service instead of politics? blame Clinton

When trying to explain trends in civic participation, we shouldn’t overlook major political events and how they influence ideological groups.

When I was in college, in the late 1980s, I played a very small role in national discussions about how to increase opportunities for service. These discussions helped lay the groundwork for the Points of Light Foundation and then the Corporation for National and Community Service. Most of the young people in those discussions were left-liberals. For us, service seemed useful because it might sensitize people to problems like poverty and racism and lead to political action. However, service would be harmful, we thought, if it became an end in itself or a palliative. These were the explicit conclusions of a Wingspread retreat on service that I attended in 1988.

Thirteen years later, in 2001, Campus Compact brought a new group of college students to Wingspread to discuss civic engagement. These students said:

For the most part, we are frustrated with conventional politics, viewing it as inaccessible. [However,] while we are disillusioned with conventional politics (and therefore most forms of political activity), we are deeply involved in civic issues through non-traditional forms of engagement. We are neither apathetic nor disengaged. In fact, what many perceive as disengagement may actually be a conscious choice; for example, a few of us ? actively avoided voting, not wanting to participate in what some of us view as a deeply flawed electoral process. ? While we still hope to be able to participate in our political system effectively through traditional means, service is a viable and preferable (if not superior) alternative at this time.

I suspect that there was one major reason for the change in attitudes toward service among left-liberal youth: the Clinton Administration. In 1988, most young proponents of civic engagement, having grown up under Reagan, believed that a Democratic electoral victory was much more important than any form of direct service. In 2001, having experienced a Democratic presidency, idealistic young liberals were highly skeptical of government and politics as paths to social change. Note that a similar pattern of mobilization and disillusionment could easily affect conservative youth under different political circumstances.

The title of this post is basically facetious, since I think that the Clinton Administration was at least partly successful. But a Democratic president had much less impact than left-liberal college students would have hoped, ca. 1988. And disappointment can be very demobolizing.