The Evolving Citizen
American Youth and the Changing Norms of Democratic Engagement
Jay P. Childers
The Evolving Citizen
American Youth and the Changing Norms of Democratic Engagement
Jay P. Childers
“Jay Childers's work places itself within the scholarly conversation accurately, repeatedly, and convincingly, and Childers uses primary texts that, to my knowledge, have not been frequently investigated by other scholars.”
- Table of Contents
- Sample Chapters
The Evolving Citizen challenges this decline thesis and argues instead that democratic engagement has not gotten worse—it has simply changed. Through an analysis of seven high school newspapers from 1965 to 2010, this book shows that young people today, according to what they have to say for themselves, are just as enmeshed in civic and political life as the adolescents who came before them. American youth remain good citizens concerned about their communities and hopeful that they can help make a difference. But as The Evolving Citizen demonstrates, today’s youth understand and perform their roles as citizens differently because the world they live in has changed remarkably over the last half century.
“Jay Childers's work places itself within the scholarly conversation accurately, repeatedly, and convincingly, and Childers uses primary texts that, to my knowledge, have not been frequently investigated by other scholars.”
“We need to understand how youths experience their own citizenship if we want to reform education and politics. Because The Evolving Citizen draws on the students’ own voices and ideas, interpreted insightfully, it is a valuable and skillful contribution to our understanding of citizenship today. It is a significant book—methodologically innovative, persuasive, and carrying an important message.”
“The Evolving Citizen is an engaging look at the changing ways in which America’s teens write about their political and civic environment. This important inventory of how youths adapt to the realities of their times and alter the meaning of democracy offers reasons for hope and concern. By spanning five decades, Jay Childers’s examination of how young adults have shifted their areas of focus, their levels of engagement, and the issues they find most riveting provides insight into the evolving meaning of citizenship and changing norms of civic engagement. This is a welcome addition to the literature, offering a ground-level look at ordinary democracy.”
Jay P. Childers is Assistant Professor of Communication Studies at the University of Kansas.
1 American Youth: Who They Are and Why They Matter
2 American High School: Teenagers and Scholastic Journalism
3 Dislocated Cosmopolitans
4 Removed Volunteers
5 Protective Critics
6 Independent Joiners
7 American Evolution, Democratic Engagement, and Civic Education
Who They Are and Why They Matter
The American people found themselves living in an increasingly troubled nation during the 2008 presidential election. They had to filter their electoral choices through an abundance of dire circumstances. A snapshot of the United States in September 2008, just two months before Election Day, reveals the realities facing American voters. The U.S. military had around 180,000 troops engaged in the War on Terror in Afghanistan (34,000 troops) and Iraq (146,000 troops). The U.S. government had just taken over the private mortgage companies Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae in an attempt to stop the subprime mortgage crisis and the housing bubble bust, and Congress was in the process of drafting the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act of 2008, authorizing the secretary of the treasury to spend up to $700 billion to rescue the nation’s failing financial institutions. The national average for a gallon of gasoline was $3.80, just below the record high of $4.05/gallon recorded two months earlier. There were approximately 45.7 million Americans without health care, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. National unemployment was at 6.1 percent and climbing. Barely more than 25 percent of Americans had a favorable view of how outgoing president George W. Bush was handling his job. Things seemed so bad that three-quarters of Americans believed the United States was headed in the wrong direction.
Within this context, the two major political parties offered the American people a historic choice in the 2008 presidential election. Having survived the often heated and intense primary campaign against former first lady Hillary Clinton, Illinois senator Barack Obama officially accepted his party’s nomination at the Democratic National Convention on August 28 in Denver, Colorado. Obama’s nomination marked the first time in the nation’s history that a nonwhite headed a major party ticket. So historic was Obama’s nomination that his acceptance speech was moved outside to the Invesco Field football stadium, where more than eighty thousand people were in attendance. Not to be completely overshadowed, the Republican Party, whose ticket was headed by Senator John McCain, announced its vice presidential nominee on August 29. That McCain’s choice was the relatively unknown Alaska governor Sarah Palin drew plenty of attention. The excitement surrounding Palin’s nomination was due in part to the fact that she was only the second woman nominated to a major party’s national ticket, following Geraldine Ferraro, who was nominated as Walter Mondale’s running mate by the Democratic Party in 1984. Palin’s nomination was so energizing that more than 40 million people watched her acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention. Regardless of whether one voted Democratic or Republican, by September 2008 everyone knew the presidential election was going to produce either the first African American president or the first female vice president. Thus, the 2008 election was arguably one of the most important and most exciting in American history.
Given the national context and the historical moment, one might have expected the American people to show up in record numbers on Election Day in November 2008. Indeed, many were predicting just that. While the numerous news reports and academic predictions of record-high voter turnout did not prove to be accurate, many analysts were still pleased. Political scientist Michael McDonald was reporting by late December 2008 that 61.6 percent of eligible voters cast ballots in 2008—an increase of 1.6 percent over the 2004 presidential election. While these numbers did not reach the modern high point of 63.8 percent of eligible voters who turned out to vote in 1960, the 2008 totals did far exceed the low point of just 52.6 percent of eligible voters who showed up in 1996. Although not a truly historic turnout, it was still not surprising to hear praise for the many American people who voted in 2008, some of whom reportedly stood in line for more than three hours to cast their ballots. No group of Americans received more praise, however, than young adults.
As American youth voted overwhelmingly Democratic, much of the praise regarding their turnout suggested that they were, in larger part, responsible for Obama’s victory. Even Obama seemed to understand the importance of young adults. During his victory speech delivered in Chicago’s Grant Park on Election Night, Obama made sure to give credit to those who helped him win the election, noting at the outset of a list of demographic groups that his campaign “grew strength from the young people who rejected the myth of their generation’s apathy; who left their homes and their families for jobs that offered little pay and less sleep.” Senator John Kerry, the defeated 2004 Democratic presidential nominee, agreed with Obama’s assessment, voicing his belief that young adults played an “essential” role in the 2008 election. The importance of the youth vote to Obama’s victory was so apparent that one New York Times reporter labeled the eighteen- to twenty-nine-year-old “young allies” who voted for Obama an entirely new generation—“Generation O.” In a Washington Post editorial just days after the election, political scientist Tracy Fitzsimmons went so far as to call 2008 the “year of the young voter.” According to politicians, journalists, and academics, young people had flexed their collective electoral muscles.
