When I first became acquainted with politics, I was led to believe that political involvement was the great virtue of the American way of life. Though I have not been dissuaded that Americans ought to be involved in politics, I no longer see it as the foundation upon which our nation will rise. For without a revival of faith and character and community, politics could certainly become that with which America will fall.
I have paid as much attention to the mass efforts that are now in play to register and mobilize voters - especially young people - as I have to the presidential campaign itself. I can conclude from my observations that we have acquired in our modern political attitudes the sure groundings of what Alexis de Tocqueville would label democratic despotism.
In the realm of youth voting, we have seen an MTV/pop culture drive to the polls, unparalleled in history with the possible exception of 1972, the first year 18-year olds were enfranchised. "Smackdown your Vote!" the pro-wrestlers scream. "Rock the Vote!" the Left-wing bands demand. "Choose or Lose!" the ever more decadent MTV pushes in every commercial break, even interrupting reality shows to show Alicia Keys commanding youth to vote, or re-broadcasting Drew Barrymore's so-called documentary alleging that under-representation of youth voters is the worst repression of voting rights since blacks were kept out of polls prior to the 1965 Voting Rights Act, or claiming via Christina Aguilera that unless youth vote they will lose their rights to sex, abortion, and irresponsibility. "Vote or Die!" threatens rapper P. Diddy. And "Declare Yourself!" say Norman Lear and a host of other celebrities.
Why the fervent movement to get youngsters out to vote on November 2? The reason is because various special interests, mostly of the Left-wing variety, perceive youth as a force that could revolutionize politics. But try as they might, I don't suspect 18-24 year old voting will see much of an increase this year over the 36 percent turnout levels in 2000.
Instead of going to politics, youth have decided to volunteer and become involved in their communities in ways no generation has done since the World War Two generation. Socialists are worried, fearing that community and private initiative will draw youngsters away from political activism.
This warning comes from Jane Eisner, author of the new book Taking Back the Vote: Getting American Youth Involved in our Democracy. "There should be a real concern that the Band-Aid, stopgap measures offered by episodic community service will relieve government - and by extension, the public - of the responsibility to feed the hungry, protect the environment, and school the next generation ... Relying on the voluntary sector - with its well-meaning but often undependable and untrained workforce - to compete these essential tasks alone is similarly unrealistic and even dangerous ... No amount of do-gooding can replace the cold, hard facts that bills are passed and money is doled out by government, and that sometimes only the exercise of raw, brute political muscle can hold politicians accountable for their promises."
In other words, a democratic despotism can take care of us better than individuals can take care of themselves, better than true compassion can take care of those who need help. Not quite an uplifting view.
My optimism begins with my own generation. I'm not talking about the fabricated generation that MTV and the engineers of mass-produced culture would like for us to be. I'm talking about the rise of community in the priorities of young people, and the parallel decline of politics. Eisner says young Americans are headed "toward compassion and their nonjudgmental concern for others, and away from what they see as a political system driven by conflict and ego." She sees this as a terrible trend. I see it as one of the best trends in modern history.
The Baby Boomers were the most political generation of Americans ever. That their children are not half as political need not provoke cries of desperation and fear about the future of the country. Rather, it ought to inspire some hope. Many in this generation, despite their lousy instruction in civics, rightly perceive the spiritual void in politics. "A political system driven by conflict and ego" - an image Eisner would rather young people not have of politics - is not only a true description, it has become the motivation for youth to seek solutions to social challenges outside of the realm of government.
And since government ought to have its origins in self-government and community institutions in the first place, the revival of the spirit of community can only have positive results on politics when this generation gets around to the prospect of political leadership some years from now.
The community and the government are ongoing. The question is what tasks we ought to assign to each. Government is force. Community is voluntary. Government has far exceeded its bounds, and limiting government is hardly an issue in this year's political debates. But the most effective limits on government - an idea that most conservatives have missed as they've gone on at length about the need to reduce the size of government from within - come from private initiative and community institutions: family, church, and the market. The rise of interest among youth in volunteering and community service, the increased investment of time and resources in helping others, is rightly perceived by Jane Eisner as a threat to democratic despotism. The restoration of the general welfare in the way the founders envisioned it is far off, but do not underestimate the return to community among young Americans.
Hans Zeiger is a Seattle Sentinel columnist, president of the Scout Honor Coalition, and a student at Hillsdale College.