U.S. Capitol building in Washington DC.
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By Rye Barcott and Jake Wood
November 9, 2017
IDEAS
Barcott and Wood are Marines and social entrepreneurs. Barcott is Co-Founder and CEO of With Honor, and Wood serves on its Advisory Board.

Are America’s best days behind us? And if so, what can we do about it?

For years, Americans have been losing faith in our institutions, and many are asking questions like this about our country’s future.

No national institution is suffering a crisis of trust more than Congress. Public confidence in Congress hovers slightly above 10%, down 30 points since 1986.

Americans know that extreme partisanship has corroded our national legislature. A recent poll found that nearly nine out of ten Americans view hyper-partisanship in Congress as an impediment to the country’s ability to operate effectively.

Congress is clearly broken and is not going to be fixed unless something changes. The root of the problem is a partisanship that dominates the thinking and behavior of the members. Congress needs something new and unconventional, like a Special Forces unit that breaks with old ways to forge creative, cross-partisan solutions.

That’s why we’re part of a new organization called With Honor. It draws from one of the only institutions that the majority of Americans still trust, the U.S. military. With Honor provides strategic support to a new generation of younger veterans running for Congress – Republicans, Democrats, and Independents – who pledge to govern based on principles not politics.

We believe increasing next-generation veteran representation in Congress is an urgent mission and strong antidote for our country’s broken politics. Why?

For much of the second half of the 20th Century, more than half of Congress had served in the military. Today, veteran representation in Congress is near a historic low at 19%. As the number of veterans in Congress has dropped, the amount of debilitating partisanship has risen exponentially.

This is not a coincidence. We studied the performance of veterans in Congress and found that while there are exceptions, lawmakers who have served in the military often have a special sense of duty and an uncommon ability to reach across party lines and get things done. Veterans often put principles ahead of both party and self-interest.

Recent research by the Lugar Bipartisan Center and a team led by a West Point political scientist suggests that veteran lawmakers in Congress have historically acted in more cross-partisan ways than their non-veteran counterparts.

If veterans have generally been effective and acted in more cross-partisan ways, what explains the steady and persistent decline of their ranks in Congress (which far outpaces their decline as a percentage of the overall population)?

To begin with, people who serve have been a decreasing percentage of the population since the introduction of the all-volunteer armed force in 1973. Add to that, money and networks have become rising barriers to entry for young American veterans who wish to run for office and are not independently wealthy. During the past twenty years, the average cost of a Congressional race has quadrupled. Furthermore, veterans, having lived outside of their home districts during their military service, often settle outside their home areas of origin, and often don’t have access to affluent fundraising and political circles.

A new generation of veterans shows great promise to lead our country and battle the hyper-partisanship that threatens our democracy. We’ve seen it first-hand with next-generation veterans currently serving in Congress. They are a small group, and many of them are taking on issues that transcend partisan politics and go to the core of the nation.

We both served in the armed forces after 9-11. We have both observed first-hand next-generation veterans leading with integrity, civility, and courage, including the courage to work across the aisle. They are also motivating others to follow them.

Remarkably, a surge is underway. More than one hundred next-generation veterans have announced their candidacy for U.S. House seats in 2018. Our organization plans to encourage some of the most capable and principled of these next-generation veterans from both parties to run for Congress. And help them win.

Are America’s best days behind us? Not if this group of next-generation veterans has the opportunity to serve again.

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