Young people will not turn out in number to the polls this year. We aren’t much interested in the boomer political game.
On a tour to boost youth voting, the mother of homosexual hate-crime symbol Matthew Shepard stopped at Roosevelt University in Chicago to express her dismay about the lack of political activism in the rising generation. She asked, “What happened to the days when we questioned authority? You don’t yell. You don’t scream. You should be just mad, mad, mad, mad.”
Well, what happened to the days of questioning authority was that the questioners got old – and the new questioners are asking different sorts of questions. Instead of asking why we can’t just be rid of authority, as the baby boomer radicals did in the late ’60s, our generation is asking where authority went. Because no matter the efforts of the voter drivers at Vote or Die and Rock the Vote to assert the credibility of the federal government, as in “You should turn out to vote in federal elections, because the federal government can give you good things,” our generation senses that if the country is worth anything after all, it must be built on more than voting and more than the federal government.
Robert Nisbet, the great sociologist, distinguished between power and authority. Power is force; authority is forged in the social bonds of families, churches, businesses and communities. The baby boomers, despite their rage against authority, have accumulated for their bureaucracies plenty of power, whether under the name of Clinton or Bush, D or R. It comes off before the rising generation of youth impersonal and unwieldy. Our generation is familiar with power, so that we don’t need Puff Daddy telling us where the power is and where we should seek it out. Young Americans are disposed by a train of cultural usurpations that have touched us all personally to be cynical of power. We know the power of divorce, the power of Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris, the power of Jerry Springer, the power of teen sex, the power of abortion, the power of Osama bin Laden. It is not power we crave, for of it we have seen enough. It is authority that we seek – strong, confident, honor-bound, gentle.
That is why young voters are generally cynical about national politics, which is different than apathy. At least among those I call Reagan’s Children for their birth in the 1980s, the energy that previous generations invested in the direct political process has gone often to community service, entrepreneurialism, religion and technology. We’re looking for authority in spheres other than government, since we know that government has none to offer. Were politics a significant activity at the local level, as the Founding Fathers intended for it to be, politics too would be of interest to the rising generation. That government is big and federal, and that efforts to mobilize youth to vote have centered only at the federal level (since that’s where the power, read “money,” is), means young Americans aren’t about to flood the polls next week. Besides, our idea of the money that is available to fund life, untutored though it is by sound education in economics, looks more like an Internet browser than a capitol dome.
What of the notion that those who control the polls control everything else, since they own the larger share of national power? What if the power of the voting booth, held sacred by the boomers, beats the authority of relationships, prized by young prospective voters? What if the boomers’ obsession for power defeats their children’s hunger for authority, as the boomers already defeated the authority of the generations before them?
We need not dread too severe of a generational clash, though a clash is coming. In it, a class of retirees determined to live life to its fullest – at the expense of their taxpaying children – will provoke a war in the halls of Congress about the cost of government. It is a cost, younger statesmen will say, that taxes not our freedom so much as our responsibility. It confounds our capacity to invest, to serve, to love. And the power-hungry decrees of the boomers will require our generation – determined in the habits of an Internet economy and committed to the institutions of authority outside of government – to vote, to enter politics, to fight against the gray-haired builders of a more powerful government.
In that struggle, we must enlist the language of the Constitution, which begins “to secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.” Those blessings in peril, the task of our generation, more than commissioning the masses to vote, is calling the rising statesmen to lead.