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.

Don’t Know Much About History

From the first colonial settlements to the early days of the new nation, political authority resided in the hands of the elite–gentlemen and landowners. The working class–and, of course, women and African-Americans–need not have applied. Despite the iconic status of New England town meetings, Schudson points out, little real democracy was practiced there. Order was emphasized over representation, consensus over open discussion and only one eligible man in ten even bothered to show up. While the resonant first words of the Constitution, “We, the People,” pay homage to the ideal of the enlightened citizenry, many delegates to the 1787 convention (itself a closed event) were skeptical. To them, guided democracy made better sense. “The representative process would ‘refine and enlarge’ public views,” James Madison argued in The Federalist Papers, “by ‘passing through the medium of a chosen body of citizens; whose wisdom may best discern the truest interest of their country.'”

The nation that Alexis de Tocqueville wrote about half a century after its founding in Democracy in America was a substantially different place. In many aspects of life, Tocqueville observed, Americans cultivated the “art of association”–developing what would now be called social capital. Newly powerful political parties were themselves a kind of association, a bridge between the private and public spheres. Soon enough, parties turned into engines of patronage. The old maxim “to the victor belong the spoils” took on new meaning. At the White House and city halls across the country, handing out jobs and sweetheart contracts became the first business of government.

“How are you goin’ to interest our young men in their country if you have no offices to give them when they work for their party?” George Washington Plunkitt wondered in a 1905 book of his speeches, Plunkitt of Tammany Hall. Yet patronage was on its way out by then, substantially replaced by the nonpartisanship of a civil service. Increasingly, parties could deliver policies but not jobs, and inevitably their power eroded. Presidential leadership–a mandate for the man, not the party–supplanted party leadership.

“A nineteenth-century voter demonstrated his citizenship through loyalty to party,” Schudson writes. “A twentieth-century voter was obliged to act out something new and untested in the political universe–citizenship by virtue of informed competence.” The hope was that experts–scientific managers, as they were called–could provide reliable data and devise sensible policies. In such venues as the Census Bureau and, more recently, the Congressional Budget Office, as well as think tanks like the Brookings Institution and RAND, this has sometimes been the case. But as those of us in the policy analysis business know from experience, devising policy is one thing and convincing politicians to listen is quite a different matter.

The more noteworthy development was the emergence of the PR man, who has morphed into today’s spinmeister; the pollster, who, as George Gallup put it, could take and remake The Pulse of Democracy; and the plutocrat, the deep-pockets campaign contributor. All were bent on molding voters’ “informed competence.” Over the course of decades, trends that were once lamented evolved into conventional wisdom. The Candidate, an early seventies movie scornful of the packaging of candidates, was taken as gospel by Dan Quayle. While this was treated as just another example of Quayle’s callowness, he was merely pronouncing what many of his more discreet colleagues, including the present occupant of the White House, firmly believe.

Contemporary American politics, Schudson asserts, is ruled “by everyone, and no one, all at once.” Interest groups, the “factions” whose baleful influence the system of checks and balances was meant to minimize, have proliferated. The conception of civic virtue prized in the eighteenth century may be out and politics by polling in, but those who for a century and a half were obliged to come, hat in hand, seeking favors from officeholders now have rights that trump politics. Beginning in 1954 with the desegregation cases, the courtroom, not the legislative chamber, has been the great equalizer. Groups that were in effect disfranchised–women, blacks, the disabled–have a more level field on which to play.

Civics Lessons

This mostly cheerful rendering of citizenship in America ought to be assigned in civics classes because it makes a useful antidote to antipolitics. But the tune sounds a bit like whistling while walking past the graveyard.

In his examination of twenties politics, for instance, Schudson focuses on political marginalia: the emergence of a newly influential class of experts, the number crunchers and the deep thinkers. But the things that really mattered go unmentioned: the exclusionary immigration policies (only white Western Europeans need apply for citizenship), the shabby ethics of Teapot Dome and Herbert Hoover’s fecklessness when confronted by economic collapse. Nor was the politics of the forties really so Capra-esque, with PTAs and boys’ clubs “radiat[ing] the true spirit of democracy,” as Schudson proclaims. Then, as in the eighteenth-century town meetings whose claims to democracy Schudson is so rightly skeptical of, women, blacks and those from the wrong side of the tracks had no place.

The account of contemporary citizenship delivers a useful reminder that for those who were disfranchised as recently as the sixties, life is now remarkably better. Still, that quiet revolution was essentially concluded a generation ago. Ever since, the equality-minded have been on the run, as the rule of laissez-faire, abetted by both parties, has made the commons a barren place.

We know this story all too well because we are living through it. Who could have imagined in the “malaise” days of the late seventies that by the nineties the cold war would be over, the economy roaring and a Democrat possessed of rare political talent occupying the White House? And who would have dreamed that in such circumstances, with such an unparalleled opportunity to do good, the record of Washington’s accomplishments during the decade would chiefly consist of regressive welfare legislation and a budget balanced without regard for equity? With the income gap widening and affirmative-action programs facing extinction, the poor and minorities are by most measures worse off than they were twenty years ago. The federal courts–which even in their liberal heyday were never the “locus of civic participation” that Schudson imagines–have become architects of reaction.

The woeful state of civic life isn’t precisely captured in the idea of Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam’s catch phrase “bowling alone,” but there’s good reason why that phrase has become a cliché. The survey data suggest that Americans are more likely to be loners, turning to TV or the Internet rather than getting involved in civic groups (or informal organizations like bowling leagues) that generate social capital. The network of associations that Tocqueville praised over a century and a half ago is increasingly a rarity. In politics as in ordinary life, the ethic of the marketplace reigns.

Businessmen spend tens of millions trying, sometimes successfully, to buy their way into governors’ mansions or seats in Congress. Political action committees, which were originally a way to democratize politics, have had the perverse effect of concentrating power. The corporate gigantism brought about by the recent wave of mergers is creating powerful new players on the Washington scene. It’s no surprise that three-quarters of the population no longer believes public officials are interested in ordinary people–up from 58.9 percent in 1973, when Watergate and Vietnam sorely tested Americans’ faith in their leaders.

In the borderland between public and private life, the entrepreneur has ousted the citizen. Parents demand vouchers or charter schools, not public schools, for their children, so public education suffers from malign neglect. Barnes & Noble and replace the public library and the local bookstore. Wal-Mart wipes out Main Street. Private security guards outnumber police officers. An estimated 3 million American households live in gated communities, 20,000 of them, protected from the outside world by an apparatus of surveillance. Even towns planned according to the citizenship-minded tenets of the New Urbanism are mainly run by rules–no laundry hanging in the backyard–rather than by those who live in them.

More and more, we join health clubs, nodding hello to the person on the next StairMaster, and mail checks to organizations like the Sierra Club. Is that what civic life has been reduced to?

The Good Citizen skimps on or skips these unhappy facts of modern life. “We live in a new complexity, not a transformed simplicity,” Schudson writes. “We do not need to beat ourselves with the stick of the past.” While that’s true enough, there is no doubting the widespread dissatisfaction with the present. To conclude that things aren’t better or worse than in the past, just different, evades the pivotal question that this account invites. It’s the question Aristotle asked: How should we order our lives together? How does the three-centuryhistory of the meaning of citizenship in America help us figure out a conception of the good citizen that works for our times–and how might we get from here to there?