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By Robert A. Vella

We all know the situation.  America’s political system, once the envy of a world oppressed by ruthless authoritarianism, is deteriorating right before our very eyes.  The rule of law (i.e. republicanism) is being supplanted by a rule of wealth.  The voice of the people (i.e. democracy) is fading away like a distant echo, replaced by the relentless drumbeat of corporatism which grows louder and louder with each passing day.  Cultural polarization, institutional corruption, and political dysfunction have become the new norm.  The very socioeconomic systems which form the bedrock of civilization have been purposely twisted into propagators of inequality and class warfare, writing the blueprint for a dystopian future where social Darwinism dictates the ways of life and death.

America’s last hope, that young people – who have always been the blunt instruments of social change – would rise up in unified anger, seems to be dissipating faster than at any comparable time in modern history.  Where activism is sorely needed, apathy reigns.  Where civic participation is absolutely necessary, wholesale disengagement has taken place.  From TimeWhy Young People Don’t Want to Run For Office:

Will American politics face a brain drain? If current trends continue, it could soon.

Political science professors Jennifer Lawless and Richard Fox asked more than 4,000 high school and college students if they would be interested in running for political office in America someday: 89% of them said “no.”

That finding is the crux of a new book based on their original research, Running From Office. In it, the authors argue that the dysfunction of Washington has turned the next generation off politics in historic fashion. Unless behaviors change, American University’s Lawless says, the country’s brightest stars are going to pursue just about anything but one of the 500,000 elected offices America needs filled each year.

The problem is not just confined to young people avoiding public service.  They are also choosing not to even vote in the country’s elections.  I have documented many times on this blog both short-term and long-term declines in voter turnout.  The last midterm election in 2014 revealed a precipitous drop-off in turnout among Millennials, pushing the national average well below 40% of eligible voters.  A similar decline occurred in the 2012 presidential election compared to 2008, and voter turnout in local-only elections – the grassroots of democracy – has fallen to a dismal average of about 20%.

This lack of civic participation creates a political power vacuum which, like all things in nature, begs to be filled.  Those rushing in are not altruistic individuals looking to improve society, but opportunistic power-seekers looking for avenues of exploitation.  In its examination of the causes of young peoples’ disengagement, the Time article reinforces my point:

What happens if kids don’t change their minds?

We have more than 500,000 elected offices in this country. … We’re not concerned that no one will run for them. We’re concerned that the candidates will be the type of people who aren’t interested in bringing about a better system.

What kind of people will still be attracted to political races, if not the best candidates?

The kind of people who are currently in office. People that actually do not think that government is a way to bring about positive change, people who are more interested in their own power than public policy, people that are antagonistic and confrontational and value partisanship over output.

Left unabated, America’s transformation from a functional democracy to an authoritarian corporatist state will mark one of the greatest collapses of a political system in recorded history rivaling or surpassing that of ancient Rome.  The dire consequences of which are plainly obvious to everyone having the intellectual honesty to see.

What can be done to turn this around?  The Time article concludes:

So what should be done to remedy that situation?

We have a series of recommendations. One is linking political aptitude to the college admissions process, so people have to know something about current events and politics if they want to go to college. Another suggestion we have is some kind of national service program that would value political service. We’ve seen large programs like the Peace Corps, like Americorps, like Teach for America, where we have created incentives for young people to go out and improve communities. There’s no similar program for political service, which could create an incentive for young people to get involved in their communities as elected leaders.

How optimistic are you feeling right now about all the gridlock and bickering and disenchantment improving?

It’s funny because I’m an eternal pessimist but on this front, I believe in government. A lot. Maybe this is a little idealistic, but I think as people begin to realize that there are long term consequences to the dysfunction that we’re experiencing—that we might be turning off an entire generation or even discouraging adults right now who are well-qualified to run and lead—they’ll see there are opportunities for change.

In other words, education is the answer.  However long it takes, children must be taught the vital importance of civic participation.  This was once the case in America, and that is precisely the reason why it achieved such success (e.g. the greatest expansion of middle class prosperity in history from FDR to LBJ).  Furthermore, people must stop placing blind trust in charismatic leaders – who disingenuously promise to solve all their problems – and begin to view themselves as the real arbiters of change.