While the excitement about young adult voting was palpable, the reality of the voter turnout offers a more sobering picture of what actually happened in the 2008 election. According to U.S. Census Data and the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE), the turnout for eighteen- to twenty-four-year-olds in 2008 reached only 48.5 percent. Admittedly higher than the three preceding elections, the 2008 numbers were actually lower than those in 1992 (48.6 percent) and the modern high point of 1972 (52.1 percent). In the simplest terms, fewer than half of young adults voted in a historical presidential race at a time of great national turmoil—and this despite the many direct appeals that were made to youth and the increased access to early voting in a majority of the nation’s states.
Given the historical context and the increased appeals, why is it that more than half of all eligible young adults could still not be bothered to vote in 2008? Even with increasingly easy methods of voter registration and early voting in the majority of the nation’s states, what made so many of them feel that voting was not worth their effort? And why did researchers and politicians get so excited about what seem to be such meager voter turnout percentages? How, that is, did we get here?
This book is an attempt to answer that final question. In doing so, I have combined two things that the vast majority of research on young adult democratic engagement has failed to bring together. Namely, I take a historical perspective and pay attention to what young people have been saying for themselves and to one another. In order to be both longitudinal and in-depth, this book attempts to make sense of the democratic lives of today’s young people by looking back across five decades of high school newspapers. It thereby tells the evolving story of the political and civic lives of some of America’s youth in their own words.
Specifically, this book offers a textual analysis of seven regionally diverse American high school newspapers produced between 1965 and 2010 in order to understand the ways in which young adults writing in these papers articulate their assumptions about and deliberate over political and civic matters. My reading of these newspapers is guided by a few important assumptions. First and most important, I assume from the start that the norms of democratic citizenship evolve over time as the social and cultural norms of a society change. Second, I believe these changing norms manifest themselves in the way people write about the political world around them. Third, adolescents who are in the process of learning democratic citizenship present a particularly salient opportunity to better understand these changing norms. Finally, I believe the seven high school newspapers studied in this book can illuminate the ways in which the evolving democratic norms in the United States are manifesting themselves in some of America’s young people. The first two chapters of the book unpack these guiding assumptions, present a picture of the American high school and the students who inhabit these schools, and introduce the reader to the seven schools and their newspapers. The four subsequent chapters reveal what my analysis of the seven high school newspapers illustrates about the democratic lives of the young journalists writing in them.
The story that emerges from looking back at these American youth over the past half century is primarily one of change. The young adults in this study, that is, write more often today of national and international politics than they did a half century ago (chapter 3), and they have become far more likely to describe intervention in public matters as something done from a distance through donations and volunteering (chapter 4). In addition, they have presented a more critical attitude toward politics today as they have become more immersed in the playful world of popular culture (chapter 5). The newspapers studied here also reveal young people who are still joiners, although the groups they join today are more focused on individual interests and needs (chapter 6). In the end, I show that the democratic assumptions of young adults in this study have changed, that these changes have occurred naturally, and that the ways in which they have changed suggest that we need to rethink some of our assumptions about civic education in the United States. I tell this story both by taking a broad descriptive approach to what counts as democratic engagement and through paying close attention to changing trends in how the young people writing in the seven high school newspapers discuss political and civic life.
Throughout this book, I avoid blaming young adults for the democratic attitudes they demonstrate. While I do have normative assumptions about the types of attitudes and behaviors that democracy requires of its citizens, the primary goal of this book is to look for the ways in which young people actually say they do democratically engage the world around them, paying particular attention to how such engagement has changed over time. I do, moreover, offer some assessments of what the story of youth engagement ultimately tells us about which direction our modern American democracy may be headed, but I try to let the evidence take me there instead of my preconceived notions of good citizenship. The evidence I use comes, most importantly, from young people themselves. If one wants to understand how we arrived at the current state of democratic participation, one needs to take heed of what these young people have been saying for themselves. Being a young citizen in a changing world is, it turns out, a complicated matter. This opening chapter offers a picture of our nation’s democratic youth and the changed world this study spans.
What We Think We Know About Youth Participation
In his 2006 Grammy Award–winning single “Waiting on the World to Change,” the then twenty-eight-year-old singer/songwriter John Mayer voiced a lament for his politically disaffected generation. He writes, “Me and all my friends / We’re all misunderstood / They say we stand for nothing and / There’s no way we ever could.” After suggesting that those who would argue his generation is civically lazy and politically apathetic are simply misinformed, Mayer offers a much different perspective. He begins this corrective vision by stating that his generation is aware of what is going on around it: “Now we see everything that’s going wrong / With the world and those who lead it / We just feel like we don’t have the means / To rise above and beat it.” More importantly perhaps, Mayer also implies that his generation’s sense of futility is the result of a corrupt political system in need of a major overhaul: “It’s hard to beat the system / When we’re standing at a distance / So we keep waiting / Waiting on the world to change.” He then goes on to suggest that his generation lacks power and gives the warning, either to that generation or to those who are misinformed about it, “And when you trust your television / What you get is what you got / Cause when they own the information, oh / They can bend it all they want.” In the end, Mayer insists, “It’s not that we don’t care / We just know that the fight ain’t fair.” So he and his friends are not unaware of the problems of the world around them; rather, they are simply waiting on that world to change before they bother to engage it. As Mayer himself explained on his blog shortly after the song’s release and subsequent success, his very purpose in writing it was “to express the feelings of helplessness that come with knowing what needs to change in the world but also knowing the futility of trying.”
One might take issue with Mayer’s song for several reasons. The most obvious problem is that he seems to believe the world simply changes on its own, something for which there appears to be little historical proof. One might also question the idea that you can really care about a problem and not want to do something about it. And one could wonder how someone with such a clear voice in the larger public sphere can still speak of feeling that he does not have the means to fight the system. While these criticisms may be valid, the song does offer the listener a fairly good catalog of what political scientists have been saying about young people for the last two decades. The young Americans portrayed in Mayer’s song seem, for instance, to lack a sense of both internal and external efficacy—the belief that they can influence the public sphere and that those in power actually care about what young adults have to say. Mayer sings of his generation lacking political trust in the system and in those who are running the system. He and his politically alienated and misunderstood generation even find media, specifically television, to blame and enact much of the cynicism they may have learned from watching television. In just under three and a half minutes, Mayer encapsulates many of the popular conceptions revealed in research on young adults and their attitudes toward democratic engagement in the United States. Understanding how correctly John Mayer summed up his generation, however, requires a more careful approach to the extant research on the democratic engagement of American youth.
