Friday, October 17, 2008

Doing Something About Citizen Apathy

A couple of weeks ago, David Miller at Pursuit of Liberty announced that he is forming a group that has as its goal to “draw people out of the silent majority until the silent become the minority by fostering civil dialog between people of differing perspectives. “ People of all political stripes are encouraged to join.

With people from disagreeing political viewpoints participating, you might anticipate some fireworks. But David writes, “The only requirement for participation is a commitment to avoid the playground politics of name calling and guilt by association.”

In other words, David is calling on us to join together to steadily increase the numbers of people that are politically informed and engaged. He is asking that we commit to engaging in civil dialog and put aside acrimony when discussing issues.

David has put out a call for people to come forward to help him put his plan into action. He writes:

“In addition to my own energy, and knowledge I need the energy and experience of others who can help me to spread the word, engage effectively with public officials, organize group efforts, and generate ideas to further these aims.”
Why are Citizens Apathetic?
Despite pleas from religious and community leaders, only 56.8% of Utah’s adults are even registered to vote — the third lowest rate in the nation. And only a fraction of those registered actually vote. There are a variety of reasons for Utah’s low rates of voter registration and turnout.

It’s the Demographics
It has been a longtime national trend for young adults to be less politically involved. Looking at the statistics, it appears that voter participation rates dropped off in 1972. But in fact, this was due to the lowering of the voting age from 21 to 18 by the 26th Amendment. When screening out the 18-20-year-olds, voter participation rates were actually higher in 1972. People under 25 vote at very low rates except for when they get enthused about a single candidate or issue.

Americans generally tend to become politically involved around middle age. Utah’s adult population consists of a much higher percentage of young adults than does the national population. When adjusted for age, Utah’s levels of political involvement are closer to the national average, but are still below the median.

It’s the Decreasing Value of a Vote
After adjusting for age factors, Utah’s registration and voter turnout rates fall into a grouping of other states that are heavily skewed toward either of the political parties, such as West Virginia. In these states, the incentives for political involvement are lower because the overwhelming majority will dictate the outcome of most races. Most of the uninvolved limit their political engagement because they are relatively certain that the outcomes will be about what they would have chosen anyway.

Others feel disenfranchised because there are few rewards for going up against a large majority. For example, I do not support Governor Huntsman’s re-election. But I don’t see that I am much inclined to vote for any of his opponents. And even when I do cast my vote for a different candidate, how much difference will it make? There isn’t the slightest chance that the Governor won’t win a massive landslide victory.

It’s the Lack of Information and Differentiation
I live in a suburban community where 91% of the adult residents were registered to vote in 2007. That’s a very high rate for Utah. A bond to raise an exorbitant amount to build a cover over the city’s lap pool failed by a 71-29% margin in a special June 2007 election. But only 25.6% of registered voters bothered to turn out (see here). And that was considered a magnificently high rate of participation.

Three months later, only 9% of registered voters bothered to turn out for the primary election that winnowed a field of 10 candidates for 3 city council seats down to 6. I complained at the time that even for politically involved voters there was simply insufficient information about most of the candidates, so that it was difficult to develop an informed opinion. For the less involved, it was nearly impossible to detect any qualitative differences. Why bother to vote when there is no detectible difference between candidate A and candidates B and C?

It’s All the Disincentives
Factors such as this lend to citizen apathy toward politics. When people sense that their involvement could actually make a difference, they tend to get engaged. Involvement increases when questions about direct taxation are involved. But when the incentives for getting engaged are low — well, we’re all busy, our time is a scarce resource, and we believe there are much better uses of our time and energy.

It’s Politics
It has often been said that even if you like sausage, you probably don’t want to watch it being made — and that the political process is analogous to sausage making. With the advent of CSPAN, CNN2, and a MSM corps that shoves the bits and twiddles of the political process in our faces 24x7, many people have come to see how politics really work (and always have worked), and it’s not pretty.

