administration, public safety, or whatever solution area you want to innovate in.
However, tech startup life isn't for everyone, the vast majority of startups fail, and some people just need to be in politics.
The default path people think of when they think about changing the world through politics is running for office, because lawmakers can theoretically turn good ideas into laws.
But despite the potential to make a difference in office, it’s not clear that running for office is the best default for people who want to make a difference through politics.
What most people don’t realize is that the vast majority of bills that are popular with both lawmakers and voters across the political spectrum, still don’t go through. About 10,000 bills are introduced on average in a session of Congress, and only about 3% to 4% are passed.
The low passage rate of popular bills is largely due to the fact that if members of Congress don't believe that the voters in their district see a bill as a top priority, they will prioritize other bills.
So yes, you could work ridiculously hard to get elected, only to find out that the bills you want to sponsor and vote for won't even be brought up for a vote.
What To Do Instead of Run For Office
What is a better default career path for solutionist, politics-oriented changemakers?
I’m actually amazed how little attention this field gets, but it’s “policy entrepreneurship."
Policy entrepreneurs focus their energy and expertise on a specific issue they’re passionate about, build a network of support from people across the political spectrum, and use their knowledge and influence to drive policy change without the need to hold elected office.
By working in a transpartisan way, policy entrepreneurs can build bridges across the political divide and increase the chances that their issue will be heard and acted upon by lawmakers.
Why can solutionist policy entrepreneurship be a better default path than running for office?
First, you don't have to worry about winning an election and all the downsides that come with being a politician. If you run for Congress, for example, you have to take a stand on every polarizing issue that is at the forefront of the culture wars. For example, where do you stand on Israel-Palestine? It doesn't matter if you have no idea what's going on there. It doesn't matter if you're running for office to stop the construction of the next generation of nuclear power plants. If you run for federal office, you have to have an opinion on just about everything a voter might ask you about. Which is kind of ridiculous when you think about it, but it goes with the job.
Second, devoting your full time and attention to a SINGLE issue can be deeply motivating to the voters you need to convince to prioritize the issue if you want lawmakers to take action. For example, Greta Thunberg's dedication of her life to raising awareness about climate change has inspired millions of young people around the world. The fact that she is "all in" on the issue and can articulate why is a big part of why her activism is so effective.
Third, your work across the aisle gives legislators confidence that voting for a policy idea won't be politically dangerous. As I mentioned earlier, policy ideas that have broad support among lawmakers and the public don't necessarily get passed. Fortunately, bipartisan grassroots policy entrepreneurship is an effective way to demonstrate that enough people see an issue as a top priority, increasing the chances that it will be taken up by lawmakers. There are few things that put more pressure on a politician to act than a diverse coalition of supporters advocating for an issue.
Four Policy Entrepreneurs Who Give Me Hope
Here are four people who give me faith in the potential of solutionist policy entrepreneurship:
Example 1: John Opdycke
Founder and CEO of Open Primaries, a nonprofit that builds grassroots campaigns to open up partisan primaries around the country. Closed primaries are a big reason why people who don’t fit a left-right box have a hard time winning elections. Momentum is slowly but surely building nationwide, with 21 states having at least one political party conducting open primaries for congressional and state-level offices.
John happens to be a friend, and shared this with me about the importance of policy entrepreneurs:
“Policy entrepreneurs are critical to the continued development of the United States and the world. People enmeshed in the established political system rarely have the capacity to think outside the box and innovate, which is why we need policy entrepreneurs who sit at the intersection of government and civil society and take matters into their own hands. As the psychologist Ken Gergen so eloquently argues: ‘The truly creative work in any discipline takes place at the borders--by those who understand the conventions governing the interior but who also understand something else. It is at the borders that we also find individuals who are sufficiently free from the tyranny of the normal—the pattern of expectations, obligations and swift sanctions within the core of most disciplines--that they can risk innovation.’”
Example 2: Amanda Nguyen
Founder and CEO of Rise, a nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting the rights of sexual assault survivors. She is also the author of the Sexual Assault Survivors' Bill of Rights, which was signed into federal law in 2016 with strong bipartisan support. Nguyen's activism and policy entrepreneurship have dramatically improved the criminal justice system's response to sexual violence.
One of my favorite quotes from Amanda include: “No one is invisible when they demand to be seen. No one is powerless when we come together.”
Example 3: Ralph Nader
An American political activist, attorney, and author who is known his role in promoting the use of seat belts in automobiles. In the 1960s, Nader wrote the book "Unsafe at Any Speed" which exposed the lack of safety features in American cars and criticized the auto industry for putting profits before safety. The book helped to spur the passage of the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act in 1966, which required seat belts to be installed in all new cars. Nader's work in this area helped to lay the foundation for the modern automotive safety industry and is credited with saving thousands of lives.
My favorite Nader line is “It is fascinating to watch legislators turn away from their usual corporate grips when they hear the growing thunder of the people.”
Example 4: Madison Hilly
Founder & Executive Director of The Campaign for a Green Nuclear Deal, a nation-wide pro-nuclear energy advocacy effort. She began her career in the pro-nuclear research and policy organization Environmental Progress co-authoring analyses that have been cited in major publications and overseeing research, advocacy and campaigns. She has traveled internationally to advise policymakers and journalists and led the world's largest pro-nuclear demonstration. Her Green Nuclear Dal movement has been steadily building through social media posts reiterating the value of nuclear energy.
Madi takes to Twitter to virally debunk myths about Nuclear energy:
Conclusion: Stepping Up Doesn’t Mean “Run For Office”
These four solutionists give me faith that positive, common sense (at least in retrospect) policies can be passed in a politically polarized country.
When I think about how I hope to make a difference in this country—how I hope to level America—I can easily see myself engaging in solutionist policy entrepreneurship.
There are countless good ideas, like ending sugar subsidies, that will never get a vote in Congress unless policy entrepreneurs show that the American people treat these good ideas as top priorities.
All in all, running for office can seem like an exciting and powerful way to make change, but it's not the only option, and it's not the best option for a number of reasons.
I know it takes a certain kind of person to be a successful policy entrepreneur, but this career path should be the default for politics-oriented people who want to make a difference in this country.
This path invites you to identify what you care about most, build a network of support, and drive change without having to worry about running for office.
That’s pretty damn cool.
And by the way, we’re going to need a lot of policy entrepreneurs if we’re going to get to America 2.0.
Are you interested in exploring this path? I’m going to be writing a lot more about policy entrepreneurship in the coming weeks and months, and will be inviting some of America’s top policy entrepreneurs on my podcast LEVEL UP AMERICA, so subscribe to this Substack and my YouTube channel if you’re not already. My next piece will be on the pillars of a successful policy entrepreneurship campaign.
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