Before turning to the large corpus of research on youth participation, it is important to note that to talk of the various indices used to measure levels of democratic engagement is to acknowledge that democracy requires certain things from its citizens. What these things are is always uncertain and rarely agreed upon by those concerned with such matters. The ambiguity surrounding the practices of democratic engagement comes from the very fact that democracy is not a stable idea. As political philosopher Charles Taylor has argued, it would be better to think of democracies instead of democracy. While it is true democracy means rule by the people, there is no uniform understanding of how the people go about the business of ruling themselves. Democracy, according to Taylor, “has to be articulated and the articulation accepted and understood as having this meaning, which means that democracy has to be imagined; in fact, it is imagined in different ways.” In the United States, there have been at least two primary ways of imagining democracy throughout the nation’s history—republicanism and liberalism. In addition, any number of articulated variations of democratic thought exist today. While acknowledging the myriad ways in which democracy can be imagined, this book works with the assumption that there are, however, a few core civic and political practices all forms of democracy find beneficial.
At its most basic level, a healthy democracy requires a participatory and informed egalitarian citizenry living in a robust civil society with the skills necessary to engage one another in political arguments and decision-making processes. Whether one adheres to the tenets of libertarianism, communitarianism, liberalism, or some other democratic philosophy, the skills and social networks required for democratic engagement are largely universal. That is, it seems difficult to imagine any democratic theory that prefers apathetic, ignorant citizens who do not interact with one another in nongovernmental organizations and networks. Some political leaders and corporate owners might find such a scenario beneficial, but democracy surely cannot sustain such undemocratic attitudes. I find such attempts to label all political structures democratic quite problematic. For instance, one variation offered by political theorist David Held in his Models of Democracy—“competitive elitist democracy”—seems markedly undemocratic given that one of its conditions is a poorly informed or emotionally irrational electorate. For the people to rule, surely the people need the abilities to go about ruling. So what does it mean to suggest that democracy requires informed citizens and a robust civil society?
For many, it may seem odd to point out that democracy requires the participation of an egalitarian citizenry. However, some have suggested that the political process works best when left to elected officials. Others have even suggested that lower voter turnout does not really change the will of the people. Such arguments are difficult to accept. For instance, political scientist Martin Wattenberg has made a persuasive case that voter turnout does make a difference in election outcomes because those who do vote do not truly represent the polity writ large. A similar argument can be made regarding other forms of democratic engagement since elected and appointed officials are supposed to represent the will of their constituents, sometimes on issues that did not even exist in previous elections. So if a society is going to argue that the people rule, universal suffrage and high levels of political participation are essential to ensuring the people are actually doing their own governing, whether that be through direct or representative democracy.
To suggest that democratic citizens need to be informed is to acknowledge, moreover, that an individual’s knowledge of political processes, public institutions, elected officials, and current affairs helps create, in the words of Michael Delli Carpini, “‘better’ citizens in a number of ways.” Greater political knowledge, it turns out, leads to an increase in political tolerance, political efficacy, and even smarter voting, since higher levels of knowledge help citizens vote for candidates who more closely reflect their views. Taking a slightly different perspective on knowledge, Henry Milner has, in addition, argued that civic literacy—“the knowledge and skills to act as competent citizens”—is the single most important factor in political participation.
Finally, a healthy democracy needs citizens to be a part of and engaged in a robust civil society. According to Peter Levine, civil society refers to “the whole set of voluntary associations (formal and informal) that are outside both the state and the market. It includes churches and other religious congregations, clubs, lobbying groups, parties, unions, nonprofit corporations, and even informal networks of friends.” Such organizations benefit democratic citizens because they can help individuals learn democratic decision-making skills, create a sense of civic efficacy, build social trust and tolerance, and lead to more direct forms of political engagement. These benefits matter regardless of what political party one is a member of or what democratic philosophy one adheres to. As Levine has argued, “Both libertarians and social democrats need civil society and its associated virtues and skills. The same is true of everyone who stands between them on the political spectrum.”
Given the argument that democracy does need certain attitudes and behaviors from its citizenry, how have young adults in the United States been doing as democratic citizens? The picture of American youth over the past few decades that has most often been painted by political scientists and sociologists is one of young adults who have become increasingly disconnected from their communities and apathetic about politics. The general argument begins by suggesting that at some prior point in American history, most notably the 1950s and 1960s, the United States was a healthy and vibrant democratic state full of highly engaged citizens. Since then, however, the American public sphere has taken a decidedly downward turn, and the national community is now in danger of collapsing. So concerning is this general decline in the democratic health of the United States that one group of nineteen leading social scientists, led by Princeton political scientist Stephen Macedo, recently declared American democracy itself at risk. The rather dramatic opening paragraph of their book, Democracy at Risk, is worth quoting here to get a sense of just how worried some scholars have become:
American democracy is at risk. The risk comes not from some external threat but from disturbing internal trends: an erosion of the activities and capacities of citizenship. Americans have turned away from politics and the public sphere in large numbers, leaving our civic life impoverished. Citizens participate in public affairs less frequently, with less knowledge and enthusiasm, in fewer venues, and less equally than is healthy for a vibrant democratic polity. . . . Our democracy is not all that it could be. Although some aspects of civic life remain robust and some citizens still participate frequently, Americans should be concerned about the current state of affairs. The risk is not to our national survival but to the health and legitimacy of our shared political order.
Although their tone may be overly dramatic, the evidence that draws the authors to make such a declarative opening statement is nothing new. While some researchers and practitioners have recently begun arguing against these negative portrayals of declining democratic engagement, the pessimistic view of American youth encapsulated by the concerns of Macedo and his colleagues remains the dominant attitude in much of the academic literature. Unpacking these concerns helps explain why so many people were so excited about the youth voter turnout in 2008.
In order to make sense of the existing research on American youth, democratic engagement needs to be understood as comprising both political and civic participation. More than a mere semantic argument, the distinction between the political and civic reveals why some have found reason to take a more positive view of youth engagement. By political participation, most researchers mean something along the lines of political scientists Sidney Verba, Kay Schlozman, and Henry Brady’s definition: “activity that has the intent or effect of influencing government action—either directly by affecting the making or implementation of public policy or indirectly by influencing the selection of people who make those policies.” Acts of political participation include voting, working for a campaign, persuading someone to vote for a particular candidate, and contacting an elected official. In contrast, civic engagement has been more recently defined by political scientist Cliff Zukin and his co-authors as “organized voluntary activity focused on problem solving and helping others. It includes a wide range of work undertaken alone or in concert with others to effect change.” Most often, civic engagement consists of activities such as volunteering for nonelectoral organizations, belonging to fraternal or religious organizations, donating money or goods for relief efforts, and participating in charity races. While political participation and civic engagement overlap and influence each other, these two forms of democratic engagement are often distinguished in the research, and such distinctions offer some insights into how scholars measure citizenship and in what areas young adults have been showing signs of atrophy and possible signs of renewed strength.
