Promoting the value and importance of politics does not discount the fact that the American political process can be intimidating, awkward and unwieldy. Nor is it intended to excuse inappropriate behavior or suggest that all politicians are first-rate. But ask yourself, what profession is without its bad actors? Yet, unlike in politics, most people do not use the misdeeds of a few to curtail involvement in the entire process that surrounds the profession.
Consider the impact on the national economy if the actions of several greedy CEOs caused a majority of Americans to withdraw from the stock market. What would be the effect if the conduct of a philandering priest caused a majority of people to abandon organized religion?
Witness then the consequences, particularly on younger generations, when misconceptions about politics dissuade citizens from participating in a democratic system of self-government. Over the last 40 years America has seen a steady decline in voter participation, and nowhere is the level of disinterest and nonparticipation higher than among the nation’s youngest potential voters. Unlike older generations, since 18-year-olds were given the right to vote in 1972, turnout within this age group has dropped nearly 15 percent. In the Congressional election of 1998 and presidential election of 2000 this group accounted for less than 8 percent of the total votes cast in each of these two national elections.
Unfortunately, today the nation is caught in a cycle of ever-increasing distrust and apathy that is passing from one generation to the next. As we have learned from considerable research at the UVA Center for Politics, this unhealthy cycle is negatively impacting a complex series of interdependent civic relationships at home, at school and within communities that are vital to a strong democracy. Though weak, fortunately these important relationships persist, but their continued erosion threatens to cause great and permanent damage. Our obligation now is to break the cycle, and we begin by rejecting inaccurate assumptions about politics and the necessary role it plays in sustaining democracy in America.
Politics is the engine of democracy. Still, attempting to compel would-be voters with emotional patriotic pleas may yield episodic spikes in participation, but such efforts amount to little more than surface cosmetics until America effectively addresses the fundamental aversion to politics that is so pervasive throughout society. Though it may be portrayed as fulfilling a patriotic duty, strictly speaking, Americans do not go to the polls to reaffirm a devotion to the flag. Simply attaching labels to the act of voting does little to promote an understanding that voting is the necessary foundation for the continued existence of democracy.
Indeed, when all the tangential associations are peeled back, voting, at its core, is an act of participation in American politics. Thus, an aversion to politics or unfamiliarity with the importance of political participation results in suppressing voter participation.
In our mission statement at the Center for Politics we acknowledge that people often think of politics as thwarting the proper function of government. At best, it is perceived as a necessary evil. However, politics need not be viewed so negatively. The political nature of American government is not to be deplored or regretted. To the contrary, politics is human nature writ large with mankind’s virtues, not just vices, larger than life. Furthermore, our Founders forged a system that tends to magnify the virtues and mitigate the vices. Politics is the glue that holds together the most diverse democracy on the face of the Earth, counteracting the centrifugal forces that can potentially tear the nation apart.
Politics is the oil that lubricates the creaky machinery of bureaucracy to make it more responsive. Until voting (read: political participation) is understood as a responsibility rather than just a right, one’s right not to vote will continue to trump this fundamental hallmark of citizenship in a self-governing society.
For all these reasons, I encourage Americans to counteract the derogatory way politics is depicted — indeed, to rethink their understanding of politics and political participation with a new awareness that “Politics is a Good Thing!” S
Larry J. Sabato is the Robert Kent Gooch Professor of Politics at the University of Virginia and is the founder and director of the UVA Center for Politics.
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