I’ve been thinking in recent days about youth. And not just because I no longer see it staring at me in the mirror; that particular companion left the building years ago. No, what started me thinking were two recent events at the National Constitution Center and, a world away, events unfolding in the Middle East.
Last week, just a few days before the State of the Union address, Dr. John DiIulio, a distinguished political scientist at the University of Pennsylvania, visited the Center to speak with the staff about the current partisan political climate.
In the 30 years that he has been teaching, he said, he’s never seen Congress more polarized or government more dysfunctional. When asked what might improve the situation, he said he saw few hopeful signs in the short-run. The spirit of partisanship was just too entrenched. Then he made several fascinating observations.
1. The first was that the Founding Fathers would not have been surprised by the vitriol of today’s political debate. They understood that democracy is predicated on strong disagreements. In their finest meditation on the subject – The Federalist Papers – they specifically addressed the issue of political “factions,” whose ill effects the Constitution was designed to overcome.
2. What would have surprised the Founders, DiIulio said, was to see the spirit of faction coalesce into partisan party politics. They hadn’t foreseen that. But what would have disappointed them most was the inability of political leaders to set aside their partial, partisan interests to legislate for the common good.
As James Madison and the other Framers of the Constitution understood it, rising above momentary passions is what legislators are supposed to do. DiIulio quoted from Federalist Number 63, in which Madison writes about the Senate, to make his point:
[T]here are particular moments in public affairs when the people, stimulated by some irregular passion, or some illicit advantage, or misled by the artful misrepresentations of interested men, may call for measures which they themselves will afterwards be the most ready to lament and condemn. In these critical moments, how salutary will be the interference of some temperate and respectable body of citizens, in order to check the misguided career, and to suspend the blow meditated by the people against themselves, until reason, justice and truth can regain their authority over the public mind?
3. In the republic the Founders imagined, our elected officials would not simply mirror our disagreements, much less amplify them. In their deliberations, they would rise above narrow interests to forge consensus for the good of the nation as a whole.
DiIulio didn’t see much hope that the current generation of politicians would be able to achieve the degree of far-seeing statesmanship Madison described. But he had faith that the Millennial Generation — those born between the mid-1970s and early 2000s — would demand, and would help to create, a new political order in which that standard was met.
Likening them to the “Greatest Generation,” DiIulio said that he sees in the students he teaches an idealism and civic-mindedness that inspires him. He said that the Millenials are our last, best hope to overcome today’s political dysfunction. And just as the Greatest Generation “showed up” to meet the challenge of World War II, he predicted that they would show up, too.
Just a few days after DiIulio spoke, we had an intimation here at the Constitution Center that his hope is not misplaced. On the night of President Obama’s State of the Union address, we hosted a “watch party,” not knowing for sure whether anyone would come. But they showed up: about 150 people, almost all of them in their 20s and early 30s.
Many had heard of the event through social media. They told us that they were looking for a place to watch the speech that was not a bar. And while we made it a party – complete with food, drink and Bingo – what gratified us most was the fact that our young visitors wanted to share this annual moment on the nation’s civic calendar together, as part of a community, and that they chose the Center to do so.
The last hopeful sign that has recently put youth on my mind are the events unfolding in Egypt. That country’s young people have been instrumental in precipitating the nascent, pro-change uprising whose demands include freedom of expression and association, and an end to corruption, poverty and unemployment.
That youth in Egypt can demand such sweeping social change, makes it a little easier to believe that American youth will indeed help our country meet the challenge of the of the “Sputnik moment” that President Obama described in his State of the Union speech, which so many young people gathered here to watch.