It has almost become taken for granted that America’s young people have fallen behind in the realm of political participation. Young adults, researchers keep showing, do not participate politically at levels close to older Americans or at levels comparable to earlier generations of American youth. Voting is one clear political act in which today’s young people have fallen behind. The voting generation gap between young and old in most modern democracies is a common concern among researchers. In most democratic states today, young adults simply vote at lower rates than older adults. In the United States, however, the generation gap is alarmingly large. Even in the much-celebrated 2008 election, 20 percent fewer young adults voted than did adults over twenty-nine years old. If this were the only indicator of low youth participation, it would be lamentable but, perhaps, acceptable. However, not only are young people far less likely to vote than older Americans, but they are also far less likely to vote than young people forty and fifty years ago. Stephen Macedo and his colleagues make this point clearly in assessing voting trends after the 2004 election: “That young people today are less likely to turn out than people their age in previous generations is an especially portentous development given that lifelong electoral engagement is rooted largely in habits developed in one’s youth.” Taken together, that today’s American youth vote at lower levels than older adults and earlier generations of young people is alarming. It is also concerning for the nation’s future democratic health, since longitudinal studies have shown that how a person votes in her youth largely predicts how she will vote as she gets older.
Equally troubling, the same trends in weakening political participation among American youth exist outside the voting booth. These declines have manifested themselves in young people’s actions toward elected officials, attitudes toward government, and assumptions about democracy itself. Beyond voting, political participation can include working for a political campaign, contacting an elected official, attending a political rally or speech, serving on a local governmental committee or organization, and running for a political office. According to longitudinal data, the percentage of young people engaged in any of these actions has declined by as much as half over the past half century. The same pattern holds true for young people’s attitudes toward government, which can be measured by examining their sense of political efficacy and their level of political knowledge about governmental affairs. Today, young people are less likely to both believe government cares about what they think and express an interest in keeping up with current events, especially local news. The final indicator of declining political participation is young adults’ assumptions about what democratic citizenship requires of them. For the most part, young people have increasingly come to view democratic citizenship as having very few requirements at all. In fact, the majority of young people today, as compared to older generations, believe that citizenship requires nothing special of an individual beyond simply being a good person. Being a good person is certainly a positive thing, but such an attitude toward democratic citizenship does not necessarily translate into an understanding of political participation as an obligation or expectation. Moreover, it may not translate into political participation at all.
Given the evidence presented by a number of notable social scientists and the potential effects of declining political participation in the United States, one should not be surprised by the large corpus of books and essays that have emerged over the past twenty years lamenting the political vibrancy of a bygone era and warning all who will listen of the threat to American democracy that exists today. In terms of political participation, it is difficult to find anyone who argues against these trends. The empirical evidence supporting declining levels of political participation is overwhelming. Not everyone agrees, however, that the consequences of such declines warrant so much hand-wringing about the political health of the United States. While the evidence is far more contested, many social scientists are increasingly pointing toward civic engagement for signs of democratic life among American youth.
In Bowling Alone, one of the most important studies on democratic engagement written in the past two decades, political scientist Robert Putnam argues that the civic health of the United States has been weakening due to Americans’ declining interest in joining clubs, organizations, and associations. Although he does acknowledge that communal engagement has most likely ebbed and flowed throughout American history, Putnam suggests that his data clearly shows democratic engagement was ebbing at the end of the twentieth century. He notes the declines in political participation discussed above but also argues, more importantly, that people simply join together less often than in the past: “During the first two-thirds of the [twentieth] century Americans took a more and more active role in the social and political life of their communities—in churches and union halls, in bowling alleys and clubrooms, around committee tables and card tables and dinner tables. Year by year we gave more generously to charity, we pitched in more often on community projects, and . . . we behaved in an increasingly trustworthy way toward one another. Then, mysteriously and more or less simultaneously, we began to do all these things less often.” Putnam’s primary evidence for this final claim is the declining membership rosters of national and local membership organizations, from the PTA to churches to bowling leagues. This evidence, later echoed by Theda Skocpol, led Putnam and many others who followed to believe that more recent generations of Americans were failing to understand the importance of organizing together for their communities. Putnam concludes that this loss of civic engagement—more fundamental than declines in political participation—is the root cause of the troubling state of American democracy.
Few would disagree with Putnam and Skocpol that membership in national and local organizations has declined in recent decades. Some have suggested, however, that Putnam and Skocpol too narrowly focus their attention on membership-based organizations at the expense of other types of citizen organizing and activity, which may require no membership but are no less democratically valuable. Indeed, one group of researchers has recently argued in their generational analysis that while today’s youngest generations have been losing interest in traditional forms of political participation, “the youngest cohort has been holding its own in the civic world of volunteering, organizational activity, fund raising, and the like.” Young adults today, that is, may not be as willing as preceding generations to join their local churches, but they are just as likely to volunteer for a nonelectoral organization. They may be less likely to join a local bowling league, but they are actually more likely than older Americans to take part in a local walk for charity. Ultimately, today’s American youth may prefer to avoid the demands and responsibilities of membership-based organizations, but they remain, according to some, just as civically minded as previous generations.
For some, the evidence that today’s youngest generations are just as likely as older adults to be civically engaged outside of membership-based organizations suggests that young people are far more engaged than they have been portrayed. According to these defenders of youth, American democracy is not at risk; young adults have simply found newer methods of democratic engagement that are largely based on a more individualized approach to citizenship. Nowhere has the defense of the youngest generation of Americans been more pronounced than in the work of Neil Howe and William Strauss. In their book Millennials Rising, they celebrate the nation’s newest generation, whom they call Millennials, for rejecting the politics of their parents and the cynicism of the much-maligned Generation X. Instead of being concerned about American youth, Howe and Strauss laud them as the next great generation. Political scientist Russell Dalton also suggests that American youth are reshaping politics in the United States. He argues that young people today have adopted a more personalized “engaged citizenship” in preference to the “duty-based citizenship” of the past. While Dalton acknowledges some concern that the new engaged citizens do not vote as often or read the newspaper as much as duty-based citizens did, he finds much to be happy about in today’s young adults. He argues, in fact, that “engaged citizenship prompts individuals to be involved in a wider repertoire of activities that give them a direct voice in the decisions affecting their lives.” He also finds that young people today are far more tolerant of others, a positive attribute echoed in several studies. With their emphasis on individualized citizenship, the new engaged citizens exercise a great deal more tolerance than young people just two decades earlier, particularly on issues of race and homosexuality.
