Sierra Magazine

Ways & Means

The New Patriotism

The antidote to cynicism is participation

By Carl Pope

How do you describe politics? Some view the political process like the town square, where we talk things out with our neighbors to make our community a better place. Others view it like the stock market, where you can invest your capital to get a good return.

Enron clearly held the latter view, exceeding all others in generosity to George W. Bush's election campaign. Ken Lay put his money on a candidate who shared his fervor for deregulated energy markets. The investment paid off handsomely, both for Lay and for other princes of merchant power who bought into George W. before his IPO. In exchange for investments of a few million dollars, Lay and the political venture capitalists got a rigged energy market that they designed themselves, which generated no new energy but billions of dollars in profits. These came first at the expense of energy consumers and taxpayers, and eventually of Enron's own employees and shareholders.

This investment model of politics, sociologist Amitai Etzioni points out, is self-destructive as well as antidemocratic. The worse a particular policy choice is for the general public, the more likely it is to attract heavy political investment. Suppose, for example, a deregulatory scheme was worth a billion dollars to a giant corporation. It would be very rational for this company to spend millions to try to promote it. If the costs of deregulation were spread equally across society, such a corporate windfall would only be pocket change per person-not enough to bother fighting over. (The postage on a letter to the White House could end up costing more than an individual would pay per month in corporate tribute.) Politics as investment, Etzioni argues, leads directly to policies that favor special interests over the public interest.

The investment model also fits poorly for ordinary voters. Few elections are decided by a single vote (Florida 2000 notwithstanding), so individuals seldom get a direct "return" on the effort of voting. Yet we vote anyway, just as millions of Californians cut electrical consumption by 10 percent last summer, avoiding predicted brownouts. We also go out of our way to find trash cans to put our gum wrappers in, even when there's no cop around to give us a littering ticket.

We do all these things because it's the "right" thing to do. How do we learn that? What motivates us to keep doing it? We learn what's right, by and large, from our friends and family, because at our core we are social creatures. We do good things because they feel good. The smiles of the people around us sustain that feeling, like the civic glow you get standing in line at your polling place. Ken Lay may be investing, but the rest of us are simply belonging.

Fewer of us, however, are voting. Participation rates are down, most dramatically among young Americans. Most analysts of this phenomenon rely on the investment model: If people aren't voting as much, they say, it must be because their investment isn't paying off. Declining participation in democracy is then seen as a failure of politics. Either the politicians are too much alike (Ralph Nader's view), too polarized (E. J. Dionne Jr.), too entrenched (U.S. Term Limits), or too influenced by big money (Common Cause).

Public indifference to politics is also often linked to distrust of government, which has increased since the 1960s as voting rates have fallen. After the terrorist attacks, however, the public suddenly embraced the government that weeks earlier it had spurned. Confidence in the president and Congress soared, flags flew everywhere, and unity and patriotism were in. Still, turnout in the November off-year elections was down in most states. Americans may trust government more, and look to it to keep them safe, but they're increasingly unwilling to participate in it. Over the last generation, Americans have withdrawn from their communities in many ways, not just by failing to line up on election day. In Bowling Alone, author Robert Putnam documented that "social capital"-how frequently Americans voted, or played cards, or went bowling with their friends-has declined precipitously since the mid-1960s. The drop in voter participation during this time (nearly 25 percent) was simply the most reported example of a broader form of cocooning, a decline concentrated among the young. In this view, the problem with political participation in our society isn't our politicians-it's our society.

September 11 didn't suddenly reverse that trend. But, Putnam found, each form of social belonging reinforces others. Those who spend lots of time volunteering for charities don't have less time to play cards or go bowling with their friends-they have more. So if we want to encourage people to vote, we need to encourage them to belong.

That's where the Sierra Club can come in. A brief call for volunteerism in President Bush's State of the Union address had agencies' phones ringing off the hook. After September 11, people sought solace in the national parks and other wild areas, and Sierra Club chapters reported it was easier to get volunteers for all kinds of local events.

Our challenge is to help people explore their new openness to community by getting involved in protecting clean air, clean water, and wild places. Some might come out for a stream cleanup, others to a meeting for homeowners on energy efficiency. Most important, this fall we all need to re-engage in politics, blending the new volunteerism and the new patriotism into a new democracy. When politicians proclaim how much they care about America, we have to ask them how they intend to care for America. We need to talk with our neighbors about what's going on in government. After that comes the satisfaction of walking down to the polls, greeting our friends and neighbors, and voting for candidates who will make our community a better place.

Carl Pope is the executive director of the Sierra Club. He can be reached by e-mail at

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