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"So to the young people watching tonight, I say: This is your time to make new the life of our world. We need your help to rekindle the spirit of America. Believe in our country. We believe in you."
These words, delivered by Vice President Al Gore '69 near the end of his acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention, were but meager inspiration for one of the most politically uninvolved generations in history. The phrases were unremarkable--making new the life of the world gets repetitive every four years--and seemed out of line with a family-centered rhetoric and platform that paid little attention to young adults.
On the other hand, Texas Gov. George W. Bush's acceptance speech contained no similar apostrophe to the young, except for a promise that Social Security reform would let younger workers accumulate "sound, responsible investments" into a retirement nest egg "over 30 or 40 years." Perhaps both parties have written off the youth vote this year, choosing to aim at demographics that have less apathy, more concrete demands and bigger pocketbooks to vote with. After all, in the 1996 presidential election, only one third of those 18 to 24 years old cast a ballot.
Unfortunately, politicians have misread the attitude of younger voters. The problem today is not apathy: it's distrust. Today's youth do not shy away from the problems of their community; instead, they shy away from politics as a solution to those problems, choosing to help through private initiative and community service with a dedication that could, with some effort, be diverted into the public sphere.
A recent and groundbreaking study conducted by students affiliated with the Institute of Politics documented this commitment to public service. After surveying 800 students nationwide, the study's authors found that only one of six college students had joined a political or issues-related organization, and less than one in fifteen had chosen to volunteer on a campaign--yet more than half had decided to give back to their community by participating in public service.
But this surge of public service is combined with a strong distaste for the political process. The vast majority of students--85 percent--feel that voluntary action is more effective than political engagement at solving local problems, and a full 60 percent have come to believe that the same is true at the national level. Politics has become a dirty word; those who enter the political process are labeled as self-serving rather than committed by a margin of three to one. Community service sometimes brings instant gratification, with plenty of friendly faces and beaming kids; political involvement is a thankless task in which good work is easily lost amid petty differences and the lust for power.
There is no reason to sneer at commitment to the community. But to think that government action can be effectively replaced with private initiative is dangerously shortsighted. (Remember the successes of that great champion of voluntary action, Herbert Hoover.) For all its faults, politics is also a means by which the mighty power of government can be turned to good ends rather than bad. For young Americans to neglect political involvement in favor of private measures, deciding not to vote because they gave at the office, is to invite those with special interests to raid the public treasury and subvert the public good.
Phillips Brooks House is not the White House: No matter how many cases the Small Claims Advisory Service takes on, it couldn't counteract another 75% cut in the Legal Services budget from the GOP Congress, nor could ExperiMentors train a new generation of scientists from schools with inadequate lab equipment. A personal commitment to the environment won't veto laws drafted by industry lobbyists; only a presidential commitment can do that. Government doesn't need to be the only solution, but it must be part of the solution--or we will quickly find it, as the saying goes, to be part of the problem.
So one must wonder what politics might look like if young voters were offered more than appeals to vague tasks of renewal or to raw self-interest--especially in an election like this one, where there is such a stark contrast on issues like the environment, equal rights and social justice that attract the energy of new voters. Imagine if the candidates at the conventions had read the IOP survey, had listened to its recommendations and had said:
"To the young people watching tonight, I say:
"Many have called you an apathetic generation. I know that is untrue. I know you are committed to helping others through public service. That is why my administration will be firmly dedicated to opening the political process to you, your involvement and your concerns. I promise that the second bill that I will send to Congress--after campaign finance reform--will create for you new avenues of participation in the political process. It will streamline the process for voter registration and for absentee ballots, so you can vote more easily from college; it will offer stipend awards to those who take summer jobs to work in the political process; and it will provide additional scholarships and college loan forgiveness programs for students who promise to enter public service. It will offer you a chance to make politics part of your public service, an opportunity to use the full power of government to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable.
To the young people watching tonight, I say: This is your call to serve."
Would it work?
Stephen E. Sachs '02, a Crimson executive, is a history concentrator in Quincy House.
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