Following the attacks of September 11, young Americans, like all Americans, were quick to display signs of patriotism. Military recruiters reported that inquiries and interviews rose, though there has been no discernible increase in the number of people actually joining the armed forces. Americorps administrators noted an upswing of interest in national service among young people, as Senators John McCain and Evan Bayh called for substantially expanding the program. In fact, young people’s feelings of patriotism, which are generally weaker than those of the older generation, rose in the aftermath of the tragedy. According to “Public Response to a National Tragedy,” a study conducted by the National Opinion Research Center in late September, young people’s pride in American democracy rose from 14 percent in 1996 to 48 percent post-September 11.

But what this newfound patriotism will mean in terms of a positive view of government and support for a progressive agenda remains to be seen. Prior to September 11, Generation Xers (born between 1964 and 1975) were the GOP’s most ardent supporters, if they paid attention to politics at all. If we look at the numbers among white voters, where we find the bulk of Republicans in the electorate, we see this pattern quite clearly. According to data collected by Democracy Corps last year, 44 percent of white voters age 25 to 36 called themselves Republicans, while only 27 percent called themselves Democrats. The Democratic Party fared about the same with Generation Y (born between 1976 and 1997), with 47 percent of white voters age 18 to 24 calling themselves Republican, nearly ten points higher than white voters over 55 years of age. President Clinton handily won voters under 30 in 1996, but Democrats only break even with young voters in off-year Congressional elections. At the moment, only Generation Y’s growing demographic diversity saves it from embracing the Republican Party as strongly as its immediate predecessor: According to Census Bureau projections, members of Generation Y are twice as likely as people over 55 to be either African-American or Latino.

Younger people’s conservatism rests upon a strong distrust of government. The decline in trust, of course, was initiated by members of the Baby Boom generation, who experienced the disappointments of Vietnam and Watergate. But continued distrust among young Americans should not surprise anyone paying attention to the nation’s dialogue about government since 1980. Both Generations X and Y were raised without national political leadership that clearly articulated a vision of government’s role in creating a better society. Instead, government has been cast as the problem. Generation X heard President Reagan’s attack on the federal government, personified in the “welfare queen” and other alleged abuses of government largesse, and it experienced the first President Bush’s neglect of domestic responsibilities in the last, traumatic recession. Generation Y saw a more muted undermining of government, ranging from President Clinton’s declaration that “the era of big government is over” to the championing of ideas that call for devolving government responsibilities to private organizations, as we see now in George W. Bush’s “faith-based initiatives.” Generation Y’s feelings toward government and political leadership were further undermined by years of unrelenting attention to scandal in the media and popular culture.

To be fair, younger Americans accurately perceive that they do not get much positive benefit from government as it is currently configured. As Theda Skocpol argues persuasively in The Missing Middle, our current welfare state helps (though critics would say nowhere near enough) poor children, their parents and the elderly, and not too many people in between. But younger Americans do have deep concerns about issues in which government has some say. For instance, as every survey prior to September 11 showed, education is the top concern among young Americans. But rather than agonizing over vouchers, charter schools or teacher accountability, young people’s educational concerns revolve around their ability to afford higher education in a climate in which a high school diploma is a route to job insecurity and poor or nonexistent health benefits. They are acutely aware that it is expensive to get the skills they need to get ahead, but in the absence of affluent parents, they do not see any place to go to for help. They certainly do not see the government as assisting in reducing their dependence on loans or alleviating their debt burdens after graduation.

A lack of interest in politics and distance from government was the context in which young people experienced the events of September 11, which raises the question, Did this national tragedy alter young people in a way that connects them back to a positive view of government and a larger progressive agenda? As many argue, Generations X and Y have not experienced such defining political events as Reconstruction after the Civil War, the Great Depression, World War II, the movements of the 1960s and the Vietnam War. In those moments, the political culture experienced shifts in notions of patriotism, perceptions of the proper function of government and the role of the nation in the world. In some cases, they created or restored confidence in government and the nation, and in other cases they introduced skepticism and enduring political cleavages. Regardless, they mobilized young people into a national conversation about what it means to be a citizen of this nation, as well as the proper function and responsibilities of government.

Younger Americans are certainly primed to have this national conversation. Major organs of popular culture–the main source of news and information for younger people–devoted sustained attention to the attacks. MTV programs such as Carson Daly’s Total Request Live substituted beach parties in Florida with call-in discussions of the attack with popular musicians Lenny Kravitz, Moby and Jay-Z. The network produced short segments on Islam and Muslims in America between its musical programming, earning praise from Muslim groups. Celebrities rallied to telethons and concerts to raise money for the families of the victims, while Julia Roberts recorded public service announcements to support the Red Cross. VH1 continues to cover the USO participation of pop stars such as Jennifer Lopez and Kid Rock, who have been entertaining the troops at home and abroad.

But transforming this attention and energy into something politically tangible requires leadership, particularly since young people’s notions of citizenship and democracy are generally so vague. In focus groups among teenagers and young adults conducted for The Justice Project last year, for instance, concepts like citizenship evoked these sort of responses: “Nothing,” “I don’t know” or, somewhat more substantively, “My rights, just like, pride, I guess, to some extent, and paying taxes.” There was some notion that democracy means voting, but others said, “It’s just a concept, not a state of government,” or “I just think, like, what does it really mean? I know it’s our, like, our government, but I don’t know what it technically is.”

As Robert Putnam makes clear in Bowling Alone, his extensive exploration of the decline of social capital, the rise of civic community in the wake of patriotic fervor during World War II was not spontaneous but was facilitated and encouraged by the government through such efforts as the civilian defense corps, selling war bonds, rationing and scrap and rubber drives. At the time, people felt they were part of a larger effort, in partnership with government, to get through troubled times. We should not expect young people to experience spontaneous transformation into progressive civic beings. Like many people, they find recent events and patriotic responses confusing and unfamiliar. As one young woman in a recent focus group put it: “I don’t understand this; why all of a sudden is everyone rooting for the United States of America? I know that we live here, but before this whole thing happened, no one had their flags out all of the time. I’m doing it now too…”

In the aftermath of the attack, younger people heard that they should go back to work, lead their lives normally and spend money as tourists. But progressives should not miss this opportunity to make the case to younger people for the relevance of government. The response to the attacks–aid to New York to clean up the devastation, the mobilization against the Taliban and Al Qaeda in Afghanistan, the work of police officers and firefighters, the testing for anthrax exposure in the Capitol, newsrooms and post offices, the federalization of airport security–all demonstrate the essential work of government. This matters, as we are currently in the midst of contentious and important debates in Congress and state legislatures about how to cope with the economic downturn. Particularly at the state level, governors and legislatures are making decisions about how to balance their budgets, proposing cuts in programs such as higher education.

But as it stands, the parties and candidates speak in a language that is not very relevant to younger people–for instance, the heavy emphasis in Democratic circles on Social Security and Medicare, and educational issues primarily as they relate to young children. They employ communications strategies that bypass the media habits of younger people, focusing on older audiences that consume conventional media (for example, broadcast news). Progressives need to communicate with younger people in a way that addresses the issues they care about in their own language. They need to hear about how politics matters in their lives, from people and sources that share common values and experiences. Effective communication, moreover, needs to reach young people where they get their information and learn about politics–the organs of popular culture: music, magazines, late-night television and, to a lesser degree, the Internet. But more fundamentally, progressives need to understand that young people do not share a progressive vision merely because they tend to be more liberal than older people on issues concerning the environment and sexuality. Instead, we need to actively make the connections among patriotism, the work of government, the current economic debate and a larger progressive agenda.