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Op-Ed: New Generation Can Help Replant the Seeds of Democracy

As older voters become more and more disinterested and disengaged, we need to help younger citizens discover the joys of democracy

lawrence mccullough
Lawrence E. McCullough

For weeks, Republican office-seeker Donald Trump has reigned supreme in GOP voter surveys despite issuing a continuous stream of sexist, racist, xenophobic, veteran-shaming and often simply nonsensical remarks on major campaign topics that a “serious” candidate would be expected to address in a rational manner.

Many commentators assign this ascendance to the fact that candidates who take extreme positions and state them bluntly typically score highly among respondents who themselves hold extreme positions and state them bluntly.

When next year’s primary elections start, say the pundits, voters will exit Fantasy Candidate Mode and apply rigorous analysis to their nominee selections.

Are we so sure? What if Trump’s current poll-topping (though limited to the Republican Party’s conservative base) is yet another sign of the growing number of U.S. voters of all political persuasions who’ve become so electorally disgruntled and disengaged that they refuse to do the basic research needed to make informed decisions on their own governance?

And end up voting for whichever candidate is the most “entertaining” — the Presidency as “American Idol.”

Our word “idol” derives from the ancient Greek eidolon, meaning “reflection in water or a mirror”.

How apt a description of the carefully crafted image-making machinery employed by contemporary political campaigns as lengthy and exhausting as any “Star Search” or “Survivor” competition.

Polls focus incessantly on a candidate’s perceived Likability Quotient. Debates that once offered genuine insight into candidate policy positions now resemble the pressure cook-offs on “Chopped,” or any number of TV competitions that subjectively rate candidate “performance”, i.e. their inventory of practiced mannerisms and body language responses in delivering scripted responses.

Intellectual maturity is equated with laugh-track zingers and gotchas. Leadership is demonstrated not by what a candidate says but by how forcefully they say it. Candidates’ true feelings are revealed by what videotapes show them saying in secret.

More and more Americans, it seems, seek a president with traits befitting a fictional action hero instead of a capable chief executive. We’re more comfortable with reflection than reality. And it shows in our voting turnout.

According to the United States Election Project, the 2014 midterm elections saw a mere 36.4 percent of the voting-eligible population cast ballots -- an 11 percent decline from 2010 and the lowest midterm figure since 1942, when America was in the midst of World War II.

Approximately 93 million eligible U.S. voters did not cast a ballot in the 2012 election cycle, which saw overall turnout dip to 57.5 percent of eligible citizens voting compared to 62.3 percent in 2008. Despite an increase of eight million eligible voters from 2008 to 2012, five million fewer Americans voted in 2012 than in 2008.

Certainly the flurry of new state voter ID laws across the country have impeded some citizens from voting. But America’s declining ballot numbers suggest a deeper vein of discontent that has rendered too many voters and potential voters happy to leave the heavy thought-lifting to lobbyists, propagandists, paid operatives and media touts.

Perhaps we should look to our youth for a solution. Between now and 2020, an estimated 17 million U.S. high-school students (100,000 of those in New Jersey) will become eligible to vote. Nationwide, less than 10 percent of those students are expected to take the first step of registering.

That’s a statistic the innovative voter-education program INSPIRE U.S. is trying to change. Sponsored by Escondido, California-based foundation Project High Hopes, INSPIRE U.S. blends traditional civics instruction with a contemporary twist, encouraging teens to register to vote and then become actively involved as stakeholders in their communities.

Currently operating in six states, INSPIRE U.S. offers a year-long leadership academy for high school juniors and seniors who learn how to organize nonpartisan voter registration drives. Simultaneously, Academy students create team projects that benefit their schools and communities throughout the year.

The program mentors students in advocacy and networking methods, arranging meetings with local and state government officials. For many teens, it’s the first time they’ve glimpsed their capacity to effect meaningful social change.

Initiatives like INSPIRE U.S. are springing up across the country, giving credence to the notion that linking targeted civics education to hands-on community action may be the best way to inform and energize a new electoral generation destined to make up a quarter of those voters who will define U.S. politics over the next decade.

A new generation that could, in turn, help its elders rediscover the ever-elusive joys of democracy.

Lawrence E. McCullough, Ph.D., is a New Jersey public policy author whose book “The American Voter 2016: Spotlight on How We Vote and Why” will be published this fall by PushCause Press.

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