In this week’s election, Americans aged 18-29 are estimated to have voted at a rate of 21% participation. Make no mistake about it – those numbers are an embarrassment. It’s hard to know where to point the blame, because there is a whole lot to go around. Surely the non-voters themselves, political leaders with repellant behavior, and a society rampant with government cynicism (some of which is deserved, mind you) all contributed to the discouraging statistics.
If you care about anything, then you should care about voting. Living in a nation that provides us with the opportunity to vote on our leadership is a great privilege and responsibility, but the old phrase in Washington is, “If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu.” We better start pulling our seats up to the table, because I know I’ve been directly impacted by policies that I disagree with (increased student loan rates, to name just one), and there are surely more to come. When we remove ourselves from the vote, we increase the power of the outside influences that we say discourage us so much. How is that logical?
The thing is, we need to actually start thinking about large-scale societal changes that will actually encourage a spirit of civic responsibility, rather than just paying attention for short spurts and then living with the status quo. If we actually voted and participated as a society, then we might have a shot at an actual representative government. While voting is not analogous to civic engagement, I do see it as a bellwether of national attitudes towards our civic lives. Also, I admire voter turnout efforts and registration drives, but I think that we are facing an apathy that cuts deep. So, the question is, how do we engage our next generation on an intrinsic level to not only care about civic issues, but to actually participate in them? Here are just a few that I propose:
- Compulsory Public Service – We need buy-in from young people on the idea that our communities are important, and that when we engage with one another, we all benefit. So, what might this service look like? Community volunteerism work, military service, public agency work, AmeriCorps, and so on could all be considered part of this. The point would be to get young people working in ways that benefit our society, working together and opening up horizons beyond a simple, self-serving viewpoint. I believe that America’s colleges and universities have a big role to play here, as the work being done at colleges reflects great progress on the public service front. Having leaders from higher education in the conversation on developing national public service is something I see as imperative.
- Make Election Day Social, Celebrated, and a Holiday – As much as we might discuss political and social issues with one another, voting is a solitary act. Many voters go by themselves, and once you step in that voting booth, you’re all alone. Anecdotally, the groups that I tend to see head to voting booths together are generally people like senior citizens or church groups, who have traveled together via bus. To me, this seems more than a matter of convenience, because I believe that when you regularly do these things in your social group, the act of voting becomes woven into the fabric of your social life. To this end, I find it confusing that we don’t have Election Day as a national holiday…making it so would not only make voting infinitely more convenient, it would also be like creating a fall peer to the 4th of July, and that actually sounds fun. I’d also speculate that developing the social aspect of political participation might happen online, at least in part. Facebook’s Election Day banner is a nice start, and I think we’ll see quite a bit in this area in the years ahead.
- Cultivate Empathy in Everyday Actions – This is both the easiest and most difficult of my three proposals to implement. On a day to day basis, we are met with situations that allow us to learn from others, challenge ourselves, and try to help our communities, so the opportunities are there. However, on a day to day basis, it’s also really easy to disengage from challenging interactions, and it’s easy to turn a blind eye to community issues. The good news is that I think the way that we cultivate empathy in our society begins with simple steps toward building social capital, like being open to dialogue with people you disagree with, considering how your actions impact others, and other lessons we hopefully learned shortly after we began speaking. Most importantly, an empathetic society is a caring society – looking out for our fellow citizens and caring about the good of our communities must become traits that are intrinsic in our everyday behaviors.
What do you think? How do we get people engaged and should the focus be on younger generations?