Taken as a whole, the research reveals a picture of the democratic engagement of America’s young adults that is a lot like the well-known optical illusion showing a young girl or old woman, depending on how one perceives it. Depending on one’s interpretation of one set of data or the other, either America’s youth have begun to squander the democracy they have inherited or they have emerged as a new type of citizen set to reinvent the nation. Like most things, the truth about today’s young adults is neither so bleak nor so positive. What we seem to know about young people’s democratic engagement today is that it is different. Recent generations of young adults have not participated in traditional forms of political and civic engagement at rates rivaling earlier generations of young Americans, but they may be finding new ways to engage their communities and governments. Whether such new forms of political and civic engagement can sustain a democratic public sphere remains to be seen.
So we have a what. We have, that is, a fairly decent picture of what young people seem to be doing in the democratic public sphere. What we lack is a how. How did young people get to a point where voting is less important than choosing where to shop? How did they come to be more tolerant of others despite an unwillingness to join together with others? How did it happen that young adults became more willing to walk to cure breast cancer with others in their community while they cannot be bothered with the local news? How did they come to view democratic citizenship as a choice to be taken up when it is convenient or absolutely necessary, rather than as a responsibility shared by all? We know, in short, that young people have changed, but how did this change come about? More important, is this change really all that bad? Listening to what young people have had to say for themselves about citizenship over the past five decades can give us the how. But can we really trust young people to tell us their story? Indeed, we must.
Why We Need to Listen to Youth
Since the founding of the United States, observers of the democratic experiment have been concerned with the American people’s level of political involvement. For Alexis de Tocqueville, this issue was best understood by looking to the nation’s youth:
A man comes to be born. . . . He grows up; manhood begins; the doors of the world finally open to receive him; he enters into contact with those like him. Then one studies him for the first time, and one believes one sees the seed of the vices and virtues of his mature age forming in him.
That, if I am not mistaken, is a great error.
Go back; examine the infant even in the arms of his mother; see the external world reflected for the first time in the still-obscure mirror of his intelligence. . . . Only then will you understand where the prejudices, habits, and passions that are going to dominate his life come from. The man is so to speak a whole in the swaddling clothes of his cradle.
Of course, many have taken Tocqueville’s advice and sought to understand the level of political involvement among adults by studying the civic attitudes and beliefs of the young. Democracy, by definition, requires the participation of the people. People are not, however, born with democratic predispositions, just as they are not born Communists or Socialists. Each successive generation must learn the principles and habits of what society deems appropriate for citizenship from older cohorts. Yet these principles and habits are not static. Society evolves: Wars happen. Economies transform. New media emerge. Philosophical assumptions change. And as society advances, new citizens are socialized.
The story I tell in this book is about how successive generations of students writing in seven different high school newspapers across five decades reflect the evolving norms of democratic engagement. And following the advice of Tocqueville, I tell this story through the words of some particularly influential high school students spread out across seven American cities. In choosing to focus on adolescents, I face a number of potential objections. Are not fickle youth too uncertain of themselves to know how they really feel about politics and their communities? And what good does listening to teenagers do us in the long term anyway? Shouldn’t we be more focused on the adult citizens they will mature into?
The years of late adolescence may very well be the most volatile of a person’s life. It is, after all, a rough transition to go from being a child to becoming an adult. Some might argue, therefore, that studying democratic engagement in young people is misguided because it produces too unstable a picture. I argue, in contrast, that while young people’s attitudes may be in flux, there are two reasons why they are a useful focus for study. First, because part of my goal is to detect changes in democratic engagement across time, looking to an age cohort that is actively searching for its civic and political identities—trying them on and taking them off—will yield the richest and most subtle forms of evidence available. Political scientists Richard Niemi and Mary Hepburn have argued as much in suggesting that those concerned with how people come to develop their own personal understanding of democratic engagement should “focus on political learning in the years of most rapid change to adultlike learning capabilities and adult attitudes.” If one wants to detect change, adolescents are a good place to go looking.
A second reason for studying young adults is that despite the reality that young people’s attitudes and opinions may fluctuate considerably, there is plenty of evidence to suggest their core beliefs have already begun to take root by early adolescence. Citing the works of psychologists Jean Piaget, Erik Erikson, and Harry Stack Sullivan, education professor and director of the Stanford Center on Adolescence William Damon has made just this assertion, arguing that for young people the “specific beliefs and commitments, of course, may change over the subsequent years, but the initial formulation of them during adolescence always has ranked as a key landmark of human development.” While the empirical evidence for the long-term stability of political behaviors and attitudes learned in adolescence has met with considerable challenge in recent years, a number of notable studies continue to offer support for such a claim. For instance, political behavior scholars Kent Jennings and Laura Stoker have conducted one longitudinal study with data reaching back to 1965. Their long-term analysis of life-cycle effects on democratic engagement led them to the conclusion that “as people move into the life situations of middle age that evoke or require civic engagement, they draw on the predispositions and skills set in place at an earlier time. Pre-adult experiences do eventually matter.” Others have more recently found further evidence of these long-term democratic habits, especially as they relate to political attitudes across an individual’s life cycle. So strong is the evidence for long-term stability in democratic engagement that Peter Levine summed up one recent survey of the research thusly: “The basic pattern is consistent: those who participate in politics or community affairs or leadership roles at age fifteen or twenty-two are much more likely to be involved at age thirty or fifty.” Looking at how young people have come to understand democratic engagement may help explain the larger national political picture today and, possibly, how things may look in the near future.
Given that they are actively learning the democratic attitudes and behaviors that will guide them throughout their lives, studying young adults is an ideal way to discover the changing norms of political and civic engagement. Their volatility at a time when they are beginning to form their core democratic values helps reveal the subtle changes taking place across time as each new cohort gives way to the next. Thinking of young adults in terms of cohorts or generations, however, has its own set of detractors. And while I do not break down the young people in this book into preconceived generational categories, choosing instead to allow the differences to emerge naturally from the research, it is important to note that each generation does share some collective understandings of the political and civic world around them. Social scientists have offered ample empirical evidence for this generational thesis. As Levine has recently summated, the research clearly reveals that “generations share durable civic and political characteristics attributable to the political and cultural situation that prevailed when they were young.” These shared generational worldviews emerge, moreover, from a number of influences. As one group of social scientists argues, these influences include the formal and informal political socialization that takes place on a daily basis through education, media consumption, and interactions with others. The shared worldview is also a result of various events (e.g., major political scandals, military conflicts, etc.) that occur during a cohort’s adolescence, and it is more broadly contingent upon major changes in society writ large (e.g., major scientific advances, the introduction of new communications technologies, etc.). The opinions and behaviors of a cohort can be so cohesive that “generations, much like individuals, can develop their own distinct ‘personalities.’” To use “American youth” as a collective noun, then, is to speak of individual cohorts of young people who have much in common.
