Byron v. Hutchinson: The Real Charade of Nonparticipation

Note: The following article is a feature in PolicyMic's new 20-Something Series, in which we highlight topics with particular relevance to young people. The article is also part of a debate and in response to PolicyMic Contributing Writer Matthew Hutchinson's article.

"Young people today are failing to vote across the developed world, and I for one celebrate every empty polling booth."

So says my PolicyMic colleague Matthew Hutchinson. For him, it would seem that the key to sweeping transformation of the political environment that induces disillusionment and apathy is nonparticipation. This notion is so wildly counter-intuitive that it is difficult to know where to start. But, I will try anyway.

Let me be blunt: The current political reality will not endure because our system of democracy is bankrupt; it will endure because our generation will allow it to endure. In 2008, there were 44 million 18-29 year olds eligible to vote, which accounts for one-fifth of the entire eligible electorate and is the equivalent of one-third of actual voter turnout in the 2008 general election. However, only 51% of eligible youth voters participated in the 2008 elections (still a two point bump from four years previous).

In an August 2010 poll of 18-29 year olds, 83% of respondents said that they believed young people had the power to change things. However, in the same poll, 62% responded that they probably still wouldn’t vote because no matter who wins, corporate interests will still have too much power and prevent change. (What does that mean? I am at a loss.) Unsurprisingly, the youth turnout was estimated at 22.8% of all eligible youth voters in the 2010 midterms. This amounts to a strategic failure to utilize the most powerful tool available to us.

Consider: As a group, we are one of the poorest, least socially and economically connected, and receive some of the smallest yields in government services (unless you are married, have children, own a business, or fulfill some other shrinking tax bracket). We own historic levels of college debt, are paying into a system that we have a slim chance to ever benefit from, and will bear the burden of the debt that the generations before us have accrued. Many of us are entering a job market characterized by high unemployment and stagnant wage growth. And, as we stare into the face of such a dire political and economic reality, we choose nonparticipation.

In a democracy, politics is not exclusively a top-down exercise; complacency and apathy that lead to nonparticipation come with the cost of failing to deliver any message whatsoever to those that govern. Perhaps there aren't many reasons to be passionate about one party or another. However, I would argue that political ideologues are typically the worst policymakers. Ideological candidates tend to distort information in a way that supports their narrative of events. This is the antithesis of good policymaking, which demands a basis in fact.

We cannot wait for an ideologue to come along and whip us up; they tend to disappoint and the upswing in participation and interest is subsequently brief. What if, instead of ideological passion, we try a basic level of concern for the direction of our government?

Being a citizen is a responsibility. Fulfilling this responsibility is not easy and it requires a level of attentiveness and interest that many of us feel is beyond us. At its core, democracy is much more than a series of election cycles. But, of all the possible ways to participate, voting holds the biggest payoff.

The bottom line is that, for all of the complaining and muckraking that our generation is wont to do, it is our collective fault if we object to our political reality, yet do nothing to change it. The real charade is believing that our indifference will make a difference.

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Benjamin Byron

Ben is a policy analyst interested in national and foreign affairs. Ben's focus is on international security issues, but he is also very interested in national issues, such as government reform, economic policy, education reform, and technology policy. Ben received a B.A. from Dickinson College in International Studies and a Master's Degree in Public and International Affairs from the University of Pittsburgh. Recently, Ben has been particularly interested in media and technology, specifically with regard to how media and technology affect the relationship between the state and society.

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