The scene with which The Good Citizen opens could have been lifted straight from a Norman Rockwell painting. On Election Day 1996, in a garage festooned with American flags, voters come to cast their ballots for President as well as for a slew of state and local offices and enough ballot propositions to intimidate all but the terminally conscientious. Some parents bring their children, who beam when handed an “I Voted” sticker. Several nearly blind people bring friends along to help them read the ballot. One elderly voter laments that his wife is missing her first presidential election because she has Alzheimer’s. Thirteen hours later, in this San Diego precinct and more than 25,000 others in California alone, the event that Michael Schudson calls “today’s central act of democratic citizenship” is over. Nothing–not even the race to the shopping malls for post-Christmas bargains–involves so many Americans doing the same thing at the same time.
To the exhausted volunteers, it’s a day well spent. But something’s wrong with this picture. No volunteer is younger than 50, and the 50-year-old is Schudson himself. The number of people who do appear at the polling station doesn’t begin to match the figures on the rolls. Some prefer the “bowling alone” convenience of the absentee ballot to the neighborliness of the polling place. More people aren’t bothering to vote at all, turned off by Tweedledums versus Tweedledees, the attack ads and soundbites that substitute for substance. When people don’t vote–and fewer and fewer eligible voters show up at the polls–they’re indicating that politics is irrelevant.
Especially to the twentysomethings, who have grown up on a political diet of hacks, clowns and endless scandals, it’s all a big yawn. On those rare occasions when younger voters do turn out in force, as they did in Minnesota last fall, it’s to vote for a onetime pro wrestler as governor–a new spin on William F. Buckley’s gibe that he’d rather be governed by the first 2,000 names in the Boston phone book than by the 2,000 members of the Harvard faculty.
“Anybody who’s in their 20s and 30s…[is] cynical about their leaders,” says the executive director of an organization called Third Millennium, a Gen-X advocacy group. “They expect them to lie, cheat, mislead.”
Michael Schudson, professor of communication at the University of California, San Diego, intends his book as a corrective to the Why Americans Hate Politics camp. (That book’s author, E.J. Dionne, struck a popular chord a few years back with his argument that Americans were increasingly turned off by the false choices offered by both parties, by the nasty and divisive debates that had turned politics into culture wars.) Schudson’s book could be called Two Cheers for American Politics, but his timing is terrible. After the nearly endless posturing of the impeachment debates, with CNN and MSNBC turning Monica Watch into a twenty-four-hour gong show, Bill Clinton ceaselessly pursued by an Ahab-like special prosecutor and Larry Flynt and Matt Sludge serving up the best sources of political dish, the answer is all too obvious. What’s not to hate?
Pundits have been reaching deep into the kit bag of imagery to describe these goings-on. Life in our nation’s capital has been variously likened to an unhappy marriage and a madhouse. It’s been theater of the absurd, script by Dario Fo, or else a Marx brothers slapstick; a toxic meltdown or a new circle in Dante’s hell; a threatened lynching or a coup d’état. The petty Robespierres on the public stage appeal to “the real America” to rise up in fury against presidential perfidies; yet in poll after poll the real America keeps telling Washington that it has gone bonkers.
You’d have to be Rip Van Winkle not to notice the degradation of public life, and Schudson hasn’t been in a perpetual doze. Contemporary politics can seem pretty dreadful, he acknowledges, but that’s nothing new–our belief in a Golden Age of citizenship is merest sentiment. To cite one example, voter turnout was lower during the 1920s, a period with some affinity to our own, than at any time since the 1830s. It was also lower than it would be until 1988. A look back at how politics has been practiced since the founding of the Republic–at the “instructions of the game itself…including formal constitutional provisions, statutory laws, and conventional patterns of public electoral activity”–shows, Schudson says, that the country isn’t doing so badly when compared with how things used to be.