Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Overcoming student cynicism

My Vote Doesn't Matter - and other errors of judgement
My Vote Doesn’t Matter”:
Helping Students Surmount Political Cynicism
By Paul Loeb, Alexander Astin, and Parker J, Palmer

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 2010 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. For
instance, Ohio’s student participation rate dropped from 69 percent to
22 percent, Wisconsin’s from 66 percent to 19 percent, and Florida’s
from 61 percent to 19 percent.

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
theyd 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. For
instance, Ohio’s student participation rate dropped from 69 percent to
22 percent, Wisconsin’s from 66 percent to 19 percent, and Florida’s
from 61 percent to 19 percent. (The Ohio figure is based on a small
sample, but fits the larger pattern). Student participation dropped
significantly in nearly every state.

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.”

For those of us who follow elections closely, this is one of high
stakes, with salient differences between the two major parties. It’s
also a key election for American higher education, given the fiscal
pressures that both individual students and most campuses are facing.
Because it’s a presidential year, more students will undoubtedly vote
in 2012 than in 2010. But for many, across the political spectrum, the
links between issues and candidates seem tangential and remote. If we
want them to fully participate, we need to create a commons where they
can reflect on issues and candidates, and provide a rationale for why
their involvement matters.


This means offering examples of how close electoral races can be,
educating students on issues and candidates, and making the case that,
even if their preferred candidates will not usher in the millennium,
working to elect them is still worthwhile--in part because it will
allow students to keep pressing them on all the issues they care

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. Students may assume that their votes will be inconsequential,
but multiplied by those of all their peers, they matter, time and

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.

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, student
financial aid, and likely Supreme Court appointments. 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.” That’s
something we can help with as educators, promoting both classroom and
co-curricular discussions about where candidates actually stand.

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.

That’s particularly true in the current election, where many students
are dealing with dashed hopes from 2008, and students of all
perspectives have ambivalent responses to both presidential
candidates. In Obama’s case, because his campaign drew so strongly on
slogans of hope and change, and because so many students supported
him, one-time supporters are particularly wrestling with


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

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. They
obviously received a boost from financial backers like the Koch
Brothers, and from conservative media. But 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, the Occupy movement similarly
shifted initial public debate. Discussion of income inequality and
unemployment rose dramatically in the major media in response to the
(mostly young) people rallying in New York’s Zuccotti Park and similar
public spaces throughout the country, targeting financial institutions
they considered responsible for widening America’s economic divides.
The movement 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. The movement highlighted our
distribution of wealth in a way that liberal economists had been
trying and failing to do for decades. And many students still seem
passionately interested in what’s happened with it. But because Occupy
has been so adamantly non-electoral in its approach, and often
ambivalent about coalitions with allies like unions, its impact on
political policies and choices has so far been muted.

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. This
election will affect students profoundly, as will future ones, 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.

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