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, size, 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 University 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.
Resources for Engagement
How do we help students register and turn out at the polls despite challenging new voter registration and ID laws and other practical barriers? How do we help them research and debate candidate positions, debunk false campaign ads and rhetoric, and make informed decisions in their choices. The nonpartisan Campus Election Engagement Project works to help faculty, administrators, and staff involved their students in the election, offering checklists and other resources to help them register, volunteer, learn about the issues, and turn out at the polls.
In terms of ads and candidate stands, faculty can also refer people to respected nonpartisan websites like Factcheck.org and Flackcheck.org, from University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School, or other respected sites like Politifact.com.
Votesmart.org lets students match their preferences on key issues with political candidates (though we find its “courage”/”lacks courage” distinctions based on questionnaire responses quite simplistic). Campus Election Engagement Project will also soon be distributing nonpartisan voter guides, like those of Rock the Vote and the state League of Women Voters affiliates.
Faculty can sign up to be notified and to connect with others working to engage at their schools at www.campusvotemap.info. We can also use the available resources to help students engage their friends and classmates, reaching out directly and electronically to ensure they have required identification documents, register in time, are educated on the issues, and get to the polls. There’s even a free downloadable smartphone app that helps them do this electronically.
We might begin by reminding our students of the very small margins by which critical elections have been won and stressing 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 300 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 21 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 O.K. 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 had stayed home, or if there had been a handful more on the other side, the outcome would have been reversed.
But even when students recognize 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, like 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.
To familiarize students with the toolbox of social change, we can explore ways they can reach out on issues they care about, build broad coalitions, tell the story of the causes they embrace in a ways that will resonate beyond the core already converted (think of the gay rights movement for a successful example). More than anything, we can encourage them to persist in working for what they believe, whatever the inevitable setbacks. They’d do well to heed the conclusions of Meredith Segal, a young woman who founded "Students for Obama" on Facebook, grew it to 150,000 members, and then co-chaired the national student campaign from her Bowdoin dorm room. "Your candidate gets elected," she said, "Obama or anyone else. People think, ‘Here’s their platform, here are their policies. They’ll magically become law.’ But that’s never the way things change. You have to keep pushing. You have to keep working. You have to keep building that engaged community. You can never expect any elected official to do it all on their own, no matter how much you admire them or how hard you worked to help them win. Your election night victory is just the beginning of the process."
Historical examples can also offer powerful context. Think of the relationship of Presidents Kennedy and Johnson to the civil rights movement. They were personally sympathetic but held the movement at arm’s length for fear of shattering the Democratic coalition, in which Southern segregationist whites played a major role. Johnson even opposed the seating of an integrated Mississippi delegation that challenged the official all-white one at the 1964 Democratic convention. Yet civil rights activists persisted and created a political and moral force so strong that it expanded the horizon of the possible. Johnson ended up investing all his political skill and capital to pass the civil rights and voting rights bills, even though he knew the likely costs to his party — and predicted, accurately, that the Democrats would lose the South for a generation or more. Johnson’s opponent, Barry Goldwater, was a staunch opponent of these laws, would never have signed them, much less actively pressed for them. It took both the right political leader and a movement systematically pushing them.
For a recent example, think of the Tea Party. They began (before they took the Tea Party name) by showing up at Town Hall meetings on Obama’s health care bill, publicly speaking out while most of Obama’s supporters did little beyond signing online petitions or emails. They organized through friends, colleagues and online networks. They aggressively recruited candidates and volunteered to get out the vote, sweeping state and federal offices in 2010. They obviously received a boost from financial backers like the Koch brothers, and from conservative media. But without ordinary citizens acting in a way that combined electoral and non-electoral involvement, they would never have made an impact. And they’ve clearly succeeded in changing contemporary American politics.
