Should Politics Be Fun?
As the 2016 elections approach, the missing youth electorate is becoming an increasingly prevalent story. Despite a slight upwards tick of youth participation in President Obama’s victories in 2008 and 2012, the 2014 midterms saw the lowest youth voting rate in the last forty years, with only 19% of 18-29 year-olds casting a vote.
The results, coupled with other recent studies, including one completed by academics Jennifer Lawless and Richard Fox in the book “ Running From Office: Why Young Americans Are Turned Off From Politics”, in which the authors find that 89% of surveyed high school and college students have no interest in becoming an elected official, clearly demonstrate that young people are not interested in politics. The more nuanced emerging narrative is that young people do have a strong commitment to public service, but see an ability to have more impact outside of the political system.
Politics, however, still matters. While the rationale given by many young people for their lack of political participation is that the system is broken, that logic only leads to an even more corrupt system. Whatever your political persuasions, the fact remains that we are not going to solve issues like immigration, inequality, health care, and the myriad of other pressing public problems without public policy solutions. Thus, a vigorous debate needs to occur on how to get young people tuned onto politics. It is the only way that the broken system will actually be repaired.
Many of the proposed solutions to the conundrum of engaging young people in politics come back to a core tenet: “How can we meet young people where they’re at?” How can we use social media to engage young people in politics? Online games? Can we relate popular culture to politics? Can we get hip celebrities to talk about how important politics are, like this 2012 music video from Rock the Vote, “Turn Out for What?” At the core of all these efforts is a desire to make politics fun and hip. But should political engagement be about fun and games? Or is it about the serious business of individuals working to collectively solve the thorny public issues that face our country? Should we be trying to get young people to eat their proverbial broccoli? Or should we be deep-frying the broccoli and sprinkling cheese on top to make it taste better?
This question is becoming increasingly pertinent given the entertainment-bent of the current 2016 election, which is seemingly devolving into a reality show, led by the perfect reality show candidate. Coverage of the Republican primary has received unprecedented TV ratings, and CNN treated the run-up to their recent debate like a heavyweight boxing match-up, rather than a discussion on substantive policy issues to help decide the next leader of the free world. Is this our new politics? Games, pop culture, and celebrity-focused?
Just as politics should not just be about entertainment, it also should not be completely about white papers and hefty intellectual discussions- that type of wonkiness, while necessary, tends to turn off a significant portion of the electorate. But some sort of middle ground does exist. Politics can be fun, especially when it’s locally based. Generation Citizen tries to teach our students that engaging with community members to use policy to solve problems can and should be invigorating and fun. The act of going into a voting booth and pulling the lever can be fun. And yes, even watching debates can be fun.
But at the same time, politics can’t just be about fun- there is a serious aspect to it that requires a commitment to the actual democratic process, as messy and unsavory as it might sometimes be. Just as there are parts to any job that are not as fun, so it goes with political engagement. And while most professional athletes cherish the games and matches under the spotlight, the vast majority of their time is spent in the monotony of practice and training.
Political engagement can be fun. But it’s also necessary to rebuilding the fabric of American society. Participation in our democracy is a core tenet we implicitly agree upon as part of our social contract with this country. We try to teach this as part of Generation Citizen- that our young people not only have the right to participate in our political process, but also bear responsibility.
We, as a society, need to recognize this basic truth. As we seek to get young people more involved in politics, it can’t just be about meeting them where they are. It needs to be about convincing them of the duty of active citizenship. It’s not just about meeting them where they’re at- it’s about meeting halfway.
– Scott Warren
Generation Citizen is a nonpartisan, 501(c)3 tax exempt organization which does not endorse candidates; our goal is to engage our staff, participants, and stakeholders in political and civic action on issues that matter to them personally and in their communities. The opinions expressed in this blog post are those of the writer alone and do not reflect the opinions of Generation Citizen.
Photo from Rock the Vote via Youtube