Debating politics in Boston

A week or so ago, Larry Harris and I wrote an op-ed for the Boston Globe
about young Bostonians taking up the job of active citizenship. 
Our piece
was meant, in part, to celebrate the very large numbers of young people
engaged in public service activities in Boston. 

But we also
sought to draw attention to a very real problem facing our
country.  We decried
the apathy and disengagement of many of our young colleagues in the
political process — reaching a low-water-mark in the election of 2000,
in which fewer than a third of young voters went to the polls.  We
suggested that the spirit behind the high rate of public service,
combined with a Bostonian ethos of social entrepreneurship and
fueled by internet organizing tools, might help to reverse this alarming trend. 

Two leaders of the Massachusetts Young Democrats, Libby de Vecchi and David Howard, replied with a
critique, by way of a letter to
the editor of the Globe.  Most important, I’m grateful that
anyone read our op-ed, much less bothered to reply in writing. 
That’s certainly a good thing.  And it speaks to whatever that
thing is in the water that makes Boston such a haven for political
junkies.

A few things that they wrote in their letter merited further
discussion, in my view.  First, de Vecchi and Howard seem to
suggest that we were not sufficiently focused on encouraging engagement
in the political arena itself.  Nothing could be farther from the
truth, at least as I meant it.  The whole point was that, while
there are things to celebrate about young Bostonians getting involved
in public service, we’ve got a lot of work to do in terms of getting
young people back in the political mix.  It’s that gap between the
soup kitchen and the polling place that we’ve got to focus on bridging.

Second, I sensed that our respondents felt we were critiquing those
who are working hard in Massachusetts to organize young people in the
political process.  Again, quite the contrary.  Our call to
action is not to the relatively few who are engaged in politics, but
rather the relatively many who have written it off.  I, too, have
managed political campaigns, knocked on doors, held signs, run for
delegate, been up to New Hampshire in primary season, and the like — I
wish I had more time to do more of it, and find it incredibly
energizing and fun.  My hat is off to those who have chosen a
career path in the public service through politics.  More people
ought to heed de Vecchi and Howard’s good example.  And return
their phone calls when they reach out.

Third, our respondents mislead the reader by implying that we are
pointing to the internet as the sole solution to the apathy
problem.  Again, this is far from what I had in mind.  What
I’ve been working on at the Berkman Center, in no small part, is trying
to understand where the net has worked to improve democracy and where
it has fallen short of that promise.  Our take on this question is
a skeptical one.  In no context is the net a magic bullet. 
There’s always an in-person dynamic that matters.  Almost nothing
that’s truly an internet pure play has worked.  But there is great
promise in innovations both simple and not-so-simple: e-mail,
list-servs, moveon, meetup, weblogs, RSS, and even some fancier
stuff.  The best strategy for a campaign, in my view, is a
combination of classical (the ordinary blocking-and-tackling of
campaigning) and jazz (the experimentation with cool, fun, innovative
tools), to borrow a phrase from one-time lieutenant governor nominee
Bob Massie.  It’s part of what explains the Kerry victory over
Dean in the primary, I think.

Howard and de Vecchi end their letter by saying: “Young people who
care about the future of this country should get involved directly in
political parties at the local and state level in addition to general
community service.”  Again, I couldn’t agree more.

BTW, we are planning a conference on this general topic on December 10, 2004.

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