It is, however, equally problematic to conceptualize generations of American youth as somehow separate from one another. The American youth of today or any other time are not, despite what many of them might want to believe, completely unique. It is, after all, the natural folly of impatient youth to race headlong into growing older. A great many fifteen-year-olds are always already going on twenty-five, which is nothing more than to note that each new generation of young adults is greatly influenced by those a few years their elder—at least those older youth who have been deemed cool enough to emulate. This process is what one of the foremost sociologists of child development, William Corsaro, refers to as “interpretive reproduction.” As children and adolescents grow, they are constantly adopting the norms and behaviors they see in their older peers. In many ways, then, each new generation of young people in the United States represents a new chapter in the evolving story of American youth. To understand the youth of today, we must turn back a few chapters to the youth who came before.
Thus, listening to what American youth have been saying about their political and civic selves over the past five decades can go a long way toward helping us understand the changing nature of democratic engagement in the United States. As it stands now, we have done a poor job of listening. Instead, researchers concerned with the nation’s political and civic health spend most of their time talking about what is wrong with America’s youth. It seems that young adults are more often a crisis to be dealt with than a group to be listened to. To get a sense of this pervasive and long-standing attitude toward young people, at least in the United States, one need only glance at a sampling of books written on the subject:
• Generations Lost: Pop Culture and Youth in Crisis, by Timothy W. Quinnan (2002)
• Youth Crisis: Growing Up in the High-Risk Society, by Nanette J. Davis (1999)
• America’s Youth in Crisis: Challenges and Options for Programs and Policies, by Richard M. Lerner (1994)
• Suburban Youth in Cultural Crisis, by Ralph W. Larkin (1979)
• Youth, the American Crisis, by James Haywood Collins (1972)
• Crisis in Youth Culture, by Nicholas Von Hoffman (1967)
The American obsession with the crisis of American youth is not even relatively new. For instance, traveling around the nation and talking with young people for four months in 1936 led journalist Maxine Davis to pen The Lost Generation: A Portrait of American Youth Today. As a reviewer of the book in The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science summated that same year, Davis reported that adolescents in the 1930s were in a state of “complete nihilism [as] they sit and wait in vegetable passivity.” One does not really listen to nihilistic vegetables.
But American youth are not in crisis—at least no more today than a hundred years ago. They are not something that one must solve. Young people are, however, actively engaged in learning what it means to be an adult. And part of being an adult in a democratic state is being a citizen of that state. The adolescent years are, therefore, a stage of embryonic development into adult citizenhood. My purpose in this book is to examine this incubation process in one important subset of American youth.
How the World Has Been Changing
In his historical study of citizenship in the United States, sociologist Michael Schudson strongly dispels the notion that democratic engagement has been declining. Instead, as he notes in the opening sentences of his conclusion, “Citizenship in the United States has not disappeared. It has not even declined. It has, inevitably, changed.” How could it not? As national boundaries changed, wars were fought, populations increased, political rights spread, education expanded, and a myriad of other developments occurred, how could one expect that the norms of democratic engagement would not transform along the way?
Although my historical focus is far more limited than Schudson’s, the changes in young Americans’ democratic engagement that I detail below did not occur in isolation from the larger societal transformations that took place during the same period of time. Given my focus on high school students from 1965 through 2010, it is necessary to offer a glimpse into the societal changes of the last half of the twentieth century. While there is no reason to exaggerate this case, a student entering high school in 1965 would have been living in a very different world than one entering high school in the final years of the first decade of the twenty-first century. Each of the observations below is, of course, the subject of entire fields of research. What I offer here is simply a brief sketch of a few of the many changes that have influenced new generations of young people to come to know their worlds in very different ways than those who came before them.
It is difficult to overstate how different the communications environment was for a young person in the 1960s compared to a young adult in the early 2000s. The list of new communication technologies and mass media changes is long. A student in 1965, although not without choices, would have had a limited amount of communication technologies available to her. If she wanted to communicate with someone outside face-to-face communication, her only options would have been to post a letter through the U.S. postal service or phone the other person from a land-based line. Anyone outside of her local area would have taken days to reach by mail or been subject to relatively high long-distance fees. News would have come almost exclusively from newspapers, a few newsmagazines, radio news programming, and nightly television newscasts. Listening to music outside live venues required either a radio or record player (eight-track tapes were not even introduced until 1965). Visual media would have most likely been viewed on a black-and-white television that could have received on average five channels. Movie theaters or bulky video projectors in schools would have been the only likely ways to see films. While the young adult in 1965 would certainly not have felt she was communications deprived, her communications environment would come to seem quite antiquated to a young person growing up at the start of the twenty-first century.
Over the course of the five decades this study spans, a whole host of changes completely transformed the communications world. The early 1970s saw the introduction of both VCRs and cable television. The first personal stereo (the Sony Walkman) hit the market in 1979, and personal computers were introduced in 1981. CNN began reporting news twenty-four hours a day in 1980, and the number of channels the average household received increased to almost 19 in 1985 before ballooning to more than 100 by 2003. Mobile phones began to emerge in the 1980s, and the Internet, which began being used commercially in the late 1980s and started to see widespread public use by the mid-1990s, was being used regularly by approximately 84 percent of children in their homes by early January 2008. Records gave way to eight-track, then cassette tape, then compact disc, before becoming digitized in MP3 format; movies went from being shown at theaters to being rented at local stores to being downloaded online. During the same period, people moved from simply writing letters and phoning one another to sending text messages, writing e-mails, and instant messaging online. Compared to the average young person in 1965, the young adult of today has far more mediated options and communications mobility. Whether for good or ill, young adults entering high school in the early 2000s were living in a much larger, more fast-paced, and increasingly more individualized media environment than any of their predecessors would have known.
At the time of this writing, there is a great deal of arguing in academic and political circles about the cultural wars currently being fought in the United States. Struggles between red states (Republican/conservative) and blue states (Democratic/progressive) are debated ad nauseum. The reality is that the cultural wars are grossly overblown by media personalities and political pundits, and measuring cultural values themselves has long been a thorny endeavor. Even trickier is measuring cultural changes across time. Still, it seems fair to argue that some national cultural values are different today than they were five decades ago. For instance, thanks in large part to several hard-fought (and as yet still unfinished) social movements, attitudes toward women, African Americans, and homosexuals have become far more liberal and tolerant. Perhaps the easiest way to see these cultural changes in the United States is to look to the American political landscape. The 89th Congress (1965–67) had only 2 women in the Senate and 11 women and 2 African Americans in the House of Representatives. By comparison, the 108th Congress (2003–5) included 77 female members (14 in the Senate, 63 in the House) as well as 40 African American and 3 openly gay men and women in the House. While still not the numbers some advocate for, the trend demonstrates a basic change in the societal attitudes toward women and minorities.
