HOLLY KUZMICH: Younger community leaders create hope for our democracy

It seems that everywhere we turn these days we see increasing signs of concern about the state of democracy in the United States. Further evidence of this came in the poll results that the Bush Institute, Freedom House and the Penn Biden Center released recently outlining Americans’ beliefs about democracy at home and abroad.

The poll highlighted several areas of concern. First, while Americans still think it’s important to live in a democracy, a majority view our democracy as weak and getting weaker. Americans also believe that polarization in the country is bad and getting worse, and that government is not able to get anything done and too big and intrusive to serve our citizens. Faith in our institutions is lacking across the board.

It’s not surprising that Americans have low confidence in Congress, the media and the government more broadly, but it is notable that a majority have a lack of confidence in religious leaders and public schools in their community. Only 43 percent of respondents had a great deal or quite a lot of confidence in public schools.

These results, in combination with the declining civil discourse that is proliferating in this country, can lead one to long for a Rip Van Winkle experience, hoping to wake up in 20 years with the state of our democracy strong and confidence in our institutions at all-time highs.

Despite the news these days, there are glimmers of optimism, especially about some of the younger leaders rising through the ranks. In communities across the country, and on both sides of the aisle, a new generation of leaders is emerging. I will highlight two of them — both under the age of 40, and both who are pragmatic, solution-oriented individuals who have gained the respect of their constituents at a young age. One is a Republican, one is a Democrat, and both are going places.

Elise Stefanik was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives at the age of 30 in 2015, making her the youngest woman ever elected to Congress. Stefanik hails from upstate New York, and her parents were small-business owners in her district. After college and several years working in Washington in public policy, she went back home and ran for Congress.

As a young, female Republican, she was an untraditional candidate and had to overcome doubts about her experience. Now in her second term, she can frequently be found in her district pounding the pavement, keeping in close touch with her constituents.

In a short period of time in Congress, she has established herself as an active member and a doer, working on issues on behalf of her district such as community health centers and agriculture. She has been named one of the most bipartisan members of Congress and is viewed as a rising star in her party.

On the other side of the aisle, Pete Buttigieg serves as the mayor of South Bend, Indiana. “Mayor Pete,” as he’s called by the residents of South Bend, was elected mayor in 2011 at the age of 29.

Buttigieg is now in his second term and is lauded for his efforts to turn around this Rust Belt city. South Bend’s heyday was in the early to mid-20th century, when it was home to manufacturers such as Studebaker, but its population had been on the decline since the 1960s after that company closed and it had never fully recovered.

Buttigieg brought a sterling resume to the job: Harvard graduate, Rhodes Scholar, and naval intelligence officer. He’s been lauded for his focus on economic development; the city’s population has finally started to turn around and is slowly increasing. But even more than that, the residents of South Bend now feel a sense of dynamism in the city that had been missing for decades. New businesses are sprouting up, and long-forgotten areas of the city are undergoing revitalization.

Both of these young leaders share commonalities. They are oriented more toward finding and implementing solutions in their communities than toward being ideologues. They are visible and accessible within their communities, frequently hosting town halls and forums with constituents. They are civil in their discourse, instead of being partisan mudslingers.

Both are viewed as leaders who are just starting their careers and have much more to come. And we can feel better about the future of our democracy when we have people like them leading our communities.

Holly Kuzmich is executive director of the George W. Bush Institute and senior vice president of the George W. Bush Presidential Center.

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