COMBATTING CYNICISM

“MY VOTE DOESN’T MATTER.” Helping Students Surmount Political Cynicism

By Paul Loeb, Alexander Astin, and Parker J. Palmer
Updated from an article in InsideHigherEd.com
and The Huffington Post (Front Page)

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. Youth electoral participation rates then dropped 17% more in 2014, reaching the lowest levels since 18 year olds got the vote.

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.” Recently, 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 survey, just 36 percent of 18- to 29-yearolds believed it was honorable to run for public office.

The 2016 Presidential elections are ones of huge stakes, with major differences between the candidates, and the near-certainty of at least one Supreme Court appointment. They also include important races for Senators, Governors, and Congressional representatives. They’re an opportunity to involve students in ways that can set patterns of participation for the rest of their lives. But they’re also elections likely to be dominated by dark money and negative campaigning, where the two likely nominees, Trump and Clinton, have the highest negatives of any non-incumbents since Gallup began asking the question in 1992, and where 70% of young voters preferred other candidates. If we want them to fully participate, we need to create a commons where they can reflect on issues and candidates, talk about them with their peers and remember 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 they have decidedly mixed feelings, working to elect them is still worthwhile. That’s partly because opting out makes more likely the election of the candidate they most oppose, and partly because participating isn’t the end of the process, but one step in pressuring our elected leaders on all the issues the students care about.

We might begin by reminding our students of the very small margins by which critical elections have been won and stress, 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. Or the 74 votes that determined control of the Washington State legislature in 2012, Virginia’s 165-vote Attorney General race in 2013, or a 39-vote 2015 Seattle Council 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 three hundred 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 twenty-one 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 experienced this impact personally 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 OK 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 stayed home, or if there had been a handful more on the other side, the outcome would have been reversed.

But even when students understand 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, and student financial aid. 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.” At classrooms Paul has visited to lecture on his citizen engagement books Soul of a Citizen and The Impossible Will Take a Little While, students repeatedly say things like “All the ads, all the lies, you can’t believe what the candidates say, and I don’t want to vote for the wrong person,” something I hear again and again. “If I only had a list where I could see what they actually stood for…” That’s something we can help with as educators, promoting both classroom and co-curricular discussions about where candidates actually stand. The nonpartisan Campus Election Engagement Project that Paul founded and whose advisory board Alexander co-chairs creates precisely these kinds of concise and accurate lists comparing candidate positions. Schools have done everything from encouraging the student paper to use them as the basis for more in-depth articles to blowing them up in high-traffic areas like Student Unions and dorms, to distributing them via campus mail to every student’s mailbox. And students have found them tremendously helpful, saying things like “It was great that we all got these accurate guides in our mailboxes. They didn’t tell us how to vote, but they gave us a sense of where the candidates actually stood.”

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. They’ll likely be ambivalent about candidates on both sides, as they deal with debt, economic uncertainty and the broader legacy of dashed hopes from a presidency that many had once believed would instantly change the world.

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 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 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. Since Johnson’s opponent, Barry Goldwater, was a staunch opponent of these laws, he 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, publically 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, playing a key role in 2014 Republican successes, and helping boost candidates like Donald Trump and Ted Cruz in 2016. 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, think of the impact of the young DREAM ACT advocates on moving America toward comprehensive immigration reform and on allowing students who come from undocumented backgrounds to continue their journey toward college. A student leader from Minnesota’s Winona State University recently told Paul about a meeting with her Wisconsin State Senator. She told him about one of her closest high school friends whose family was Bosnian and how she had to stop her education after high school. She and her peers were able to change the Senator’s vote on a state-wide bill to open up opportunities for undocumented students. Young activists have made a similar impact on gay rights and on environmental issues, for instance playing a key role in delaying and possibly now cancelling the Keystone XL pipeline.

Even though the Occupy movement collapsed from its own insularity, for a brief moment the mostly young people rallying in New York’s Zuccotti Park and similar public spaces throughout the country, increased media discussion of income inequality and unemployment, 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. Those who participated may even have helped set the stage for Bill de Blasio’s unexpected populist victory in the New York City mayoral race. So whatever the political values of our students, it’s important for them to understand the ways that electoral and non-electoral engagement can complement each other.

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 seventeenth 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 encourage students to volunteer in campaigns despite mixed feelings about particular candidates or even the electoral process in general, suggesting they make phone calls and knock on doors for those they prefer 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-ups 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. November’s election will have a significant impact on students’ lives, and perhaps even have an impact on our direction in the next few years. 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 UCLA’s 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.

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 involve 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 be distributing non-partisan candidate guides to statewide races. We’re also asking schools to use all 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.