By Thomas H. Little, Ph.D.
I know many of you are used to reading negative things about politicians and how the world — because of liberals or conservatives, Republicans or Democrats, etc. — is “going to hell in a handbasket.” However, today I want to offer some hope and some good news. Based on time spent recently with 44 mostly first and second term state legislators from 35 states: I have seen the future and it is bright!
For three days at the University of Virginia’s Darden Graduate School of Business, I had the honor of sitting with a diverse group of state legislators who had been nominated by their respective house or senate leadership to take part in the 11th Annual Emerging Leaders Program. Away from the glare of the media, the pressures of their party leaders and the challenges of constituents, they openly and thoughtfully shared their ideas about education, transportation, immigration, ethical behavior and a myriad of other political and public policy challenges.
Despite the near even split between Republicans and Democrats, there was little hint of partisanship throughout the entire program. They shed their ideologies and preconceived notions to have what Darden Professor Ed Freeman calls “conversations that matter.”
I watched, listened and sometimes commented as they discussed the moral and ethical dilemmas they face on a daily basis. They talked about how hard it is to balance the competing pressures of serving in the legislature with the obligations to their constituents, their party, the broader needs of the state, and their own values. They struggled with finding the right balance between leading the voters and being led by them. They recognized the dramatic economic, social and political upheavals that are the inevitable result of the technological revolution happening right before our eyes. They even dug deeper into the meaning of politics with engaging discussions of Plato’s Republic and the Allegory of the Cave!
The cornerstone of representative democracy is open, honest and thoughtful debate. These qualities were abundantly on display throughout our time together at Darden.
Now, do I think they will be able to shed their partisanship, their ideology and their preconceived notions when they get back home?
Probably not entirely. That is just too much to hope for in a nation so sharply divided into red and blue. But, I do believe we opened at least a few eyes to the fact that politics is not all black and white, right and wrong. There is nuance and even the most diehard “lefty” can find areas of agreement with their counterpart on the “right.” More to the point, this program gave them the unique opportunity to see the morally sound and thoughtful side of those who sit on the opposite side of the aisle. If we succeeded in helping break down these barriers of mistrust and often outright hatred, then we did our jobs well.
I do believe they will go back with a better understanding that the other guy is not the enemy, just a colleague with a different, but no less valid, vision of the future. They will return to the “real world” with the email addresses and phone numbers of new friends of all regional, ethnic and political stripe (as well as folks from the Darden School and SLLF) to whom they can turn when they face the inevitable challenges that await them.
I departed Darden with the full faith and confidence that contrary to what we read in the papers, hear on talk radio or post on social media, our best days as a nation united lie ahead. The “Millennials” exhibit a renewed commitment to public service and though the political rancor will persist for a time, if this class of emerging leaders is any indication of what lies ahead, then I can say without reservation that indeed,
Our Future is Bright!