Assignment Democracy

Article excerpt


If by chance you have visited a presidential campaign headquarters, you might have noticed one of the more striking aspects of the various campaigns: how young their foot-soldiers are. You see them in the background at campaign headquarters, or standing alongside the wall at a debate or rally, or accompanying candidates out on the stump.

Young people - college students, those not long out of college, even some high-school students - play a central role in the behind-the-scenes work of a presidential campaign because, apart from the candidates, only the young have the energy for the exhausting hours that must be put into a campaign at this level.

I can't help contrasting this picture with what I've often seen when sitting on the stage at some local political event and looking out at the crowd: mostly older people. The fact is at the local and state levels the people who make the political system work are getting older.

The parties' precinct committee chairs, the poll workers, the election judges, the convention delegates, those who fill the chairs at political functions - in short, the people who oil the machinery of a representative democracy - are for the most part middle-aged or beyond. I hope you'll understand I'm not being ageist when I say this is not a healthy state of affairs.

Our system depends for its vitality on a continuous stream of young people getting involved in it, and not just in presidential election years. It's not simply the mechanics of politics that benefits from energy, new blood and fresh perspectives; it's democracy itself.

Our civic life cannot be whole if the ideas and perspectives of students and young adults are missing from political campaigns, or from grassroots efforts to change a policy or get a new traffic light, or from the boards and commissions that oversee various aspects of community affairs.

Just as important, young people who don't take part in politics are missing a vital education in the complexities of their communities and in how to develop the skills that a vibrant democracy demands from its citizens.

As a society we're not especially good at encouraging young people to become involved in political life. Anne Colby, a senior scholar at the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching who has studied the political engagement of students at colleges and universities around the country, found they are much likelier to be involved in community service efforts than in politics.

This may be, she argues, because that's what they know. In high school and college, she notes, students "are offered a great wealth of opportunities to do community service but they perceive very few opportunities and little encouragement to become politically involved." The result is that politics seems like foreign territory, while community service "has become almost as familiar as going to school. …