It’s the Parties
Church leaders have urged involvement at the grass roots level, where activity can actually make a difference. There is higher value in helping determine who gets on the ballot than in simply voting for those that end up there by whatever means. Still, as friends of mine from different parties have reported, ever since they attended their neighborhood caucus meetings they have been the objects of endless pestering by the national and state parties to cough up cash to put in the parties’ coffers. This is a disincentive to grass roots party involvement.

I used to deride those that referred to our two major political parties as Republicrats or Demblicans (meaning that there isn’t much difference between the parties). There are plenty of differences, but the behavior of both parties at the national level seems to consist of posturing, power plays, and corruption. These ruling elitists seem to care very little about the real ‘Joe the plumbers’ of the world, except to use them as pawns in their games. This poisons the perception of the validity of both parties all the way down to the local level.

Organizing is Hard
I think David’s idea of an organization that encourages political involvement is a worthy cause. I have often argued that Americans are made, not just born. It requires education and involvement to uphold the principles of liberty and justice upon which our country was founded. That’s why I have worked for years to help teach Citizenship in the Nation to Boy Scouts.

It seems, however, that starting a new organization might be a duplication of Project Vote Smart, a non-partisan group that aims to increase citizen awareness of and involvement in politics. The League of Women Voters takes positions, but has worked for years to foster civil discourse and to get information out to voters. I can’t help but wonder whether it wouldn’t be better to work within an established organization such as one of these. At any rate, getting a new organization off the ground requires serious work and commitment.

Activism Needed
It is also important to realize that not everyone that has political interest has a desire to be an activist. For example, I enjoy analyzing, discussing, and providing my opinion on matters. But when it comes to “engag[ing] effectively with public officials [and] organiz[ing] group efforts,” I start thinking that I’ve already got as many irons in the fire as I can manage and that these matters lie outside of my scope of talents.

I know myself pretty well. I regularly stretch myself beyond my comfort zone. But long experience has shown me that I’m no salesman. That is, I don’t mind explaining why I think and act as I do, as well as how others might benefit from thinking or doing likewise. However, I am not the guy that closes the sale. I have organized relatively large church and Scouting events, and will likely continue to do so. But frankly, I hate doing it. And as I explained here and here, I have a certain distaste for the game of politics.

I freely admit that attitudes such as this will make the development of an activist organization an uphill battle. How do you get people involved that already feel that they are doing a good work within their current scope when involvement in another group would take time and resources away from those other efforts? How do you engage people that shy away from activism?

Doing It
I appreciate David’s thoughtful blog posts. I applaud his efforts to put his words into action. I encourage others to get involved and help in this effort. But let’s not delude ourselves. We are fighting against significant disincentives to political involvement. Simply providing information and discussion isn’t going to overcome that.

If you want people in general to get involved, we will have to break down our elitist system and make each vote actually meaningful. Then the incentives for political involvement will increase. It starts with efforts like this.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for posting that. You have given me a lot to chew on. I knew that this would not be an easy undertaking, but your analysis gives me a few more concrete ideas regarding the obstacles in the path.

I look forward to being able to address some of the issues you raised here.

Frank Staheli said...

I think the biggest disincentive is the feeling so many people have that their vote won't matter. I've talked to a fair cross-section of Utahns who feel this way. If we could convince them that voting for someone, even when the establishment candidates served up to them aren't to their liking, really did make a difference, we would go a long way.

After seeing this post, I commented on Pursuit of Liberty that we need to get a civil dialogue going through a community blog. As something like this picks up steam it will get noticed by the Utah community and convince many of the silent types that there is somewhere to turn.

Scott Hinrichs said...

Actually, each vote matters less and less. This is borne out by the election outcomes. Studies show that in most cases, had the people voted that failed to vote, the outcome of the race would have been the same. As populations of voting districts increase, the value of each vote is diluted.

Blogs are noticed by ... bloggers, not by the community at large. Bloggers tend to be more politically active than the general community. And frankly, we're kind of a unique (I was going to say 'weird') bunch. We don't proportionately represent the community in any way, shape, or form.

I think a community blog would attract the attention of the blogging community. But few others -- particularly those that are politically uninvolved.