Contagious Civic Engagement

Such engagement can also spread like a virus, writes Michael S. Roth, and we must now turn to virtual tools to strengthen our networks for democracy.

March 30, 2020
 
 
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In recent days, I was looking for a break from reading about COVID-19, and what did I stumble upon? Articles about the disappointing turnout of young voters in the Democratic primaries thus far. In the United States, ever since 18-year-olds got the vote in 1972, people between 18 and 29 have voted in smaller numbers than other age groups.

Part of the reason for this, apparently, is that it takes time to adjust to any public activity. Voting is a habit that develops from being part of a community, and it takes a while to get it going, especially when you are just entering adulthood and pulling together an independent life.

Reading about voting, like reading about anything these days, brought me back to ideas of contagion, isolation and interaction. Maybe the failure to vote is like the widely reported failure of younger people to self-isolate; they don’t feel they belong to the community that’s at risk. We are now asking for immediate feelings of communal connection when we ask people to stay away from one another. These preventive measures are encouraged to protect some of the most vulnerable: the aging, people with underlying and chronic health issues, the economically disadvantaged. But have we encouraged connectivity of young people with these groups?

The term being used for these measures is “social isolation.” A grim term indeed, but, as Nicholas Christakis has said, we should really be speaking of “physical isolation.” After all, we can remain safely isolated from one another physically while staying socially connected. Via our ubiquitous technological networks, we can have a virtuous social and political contagion even as we avoid malignant physical contagion by keeping six feet apart.

And maybe it’s virtuous contagion that we need to stimulate participation in the vital 2020 elections. Given the current administration’s penchant for voter suppression and the very real problem we would face if people had to come out to vote during an epidemic, one can easily imagine attempts to use the fear of contamination to make it more difficult to cast ballots. This would especially be the case in urban areas where voting happens in crowded places.

The best way to attack cynicism, apathy or voter suppression is through authentic civic engagement between elections. One of the great things about this kind of engagement is that it is contagious. As we replicate efforts to bring people into the political process, we create habits of engagement and participation. Concern for the public sphere -- like a virus -- can spread. Usually this happens through face-to-face interaction, but now we must turn to virtual tools -- notorious in recent years for being deployed to misinform or stir hatred -- to strengthen networks for democracy.

At Wesleyan University, we’ve begun a project called Engage 2020 that aims to bring more students into the public sphere to increase their civic preparedness and broaden their liberal learning. The next eight months offer a crucial opportunity for civic participation and liberal education through engagement with the public sphere. With the launch of the E2020 initiative, we provided a number of pathways for student skill and leadership development via direct participation in civic life. On a nonpartisan basis, we offered mini-internships linked with classes, funded student work to increase voter participation and awarded small grants to students to travel to areas where political races were of particular concern.

Of course, circumstances have now changed. We no longer want to encourage travel or to contribute -- directly or indirectly -- to the kinds of rallies characteristic of political campaigns. Still, there are other ways for colleges and universities to encourage meaningful civic engagement -- and to make that engagement contagious.

We can support our students (through internships or virtual fieldwork classes for credit) in helping other people find out how they can register to vote or in working on campaigns, all from home -- plugging into virtual networks that allow “knocking on doors” from computer to computer, from phone to phone. Working with organizations like Campus Compact or Civic Nation, MyFaithVotes or Let America Vote, the Chamber of Commerce or the League of Women Voters, students can connect with large numbers of people through networks that don’t require travel, or even hand shaking!

Although some of the commentary on the difficulty of Senator Bernie Sanders’s campaign focuses on the failure to increase turnout among 20-somethings, it’s important to note that many thousands of college students across the country are already stepping up to their political responsibility. In our E2020 initiative, we’ve invited several other colleges and universities with strong civic engagement programs to join us in embracing the educational value of political participation. More than 75 quickly signed up -- from large community colleges to small liberal arts colleges, from HBCUs and Christian colleges to large, secular research universities. They recognize that civic engagement is good for students, for their institutions and for the country.

This is an anxious time, a time when we have to stay away from our neighbors, our fellow citizens, in order to protect ourselves and the greater good. In circumstances like these, some social networks break down, and we see their disintegration in examples of hoarding, price gouging and general selfishness masquerading as independence. But we also see other social networks coming alive as neighbors look out for one another -- providing food, medicine, even communal serenading.

This is also a crucial time for American democracy, an inflection point that will determine the direction of the country and of the world’s environment for many years to come. Colleges and universities have a duty to pay attention to the physical health of their constituents while also attending to the civic health of the nation. By promoting a virtuous contagion of thoughtful, networked civic engagement, our institutions can prove once again that we can respond to dire challenges and make a potent contribution to the public good.

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