From a different political perspective, the Occupy movement similarly shifted initial public debate. Discussion of income inequality and unemployment rose dramatically in the major media in response to the (mostly young) people rallying in New York’s Zuccotti Park and similar public spaces throughout the country, targeting financial institutions they considered responsible for widening America’s economic divides. The movement influenced New York Governor Andrew Cuomo to reverse his initial opposition to renewing the state’s “millionaire’s tax,” and the Los Angeles City Council to pass a "responsible banking" ordinance that requires banks doing business with the city to disclose detailed data about local lending practices. The movement highlighted our distribution of wealth in a way that liberal economists had been trying and failing to do for decades. And many students still seem passionately interested in what’s happened with it. But because Occupy has been so adamantly non-electoral in its approach, and often ambivalent about coalitions with allies like unions, its impact on political policies and choices has so far been muted.
Beyond the Perfect Standard
When students resist electoral participation, it’s often from a sense that the sphere has become so corrupted, particularly by money, that it will in turn corrupt them to participate. They fear that it will undermine their authenticity and leave them craven and corrupt, like the Wesleyan student’s fear of becoming just "a politician." This fits the narrative that Paul’s Soul of a Citizen book calls "the perfect standard," where people decide that they can’t dare act for change unless they know every relevant 17th-decimal statistic, are as eloquent as Martin Luther King and as saintly as Gandhi, and find the perfect cause and moment to act in their lives. When applied to political candidates or leaders, this standard demands a consistency difficult to match, because whatever candidates’ strengths or flaws, they’ll inevitably disappoint us with some of their compromises or stands. The question is whether students will participate in choosing our elected leaders despite their reservations, or withdraw and let them be selected by others, including those very wealthy contributors whose undue influence so many of the students bemoan.
We can even encourage students to volunteer in campaigns despite mixed feelings, suggesting they make phone calls and knock on doors for their preferred candidates even if they don’t agree with their every stand. In fact, voicing their ambivalence while making clear the stakes may even give them more credibility, given how much of the population shares their doubts. On the practical side, we can give them academic credit for doing this, accompanied by whatever reflective follow-up we assign or negotiate.
Our challenge is to make our classrooms and campuses venues for thoughtful debate, reflection, and discussion, bending over backwards to ensure students of all political perspectives feel welcomed. To emphasize this last point, if we’re politically liberal and just a single student of ours is conservative, or vice versa, they need to feel encouraged — even if we have to go out of our way to help connect them with ways to participate consistent with their values. This election will affect students profoundly, as will future ones, so we need to model a climate where they recognize the stakes, argue the issues, yet respect those with differing opinions, refusing to cavalierly demonize them. The more we can do this, the more we can chip away at the toxic political culture of our time.
If students are politically disappointed, and many are, we might do well to stress the words of Czech dissident (and eventual president) Vaclav Havel, "Hope is not a prognostication. It is an orientation of the spirit, an orientation of the heart." Or as Jim Wallis of Sojourners puts it, “Hope is believing despite the evidence and then watching the evidence change.” That means hope can never be the property of a particular political leader, party, or campaign, though candidates can certainly tap into it. Rather, it resides in the actions of ordinary citizens, including, but not limited to showing up at the polls to exert what influence they can. We’d do well to use the podium of our classrooms to encourage student idealism, whatever its political direction, including when it breaches the boundaries of what’s deemed politically possible. We can emphasize that those we elect will make immensely consequential choices in our common name, and that whatever the political visions our students embrace, they’re most likely to achieve them by actively supporting the candidates closest to their stands, rather than withdrawing from the fray and allowing those whose values they most oppose to be elected by default. In other words, they can challenge the degradation of our politics without withdrawing from the process, or holding those who nonetheless participate to an impossibly perfect standard. As Meredith Segal stressed, working for change requires using all available tools, and taking advantage of every key moment to move toward the political goals they believe in.
Paul Rogat Loeb is founder and executive director of Campus Election Engagement Project, a nonpartisan effort to get students engaged on America’s campuses, and author of Soul of a Citizen and The Impossible Will Take a Little While. Alexander Astin founded the University of California at Los Angeles Higher Education Research Institute and is the Campus Election Engagement Project advisory board chair. Parker J. Palmer is founder and senior partner of the Center for Courage & Renewal, and author of Healing the Heart of Democracy: The Courage to Create a Politics Worthy of the Human Spirit.