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Why So Many Young People Keep Politics at Arm’s Length : A new survey says college students have no faith in the political process. Is that because they respect it too much?

<i> Ruben Navarrette Jr. is author of "A Darker Shade of Crimson: Odyssey of a Harvard Chicano" (Bantam) and co-host of "Twenty-Something Talk" on KMPC</i>

Not only are we are told that Generation X is too violent, too unemployed and too prone to whine about the rotten hand dealt them by previous generations. According to a new study, it is also too uninterested in and too disengaged from politics.

The survey of more than a quarter-million college freshmen, conducted by UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute, found that less than one-third--just 31.9%--of respondents consider “keeping up with political affairs” to be an important goal in life. That figure, the lowest in the survey’s 29-year history, compares rather embarrassingly with the 57.8% of baby boomers who, in 1966, thought it important to keep up with politics. Also, the percentage of respondents who “frequently discuss politics” hit an all-time low at 16%, compared with nearly 30% in the 1968 election year.

As with most things political, everyone has their spin. The left points out that the students’ earliest childhood memory is of President Ronald Reagan’s first term--the dark days of dishonesty and division--and that the cynicism of ‘80s has somehow produced the political apathy of the ‘90s. The right counters that young people are tired of being force-fed political correctness and liberalism by their middle-aged professors, and that they are burned out on political issues as presented to them by the “liberal media.”

Truth is, this is not about Reagan or the liberal media--or congenital indifference. Today’s freshmen do care about enriching their lives and improving society. They are just not as convinced as previous generations that the political road will lead to these achievements.

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Generation X is more likely to volunteer at a homeless shelter than for a political campaign. It is more likely to flock to the education peace corps, Teach For America, than to a feel-good march in Washington. It is more likely to trust in itself than in campaign promises. A generation of doers, it values results before rhetoric, pragmatism before politics and volunteerism before voting. A generation whose book of bedtime stories was buried underneath mom and dad’s divorce papers, it learned long ago to take care of itself and not count on others to solve its problems. It refuses to believe in the one thing in which anyone who looks to politics to improve their lives must believe: that someone else--a wanna-be politician--can be trusted to protect us and our interests.

There is, I sense, another and more optimistic reason for why young people are not, at the moment, more politically involved. While they are not complacent, they are a bit confused. While not unconcerned, they are unsure of exactly where to begin. Eighteen-year-old Latino students who, in the last election, suddenly found themselves in the eye of the storm over Proposition 187 learned one thing: You can run from your political chores but you cannot hide. Sooner or later, you have to stand up and be counted. And they know it. The problem is that, like the rest of their generation, they have no blueprint, no model, no guidance for the murky waters of politics. And so they are intimidated.

Still, they are paying attention. During a visit to East Los Angeles College, I was drawn in by the students’ familiarity. These were middle-class, non-Spanish-speaking, non-Latino dating, Apple-pie eating, all-American boys and girls. As talk turned to illegal immigration, many confessed a degree of confusion. While they agreed that borders had to be restricted, somehow, most--but not all--opposed Proposition 187. And even those who opposed the initiative could cite instances of a tio or tia who supported it. If they were sure of nothing else, they were sure of the issue’s complexity.

The critics charge that students like those at East L.A. don’t think that politics is important. Quite the contrary. They know it is important, and that is precisely why they are so afraid of doing it wrong. So why bother, you tell yourself. Developing a political sense takes time and effort. Reading newspapers, magazines and books and arguing some obscure point with your college room mate until 4 in the morning require commitment and at least a little bit of a belief that it might somehow make a difference. Still, you know it is important, that it cannot be neglected forever, so you put off the inevitable.

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My younger sister lifts the morning paper and begins to sort through it. Without hesitation, she reaches past the front-page political news to the classified- ad section.


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