Many people across the nation and around the globe paused to honor President John F. Kennedy last week on what would have been his 100th birthday. His sense of duty to all Americans provides inspiration at a time when many of us are longing for more effective political leadership.
Soon after Adlai Stevenson lost the presidency to Dwight Eisenhower, and eight years before he would become one of the youngest presidents in American history, then-Senator Kennedy spoke at a New York Democratic dinner. Just 35 years old at the time, he famously encouraged members of the Democratic Party to not “lose that youthful zest for new ideas and for a better world, which has made us great.”
Perhaps surprisingly, the national Republican Party leadership is actually, on average, almost five years younger than the Democrats in Congress. And the average age of members of Congress overall has risen almost ten years since the Reagan era, according to data compiled by polling aggregation website FiveThirtyEight.
I myself am an older millennial who’s active in the Democratic Party, and the president for my entire high school and college career was George W. Bush. My cohort grew up self-reliant, and likely to volunteer and donate locally. Today, we make up a majority of the workforce and future voting base.
I know there was a time when the local Democratic Party headquarters was a place that provided meals for those who needed them, welcomed recent immigrant arrivals, and often organized to build a playground or paint a senior center.
The question now is how to rekindle that youthful zest in the Democratic Party and how to rebuild and capitalize on the next generation’s passion and energy to nourish people’s minds, bodies, and spirits.
In this age of Citizens United, it may be tempting to keep up a constant drum of donor solicitation and hollow ad buys, but success won’t come by outspending the opposition. Instead, we must develop the grassroots capacity of the next generation. And we need to understand what’s happening in our country right now without becoming resigned to it.
Senator Kennedy’s final words on that evening in 1953 are as true as ever: “If we remain close to the people, the people will surely remain close to us and we can look forward to the future with confidence and hope.”