If you asked the students at my university to name their state representatives, many would be unable to do so. If you asked the students at my university to name one bill up for a vote in the next legislative session, most would be unable to do so. If you asked the students at my university if they think government in inherently corrupt, most would say yes. This attitude isn’t unique to college students, however, as the political apathy of the average college student reflects the political apathy of the general American populace. The decline in voting numbers over the past few decades is disheartening. For instance, in the last presidential election voter turnout was lower than it has been in two decades. There also seems to be a general decline in in the trust and respect of government offices with people using phrases like, “we need to drain the swamp,” or “I don’t want to vote for a career politician.” Even with the increase in political activism spurred by the 2016 election, there has not been an increase in knowledge of laws, legislators, or even a full grasp of the political process. However, it is important to know these details. If someone is protesting to protect state and federal funding for Planned Parenthood, they need to know the complex web of politics that surrounds it, otherwise they will simply be another body in a protest. People have to do more than just protest. They have to be able to hold conversations with their legislators around the issues they are passionate about.
It is important for the people who have the the greatest impact on the tone of debate in American society be well-informed and articulate. As a political science student I study how the U.S government functions, what ineffective and effective policy looks like, and what the challenges to liberal democracy are. In class I sometimes hear my fellow political science students say things like “people are dumb.” This is often espoused when a professor sites dismal numbers for voter turnout, or approval ratings for a particularly bad politician. I always wonder why the initial reaction to the failing of the American political system is to blame the American population rather than ourselves. If we study this stuff daily, why haven’t we been able to make Americans care about the political process?
Political science students make politics a part of their everyday lives. It’s what we study, what we debate, what we read, watch, and listen to. Many Americans find politics distasteful, upsetting, and corrupt and thus shy away from participating. To remedy this politicians need to stop looking at their constituents as lazy and start looking at what they’re doing to encourage participation beyond town halls and coffee hours. It is not enough to email constituents, the constituents have to be asked with the day to day governing as well. Politically minded people need to address the fact that American democratic literacy is becoming increasingly more difficult for the general populace. Why is this? Some simple reasons might be that academic papers regarding important issues such as voting rights, the legislative process, or even policy papers remain out of reach for those not entrenched in political theory. Another reason perhaps is the stigma around politics that reflects a patriarchal power structure that can be both demeaning and cruel. Often political discourses is engaged in to be won, and this is a frustrating attitude for people who aren’t professional debaters, or whose personality doesn’t lend to argumentation.
This is the central paradox of majoritarian democracy. Corruption makes people less likely to be involved in government, and that is precisely when people need to get involved in the most. Governments get away with corruption when everyone involved agrees to do nothing. If America claims to be a majoritarian democracy, there should be no excuse for corruption. The common greek phrase is “who watches the watchman,” and in essence this means that everyone is accountable for watching the people elected to watch over us. The responsibility for corruption rests with every American citizen that refuses to do their job. But there is more responsibility on those people whose job it is to analyse and explain the political process but who make it more difficult for all Americans to understand and participate in their government.