An Exercise in Pessimism

Of all the things I’d have to say about Lee Drutman’s LA Times review of Mark Bauerlein’s The Dumbest Generation, this is probably the most important. Consider the following piece of conventional-sounding wisdom:

The book’s ultimate doomsday scenario — of a dull and self-absorbed new generation of citizens falling prey to demagoguery and brazen power grabs — seems at once overblown (witness, for example, this election season’s youth reengagement in politics) and also yesterday’s news (haven’t we always been perilously close to this, if not already suffering from it?).

Now hark back to my whack at Broder’s unwise America and consider this: there is no inherent contradiction between young people getting reengaged in politics and political demagoguery or power grabs. Any pessimist worth the name, in fact, ought to be arguing that today little more than demagoguery and the promise of power-grabbing has energized young voters. Hope! Toughness! Sacrifice! Sacrifice! Nobody young (except Yuval Levin) is mobilized by McCain’s boring health care plan, or Obama’s debate performances.

To press the point, even the dull and self-absorbed can get a periodic kick out of frenetic national politics. Why not come out to see the Barackstar? If all we mean by ‘political engagement’ is wearing a candidate’s shirt, plastering a candidate’s stickers, and praising oneself and one’s peers for supporting one’s candidate, political engagement is even more narcissistic and superficial a trivial pursuit than cluttering up Facebook with running updates on your undefeated Scrabulous record.

Of course I’m not claiming here that every young person who’s getting involved in the Presidential race (if none other) is a dull little egotist. Undoubtedly, the number of ‘youth voters’ who are conscientious and informed and recognize that voting for President is but a tiny slice of the work of citizenship has risen in absolute numbers from what it was, say, back in the Age of Flannel. But we’ve got to entertain the prospect that the number of ‘youth voters’ who do not fit that profile has also risen absolutely, and by far more.

Last of all, and possibly worst, we must remember that even very well-informed, conscientious, and hardworking ‘youth voters’ who are also hellbent on ideological victory can still ‘fall prey to’ — or actively promote — demagogic power politics. But no one wants to hear this, least of all national greatness commentators. You have, however, been warned.