Outside the political landscape, American popular culture offers another way to see the cultural shifts that took place between 1965 and 2010. The most popular shows in 1965 (e.g., Bonanza, The Lucy Show, The Andy Griffith Show, and The Beverly Hillbillies) presented a relatively racially homogeneous world in which crime was rarely violent and women were never in bed (unless perhaps they were sick). The most popular shows, outside of reality television, in 2009 (e.g., NCIS, House, Desperate Housewives, and Grey’s Anatomy) offered a world with far more racial diversity and a great deal more explicit sex and violent crime. A similar trend can certainly be seen in music. The Billboard Hot 100 number-three-selling single for 1965 was the Rolling Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” which primarily protested commercialization. The song also included the then controversial line “I can’t get no girl reaction.” The 2010 Billboard top-rated single of the year, by contrast, was “Tik Tok” by Ke$ha, which featured the memorable lines “I’m talking about everybody getting crunk, crunk / Boys tryin’ to touch my junk, junk.” For young people entering school in the final year of this study, then, their cultural world looked far different than that of young adults in the mid-1960s. For better or worse, American culture changed a great deal over these five decades.
Put simply, the world has been getting smaller over the past century. While soldiers, explorers, and tradesmen had been traveling great distances around the world for centuries, the twentieth century brought with it technological and scientific advances that made it increasingly easier for the average individual to travel to far-reaching places and communicate with peoples vastly different from themselves. In recent decades, there has been a “widening and deepening of the international flows of trade, capital, technology, and information within a single integrated global market.” These transportation and telecommunications advances have had both personal and political consequences. For the individual, globalization has led to a sense of cosmopolitanism that has replaced, in many cases, a sense of local connectedness. “World citizens” have replaced ordinary community members. Politically, globalization has changed how the world does business and has brought into question the nation-state and its viability as a governing institution. Global corporations continue to gain greater amounts of political capital at the same time nation-states struggle to compete in a changing world. While the fear that corporations, rather than nation-states, are running the world seems too often exaggerated, it is difficult not to acknowledge that large international companies are increasingly gaining economic and cultural influence across national borders. The young person in the United States today is very likely to listen to music from South America (e.g., Shakira), dress in clothing from Europe (e.g., Gucci), and drive cars from Asia (e.g., Toyota).
Young people in the 1960s were not, of course, unaware of the impact of global issues on the United States. With events such as the Russian launching of Sputnik in 1957 and the ongoing Vietnam War throughout the decade, American high school students in 1965 knew something about international issues. However, the youth of today are far more intimately enmeshed in the larger world than earlier generations as a whole. This point is made by Harvard education scholars Marcelo Suárez-Orozco and Desirée Baolian Qin-Hilliard, who argue that “the forces of globalization are taxing youth, families, and education systems worldwide. . . . Youth growing up today will be linked to economic realities, social processes, technological and media innovations, and cultural flows that traverse national boundaries with ever greater momentum.” From growing global corporations to an increasingly international media environment, young people today are finding their lives more interconnected with people from around the globe. Taking this interrelation into account is important in assessing the changing nature of youth democratic engagement.
The history of the United States in the second half of the twentieth century is certainly one of suburbanization. While the American people were clearly moving toward suburban environments before 1950, this trend only increased after World War II. Faced with the changing economic realities of a nation that had moved from an agricultural- to an industrial-based society, the American people quickly abandoned their rural roots. And concerned with crime and overcrowding, they also left American cities in droves. Their convergence in new suburban communities was helped, according to urban planning scholar David Soule, by the U.S. government. The suburban growth that followed World War II would not have been possible, in fact, without the government’s willingness to give returning veterans cheap housing loans or without the 1956 Interstate and Defense Highway Act, which eventually created the nation’s intricate highway systems. Spurred by these developments, the growth of American suburban communities quickly accelerated. As historians Kevin Kruse and Thomas Sugrue have recently put it, “The rise and dominance of suburbia in America after the Second World War is inescapable. In 1950, a quarter of all Americans lived in suburbs; in 1960, a full third; and by 1990, a solid majority.” American youth are, by and large, suburban youth. The result of this suburban dominance is that the American landscape quickly became filled with things that make suburban life manageable—automobiles, chain restaurants, strip malls, and big-box stores. This new landscape surely affected the lives of the young people who increasingly came to find themselves living in suburbia.
A student graduating from high school in the 1960s entered a much different economic environment than a student graduating at the start of the twenty-first century. Due in part to the technological and global changes mentioned above, the young people of the last fifty years have, for instance, had to learn new types of career skills as the U.S. economy transitioned from an industrial economy to a service economy. Economic scholars George Kozmetsky and Piyu Yue have tracked this changing economic structure between 1950 and 2000, summing up the transition thusly: “The leading sectors for economic growth in the United States have moved away from the industries associated with the Third Industrial Revolution, such as the automobile, electricity, and chemical industries, to the industries of information technology and services.” This has led, Kozmetsky and Yue argue, to the “fall of the working class and the rise of the creative and innovative class.” Moreover, these new classes of workers have led many more young people today to seek postsecondary education to attain the necessary skills required in new service-based industries and the knowledge required for high-tech jobs. The increasing pressure on high school students to continue their education can easily be demonstrated by noting the increasing number of Americans awarded bachelor’s degrees—from fewer than 1 in 10 in 1960 to 1 in 4 in 2000. Simply to compete in the job market, young people found they needed postsecondary education. And while they were struggling to learn the quickly changing knowledge and skills that accompanied the nation’s economic transition, they also had to face the uncertainty of long-term career security. A high school student in the 1960s would have been entering a workforce structured around individuals changing career paths no more than once or twice across the adult life cycle. A high school student in the early 2000s would have had no such illusions, as he could expect to change careers up to half a dozen times during his life.
At a broader level, the economic differences between young people today and those entering the workforce in the late 1960s might best be understood in relation to three indices—personal wealth, income inequality, and financial security. Put simply, young people today have, on average, greater wealth than their peers from earlier generations, but they also live in a world of greater income inequality and far more financial insecurity. Making sense of the first two indices—wealth and inequality—Yale political scientist Jacob Hacker has noted that “Americans at all points on the income ladder have gotten richer—just not at equal rates—and during this same time period, our economy has expanded handsomely.” So while today’s youth live in a more economically prosperous era, not everyone has benefited equally from the new wealth. More important, today’s young adults also live in a world of greater financial insecurity—a world in which job layoffs, health care crises, and economic downturns can suddenly and drastically change a person’s financial well-being. Indeed, so different is today’s economic environment that Richard Sennett has suggested it has created a new type of ideal individual, devoid of a coherent life narrative and a set of experiences through which work helps make meaning. Today’s young adults might have more money to spend, but they also have to learn to work in a world of less economic certainty and greater class division.
