Civic duty is not merely voting, but being informed

By: Josh Sabo

Come late October, columnists and bloggers across the country dust off their notes on political participation and write their annual columns declaring the end of our democracy or the further corruption of our government, based on what they project to be poorly attended polling locations across the country.

But I think people too often bemoan the lack of political participation among young people in particular (and the electorate generally) without thinking deeply about the ways that our politics are broken and how the discourse on these problems is so often inaccurate in capturing the sentiments of disillusioned Americans. In reflecting on these inaccuracies, I’d like to address a few misconceptions that might help us move away from the current, truly useless discourse of simultaneously lamenting our nation’s political institutions and lackluster political participation rates and towards some solutions from within American politics.

Xavier’s campus is in many ways a perfect setting for this discussion. Where else might one find a concentration of socially aware students still stricken with a malaise of political inactivism and participation? In my mind, political activism is a natural (if not the natural) extension of an awareness of social justice issues. The disconnect between this awareness and political activism on campus deserves further consideration.

A recent NBC News/Esquire survey placed 51 percent of Americans into what they called the “New American Center,” a variety of political ideologies characterized by a generally moderate (and indifferent) attitude towards American politics today. The fact that ideological moderation described a majority of Americans was not that surprising to me, but what was surprising was that their indifference seemed to unite them even more strongly than their moderate, though nuanced, stances on a variety of issues.

What is the source of this indifference? I would suggest that it is the daunting list of problems our nation faces and the apparent inability of our political institutions to address them. Our two-party system is broken, and these political machines seemingly represent a smaller and smaller portion of the country each election.

Now a lot of times people get this far. They say that political indifference is the problem and locate it statistically in poor turnout rates at the polls on a single Tuesday in November. Political involvement runs much deeper than voting on Election Day and the health of our democracy is determined by more than one day at the polls.

At the ballot box this year, you won’t be addressing gun control, student-loan debt, NSA spying or our national debtor drone attacks. On the local level, I have not seen serious discussions about child poverty, homelessness or education inequality.

Perhaps that is fitting, because I just have not seen a serious, informed dialogue on these issues happening on our campus or in our society more generally. But if this shows anything it illustrates that you cannot just vote on Election Day and think your civic duty is complete. Orienting that sentiment towards Xavier’s campus, it means you cannot just acknowledge and understand a social injustice without consciously and constantly acting towards reform. We study diligently to understand the unique contours of an individual problem, but when it comes time to organize and act to promote change, we are found spiritless.

Let me be clear: there is nothing that can replace your vote on Nov. 5. In fact, I make it a point to still vote in person on that day. There is something about participating in a civic culture with your fellow Americans that cannot be replaced by filling out an absentee ballot or early voting. Even more importantly, though, I recognize that feeling of civic engagement as one that I experience so rarely outside of that one day a year.

There’s an increasingly common sentiment in the United States that our country is on the decline. In the face of this, we react not with defiance but with certainty of this belief ’s validity and a consequent political indifference. I’m a strong believer that this is not the case, but first we must speak frankly and seriously about the problems that afflict our country’s electorate, rather than just denouncing our neighbors’ absences at the polls.

Josh Sabo is a senior history major who is also in the Philosophy, Politics and the Public program. He is from Dearborn Heights, Mich.