After Apathy

The observation that people younger than 40 don't care much about politics is true but unilluminating—the very definition of banality. Those who would explain the indifference tend either to blame it on a more widespread apathy toward careers, relationships, and generally everything except entertainment (the slacker hypothesis), or to credit it to the can-do spirit of a generation that has made a lot of money without surrendering its hip edge and has no use for a government that seems slow, stodgy, and singularly unlikely to turn a profit (the Fast Company hypothesis). They focus on the alleged character of the generation, a softness or sternness supposed to inhere in people of a particular age. A few others, more optimistic, have concentrated on politics itself and have tried to imagine an agenda that will bring youthful voters alive. In fact, though, the eclipse of politics arises from a concert of changes in economics, culture, and government that together have shaped this generation's experience.

In the past two decades, government has not undertaken a far-reaching program that makes itself felt in people's lives. With the exception of winning small wars, Washington's most striking and concerted effort has been the dismantling of welfare policies. Mean while, programs that once represented government's commitment to improving lives, notably antipoverty and affirmative action policies, have come instead to stand for the intractability of those problems and the ambiguous effect of the government's involvement in them. The era's most ambitious attempt at a new and broad program, health care reform, has become an emblem of politics' capacity to mobilize fear and incomprehension to throttle optimism and progress.

Through the same period, the country has not experienced a credible, effective political movement. Nothing to rival the civil rights efforts and antiwar movement of the 1960s has come out of the environmental community, which holds not a common program but a shared sentiment that partially links thousands of programs, most of them local or topically specific. To call Ralph Nader's admirable constellation of pro-regulatory advocacy groups a consumer "movement" is a distortion of the word. Until recently, our time's most effective movement has been the Christian Coalition, whose mastery of primary elections and whose moralizing, culturally resentful tone did not make politics more attractive to anyone else. More over, the coalition has been an essentially antigovernment organization. Its members want bureaucrats out of their lives and their children's education and have turned paradoxically to politics to achieve that aim. In this respect, it is the ideal grass-roots movement for an apolitical time.

Young people have seen social and cultural change take place with dramatic speed outside the political sphere, with government playing a retrograde role. Movies like In and Out and television—in the sympathetic coming-out episode that seems to have been added to the prime-time template—have been instrumental in the last decade's cultural revolution around homosexuality. Although the question is hardly closed, in large and expanding circles, antigay sentiments have become a sign of crassness and ignorance, and the norm has swung rapidly toward something between tolerance and affection. Beside all this, the Clinton administration's "don't ask, don't tell" policy looks like a vestigial Victorianism.

Additionally, the temper of the time holds that glamorous and satisfying accomplishments lie in private careers and private lives. For those who can afford them, this is a time of personal trainers, refined consumption, and customized vacations. Business has been recast as hip, and the old epithet "suit" is more likely to apply to a federal official than to the entrepreneur or executive of popular imagination. The favorite image of the high-tech economy is a boardroom full of skaters and mountain-bikers, ready to roll out after making the day's decisions.

Admiring profiles of CEOs, consultants, and investment analysts have become standard fare in glossy magazines. Young Americans no longer suspect that they have to choose between being prosperous and being interesting.

They do, however, feel pressed to choose between prosperity and relative poverty. The information economy and Wall Street's boom have created many careers open to talent—leavened, it must be said, by luck. At the same time, even with record-low unemployment, this is more an economy of winners and losers than any other in living memory, and new jobholders know that. Their awareness is sharpened by the impression that they cannot rely on second-rate public education and health care, much less public retirement funds, to back them up. This generation's strivers see bright futures ahead with shadows on either side, and their attraction to private careers is quickened by a sense of urgency.

Finally, this is nothing if not a savvy time. The young stars who write ironic, self-mocking television commercials understand this. Yet politics in America has ever been the realm of platitude, and the current president's combination of high-minded, empathic rhetoric and self-dealing behavior has confirmed the impression among the savvy that political speech is hollow.

This set of experiences grounds the view that politics is ineffective, irrelevant, or insidious; that those who enter it are likely to have disagreeable motives and wind up disappointed and unattractive; and that we all have better and more pressing business to tend to, anyway.

