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 Time – Why 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]