Where Have All the Big Ideas Gone?

A recent CNN/ORC poll found that 8-in-10 Americans say they do not feel represented by the government in Washington, D.C. Another 6-in-10 say “things are going badly in the United States.” A separate AP Poll suggests that many Americans blame politics and/or politicians for all the doom and gloom. But this is elections season, right? Isn’t this supposed to be a season when optimism about the future overshadows and outsizes our present burdens?

Eleanor Roosevelt once said, “Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people.” Unfortunately, the 2016 presidential election has devolved into almost entirely a discussion about people (and their physical features).

Here’s a sampling from actual presidential candidates:  

  • “You know what they say about men with small hands.”
  • “I’ve never seen a guy like that sweat so much. He was melting!”
  • “I have better hair than he does.”
  • “He has a horrible spray tan.”

Witnessing this petulant banter makes me wonder, where have all the big ideas gone? I’m reminded of a piece that Ann Marie Slaughter wrote two years ago titled, “Big ideas for an era of small-ball politics.” In her article she warns, “If our politics are small, it is because our imagination is impoverished, strangled by the belief that nothing big can happen.” This belief that nothing big can happen could be part of the momentum behind so-called anti-establishment candidates such as Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders. Moreover, positive messages are simply notresonating among voters, at least in the party primaries.

If our candidates are not going to challenge us, maybe we should consider challenging them. 

In 2014, Carmine Gallo authored the book, Talk Like TED: The 9 Public Speaking Secrets of the World’s Top Minds, in which he makes the case that ideas are the currency of the 21st Century. To Gallo, part of what turns ideas into currency is their novelty. Citing a body of research on psychology and communication, Gallo says the brain simply cannot ignore novelty. President John F. Kennedy relied on this novel approach in two of the most famous speeches in U.S. history: the issuance of a challenge. In his 1961 inaugural address, President Kennedy challenged Americans to ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country. Just a year later, President Kennedy stood before a crowd at Rice University and said, America will go to the moon and return safely within the decade. He challenged the audience to be bold and closed by saying, “As we set sail we ask God's blessing on the most hazardous and dangerous and greatest adventure on which man has ever embarked.”

Kennedy’s challenges resulted in a generation of space exploration and expanded public service. His ideas were effective not only because the content was novel, but also because of the delivery. The oft cited “ask not” line of Kennedy’s inaugural address was the crescendo of a moving call for Americans to remember our role in the world, particularly when it came to defending freedom. The challenge was not meant to be an empty caboose to an eloquent train of thoughts; it was meant to be bold, imaginative, and inspiring. These characteristics, however, are not so easily identified in this year’s presidential campaigns. Rather, personality, fear, and negativity drive the talking points for much of the field of candidates.

In Slaughter’s article on big ideas in politics, she goes on to suggest, “Our greatest strength as a nation has been our capacity for perpetual renewal.” Slaughter has put these ideas into practice by founding New America, a non-partisan think-tank “dedicated to the renewal of politics, prosperity, and purpose in the Digital Age.” The organization is funded and supported by donors such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Department of State, and Google’s Executive Chairman, Eric Schmidt, all for the purpose of investing in big ideas, impartial analysis, pragmatic policy solutions, technological innovation, next generation politics, and creative engagement with broad audiences.

What if candidates themselves invested in these types of civic enterprises as opposed to schoolyard name calling and bullying? What if the presidential campaign began looking less like an episode of House of Cards, and more like an epitaph to great leaders with big ideas? I believe Americans feel underrepresented because Americans arethinking bigger than their politicians. If our candidates are not going to challenge us, maybe we should consider challenging them. After all, when was the last time we set a collective goal or challenge for ourselves as a nation?

-Jeremy Taylor serves as a public sector strategist for the federal government. He is a Research Fellow with Young Professionals in Foreign Policy (YPFP), a Pacific Forum Young Leader with the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), and is currently pursuing a PhD in organizational leadership . You can follow him on Twitter @jerdavtay.