What Political Parties Need to Learn From the NBA and Hollywood

December 30th 2016

David Burstein

President Barack Obama's post-White House plans are becoming clearer. 


In an interview with NPR last week, Obama said he is “interested in developing a whole new generation of talent."

Indeed, this election highlighted the serious talent crisis in American politics.

The aftermath is shining a laser focused beam on the importance of developing a robust talent pipeline of leadership for our political ecosystem. CEOs across America will tell you that the most valuable resource in their company is human capital. Executives in fields as diverse as Hollywood, professional sports, non-profits, and school administration will echo that sentiment. In every industry, human capital is king. Every year in America we spent approximately $75 billion on talent identification, development, and retention.

The one place where we don’t make this kind of investment is where it’s needed most: In the talent that runs for political office. As The Nation's Russell Mokhiber reported in 2012, "about 33 percent of all state legislative-district elections in 2012 had only one candidate per seat in the race."

In just on example of how the lack of political talent impacts legislative outcomes, consider that in the age of cybersecurity nightmares only four members of Congress hold computer science degrees — Reps. Will Hurd (R-Texas), Ted Lieu (D-Calif.), Bill Johnson (R-Ohio), and House Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.).

ted lieu

National party committees would argue that they recruit candidates all the time, and, in a handful of sure-to-be-hot races, they do. But recruiting candidates and developing leadership talent are two very different things. The parties ignore recruitment in the most elections and stand aside from real leadership development work almost across the board. 

The political talent glut was on display for Democrats this election cycle. As David Dayen of the New Republic noted in March, when filing deadlines passed for 19 states where a total of 163 seats were up for grabs, Democrats had failed to recruit a single candidate in 27 different races. 

President Obama has a history of developing young political talent. 

For example, the Obama Administration created the United States Digital Service, which heavily recruited young engineers from major Silicon Valley talent pools to take on technology crises in government, from the Veterans Affairs backlog to the early problems with the rollout of Healthcare.gov.

This new kind of government initiative — which requires recruiting genuinely skilled people and convincing them to give up big salaries and career opportunities for stints in public service, has proven capable of earning bipartisan support—a real rarity—inside Congress.  The military is another place we see a robust effort to recruit, train and help grow leaders.

But yet when it comes to candidates, it has alluded us. 

Several decades ago, if you were a young person who wanted to change the world, you went into politics. Today, though, politics has become anathema to many in the millennial generation. If you are a talented leader, you feel compelled to go into business, start a company, or work with a nonprofit or an NGO to try to change the world. Politics looks like a playing field filled with partisan bickering, bureaucracy, and corruption. For a smart, talented young person today, politics is at the bottom of the list of careers to choose to make America or the world a better place. If this continues, we risk losing a whole generation of those who could be among our greatest public servants. 

brothers keeper

Some groups are working on this problem, including Run for America. But we need a national call to action in response to this crisis. For a president who once electrified a generation, but unfortunately saw even his own party develop without a strong “bench” of young leaders, this would be a great use of his wisdom, experience, and political gifts. His signaling on this issue should be a call across the country to tackle this crisis. Without strong and broad-based human capital in government (and particularly in elected leadership positions), we can’t make critical progress on our biggest national challenges. Both parties must think and act seriously on this problem and find ways to avoid losing the enormous talents and dynamism of our next generation of leadership from the spheres of politics and public life.

David Burstein is the Founder & CEO of Run for America, an organization that works to recruit, develop and work to elect new leaders to public office in America.