Pity the poor Democrats. Buried under the rubble of yet another landslide defeat, the party of Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson drifts farther from its agrarian individualist roots and into the murky backwaters of European-style socialism. And they have the gall to excoriate us humble citizens for refusing to join them!
Democrats are especially miffed at President Ronald Reagan's success with the country's youngest voters. How can kids who are turned on by androgynous rock stars cast their ballots for a septuagenarian who gets misty-eyed talking about prayer in schools? Is it because the president speaks the language of liberty? Is it because he promises opportunity and enterprise and derides bureaucracy and the welfare state? (Never mind his uninspiring record on the same.)
No, say some Democrats, 60 percent of the 24-and-under set voted for Reagan because they are selfish, greedy, nationalistic, and materialistic. They are moral inferiors interested only in immediate gratification, in every way the antitheses of their saintly Big Chill big brothers.
"It's the unusual college student who signs up for a full semester of idealism," sniffs Yuppie sage Ellen Goodman in her syndicated column. Never mind the 19-year-old Guardian Angel who bags groceries by day and rides the infernal New York City subway by night. Ditto for the outpouring of support for the victims of famine in Africa. Private acts of charity and good will count for naught. In the eyes of the liberal establishment, young Americans' refusal to swallow the New Deal elixir without gagging brands the new generation as uncaring louts.
The prospect of millions of today's youth growing up, starting families, working hard, producing wealth, and asking nothing of the government is truly staggering. And our elders do not intend to take it sitting down.
Sen. Gary Hart, he of the new ideas and uncertain age, fired the first shot in the new generational war in a speech delivered earlier this year in Boston. Inveighing against the epidemic of individualism he sees sweeping the country, Hart called for a "new system of national service—including both military and non-military opportunities" for young people. This system would be compulsory and would allow "no exemption, no deferments," he later explained. If you can't persuade 'em, enslave 'em.
National service is hardly a new idea. Early 20th-century intellectuals like William James and Randolph Bourne spoke optimistically of "an army of youth," conscripted by the state to perform good deeds galore. The idea enjoyed a recrudescence in the 1960s, when Defense Secretary Robert McNamara and anthropologist Margaret Mead, among others, championed it as an alternative to the draft.
Though Hart offered no specifics, most national-service proposals would require 18-year-olds to enter either military service or a domestic version of the Peace Corps for a period of, say, two years. (Not all national-service schemes are compulsory; voluntary programs would be massive public-employment projects.) Those choosing nonmilitary service would perform a variety of health, education, and conservation-related tasks.
The cost would be astronomical, but advocates of the scheme argue that service to one's government will enrich young lives and create the sense of community they believe this country so sorely lacks. Hart bemoans the "atomization, insularity, and a go-it-alone mentality" that supposedly characterize 1985 America, and he avers that compulsory national service will restore "a feeling of fellowship" consistent with what he calls "true patriotism." One shudders to imagine Tom Paine's reaction to this true patriotism.
There is little chance that a national-service program will be enacted by Congress, although the idea does seem to be gaining popularity. Hart's new-ideas counterpart in the Republican Party, Rep. Newt Gingrich, endorses national service, as does Ford Foundation President Franklin Thomas and the neoliberal magazine Washington Monthly.
What is extraordinary about Hart's crusade to deprive young Americans of two years of their lives is the reaction this totalitarian proposal has provoked. The pundits like it! Ms. Goodman lauds Hart for refusing "to give up on the young." Moderate Democratic columnist Mark Shields gushes that the senator has "challenged the young." And the good, gray New York Times publishes three op-eds within 60 days praising national service as a great way to make those selfish young brats shape up.
How far we have come in 200 years! Our forefathers spilled blood in revolt against monarchy, tyranny, and taxes. They devoted their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor to the cause of liberty. Today, politicians dare speak openly of enslaving our sons and daughters and brothers and sisters.
Gary Hart's response to the new generation's independence is diametrically opposed to everything the Democratic Party once stood for. The party of the individual has become the party of the state. Democrats speak hopefully of a resurgence of youthful idealism. But if they try to impress America's 18-year-olds into national service, they'll likely get clobbered with a bigger dose of idealism than they bargained for. Jefferson and Jackson would have understood.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "The Kids Are All Right".