The Democracy Shop

The field has winnowed and the retail politics of January has given way to the wholesale politics of the rest of the year. Turnout has been up, especially among younger people. Since Iowa, opinion pages have been awash with cautious optimism that civic engagement is on the rise.

But forgive me if I don’t unwrap my party hat just yet. The reports of the death of youth disengagement are, as were the stories of Samuel Clemens’s demise, greatly exaggerated. Indeed, in a recent survey by the Council for Excellence in Government and the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, youth are twelve percent less likely to trust government than they were two years ago, and only thirty-five percent say most people can be trusted. The divide between the people and political leaders — indeed, between people and each other — remains as deep as ever.

Meanwhile, the stalwart “civic engagement” industry — the many nonprofit groups and other organizations that mount voter registration drive after voter registration drive and create massive get-out-the-vote campaigns — lumbers on with seemingly less and less effect.

The problem is the very means that are used to promote participation in the first place. Young people are asked to “raise their voice” and “be heard” through voting. They are told that whether or not they vote “matters,” that their vote “counts” (all disingenuous propositions). They are exhorted to “send a message on election day” to political leaders.

This is the rise of the marketing-based approach to public life. But citizenship cannot be sold. It is telling that this very rhetoric appears in an advertisement for Coca-Cola that was making the rounds in movie theaters recently. In a mythic place called “Football Town,” one fan proudly proclaims, “I know I can make a difference!”

Such messages work if participation is a decision akin to making a purchase — an economic decision. But citizens are neither customers nor fans. Here in the longest-running experiment in self-governance on the planet, citizens are those who have voluntarily adopted the obligations of self-rule.

However, the model that is too-often used to think and talk about civic participation relies on self-interest and not on other-interest. It denies that there is any real moral consequence to staying home on PTA night, to keeping quiet when fellow citizens bash those “politicians,” and taking a Mulligan on election day.

Needed is an honest approach. Citizens ought not to participate simply because they may get something out of it, or because their “voice” might be “heard.” Americans need to be reminded of their civic duty, not pandered to with proposals of election-day holidays and EZ absentee ballot forms.

But, I am pessimistic that this will come to pass any time soon. Such a movement would not be popular. It would require sacrifice — not the dramatic sacrifice of the rescuer or soldier, but the ordinary, noble sacrifice of the citizen. It would require attendance at community meetings rather than relaxing at home after a hard day’s work or study. It would require actively learning about current events rather than keeping up with Entertainment Tonight. It would require giving up weekends in favor of volunteering on a political campaign. It would require writing a letter to the editor of the newspaper rather than complaining at the dinner table. It would require voting on election day, rather than complaining about being stuck in traffic.

The civic machinery of youth participation is gunning its engine, as it does every four years, but it will continue to remain stuck on the ice for as long as it misrepresents the point of citizenship.

When it comes time to buy, I fear the newest potential customers of democracy will continue to patronize other, more exciting shops, while they wait in vain for an honest invitation to join public life.

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