The Politics of ___: Defining America’s Politics in 2008

Posted May 2, 2008 at 3:23pm

By our count, during this presidential election cycle several candidates have clung to a “politics of hope” while others have offered the “politics of reality.” Candidates have been accused of engaging in a “politics of fear,” a “politics of parsing” and a “politics of cynicism.” The “politics of unity” does battle with the “politics of division and distraction.”

We have seen both a “politics of the past” and a “politics of the future,” sometimes in the same candidates (depending on who you ask, of course). At times, it is hard to tell if candidates are practicing a “politics of conscience” or have slunk back to the “politics of personal destruction.” And let’s not forget the “politics of tears” and the “politics of anger.”

Unfortunately, the “politics of joy” seems to have eluded us this time around.

At bottom, these hollow labels are emblematic of a “politics of talk.” But we have seen evidence that a more substantive, action-oriented approach to politics is emerging. Our fellow citizens are embracing tangible tasks to help find meaning in their politics. We call it the “politics of service.”

We aren’t the first to use the phrase. When Sargent Shriver spoke of the “politics of service” to the 1964 graduates of New York University, he was describing a politics of deeds that was evident in bus boycotts, union picket lines, Gandhi’s march to the sea and students joining the Peace Corps. As Shriver and others have noted, the idea of service and civic duty is as old as politics itself — from the Greek city-state to Alexis de Tocqueville’s wonder at early Americans’ willingness “to assist one another” to President John F. Kennedy’s “ask not” challenge to the thousands of Americans who volunteer for the armed forces.

More recently, Harris Wofford, a champion of citizen service, used “politics of service” to describe the legislative battles around national service programs like AmeriCorps in the 1990s and early 2000s. Beyond explaining the path of critical legislation and the necessary struggle to make service a national priority, we use “politics of service” to describe an approach to politics itself, one that builds on the legacies of those calling us to serve.

In other words, a “politics of service” is not just about political ends, but is a political means. It puts community service itself on the menu of actions that traditionally define political participation, such as voting, supporting candidates and lobbying for legislation. The politics of service is not just a catchphrase, but by definition is a politics of deeds, not words. It recognizes community service as an integral part of political engagement and returns politics to its roots: where political organizations directly serve the community and citizens are empowered to take action.

Throughout this (very long) campaign season, as media attention has pinballed from debates to delegate counts, grass-roots Democrats have embraced the service ideal. The Democratic National Committee mobilized thousands in a day of service that activated local organizations to clean up parks, plant trees, and build trails in places like Hastings, Neb., and Reno, Nev. Former Sen. John Edwards’ (D-N.C.) One Corps helped rebuild New Orleans neighborhoods.

Young Democrats supported the families of our troops in Texas by making back-to-school backpacks for their children. Blue Tiger Democrats helped their neighbors in Michigan to heat their homes over the winter. This past month, Democrats planted more than 400 trees in the Denver area and helped farmers in Lewis County, Wash., clear their fields after devastating floods. And thousands, mobilized by our organization, Democrats Work, have made tangible contributions in their communities from the Chattahoochee River to the San Francisco Bay.

As much as hope and fear and anger and reality are at the heart of this election, service remains at the heart of the American experience. Our politics can — and should — reflect that. When Democrats feed more than 200 homeless people in downtown Denver or rally to help tornado victims in Arkansas, we believe that we are witnessing not only the politics of service, but also a politics of hope, reality, conscience, the past, the future, and perhaps even joy. And that’s not just talk.

Thomas Bates is the co-founder and executive director of Democrats Work. Jason Carter is the co-founder of Democrats Work and grandson of former President Carter.