That said, what works against apathy? What might succeed it? Here we should pause at two recent reformist proposals that, while well-intended, are also insufficient.

The first is a call for pragmatism. From Wall Street Journal articles on "a new politics for a new economy" to Fast Company's political "change agents" to Ted Halstead's "A Politics for Generation X" in The Atlantic Monthly [August 1999], everyone agrees that a revived politics will have to get things done. However, the frequent suggestion that a pragmatic politics can do without ideology, substituting practicality for principle, is belied by these very proposals. For the Journal, pragmatism means letting the free market do as much as possible, with significant nods to compassion at the edges. For Halstead it means revising the basic terms of the market by replacing the payroll tax and some income taxes with a tax on the use of natural resources. While everyone agrees that we should not do what doesn't work, and that some kind of market is part of what does work, a good deal of the agreement stops there. Concentrating on efficient paths to our ends brings us around, soon enough, to deciding what our ends should be.

Second is a move to plain speech. In the presidential election already underway, there is a considerable premium on talk that sounds as though it came from a noncandidate. Among the warmest remarks that voters have made about the reticent Bill Bradley is that "he's running as if he didn't want the job." Senator John McCain has bolstered his reputation for integrity by attacking voters' pet programs to their faces (ethanol subsidies to Iowa farmers, for instance) and predicting, during the bombing of Kosovo, that negotiators would "make some dirty deal and call it a victory." Running not just against Washington, but against the whole language and culture of politics as it is presently practiced, is a natural response to a distasteful politics. However, like calls for pragmatism, it seems sufficient only when our politics is so flaccid that we do not feel compelled to ask what is being said plainly and whether we are for or against it.

Moral pellucidity marks the projects that have attracted young people in recent decades. Amnesty Inter national, minimovements around Burma and East Timor, and antisweatshop campaigns have all stood out in mainly disengaged campuses, as have various forms of environmental concern. In a time when so much politics seems compromised, these issues have given occasion for an uncompromised position, the kind the culture dimly remembers from the civil rights era. The continuing appeal of a pure stance is a reminder that selfish indifference is not the main obstacle to engagement.

Young people also give a good deal of time to direct service, from tutoring and mentoring to establishing innovative private or semipublic social service programs. These activities suggest a bottom-up return to politics, performed gingerly by wary but hopeful people cautious of being burned. We can expect to see members of the current generation of social entrepreneurs running government agencies within a decade; the agencies, freely or under pressure, are already collaborating with the entrepreneurs in some places. Meanwhile, antisweatshop work on campuses has woven into a broader sympathy with labor issues that has created a new generation of young organizers, a prospect the compromised union movement could scarcely have imagined eight years ago. Campus environmental activists have turned from stopping particular developers to devising policies that aid conservation.

However, the bottom-up element needs a top-down complement. As I've already suggested, a good part of the current skepticism toward politics reflects the accurate impression that economic and cultural shifts can be much more important than law and government. The skepticism also, though, supposes that those shifts are inevitable. It is not difficult to find young people who believe that the sharp inequity, grim social conditions, and precipitous environmental destruction that are the current side effects of a globalizing market are effectively fated, and that we shall just have to ride them out as best we can. It is this impression, in good part, that sends people hurrying to Wall Street and to second homes in Colorado and Montana—which makes sense even for a person of decent intentions, as long as political solutions seem unreal.

They will seem more real when leaders speak—pragmatically and plainly, to be sure—to the possibility of international labor and environmental standards, innovative environmental laws, boundaries against economic insecurity, and intelligent forms of community planning that bring the market nearer the human purposes that should be its standard. Such policies would have to make themselves felt for the better in ordinary lives, showing that ideas can still become reality in politics as well as in entrepreneurship and that the idea of citizenship deserves more than historical interest. That would not form the keystone of a magical new consensus, but it would provide a line along which some of us might align ourselves. If we heard, and could believe, that we can still decide in favor of shaping economies—and so work and communities—to be more dignifying and less destructive, that would be a reason to chance more of our belief on politics.

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