Last week Inside Higher Ed published a column by Scott McLemee entitled “Rude Democracy,” which discussed Jon Stewart’s Rally to Restore Sanity and apparent trends indicating a lack of political engagement among young people. McLemee’s argument was both intelligent and important, but I believe there’s another side to the story of Stewart’s rally, political civility, and turnout among college students and young voters in the 2010 midterm election.
Unsurprisingly, Republicans were very successful in the midterm election, gaining control of the House of Representatives and cutting into the Democrats’ majority in the Senate. While the politically active on campuses across the country will surely devote much discussion to the results of the election and their implications over the proceeding days and weeks, it’s less likely they’ll discuss the execrable turnout among 18- to 29-year-olds.
Early exit polling done by CBS News indicates that young people made up roughly 9 percent of all voters in the midterm election. In 2008, young people made up 18 percent of the electorate. Why?
Political scientists and campaign consultants offer several theories. Americans are more likely to vote when enthusiasm abounds for the candidates they support and young people tend to support Democrats. Young people historically don’t turn out for midterms. Barack Obama’s candidacy in 2008 was uniquely galvanizing for young voters. The agenda of Congress and the president has not adequately addressed energy policy -- a very important issue to college students – and media coverage of the health care reform bill (which did quietly include benefits for young people) focused mostly on the concerns of older voters. Thus, young people seem to have concluded that voting isn’t worth their time right now.
Herbst studied the views of young people and found that “72 percent of students agreed that it was very important for them to always feel comfortable in class.” Herbst argues that “Contrary to the image of college being a place to ‘find oneself’ and learn from others, a number of students saw the campus as just the opposite – a place where already formed citizens clash, stay with like-minded others, or avoid politics altogether.”
Based on Herbst’s study, McLemee, writing prior to the sanity rally, argued that, while Stewart’s rally was likely to draw lots of young people and provide them with a fun weekend, “the anti-ideological spirit of the event is a dead end. The attitude that it's better to stay cool and amused than to risk making arguments or expressing too much ardor -- this is not civility. It’s timidity.” Clearly, McLemee believes that the unwillingness of young people to engage in political debate – argument – is not a political virtue, but rather a democratically harmful form of indifference.
Before accepting McLemee’s assertion, though, I think several important questions need to be answered. Why do the students in Herbst's survey feel that it isn't possible to persuade others? Could it be that such a belief is the product of an uncivil political culture? If students had political role models who successfully persuaded others in civil and respectful ways, would they be more inclined to view the political arena – and the classroom – as a space in which the clash of ideas can occur and yield positive results?
Personally, I can think of two positive things Stewart does; first, he encourages young people to refuse to subscribe to the currently pervasive ultra-partisan view of politics that fosters incivility and acts as a barrier to progress; and second, and more basically, he brings some level of political awareness through humor to people who might otherwise be totally apathetic and ignorant. Stewart’s influence, in my view, doesn’t breed timidity (as McLemee asserts), but rather increased youth engagement of the type that rejects a toxic political culture.
It also seems possible that the “Obama Effect” I mentioned earlier, holding that young voters turned out in 2008 because of their admiration of the current president, is at play. I'm worried that young people, perhaps naively, viewed Candidate Obama as a post-partisan role model and that President Obama’s lack of success thus far may further discourage engagement among young people who believed he had the ability to catalyze change without acting like every other “scumbag politician” they've come to dislike.
Moving forward, two things are clear. First, the perspective of young people has the power to change the nature of partisanship; if we, as a generation, continue to subscribe to the ideals of the Rally to Restore Sanity, we have the potential to improve the tone of politics.
Second, however, the burden most certainly falls on us; politicians are not going to pander to a portion of the electorate they don’t believe will turn out to vote, so if we want to transform Stewart’s rally from a sunny Saturday on the Mall into a new political reality, we’ve got to make our voices heard.
For over two hundred years, Americans of all faiths have come together, put their shoulders to the wheel of history, and made this country what it is today. And I know that as we go forward, it’s going to take all of us – Christian and Jew, Hindu and Muslim, believer and non-believer – to meet the challenges of the 21st century.
When a university president shakes hands with a senior on graduation day, she is likely confident that the student has certain positive knowledge, attitudes and behaviors toward diversity, including racial, ethnic, sexual orientation, class, and gender diversity. If she’s feeling optimistic, she might expect these attitudes toward diversity to shape students’ civic participation and leadership beyond college.
