On the Status of American Political Participation
Despite the cautionary nature of the “Farewell Address” that George Washington gave when he left office, political parties are and have always been a major part of American politics. As with any situation with opposing sides, the system is set up so that there is always a battle between two different narratives of what it means to be an American and how the government should run. There are always at least two beliefs of how Americans should act in regards to their personal and political life alongside how the government should act. These narratives often cycle between each other and whatever party controls the narrative controls the government. Currently, as Dalton says in his book “The Good Citizen: How a Younger Generation is Reshaping American Politics”, there is a shift occurring between the two narratives of how the American citizen should act. Duty-based citizenship is giving way to engaged citizenship. Citizen duty focuses on obedience to the government authority in the form of paying taxes, obeying the law, serving in the military and voting in elections. Engaged citizens focus more on actions and promoting the general well-being of those less fortunate which is done through volunteering, being active in associations, and forming one’s own opinions. Dalton claims that these changes, which are largely driven by the American youth, are actually positive and just demonstrate a shift in American governance styles. Through the lens of works criticizing the current trajectory of American civilian political activity by Robert Putnam and Matthew Crenson, it will become clear that Dalton’s assessment is overly optimistic and fails to see the underlying truth behind this newfound citizen “engagement”.
Dalton’s asserts that the fact that American youth are moving away from traditional political action is made up for with their volunteerism, but this conception of the socially active citizen is shown to be hollow with Crenson and Putnam’s analysis of what this “volunteering” actually looks like. Dalton emphasizes over and over again in his book that the youth, who lean towards engaged citizenship, are very active in their communities in ways unseen by previous generations coming from the twentieth century. American youth are volunteering and forming groups more often than working in political campaigns and voting. He even opens up the book with an example of this, a Gulf Coast student active with movements regarding Hurricane Katrina, African development, and the war in Iraq, among other issues yet did not vote in the last election. The view perpetuated by Dalton and his strategic choice of examples makes the reader feel more positively about this change in involvement because Dalton gives the impression that involvement is just as high, but in other areas. Putnam and Crenson challenge Dalton’s construction of the active American citizen by claiming that people are active only in name. Putnam brings up data showing that serious volunteering declined by about ⅙ between 1974 and 1989 with that end date being only 6 years before Putnam’s piece was written. He points out civic and fraternal organizations like the Boy Scouts of America, the American Red Cross, and the Lions or Elks Club have all seen a sudden serious decline in membership. And, as Crenson explains, those who are members are more-so “mailing list” members than active ones whose biggest contributions to those they are “helping” are checks and the occasional read through of program information. I see some truth in this as a Northwestern student. I, like many of my peers, am a dancer for Dance Marathon, yet have never attended a meeting or event for the group. In all honesty, much of my peers and I just throw $400 at the cause of Dance Marathon so we can participate in the essentially 30-hour dance party with our friends. We are extremely removed from the causes we claim to support in name and in membership to a group. Should my experiences and Crenson and Putnam’s data be correct, then Dalton’s pronouncement that today’s American citizens, and generally the American youth, are more engaged than previous generations is false.
Dalton claims that the shift towards individualized “engaged” citizenship and social consciousness does not harm their ability to effect change in politics, but Crenson and Putnam clarify that this actually weakens the front of the people and muddies their proposals. Individuals aren’t informed about every aspect of a political campaign or an issue, but now commonly write to a local representative, stage protests, or engage in discourse in peers. It sounds nice; everyone is becoming engaged by talking about what impacts their lives individually. It seems personal and makes it appear like the government and the individual are actually becoming more in tune as opposed to people blindly following others under the guise of “duty”. However, this is actually counterproductive. Crenson states that this mass individual approach changes “a morally coherent demand into 20 million private claims”. Each message gets lost in a sea of others so even if there was some good that could come out of this new “engagement”, without unification in the form of political parties or even expressing it in a way that matters, voting, it’s pointless. This positive spin on citizens engaging on an individual level actually does harm to the individual. It makes sense. As a former Target cashier, I would have repeat customers come into my lines sometimes on a weekly basis. However, given that I would see hundreds of people a day with different names and different ways they wanted me to bag their bread and bananas, I could never remember these people. An onslaught of information, in my personal experience, decreases information retention as opposed to increasing my knowledge base.
At first glance, Dalton seems to make some good points. After reading his book, one might feel more confident about the future of America’s youth and the American government. However, after reading selections from Robert Putnam and Matthew Crenson, one immediately becomes dejected and feels somewhat lied to. Neither reaction is proper, because as I stated in my introduction, there are always two opposing sides, or narratives, in the public sphere. At some point in your life, and probably more than once, you will switch sides. It is with that in mind that the assertions made by Dalton and counterclaims by Crenson and Putnam should be seen as temporary and new information since the writings of these now somewhat outdated pieces would yield an entirely different paper.