The state of political and civic engagement in the U.S. is dismal. Although every city or county has political problems, we must take a look at how our citizens engage with and respond to problems facing the country at large. And increasingly, the response I see is apathy.
Americans are becoming increasingly apathetic on issues big and small, and we can see this manifesting in a number of ways. Voter turnout is at all-time lows--in fact, the U.S. now has, on average, the lowest voter turnout in the developed world. In modern elections, nearly half of eligible voters in the U.S. don’t turn out to the polls. Only 37 percent of Americans can directly answer who their state’s governor is. A 2009 report by Pew shows that, while about a third of Americans are apt to sign a petition, they’re slow to join other activities related to civic engagement, like attending rallies and protests or volunteering for a political organization.
I don’t think the lack of voter turnout, political knowledge, or civic engagement is the result of a silent protest against our current government or two-party system--that would be another story, and surely we would see civic engagement efforts backing this up. So the answer becomes apathy. And the question is, what’s causing the apathy? Are Americans not voting and not paying attention to elected officials because they feel they’re too uninformed to cast a vote or have a voice? Or is it because voting and participating in politics makes so little difference?
Powerlessness breeds apathy and disengagement. Voting once every couple of years for a remote “representative” doesn’t give one much of a sense of power. Some people are naturally inquisitive and stay informed. But many of us need a reason, a reward. We need to feel like our voting is making a difference.
We’ve had deficit spending for many, many years, from both the tax-and-spend Democrats and the borrow-and-spend Republicans (and both voted to cut taxes and wage wars.) We owe trillions of dollars while we wage a war on drugs and fill our prisons. And defense industries thrive even though the wars are winding down. Confidence in government has been low for a long time. What good does voting do?
Voting happens once every two years. People are busy -- how many of us are going to study politics for two years just to fill out a multiple choice test at the end? And if you do vote, the performance of the government is so bad, it’s like you’re getting a ‘D’-- it’s no wonder many don’t make the effort.
American academic and politician Paul Wellstone once said, "When too many Americans don't vote or participate, some see apathy and despair. I see disappointment and even outrage." Who wants to spend time voting when it doesn’t lessen the disappointment and outrage?
There’s constant conversation in the media about issues of the day. At the end of last year, it was the fiscal cliff. Now, it’s gun control. But what about the big, big issues -- unresponsive government and apathetic citizens? Where’s the discussion of these in the mainstream media?
One way to let people get involved is to solicit their opinions and address them. Because of the Internet, we now have the technology to let all citizens make advisory votes on key issues--from the comfort of their own homes. People have opinions, and government doesn’t have to ignore them. A new kind of dialogue--with citizens actively proclaiming what they want and our officials responding--could be just what America needs to re-engage voters and make government more responsive. I’ll bet it’ll get more people taking other actions, too--writing letters, signing petitions, and attending rallies.
I urge the American public to take on a concerted and individual effort to fight the apathy epidemic in their everyday lives. If we all get vocal now, we can turn the U.S. back into the civically-engaged democracy it once was and can still be.