American history has been one long debate about the proper role of government. Taking our cue from the Founders, we worry about the tyranny of the majority or an excessive emphasis upon the rights of the individual; we decry the growth of bureaucracy or the lack of institutional compassion. Libertarians warn of the perils of…
The decline in political participation is obviously complex, but I think two factors are significant.
When we look for culprits, my first vote would go to gerrymandering. Gerrymandering, as you all know, is the time-honored process whereby the party in control of the legislature packs as many opposition voters as possible into as few districts as possible, and gives itself as many safe districts as can be drawn. Recently, thanks to the vastly increased precision which computers have made possible, a majority of races have come to be decided in the primary. Locally, Brian Howey and Jim Knoop have both written about this phenomenon. Many of us feel that the proliferation of "safe" districts has contributed to the polarization of politics, since candidates in these districts are now watching their flanks rather than running to the middle. That lack of competitiveness has also contributed to reduced participation. Why get involved when the result is foreordained? Why give to a loser, or even to a sure winner? Why volunteer or even vote when it makes no difference?
My second culprit is "The vision thing." George Bush wasn’t the only person without it. Most of America doesn’t currently have one.
In the absence of national enemies or overarching national challenges, voters lack a reason to be concerned. They drop out of a process that doesn’t really seem to matter.
If we need confirmation of either of these theories, we need only look at politics on the neighborhood level, where people are anything but apathetic and uninvolved. Ask a municipal official trying to locate a halfway house in a residential neighborhood; or a Mayor accused of not adequately maintaining a neighborhood park, or of failing to install a stoplight at a dangerous corner–political apathy isn’t the problem.
As others have noted, such so-called "retail" politics connects with people for two very good reasons: the immediacy of the connection with the citizen and the belief that participation makes a real difference.
When I get together with my neighbors to fight for a new sidewalk, I know what I want. I know why I want it, and I know what my neighborhood will look like both with and without it. I am part of a community of like-minded activists, all of who have put aside other differences for the time being, in order to accomplish our common goal. And I have a pretty good idea of the form my civic activities should take in order to bring my issue to the table.
The greater American community is being asked to participate in the political process without anything like that organizing vision. The world is changing so quickly, most of us don’t know what kind of government we want, or what kind we should want. (The exception to that, of course, are the zealots and true believers of various types). We don’t know what will happen if we choose party or candidate A rather than party or candidate B, even when that choice is a real one and not a foregone conclusion due to gerrymandering. Most of us, in fact, have a sneaky suspicion that it won’t make any difference in our lives at all. In the absence of a great crusade, like anti-communism in the 50’s or civil rights in the 60’s, we don’t have lots of comrades-in-arms, all putting aside our differences and working together toward a common goal. And most of us haven’t a clue how we can bring an issue–assuming we even have one–to the table.
Parties and politics will energize people again when citizens believe the process makes any real difference in their lives, and when legislatures draw districts that are genuinely competitive, so that individual votes and volunteer efforts count.
Fortunately, figuring out just how that gets done is the job of the afternoon panel.