There is a general idea that there has been a steady decline in political participation over several decades, along with the belief that the decline is due to an ever increasingly apathetic youth generation. While it is true that political participation has seen a decline, it is has also seen an increase; political participation is a broad term describing a wide range of actions and differing levels of involvement. The decline of political participation has been for the large part referring to participation in the electoral aspect of political participation, however, unlike previous decades, there are more avenues for political participation than just voting. Still, the electoral decline is worrisome, because regardless of how many channels through which every eligible citizen may choose to champion or espouse their cause, the United States is still a democracy and voting on policies local and national is still a major channel to reflecting the change in the government one wishes to see.
If one is eligible to vote, and takes as many different political actions to ensure that their views are supported in government, but still chooses not to vote, it diminishes the impact of all their action. Look at the case of The Brick Café in my neighborhood and sidewalk seating. Every year, the Brick Café has to ask the city for permission for the sidewalk seating, and every year the same group of mothers, bike riders, dog owners, and senior citizens complain about how much space the outdoor seating takes up. Understandably, the sidewalks are not very wide, and their concerns are valid; crowded sidewalks can and often do result in a mélange of accidents. However, of this group of forty or so people, the most I’ve seen turn up at the meeting was ten.
This would not as alarming if it weren’t for the fact that many more than ten have created posters, fliers, and dialogue about not only voting against the outdoor seating but getting the city to do something about our crowded sidewalks. They were acting politically, but in the event where participation was key, few managed to show up. Without fail, this happens every year and this is a perfect example of why a decline in electoral participation is not only bad but also counter-productive. They were not citizens who were abstaining from all political participation; in fact, from them one saw 4 or 5 different methods of participation, but not the original, key method.
Thanks to technological advances, along with a broader spectrum of access to higher education, the options for political participation have expanded, along with the amount of people who take up these actions. Another factor in political participation is social status. Voting, well, anyone that is above the age limit and is registered is, in theory, able to vote. Practically, voting itself requires one to be educated about the candidates, their policies, their political background and also the issues at stake at the time of election; all of this undoubtedly requires a certain level of education and time for commitment to a cause, as following an election requires a time commitment beyond the act of voting itself, and not everyone can afford this time commitment. There is also the issue of other forms of political participation such joining a campaign, or creating a lobby organization. These channels require an even higher level of education in order to access the information, along with the financial backing required. Those with the education but lacking financial security, family connections, or the other means of joining a campaign or lobby organization, tend to stick to more direct and widespread methods. For example, the college student to circulates a petition on facebook asking for change in the American justice system, along with justice for Trayvon Martin. This petition could reach hundreds of thousands of people, even millions. It could lead individual actions such as letters to representatives or phone calls. However, it is still important that each of these individuals band together as a collective for a final act of voting for those who propose to install the changes they wish to see. Although many may feel otherwise, voting still carries a heavy weight in the swing of this country, and adding that weight to mass of political participation will result in, well, results.
The election of President Obama is the best example I have seen of individual actions bringing upon a change in the collective system. Obama was elected by a wide variety of people with a variety of beliefs but I will specifically discuss the individuals who are DreamActivist, or supporters of the Dream Act. The DreamActivists provided everything from current information on the Dream Act to the stances on immigration of the presidential candidates. They even provided their members with places where they could register to vote and downloadable registration forms. When it came time for elections, whether local or national, they made sure to send e-mails and text messages reminding members to vote. Once the DreamActivists saw that Obama had a positive stance on immigration and the Dream Act, the emphasis on voting was kicked up a notch. In the end, Obama was elected, and while I’m not crazy enough to say that the DreamActivists single-handedly got Obama into the White House, I do believe that they definitely had an impact. After all, that is the original aim of a democracy: the people have a say.
In conclusion, while political participation has not necessarily declined in general, the electoral aspect as seen a disappointing decrease, and we must fight this. Although I myself am not eligible to vote, I do not hesitate from encouraging everyone I know to vote. Perhaps it is because I feel I am sitting from on the outside, but I cannot stress how underappreciated the right to vote is. Although I can sign a petition, organize a protest, call my local councilmen/women, without the privilege of voting, I still feel that I have no say in what happens in the country that I’ll be living in for the rest of my life. That is exactly why, after everything, the decline is bad. Voting is more than simply doing you duty as a citizen, you are not voting to satisfy the government, you are voting because you have the right to a voice, to a choice, to participation in policies that will affect you and your family.
The decline in voting is bad not necessarily because it is showing a decrease in political participation, but more because it is showing a lack of connection between citizen and country. Everyone who is an adult citizen, regardless of social or financial class, has the right to vote. It is the grand unifier and equalizer, because regardless of who you are outside that booth, your vote has the same value as else. Everyone’s vote counts as one, but a million votes means a change. Each citizen counts, and each citizen has a voice, but a million voices is thunder. Citizens are what make the country what it is, and if the citizens do not feel connected to their country, then that is definitely a more worrisome issue than the decline of voting.