So where is religious diversity in this mix? What knowledge, attitudes, and behaviors should a college president expect of her graduates when it comes to the Catholics and Protestants, Muslims and Jews, Hindus and nonbelievers that make up the American fabric? Religion is increasingly prevalent within American public and political discourse, and religious intolerance is at significant levels toward groups like Muslims, Mormons, Evangelicals and Atheists. Intolerance toward Muslims and Mormons appears to be rising.
These rates and attitudes mirror prejudices that Catholics and Jews have faced in the past. The good news is that Catholics and Jews are now -- according to Robert Putnam and David Campbell’s research -- among the most favorably viewed by their fellow Americans. How did this powerful change occur? Social science data suggest that increasing appreciative knowledge of these religions and expanding opportunities for meaningful positive encounters with Catholics and Jews were the keys.
Given that colleges and universities are places that facilitate encounters with and knowledge about diversity, could higher education play a similar role with regard to today’s more expansive religious diversity?
On March 17, President Obama offered colleges and universities an opportunity to address this question: the President’s Interfaith and Community Service Campus Challenge. Obama invited campuses to commit to a year of interfaith cooperation and community service programming on their campuses, bringing students of different religious and nonreligious backgrounds together to serve the common good. This challenge allows us to highlight those dimensions of different religious traditions that inspire service and social justice and create spaces where students from different backgrounds can have positive meaningful encounters by working together to apply these shared values.
Obama was right to pick colleges and universities as the proving ground for this work. Other forms of diversity have robust curricular and co-curricular initiatives meant to foster appreciative knowledge about diverse traditions and positive meaningful encounters between students of diverse backgrounds. President Obama is asking us to do the same work with regards to America’s religious diversity.
So what kind of impact might we expect to see as campuses take on this challenge?
1. College and university presidents will start talking to each other about why this work matters, and why it ought to be an institutional priority. As campuses articulate an institutional commitment to interfaith cooperation, we hope it sparks a national conversation among higher education leaders, and that college and university presidents will encourage and challenge one another in their advancement of this work.
2. Learning from the broader diversity movement, colleges will begin to address these topics in the classroom to build students' appreciative knowledge. We imagine specialized courses such as the history of the interfaith movement or theologies of service in different religious traditions, as well as interdisciplinary curriculums that will explore interfaith cooperation within a variety of fields, such as political science, history, and sociology. The latter curriculums will be aimed at engaging a broad swath of the student population.
3. Campuses will initiate broad co-curricular programming meant to intentionally foster positive encounters between students of different religious and nonreligious backgrounds. Just as students participate in regular service-learning days, and diversity is incorporated into training for orientation leaders and RAs, campuses will get creative about programming that engages a significant number of students in interfaith cooperation, like campuswide interfaith action campaigns and religious diversity trainings for RAs.
4. The work of engaging religious diversity on campus will move from niche to norm. Excellent interfaith initiatives exist on many campuses, but they are often run by a single chaplain or small campus unit who only has resources to reach a small group of students. When engaging racial and ethnic diversity became a priority on campuses, we saw sustainable campuswide curricular and co-curricular programs and a national exchange of best practices and measurement for impact. Our hope is that we are nearing a similar tipping point for this work.
5. Campuses – with students leading the way – will harness the social capital of their communities and demonstrate the power of interfaith cooperation. We think about Greg Damhorst, a student leader at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, who with religious and nonreligious student groups mobilized 5,119 volunteers to pack 1,012,640 meals for earthquake survivors in Haiti. A local paper called the event the largest humanitarian effort ever staged outside of a major metropolitan area. This challenge should inspire projects like Greg’s on campuses all over the country, with students of diverse religious and nonreligious backgrounds making real impact on social issues.
6. We will see measurable changes in national knowledge, attitudes and behaviors toward religious diversity. As college students who simply think it is normal to cooperate with those who believe differently from them graduate and begin to take leadership, we hope that some of the dismal numbers on religious tolerance might significantly shift.
So what will it take for a college president to know that her graduating seniors are ready to lead in and engage with a religiously diverse world? Obama’s interfaith challenge offers the chance to find out.
Eboo Patel and Cassie Meyer
Eboo Patel is founder and president and Cassie Meyer is director of content at Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC), an organization that works with college campuses on religious diversity issues. IFYC is a close adviser and partner for the White House on this effort.
Wind swept onto the campus of Washington University in St. Louis around noon Friday, bending tree limbs back and throwing rain sideways into castle-like Brookings Hall. But the inside of the admissions office was silent and still.