By Paul Loeb, Alexander Astin and Parker J, Palmer
You've heard it again and again. "My vote doesn't matter," students too often say. Others complain that politicians are "all the same and all corrupt." How do we overcome this cynical resignation and encourage students to register and vote despite their conviction that the game is fundamentally rigged?
In 2008, many students vested huge hopes in Barack Obama, reinforced by the enthusiasm of their peers. Now, they're dealing with what veteran pollster Charlie Cook summed up as "disappointment and disillusionment." Too many regard electoral politics less as a potential arena for change than a corrupt swamp likely to drown their remaining ideals. In a Rock the Vote survey shortly before the November 2010 election, 59 percent of students said they were more cynical than two years before, and 63 percent of those who doubted they'd vote justified their likely withdrawal by agreeing that "no matter who wins, corporate interests will still have too much power and prevent real change." They did indeed stay home, with roughly four million fewer students participating than just two years before, according to the highly respected CIRCLE youth research center. For instance, Ohio's student participation rate dropped from 69 percent to 22 percent, Wisconsin's from 66 percent to 19 percent, and Florida's from 61 percent to 19 percent. (The Ohio figure is based on a small sample, but fits the larger pattern). Student participation dropped significantly in nearly every state.
Toss in uncertain job prospects, cuts to higher education, and massive student debt, and it's no wonder that so many students despair about their power to make a difference in the electoral realm. That's true even as they continue to volunteer in one-on-one service, with 70 percent of college freshmen considering it "essential or very important to help people in need." Last fall, at a University of Vermont dorm devoted to community service, students described an array of creative projects they were engaged with, then fell silent when Paul (one of the authors of this piece) asked about potential electoral involvement, finally concluding that the differences between the candidates barely mattered. In a Harvard survey this spring, just 36 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds believed it was honorable to run for public office.
For those of us who follow elections closely, this is one of high stakes, with salient differences between the two major parties. It's also a key election for American higher education, given the fiscal pressures that both individual students and most campuses are facing. Because it's a presidential year, more students will undoubtedly vote in 2012 than in 2010. But for many, across the political spectrum, the links between issues and candidates seem tangential and remote. If we want them to fully participate, we need to create a commons where they can reflect on issues and candidates, and provide a rationale for why their involvement matters.
THE NUMBERS THAT MATTER
This means offering examples of how close electoral races can be, educating students on issues and candidates, and making the case that, even if their preferred candidates will not usher in the millennium, working to elect them is still worthwhile--in part because it will allow students to keep pressing them on all the issues they care about.
We might begin by reminding our students of the very small margins by which critical elections have been won and stress, the importance of their vote, whoever they choose to vote for. That's true both because of the immediate impact it may have, and because their participation will set a pattern in their lives going forward. We can talk about the 537 vote Florida total that handed George Bush the presidency in 2000, or the 312 votes by which Al Franken won the 2008 Minnesota Senate race. Students may assume that their votes will be inconsequential, but multiplied by those of all their peers, they matter, time and again.
Paul once interviewed a Wesleyan University student named Tess who, inspired by an environmental conference, joined with several friends to register nearly three hundred fellow students concerned about environmental threats and cuts in government financial aid programs. Nearly all ended up supporting their strongly sympathetic Congressman, who won re-election by twenty-one votes. Tess had hesitated before she began. She didn't think of herself as a "political person," didn't want to come off like "a politician spouting a line," and wondered whether her efforts would even matter. Nonetheless, she decided to go ahead and do the best she could. Had she done nothing, her Congressman would have lost.
Paul had his own similar experience securing three votes for his preferred Washington State gubernatorial candidate on the day of the 2004 election. One forgot it was Election Day. Another didn't know if it was still OK to use an absentee ballot. The third needed a ride to the polls. After three recounts, the difference was 133 votes, so had just a handful of his fellow volunteers stayed home, or if there had been a handful more on the other side, the outcome would have been reversed.
But even when students understand the math, many still resist participation. They'll say they don't know enough and that "the issues are too complicated." They'll insist the candidates are really "all the same." They'll say this even when candidates hold very different positions on issues from health care, climate change, sexual politics, and immigration to tax policies, higher education budgets, student financial aid, and likely Supreme Court appointments. For some, saying they don't know enough may just be an excuse for withdrawal, though we've heard such statements even from many who are very involved in other ways. Others hold back because they feel helpless to change things. Caught in a self-fulfilling perception of powerlessness, they decide it makes little sense to take on the challenge of following candidates and issues.
We can begin to counter these cycles of withdrawal by helping students reflect on candidates' positions, and helping them separate truth from fiction amid the barrage of attack ads that many will encounter--ads that risk deepening students' sense of electoral politics as just a toxic field of lies. Students have told us repeatedly they want "more fact-based campaigning" and "to learn more about platforms." That's something we can help with as educators, promoting both classroom and co-curricular discussions about where candidates actually stand.
But it's not just lack of information that leads students to withdraw. When they say "My vote doesn't matter," they're also conveying a sense that the political system is so corrupt that no matter who wins, true power will remain in the hands of the wealthy and connected, and that the voices of ordinary citizens will be ignored. Even when they concede that their votes could alter the electoral result, many doubt that this will make a significant difference.
That's particularly true in the current election, where many students are dealing with dashed hopes from 2008, and students of all perspectives have ambivalent responses to both presidential candidates. In Obama's case, because his campaign drew so strongly on slogans of hope and change, and because so many students supported him, one-time supporters are particularly wrestling with disillusionment. Forty percent in a CIRCLE poll this summer described their prime response as "disappointment." Many who lean toward Romney are also ambivalent because of the inconsistency of his stands and his deviation from their version of true conservatism. In contrast with four years ago, most seem to regard this election as a contest between candidates they have to apologize for, rather than ones who speak to their most far-reaching hopes.
FROM LYNDON JOHNSON TO THE TEA PARTY
One antidote to cynical resignation is historical context--which is something we can do our best to offer even if we aren't historians or political scientists. The more students see their vote as promoting the kinds of changes they'd like to continue to work for, the more likely they'll be to show up at the polls, bring others along, and stay involved after the election. We might suggest they view voting not as a sole way to make change, but one in which electoral politics complements other approaches in a toolbox of change such as one-on-one service or political organizing and protest. Carpenters don't discard their saws or drills just because they prefer swinging a hammer. They recognize that you can't build a house without using all three.