If democracy is America’s civic religion, then voting is communion on Easter Sunday, the lighting of Hanukah candles, the fast of Ramadan rolled into one. It is the ritual we all can share.
When my children were younger, I’d insist they partake in this ceremony of civic life and accompany me when I voted, but it became harder to corral them the older they grew. Then, on a Tuesday this past May, my oldest daughter was eligible to vote for the first time, and I had a powerful, disturbing revelation. Almost no one made a fuss.
Oh, the poll workers, bless them, clapped when they learned this was her initial venture. But society did nothing else to encourage her to vote or to mark the occasion. This induction into the central act of citizenship that millions have died to achieve and maintain was greeted by a collective yawn.
Other rites of passage are met by great fanfare. We capture a child’s first step with documentary-sized videos. We spend hundreds on prom dresses, thousands on bar mitzvah parties. We all but break a bottle of champagne over the first car.
Yet the first vote is welcomed as enthusiastically as a chemistry test on a rainy Monday. No wonder that in the cliffhanger 2000 presidential election, only 26.7 percent of 18-year-olds reported voting.
This the generation that is gravitating toward national service in record numbers has still not made the connection between service to the community and participation in the very process that governs community life. The link is essential. As the national service movement strengthens and matures, it must produce more than individual fulfillment for those involved and temporary assistance for communities in need.
Why else serve? John Bridgeland, executive director of the new USA Freedom Corps, tried to answer the question last June in Philadelphia, at City Year’s annual convention. “Service is a duty associated with living in free society,” he said. Service is a way to show love of country, and in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks, to protect the homeland.
All true. It is even part of a happy life-and studies prove it.
But national service must be more than that. It must lead to an appetite for substantive change, a commitment to address the social problems that have created the need for service in the first place. As Ira Harkavy, a University of Pennsylvania professor who has long championed community partnerships, said recently: “It’s not enough to serve soup in a soup kitchen. We have to work toward ending the conditions that make people hungry.”
National service is a means to an end-a point, sadly, too often lost in the dreamy exhortations of this newly popular crusade. It ought not to stand above or away from the political arena; at its best, it can lead to a mass movement for active citizenship and structural reform.
Bravo to all who volunteer in overcrowded, understaffed public schools. But when the volunteers go home, the debilitating conditions remain. National service will truly be service to the nation if it produces a cadre of informed leaders committed to improving the nation’s schools. Or at the very least, to voting in the next school board election.
I can think of no better way to forge that link than to promote the First Vote, to indeed celebrate what we value. Between now and the next election day, I urge parents, teachers, coaches, and other caring adults to create their own First Vote ritual for newly minted voters to publicly acknowledge this civic coming-of-age. I imagine something with the feel of an Aaron Copland symphony, a Frank Capra film, a poem by Maya Angelou.
If an 18-year-old is in the army or away at college, send a celebratory package. If she’s home, take her out for coffee, buy her flowers or a keepsake book.
High schools should laud students who vote. Employers should offer them time to participate. Neighbors should shake their hands. Those blustery radio stations my kids listen to incessantly should read off the names of first-time voters. Applause, attention-all that is due them.
“I hear America singing,” Walt Whitman wrote in the slim volume of poetry I gave my daughter to commemorate her First Vote. Touched as she was, I don’t pretend that she’ll run home every day to read it. I don’t pretend, either, that 15 minutes in a voting booth on a brisk Tuesday morning will mark a turning point in a young life. I’m just glad she was awake.
But I do believe that one day she’ll open the pages of Whitman’s extraordinary celebration of American life and understand the connection. When Whitman heard the “varied carols” of America singing-the mechanics and masons, shoemakers and sewers, “singing with open mouths their strong melodious songs”-I am certain he heard the sounds of a people who cared enough about their destiny to spend a few minutes once or twice a year in a voting booth.
A people who understand that it is not enough to feel good, but to do good. To serve, but also to vote. To fix, but also to change.