I am frustrated and embarrassed. Why can’t we pass common sense gun legislation like a real democracy? Most Americans recognize that their children’s safety is under attack without strict gun control. Yet, our governments have failed to deliver.
Despite signing up to serve the public, many of our leaders do not embody the University of Wisconsin’s Wisconsin Idea: to improve people's lives beyond the borders of our institutions.
Steven Olikara, a candidate running in the Democratic primary to challenge Ron Johnson, offers a much needed alternative to this frustration.
When asked in an interview how his time at UW-Madison inspired him to become involved in public service, Olikara pointed to the Wisconsin Idea. In 1904, President Charles R.Van Hise created a partnership between the university and legislators to ensure that what happened at the university impacted the public. While this idea is not reflected in our leadership today, in the early 20th century, Wisconsin was considered a pioneer and laboratory for New Deal legislation such as worker’s compensation laws.
Olikara was influential in getting the Wisconsin Idea boulder placed in front of Bascom Hall — a reminder that what students learn in the classroom reverberates beyond the borders of our university. This, his time as student body president and his dedication to founding of the Millennial Action Project all show Olikara’s commitment to serve the public.
Thanks to Olikara’s leadership as student body president, the university can now pay non-UW alumni to speak at commencement while also encouraging student involvement in the selection process.
Shortly after graduating, Olikara founded the Millennial Action Project, the largest organization of young elected leaders in the country. As CEO, he encouraged young leaders to focus on the issues that affect young Americans, preaching bipartisanship as they worked together to pass legislation. Through this organization, Olikara has been involved in creating and passing legislation, including the Gun Violence Research Act of 2017, passed in a 2018 appropriations bill, which repealed the prohibition on federally sponsored gun violence research. He is the only candidate in the Democratic primary directly involved in passing legislation related to gun safety.
Olikara has committed that once elected, his first piece of legislation will be to “get big money out of politics.”
Most scholars, teachers and parents believe gun control is the best way to protect the safety of children. Evidence shows that under the 1994 Brady Bill, which banned the sale of assault weapons until 2004, there were fewer school shootings.
The principal issue is not a lack of capable leaders and experts, but the incentives decision makers face.
“If you look at any industry, if there's a financial incentive to do something, most people are going to do it,” Olikara stated. “And in the case of politics, there's a financial incentive to neglect your job and just spend most of your time fundraising.”
Legislators feel obligated to appease the Political Action Committees (PACs) that got them elected. Since divisive rhetoric is effective at raising money, legislators are incentivized to divide and polarize for the next campaign season rather than work together to help citizens. They may not decide to compromise on an issue because having it unsolved helps them on the campaign trail.
Instead of changing federal gun policies to protect Texas children, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) spoke at an NRA convention because he is dependent on the NRA for his reelection campaign. If our elected officials were incentivized to listen to experts and constituents more than PACs and rich corporations, the safety of children in America would improve.
“There's a financial incentive to manipulate the tax code for big, special interests and promote legislation for some of the most entrenched industries because you get financially rewarded for that. And so that to me is not sustainable for a democracy,” Olikara explained.
Olikara's proposal to get big money out of politics includes prohibiting legislators from fundraising while Congress is in session and passing a program to encourage leaders to swear off PAC money. This will help make the Senate more responsive to Americans' needs and forge a more effective democracy.
Olikara’s focus on entrepreneurship corresponds with many of the concerns facing students and underrepresented Wisconsinites. Many people are encouraged to work for national corporations they do not like because benefits such as healthcare are tied to their employers.
“If we guarantee healthcare and guarantee that benefits travel with workers wherever they go, it's gonna facilitate a boost in entrepreneurship growth because [they] are going to be more willing to take the risk,” Olikara said.
When I graduate college, I want to be able to move professions or start a company without fearing that I will put my family or my health at risk. More entrepreneurship would benefit all Wisconsinites as young companies are the main source of job creation in America.
The pandemic made clear to many citizens that work should offer more than just enough money to pay their bills. People want to work in environments where they feel respected and fulfilled. With portable benefits, more workers would be able to find this type of work. As Olikara asserts, economic success should not be measured only by GDP.
“We should also look at fulfillment, happiness and [if] your employer affirms your dignity,” Olikara emphasized.
We need someone in office who will address this generational change in how young people view work.
Olikara’s appeal is not just about the ideas he promotes, but about how he leads today and plans to lead in the Senate. Olikara cares about supporting the next generation of leaders and approaches leadership as a collaborative process. This is exemplified in his plans to convene “a statewide public service leadership conference for young people who want to go into public service.”
“Our legislative process in our office in the Senate is going to be so collaborative that I am going to literally be writing bills with you,” Olikara stated.
It is important to include people affected by issues in our democracy in the change-making process to ensure that legislation improves their lives.
For example, it is concerning how little students have been involved in conversations about student debt relief.
“I am going to literally be writing bills with you. Like I'm going to come to UW-Madison, post up at the Union and we are going to have a white board there with like legislative ideas, and we are going to work together and create legislation,” Olikara proclaimed.
To me, this is an embodiment of the Wisconsin Idea — students and stakeholders contributing to legislation that extends beyond the borders of the university. Olikara believes that today the Wisconsin Idea should mean saving our democracy: “I think once again, our state has been called to be the laboratory of democracy.”
He is ready to move Wisconsin forward to a new generation of the Wisconsin Idea by reforming leadership in Washington. This would make the government more responsive to citizens' needs and empower workers to find fulfillment helping their communities.
Natalie (Nat) Suri is a Sophomore double majoring in History and Political Science. Do you support Steven Olikara’s senate campaign? Send all comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.