Monday, February 20, 2012

Voter Apathy and Civic Disengagement

Regardless of the news medium (especially if it’s the national media), cynicism and negativity seem to dominate the headlines. With America reeling from three-plus years of economic demise, it is hard for most of us to feel good about the institutions that made us the envy of the world.

Robert Putnam in his best-selling book, Bowling Alone, discusses at length the issues of the collapse and revival of the American Community. His discussion on Civic Engagement was especially interesting to me. I am not sure if it’s the economy or if my concern in this area began before the start of the Great Recession. It may be the fact that my role at the Chamber and the work of the Chamber in general causes a real up-close and personal interaction with civic engagement.

Bill Vaughan is credited with saying, “A citizen of America will cross the ocean to fight for democracy, but won't cross the street to vote in a national election.” We have had marketing campaigns locally to encourage better turnout in elections. Even communities with good voter turnout rarely achieve turnout greater than 50% of registered voters. And the registered voters are typically less than half of the eligible voters.

Although citizens / voters seem to be more and more dissatisfied with the actions / inaction of their elected officials, voter apathy seems rampant. In our community, over the last few election cycles, more races for public office are uncontested vs contested. How do we get good, honest and effective leadership if few answer the call to serve?

Putnam attributed our decline in civic engagement to: the pressures of time and money, suburbanization, electronic entertainment, and generational change. Although Putnam makes a strong argument as to how each has affected America and the individual and collective civic engagement of Americans, he is quick to point out that these are complex subjects and we do not know exact causes or the precise impact each has had on the broader topic.

Most would agree that in a world dominated by workers who are constantly pressured to do more with and for less, and in an economy where most families are comprised of two-parent earners – it should be no surprise that these citizens would be less civically engaged than in other historical time periods. Every school administrator and teacher routinely acknowledges that educating young people is harder today than ever because parents are not as involved or engaged as they once were.

Who can argue that time and money can be negative influences on citizens engaging in community activities? If someone is gainfully employed, their work demands more of them than ever. And if not employed, it is difficult to give to your community when you do not have money for providing for your family much less gas to go to community meetings. It seems that most community volunteers are either retired or are employed young people who have not married or started their families. Time and money pressures certainly affect how much someone can give back and get involved.

During her visit / presentation a few weeks ago, acclaimed community engagement consultant and best-selling author Rebecca Ryan spoke to the issue of suburbanization. Again, few of us would argue that long commutes between home and work adversely affect our time for and desire for civic engagement. Ms. Ryan claims that young professionals are seeking communities to make their home that enable short commutes. They would rather spend time doing things they enjoy vs. driving long commutes between the suburbs where they live and to their jobs in the “big city.” Putnam states that Americans have always been nomadic. We tend to move more often than most other societies.

Prior to the electronic age, people actually got involved in their communities for entertainment and social networking. Today, we have every electronic gadget and technology at our disposal for entertainment. And young people will argue that they are networking through electronic means. I am still not sure how you get to know someone through Twitter or Facebook.

And the last remaining negative influence on civic engagement is generational change. Our grandparents (those before the Baby-boomers) not only worked hard – they saved their money, gave back to their communities, and not only survived but enabled our success in waging world war.

Generations since the “greatest” have rarely been tested like those before us. Small special interest groups have been heavily engaged in certain movements (civil rights, Vietnam War protests, etc.). I do not mean to demean or lesson the extraordinary outcomes of movements like the Civil Rights movement, but only to clarify that nothing sense WWII has required US citizens be all in. All of us who are baby-boomers and those that are following us have not had a pivotal historic event (or threat) that created the necessary zeal for community / civic engagement.

Some might argue that the current “occupy X” movement could create such a moment or the economic times we are in might be the rallying cry. But given the low turnout by American voters and the overall disinterest in public service, I am not convinced that we will suddenly see the tide turn toward citizen re-engagement.

As Gandhi said, “Be the change you want to see in the world.” My hope is we will once again heed the call and serve our communities and each other like those from the greatest generation did before us.

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