Fellow WordPress blogger, friend, and retired professional educator Carol A. Hand said this today in response to my questions about her skepticism of then presidential candidate Barack Obama in 2008:

“Actually, after reading the book he wrote about his father [Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance – 1995], I was reluctant to vote for him – but the alternative in 2008(McCain/Palin – YIKES) was not really an alternative.”

[…]

“There was a quality of internalized inferiority in his discussion of his life – because of his heritage (nationality, family status, class, race) – the hint of a need to excel in a colonial context – that made me question his ability to really stand behind positions that would invoke strong resistance. I don’t remember the specifics now, but it’s something I learned – it’s important to be self-aware of these issues when you challenge power, as any change proposals do. I didn’t get the sense that he had demonstrated the ability to stand alone long enough to find worthy allies. It seemed to be easier for him to excel in the master’s world to gain status without serious critical thought about the flaws in the systems he mastered. Of course, it’s just the vague sense of discomfort I remember, but the book left me very ambivalent.” [emphasis added]

13 thoughts on “Young People, Civic Disengagement, and the Collapse of America’s once great Political System

  1. A very interesting article, a real eye opener. Unfortunately apathy and disenchantment are serious problems with both our countries as well as political ignorance.

    I like the Time’s article suggestion of
    “linking political aptitude to the college admissions process, so people have to know something about current events and politics if they want to go to college.”

    At little more political education for the general population probably would not come amiss either.

    These are worrying times for your country as they are here in the UK. Both the USA and the UK are well on the road to a capitalist authoritarian states and few will realise it or oppose it until it is too late. I think those aware of the situation feel powerless to change what is happening. Young people here feel there is no future for them.

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  2. While the internet is humanity’s greatest tool ever for men and women to communicate everywhere on Earth and should produce profound appreciation, on the flip side the clear, disappointing and disturbing view presented on reality has led to a great number seeking to escape because it becomes too painful. People will understand the process of reading article after article after article describing what’s really happening in places around the Earth, and comparing it to receiving the blow of a sledgehammer again and again and again. From that viewpoint, it’s understandable that young people have decided to stop voluntarily receiving painful blows to the head. That said, history has a way of moving through societal highs and lows, and since the current lowpoint began in 1980, over 30 years of downturn (an entire generation) signals a good time for global societal ascent.

    Liked by 1 person

    • In order for people to know what’s going on around them, they need to hear the unfortunate truths of our time. The information/news isn’t the problem, it’s how we are responding (or not responding) to it.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I like the Time suggestions. When something isn’t working (like the government), people need to problem-solve and come up with fresh ideas. Right now, we are stuck, and rethinking the way we teach kids about politics may work. I can tell you from experience that most young people neither know nor care about politics or societal issues.

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  4. The Real News’ YouTube channel began a series of talks with a professor of history, and, reading the comments below the video one of the commenters recommended The Real News interview Daniel Sheehan. Sheehan went to Harvard Law School and Harvard Divinity School, was directly involved as a lawyer in the Pentagon Papers, JFK, Black Panthers, Iran-Contra, Watergate and more. He’s now a professor at University of California-Santa Cruz, teaching a course “Trajectory of Justice”. Each approximately 1-hour 30-minute lecture can be found on “Romero Institute” YouTube channel (link below). The 17th lecture was just posted today. In those lectures, Daniel Sheehan’s course speaks directly to the issues raised by Robert’s post, entirely focused on preparing students for taking on the big problems, and he makes a number of mind-blowing revelations in those lectures. Let’s put it this way, Sheehan definitely should be interviewed by The Real News Network – and many other media organizations.

    Had only minor awareness of Sheehan before, but thanks to a “coincidental” reading of comments at YouTube, came across a truthseeker goldmine:

    https://www.youtube.com/user/RomeroInstitute

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I have never understood the idea don’t vote, it only encourages them. I have rarely been able to vote for who or what I want, but the best power of the vote is to sack them when they don’t represent you. Admittedly when they all advocate the same policies finding someone who isn’t on an elitist ticket can be hard to find.

    Liked by 1 person

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