Commit to politics

September 08, 2002|By David M. Anderson

WASHINGTON -- President Bush has called on all Americans to make a commitment to devote 4,000 hours of volunteer work during their lives. We have not heard too much about this initiative in recent months, especially since the president has been busy struggling with the crisis in corporate America, questions about his own investment history and Iraq.

Still, Mr. Bush's volunteer initiative is important. At the same time, it is an initiative that can mislead American citizens.

We do need citizens to volunteer today. We needed citizens to volunteer prior to Sept. 11. We will always need citizens to volunteer.

There certainly are houses to be built for the homeless. Older Americans to be cared for. Children to be guided. Environmental messes to be cleaned up. If one upshot of Sept. 11 is that more Americans volunteer, then at least some good will definitely come from the devastation.

Yet as Americans turn to these public activities, it is important to make a clear distinction between at least two ways that this engagement can come about. One way is through volunteering. A second way is through political participation.

Consider voting.

Voting is a form of political participation, probably the most fundamental form in a democratic society.

But we do not typically think of voting as a "volunteer activity." Voting -- like writing your representatives, attending town hall meetings, studying candidate races and ballot initiatives, joining an online issue advocacy campaign to have a new law passed and making a donation to a candidate -- is a form of political participation.

The distinction between volunteering and political participation is really the distinction between civic participation and political participation. Not everyone draws this distinction in the same way. But most would agree that there are public actions that are more directly about the political process -- especially elections and legislation -- and public actions that are more about promoting certain social ends, especially the good that comes from volunteering and joining civic associations.

It would therefore be a mistake to think that volunteering 4,000 hours in civic activities will make you a good citizen.

To become good citizens, Americans need to devote 8,000 hours -- 4,000 of them in non-political volunteer work (such as working in a shelter for battered women) and another 4,000 hours of political activity (such as voting, studying races online, going to town meetings).

Voter turnout in the midterm primaries, more than half of which are over, is down, and below 20 percent, as usual. Americans need to log in some of those 4,000 political participation hours in the months ahead.

In Maryland, we can take a step in the right direction before and on the day of Tuesday's primary. We can log in more time again before the November general election, both when we are studying the races and when we make the effort to show up to vote -- if, in fact, we do.

David M. Anderson is task force director at George Washington University's Institute for Politics, Democracy and the Internet.

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