The United States underwent great shifts in its demographic makeup during the last half of the twentieth century. Comparing the 1960 U.S. Census to the one in 2000, it is relatively easy to track these changes. Between 1960 and 2000, the number of people living in the United States increased by more than half, as the nation’s population ballooned from 180 million to 280 million. Racially, the nation also became less white during these years; the percentage of the U.S. population that is Caucasian decreased from 88.5 to 75 percent, with much of the difference made up by Hispanics and Latinos. That the nation has become more racially diverse does not, however, mean that the average young person now engages people of different races more often than he would have half a century ago. While initial school integration occurred during the 1960s and 1970s, there is some evidence suggesting a growing trend toward the resegregation of schools in more recent years. While interracial contact may be on the decline, it is nevertheless difficult to imagine that the average young person today would not be more aware of the racial diversity surrounding him than a young adult living in the 1950s. From magazine advertisements to television shows, young people today are certainly presented with an image of a more racially diverse society.
In addition to becoming more racially diverse, the American people got older. The median age increased by five years—from 30.3 to 35.3 years old. And while they were getting older, U.S. citizens were also becoming more educated, with the percentage of the American people twenty-five years and older holding at least a high school diploma doubling from 41 percent in 1960 to 80 percent in 2000. Given these changes, it is safe to say that a young person in the early 2000s would have been living in a world filled with more people, who were, on average, more racially diverse, older, and more educated than they would have been forty years earlier. While it may be true that today’s youth seem to have less respect for their elders, actually engage people of different races less often, and suffer from the declining quality of education, they are, nevertheless, living in a much different America than were the youth of almost half a century ago.
A great deal changed in the United States as the twentieth century drew to a close and the twenty-first century began. The broad, sweeping observations offered above do not begin to cover all of the changes that occurred between 1965 and 2010. Each of the foregoing observations does, however, offer concrete examples of the societal changes that would certainly have influenced the socializing processes of American youth. Have these changes been positive or negative? Yes and no. The same cultural value shifts that have opened doors for women and minorities have also made casual sex and violence more socially normative. The same economic trends that have decreased job security have also increased the overall national standard of living. The same globalizing forces that may have caused a loss in local cohesion have led to a greater awareness of global concerns. Change is always Janus-faced. Still, one might wonder, have these changes led to better democratic citizens? For the most part, the short answer seems to be no—our democracy is worse off today than it was before or perhaps ever has been. Taking the negative stance is the easy, polemical answer. I prefer to leave the polemics to others. I do not, however, mean to offer unbridled optimism either. The U.S. citizenry and American democracy itself are not better or worse; they are simply different than they used to be. Change is both natural and inevitable.
This book embraces change as the expected result of time and experience. As the years have passed, the American people have learned from one another, and newer generations have adapted these lessons to fit the new experiences of the evolving world around them. But amid this natural evolution, some things have remained the same. One of the unchanged facets of the United States is the belief in democracy and the need to continue to foster new generations of democratic citizens. At his 2009 inauguration on a cold January afternoon in Washington, D.C., President Barack Obama acknowledged the inevitability of change. He talked, specifically, of the nation’s journey. And he, too, offered a source of stability:
Our challenges may be new. The instruments with which we meet them may be new. But those values upon which our success depends—hard work and honesty, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism—these things are old. These things are true. They have been the quiet force of progress throughout our history. What is demanded then is a return to these truths. What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility—a recognition, on the part of every American, that we have duties to ourselves, our nation and the world; duties that we do not grudgingly accept but rather seize gladly, firm in the knowledge that there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining of our character, than giving our all to a difficult task. This is the price and the promise of citizenship.
President Obama understood that the United States he had been elected to lead was different than the United States of earlier eras. Both the challenges facing the nation and the tools used to deal with those challenges were new. But Obama also understood that at the heart of the United States, old and new, was its commitment to democracy. What he failed to understand was that it might not be possible to return to the democratic truths of an earlier time. That is the nature of change—it makes going back to the way things were before truly impossible.
The American democracy cannot go back to the way things were. It will inevitably continue to move forward. The best we can do now, then, is to assess the state of democratic engagement in the United States as it stands today. And I believe the only way to really get a sense of what democratic citizenship looks like today is to put it in the context of how it got to be this way. This introductory chapter has set out my reasons for believing this. I have suggested that the picture of what we think we know about young people is confusing—a portrait predicated upon an idealized democratic model that may never have existed. Given the uncertainty of the democratic picture presented by social scientists over the past couple decades, I have argued that we need to reassess what we know about the state of America’s democratic health by paying attention to the nation’s youth—specifically, what they have had to say for themselves about their political and civic beliefs across time. And, finally, I have assumed that examining the discourse of young adults in the United States over time will present a story of changing democratic norms, influenced by the evolving American society in which young adults learn to be citizens. Understanding these changes will, I believe, help us understand how we got to this point in our democratic history and offer some clues as to where things might be headed.
The following chapters tell the story of how the beliefs and norms that some American youth associate with democratic engagement changed in the waning years of the twentieth century and what these young citizens came to look like at the beginning of the twenty-first century. First, chapter 2 offers some context for understanding modern American high schools and the young people who inhabit them, introduces the seven high schools chosen for this study, and explains how I go about listening to American youth in the high school newspapers they produce for one another. Chapters 3 through 6 each tell a different story of how young adults have adapted their democratic engagement to fit the changing society in which they live. Finally, chapter 7 returns to some of the key themes raised in this opening chapter as it pulls together the primary strands of change presented throughout the book. It offers a final picture of what democratic engagement looks like today and where it seems to be pointed in the future.
Some may be tempted to take the evidence offered in the following chapters as an indictment against one aspect of American society or another. Some may want to argue that one social institution or another (e.g., free market capitalism, mass media, etc.) is the central problem of a modern democratic crisis. Others may view the way the young people in this study say they have come to understand their political and civic roles as evidence that young people themselves have increasingly become the problem, because American culture has become too relaxed or the American public school system too soft. I suspect that by the end of this book one might find any number of places to point a finger. I believe, however, that pointing fingers does very little good in the long run. Instead, I offer one hand to American youth and the other to the academics, politicians, and social activists who keep arguing that American democracy is failing. In the end, I hope the story I tell helps the former rethink their methods of democratic engagement and the latter think of new ways to help young adults more fully embrace the democratic experiment that is the United States.
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