Update on Lyceum Labs and the Leading to Govern Network

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Daniel Stid
May 9, 2024

We launched Lyceum Labs in early 2023 with an intentionally broad mission – “improving political leadership and partisanship in the U.S.” We did so with the expectation that, through some initial experimentation, we would discover and zero in on 1-2 key projects where we could hit the ball out of the park.

Much of our exploratory work last year involved collaborations focused on the future of the party system and pathways to improve it. This led to two publications of note: “A Madisonian Party System” in National Affairs, and “Finally, Moderate Republicans Will Have a Say” in Democracy Journal. We will continue to look for ways to contribute to this debate. However, these early forays reminded us that the quality of our parties really depends on the quality of our politicians.

Bearing this in mind, during 2023 we became increasingly engaged in and energized by a line of work we now are pursuing with several nonprofit partners. Our shared goal is to inspire and support pragmatic, solutions-oriented elected officials in their 20s and 30s at the local and state levels of government. These politicians are leading to govern, i.e., they seek to solve public problems and get things done for those they represent in responsible and effective ways.

Our goal is to reinvigorate the public’s understanding of good political leadership, its central importance to democracy, and where and how it is currently being practiced. Doing this will help lower barriers to entry for high-potential young leaders who do not feel called–in fact, they are actively turned off–to politics as a vocation. It will be this next generation of leaders, not our current set, that will determine whether we meet the myriad challenges bearing down on us.

We are focused on politicians in states and localities for several reasons. Leading to govern generally remains more feasible at these levels than it is in the Thunderdome of our national politics. Moreover, states and localities handle the governing in most of the policy domains that bear directly on our daily lives–e.g., policing, education, public health, economic development, housing, and transportation.

While politics may not be as local as it once was, our politicians certainly are. Of the 520,000 elected offices in this country, the 537 federal officeholders comprise a mere one-tenth of one percent. Meanwhile, 3.5 percent serve at the state level, and more than 96 percent in local offices. A healthy majority of members of Congress and most of our recent presidents and vice presidents first cut their political teeth by getting elected to and serving in sub-national offices.

In sum, if we want a critical mass of our politicians leading to govern, they will learn how to go about it (or not) in local and state government.

Catalyzing the Leading to Govern Network

We need more politicians who lead in this fashion, and they can use all the help they can get. Encouraging and equipping rising political leaders of this caliber is the collective work of the nonprofits participating in the Leading to Govern Network that we have formed together. This will also be the primary focus for Lyceum Labs going forward. Our particular role is to catalyze learning, support, and collaboration across the network so the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

In addition to Lyceum Labs, the network presently includes the Center for Effective Lawmaking, The Future Caucus, the Levin Center for Oversight and Democracy, the New Deal Forum, the New Politics Leadership Academy, and the Rainey Center. In a wide range of ways, these partners are supporting thousands of up-and-coming local and state political leaders who reflect the demographic and political diversity of Millennials and Gen Z.

Note that all of this work is grounded in nonpartisan research, study, analysis, and educational activities. It is being done by 501(c)3 nonprofits that do not support or oppose candidates or parties in elections. Rather, our focus is on helping citizens, civic groups, philanthropic funders, and elected officials better understand how exemplary politicians are leading to govern–and to light the path for more of them. This work has untapped potential to strengthen U.S. democracy.

We want to expand and diversify the network interested in realizing this potential. To this end, in February we joined with the New Politics Leadership Academy to co-host 40 civil society leaders for an inaugural Leading to Govern Network convening. The participants included political entrepreneurs, former electeds, think tankers, academic researchers, philanthropic funders and advisors, journalists, storytellers, peacebuilders, depolarizers, and democracy advocates. The new connections and collaborations the convening gave rise to are already paying dividends. We look forward to reconvening with an even broader group in early 2025.

Our next steps

In the meantime, two of our initial projects will be coming to fruition. Next month, the leaders of eight network partners will publish essays on the Leading to Govern opportunity as seen from their respective vantage points. The essays will appear in the summer issue of Democracy Journal. We will share links to the symposium and an invitation to an online discussion when this trove of content is posted.

Over the past year, Emily Cherniack of the New Politics Leadership Academy and I have been speaking with stellar local and state elected officials to develop profiles and vignettes of their leadership. They are all supported and have been nominated for inclusion in our study by one or more network partners. Emily and I have in turn interviewed them at length to grasp the mindsets and methods that have led to their success.

Our goal in preparing this survey is to inform and inspire Millennial and Gen Z Americans who have leadership potential but right now see politics as the last place they can make a difference. By sharing compelling examples of politicians leading with integrity and solving problems in innovative ways, we can encourage more leaders to run for office and contribute to public life.

We will launch a campaign to disseminate this content early next year, after the 2024 election. In the meantime, we don’t expect there will be much room to elevate the ideas and accounts of political leadership we are developing in the noisy run up to November. But we are cautiously optimistic that, in its wake, there will be an opening and a keen interest to reimagine what good political leadership oriented to the future looks like. All to say, please stay tuned!

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Daniel Stid
Daniel Stid is the Executive Director of Lyceum Labs.