Where Has Civic Identity Gone?
The voter turnout for the 2016 Presidential election showed that only 58% of eligible voters turned out for the election. This is up only ½ of a percent from 2012 which was 57.5%. Correlating with the drop in voter turnout Americans also participate less in social groups and activities that enhance their civic identity and skills needed to be able to participate in political activities such as grassroots efforts and protests. Joining voluntary associations such as clubs and groups that come together for a common goal gives members a chance to enhance trust between one another and to learn skills that allow them to organize and mobilize groups for a particular cause of action. America use to be a nation of joiners. After WWII there was a club or committee for everything. From fixing potholes in town to a committee to get a neighborhood swimming pool. These groups and committees allowed for citizens to cultivate trust and civic skills such as setting up events, protests, gaining petition signatures, and forming a campaign to achieve something and apply them to the civic sphere. As adults participate less and less in this voluntary organizations so to do they not participate in the civic sphere anymore. Whether it be not turning out to vote, voice their opinion at a town meeting, or joining political protest, the number of citizens that participate has fallen.
Out of the many reasons that people don’t turn out to voice their opinions in politics the most important is they feel that their opinions and voice go unheard by those that are supposed to be listening to them which diminishes trust between one another. The social-capital or trust that is built between one another to join groups, work towards a common goal, or to vote is missing. Whether it be that their representative is taking in money from big corporations and doing what they want or a committee wont listen to you simply because their view doesn’t match yours. Why voice opinions if they know they are not going to be heard, why take the time?
People nowadays are also so over opinionated that they do not let others who have differing opinions to voice them. Not allowing for a calm and collective debate to find solutions to problems does not allow for a critical trusting bond to be made. Citizens want to participate more when they trust that what they have to say is being taken into consideration when an outcome to a problem is being deliberated. When they are not heard they more or less feel alone and think to themselves “why should I trust you to do this for me.” Likewise they feel like their vote doesn’t matter because their representative is not listening to them.
When citizens voices are not represented either by voting or in a committee of some sort it undermines our democracy. Therefore it makes it so only the majority is heard and not the minority. Ostracizing the minority because their views do not add up to the majorities and for the sheer fact that they are in the minority makes them not want to vote or voice their opinion because it won’t matter anyways, they think that no matter what they are going to lose.
Another reason that people do not vote or participate in the public sphere is because their distrust in the government. After the Vietnam war and the Watergate scandal people starting distrusting the government which in turn made them withdraw from participating in government activities. The citizens during the times of Vietnam and Watergate held the grudge that the government lied to them and passed this grudge onto their children.
There are many ways that we can turn this around and get more citizens to enter the civic sphere to gain trust between one another, to listen to one another, and the necessary skills to campaign, protest, and set up grassroots mobilization. Firstly it all starts out with youths, their parents, and their political environment. Parents who shun politics in the household or do not allow for debate on current and ongoing issues show their children at a young age to not voice their opinions outloud. These children are also less inclined like their parents before them to join voluntary organizations that bolster civic skills and trust. These organizations like student council and social clubs all have positive impacts on skills needed to gain civic identity and build trust with each other to accomplish tasks. Being able to debate a problem in student council to find a solution to a school wide problem allows for students to build trust with one another. Even if the outcome is not satisfactory for one group knowing that they were listen to makes them more inclined to voice their opinions on other topics. They can then take this trust into their adult lives and have the sense that they can voice their opinions or vote without being alienated. Parents should allow their children to ask questions about the political atmosphere of our country and when they can they should answer these questions to the best of their knowledge.
Public Education should be teaching our children civic skills in the classroom as well. Promoting debate and not limiting it. Nowadays you see universities silencing students from both sides of the political spectrum because what they have to say is too “inflammatory” or not in line with their own views. When public institutions allow for this silencing it does more harm them good. When a higher authority such as a school does this it shows that its okay to silence others who you don’t agree with rather than listening to them. Lower education should be teaching our children how to debate peacefully and how to have a meaningful conversation that allows for everyone's views to be heard no matter how others feel about them. When one side silences the other it seriously diminishes trust and drive a bigger wedge in between the two sides to which one feels less inclined to participate again.
Citizens should also feel the obligation to recall representatives that don’t listen to their constituency. A little known fact is that the public can recall their representative out of office if they are not holding their obligation to the community in which they serve. When citizens think that their representatives are not representing them they feel discouraged to vote again because they think that anyone else is more than likely going to do the same thing. Thats where these civic skills learned in these voluntary organizations come into play. Being able to mobilize a group to a certain action, such as a recall, will bolster trust between the group members to accomplish the task of getting that representative out of office and put to someone there who will work on behalf of the people. Once thats achieved people will keep voting and voicing their opinions in the public sphere when they know they are being listened to.
It cannot be stressed enough about how trust and social capital plays into if people vote. If you do not trust people to listen or accomplish tasks it will allow for citizens to withdraw from the public sphere which does harm. Not allowing for a meaningful debate where all sides are heard diminishes our representative democracy where we pride ourselves on being heard and being able to voice our opinions without the fear of being shunned from the community. Coming together and allowing for debate without fear of being silenced builds trust and will draw more citizens opinions into the civic sphere and allow them to gain skills and abilities to participate in political movements and agenda’s. Joining voluntary associations allows people to build trust in one another and with that trust it allows them to pass it on to other people and they can take that trust to the political stage where they can apply it.