How One Democratic Representative Transforms Young Progressives into Electoral Activists

Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call/via AP Images

Representative Jamie Raskin talks with students who were gathered on the east lawn of the Capitol to call for Congress to act on gun control. 

If research by the Harvard Kennedy School’s Institute of Politics offers any clue, and there’s no reason to think it doesn’t, after the polls close on Tuesday roughly 40 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds will have voted—a rate almost twice as high as it’s ever been for a midterm election. What’s more, because Harvard’s poll shows that 66 percent of them favor Democratic control of Congress, their votes may well play an important role in flipping some of the swing districts whose names have now been burned into our memories. 

And yet, even though many millennials have been involved in political campaigns over the course of the year, few may leave with the skills and the commitment to become more politically engaged after the ballots are counted. 

There is, however, one initiative that’s showing how to change that equation. It’s called Democracy Summer, a unique program founded by U.S. Representative Jamie Raskin. Training the next generation of political activists isn’t part of the job description for progressives in Congress, but Raskin is demonstrating how it can be.

Raskin, 55, represents an amalgam of D.C. suburbs whose residents range from low-income immigrants to the most well-heeled of lobbyists. But unlike congressmen who look like they could have stepped out of a Joseph A. Bank catalogue, Raskin has the rumpled look of a college professor, which is what he was for 25 years at American University’s Washington College of Law. He also has the intensity and enthusiasm that brings to mind another college professor turned Capitol Hill progressive, the late Minnesota Senator Paul Wellstone, who, like Raskin, was deeply committed to helping young people become effective activists. 

“Elections are the bull’s-eye of politics,” Raskin says, “but most politics takes place outside of elections, and they’re learning how to make a difference in their schools, their universities, in their cities and towns.”

The “they” Raskin is talking about are the high school and college students who take part in Democracy Summer, the project he created that not only teaches the skills of electoral politics—everything from organizing canvassing to fundraising—but also the history of progressive movements. It grew out of Raskin’s conviction that young, committed political activists can give progressive candidates the extra oomph they need to overcome their opponents’ huge financial advantage. It’s something he saw firsthand when he ran in the Democratic primary for Congress in 2016.

“I survived the most expensive House campaign in history,” Raskin says. “More than $20 million was spent. I was outspent 9 to 1. But because we threw everything into organizing, we were able to mobilize thousands of volunteers.” Raskin beat his principal opponent, a multimillionaire, by seven points.

“People don’t want TV campaigns anymore,” he says. “They want real live political discussion and organization, and we have a responsibility to young people to teach them how to do it.” 

That’s why Democracy Summer’s curriculum has included meeting with Representative John Lewis to learn about SNCC, and hearing Heather Booth discuss the ins and outs of community organizing. Democracy Summer participants, called fellows, also take part in seminars on climate change, income inequality, gun control, and other issues, and receive briefings from legislators who’ve included Senator Elizabeth Warren and Representatives Sheila Jackson Lee and Ted Lieu. Accordingly, the fellows may not only become skilled practitioners of electoral politics, but also more effective advocates for social change in their communities. 

Democracy Summer’s theory and practice, says Zoe Kaufman, a high school senior from Bethesda, “made me realize that social change isn't just about voting, it's about organizing people for the long haul to change this country,” adding “it doesn’t happen through one election or one campaign.”

A particular point of pride for Raskin is that in the aftermath of the Parkland shootings one Democracy Summer alumnus successfully organized the series of school walkouts throughout Washington and its Virginia and Maryland suburbs. 

This year, the program has provided “youth energy” in the form of staff and volunteers for 33 House campaigns, two Senate campaigns, two gubernatorial campaigns, and Democrats running in other races in 23 states.

Paul Wellstone died 14 years before Raskin was elected, but in his 2001 book, The Conscience of a Liberal, he spelled out the ingredients for successful activism: “good ideas and policy, so that your activism has direction; grassroots organizing, so that there is a constituency to fight for the change; and electoral politics, since it is one of the ways people feel most comfortable deciding about power in our country.” 

With Democracy Summer, Raskin is picking up where Wellstone left off. 

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