What Does It Mean to Be a Citizen?   /   Fall 2008   /    Reviews

Russell J. Dalton’s The Good Citizen

Shannon Latkin Anderson

In this election year, questions and pronouncements about candidates and voters are ubiquitous. Considering the huge voter registration drives and impres- sive turn-out during the 2008 primaries, it may seem odd to focus our attention on concerns about voter behaviors, and citizenship more broadly. But when we examine data from recent elections, a troublesome disparity by age becomes clear, despite modest increases in voter participation in 2004. In that election, Americans aged 55 and older voted at a rate of 72 percent, while those ages 18–24 did so at a rate of only 47 percent.11x See Kelly Holder, “Voting and Registration in the Election of November 2004: Population Characteristics ,” U.S. Census Bureau(March 2006): . This chasm has been a topic of debate for some time now and has led to a great deal of academic literature decrying the apathy of young Americans.

Thinkers of all types and political leanings—scholars, television pundits, writers—tell us that today’s youth are politically lazy and indifferent: they do not vote, and they appear to be more interested in the release of the newest iPod than in being the kind of citizens that made up previous generations in this country’s history. “Young people today are putting America’s democracy at risk” is the message we hear. One Gen-X journalist, Jonathan Cohn, went so far as to call his own birth cohort the “doofus generation” in regards to political activism (37). And many accounts warn that this is not simply a situation that will be resolved with age—that is, these youngsters will grow up and join in—but that this apathy marks a seismic shift in participatory democracy and constitutes a major threat to foundational American political institutions and ideals.

A few years ago, political scientist Russell Dalton sat down with a group of government officials and administrators in Washington, DC, and presented the current academic wisdom regarding the withdrawal from public life, and especially the political process, underway amongst Americans. He went on to ask if they were concerned by this trend of citizen passivity: the reaction was laughter (75–6).

In The Good Citizen: How a Younger Generation Is Reshaping American Politics, Dalton explains this response. He offers an important corrective to the partially accurate, but excessively harsh, critique of younger Americans by insisting that we reorient our thinking about their behavior. While it is both true and problematic that members of Gen-X and Gen-Y do not vote in the same numbers as earlier birth cohorts, this does not, in and of itself, constitute the dissolution of our democracy. He insists that we must stop focusing only on negative changes and see that, in fact, our public and our politics are changing, and many of these changes are producing positive outcomes. Additionally, in a welcome turn, Dalton breaks with much of the America-at-risk literature by including a significant, if small, comparative section, looking at what is happening in regards to the political process in other advanced, industrial democracies.

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