A Nation of All, Not of One?

The Monterey County Herald, May 13, 2001
By Leon E. Panetta

Forty years ago, President John F. Kennedy, sensing the potential idealism and activism of the nation’s youth, reached out to them in both his words and his deeds.

In his inaugural address, he asked them to “ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” In March 1961, he signed an executive order creating the Peace Corps and a few months later, the first Peace Corps volunteers embarked for Africa.

It was the beginning of a youth movement that ultimately changed the face of America and touched everything from race relations to women’s rights to the quality of our environment to issues of war and peace.

Four decades later, as confirmed by the results of a recent national poll for the Panetta Institute by Peter D. Hart Research Associates, the nation’s college students seem to care deeply about the same issues as those in the Sixties, but have little or no interest in a public career, government service or the nation’s political leaders.

Unlike their predecessors 40 years ago, today’s college students have the right to vote and yet only a small minority of Americans age 18 to 21 exercised that right in the 2000 election.

They care about issues like education (85%), civil rights (89%), women’s movement (78%), Social Security (76%), and helping low-income families (73%) and yet few believe that working in a political campaign or contacting their congressional representative can help make society better. An incredible 94% did not volunteer for any political campaign in the last election.

They say they want to contribute to their society and make a difference with 86% saying volunteer work can change society for the better. And yet, 73% have no interest in public life or government service.

In a word, there is a major “disconnect’ between their values and priorities for the nation and their willingness to participate in the very political process that can determine whether those beliefs can be achieved.

Our forefathers not only understood the important connection between the governed and their government, but they built a nation on that principle. They believed that the essential ingredient of our democracy was the participation of the people.

As Jefferson said, “I know of no safe depository of the ultimate powers of society but the people themselves.” They placed a duty and responsibility on all of us, not just to hope for good government, but to be involved in ensuring good government.

And throughout our history the American people have responded with a deep sense of service and loyalty. In his book summarizing the contribution of the World War II generation, Tom Brokaw said, “They stayed true to the values of personal responsibility, duty, honor and faith” to the nation. There was no question in their minds that there was a connection between their hopes and dreams and service to their country.

Perhaps nothing better expresses the difference between that generation and the present than the new recruiting motto of the Army: an “Army of One.” Those who fought at Normandy, the Battle of the Bulge and Iwo Jima knew that they had to be more than an “Army of One”—they had to fight together as a team for a common objective. That sense of a community working for a common goal is at the very heart of a strong democracy.

You can no more have a “Nation of One” than an “Army of One.” Doing it alone with little or no regard for the larger duty to public service is how people generally survive in a tyranny, not a republic.

It is not enough for students to care about issues. They have to be willing to engage, to put their lives and careers on the line for what they believe.

They represent the future of our democracy. At the same time, it is not enough for the rest of us to simply accept the results of a poll that reveals that the young are disengaged. It is our obligation as citizens to do whatever we can to show the linkage between their ideals and service to the nation.

To accomplish this, the poll does provide some encouraging opportunities for directing students’ concerns for their society toward engagement. It is clear that to awaken this resource, the following is necessary:

  1. Honest political leaders must appeal to young people by their actions, not just their words. The students believe by an overwhelming margin (65%) that honesty is the most important quality in a leader and 63% say that it is essential that they be practical and realistic. They want things done and they view the current process as ineffective.
  2. To reach this generation, you must go online. While television is the chief source of news for most college students (51%), almost one-third look to the Internet. Instead of just focusing on traditional constituencies, the parties have to reach out directly to young people through the Web to show they can make a difference.
  3. Build a bridge between direct service, politics and public service. Because there is a willingness to serve at the community level, it is incumbent on parents and educators to make clear that what happens at the local level in education, health care, juvenile justice, conservation and senior services is impacted by political decisions made in Washington, Sacramento and other state capitals. My immigrant parents always reminded their sons that it was important to give something back to the nation. Students do listen to their parents, but too few today even discuss the importance of political involvement.
  4. All young people should be given the opportunity to engage in national service. Although there is a strong reserve of good will for volunteerism among young people, this nation must offer a broad opportunity to all students to give this nation one or two years of service in some capacity—military, education, conservation, community service, Peace Corps, etc.—with a G.I. bill that provides full education benefits in return. While there are some opportunities at the national level to accomplish this through AmeriCorps, the VISTA program, military service and others, there must be a larger and coordinated effort to promote duty to nation as the first responsibility of a good citizen.

The power of our democracy does rest in “the people themselves” but it means nothing unless that power is in fact exercised through public service.

It is not enough for young people to say that they want “The” government to solve the challenges they care about.

The sad part is that only 39% think of it as “our” government. This is not a “Nation of One,” this a “Nation of All.”

It is only when 100% believe it is “our” responsibility that we can truly embrace and strengthen a “government of, by and for all the people.”

LEON PANETTA, is a former congressman and White House Chief of Staff whose column appears regularly in Commentary. Readers may write to him at the Panetta Institute, 100 Campus Center, Building 86E, CSU Monterey Bay, Seaside, CA 93955.

© 2001 Monterey County Herald and wire service sources.
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