Apathy or Disconnect? There’s a Difference

Katie Miller

If you are a young adult, you have probably heard it countless times: our generation just does not care about politics. We do not feel bound by the civic duty to vote that our parents and grandparents highly valued. We are more invested in the fictional lives of television characters than we are in the social and political issues that our country faces. Those who believe this also seem to suggest that our generation’s apparent apathy spells disaster for the fate of our nation. If we do not care, who will?

According to University of California Political science professor Russell Dalton [1], however, the apathy argument grossly oversimplifies what is in reality a crucial change in the political culture of contemporary American society. Americans are not growing more apathetic, according to Dalton; the modes of participation are simply changing. Yes, fewer young Americans are voting. At the same time, however, more young Americans are turning to alternate, more direct forms of political participation, which Dalton refers to as “engaged citizenship norms.” He cites evidence that, more so than ever, Americans are active in civil service groups, political rallies, and public interest groups. Rather than threatening the fate of American democracy, this shift simply broadens the horizon of democracy and reflects a societal shift away from conformity and towards individualism.

It is hard to argue with Dalton’s logic; the research speaks for itself. What Dalton fails to address, however, and what is crucial in the 2012 election, is the large segment of the population that is, in fact, completely disengaged with American politics. The New York Times [2] refers to these Americans as “struggling young adults,” and they consist of millions of citizens aged 18-29 without a college education who suffer from high levels of unemployment.

While it would be overly optimistic to argue that every Vanderbilt student cared about politics, overall Dalton’s argument rings true for the campus as a whole. Many students will not vote in the election and do not participate in politics, but the student body as a whole is engaged—whether it is in interest groups directly related to politics or other clubs and organizations that focus on some issue, cause, or interest. This is not necessarily the case for those struggling young adults across the country, for whom making ends meet is more of a direct priority.  For these Americans, there is a significant disconnect from the realm of American politics and daily life, and it only seems to be growing larger.

Both President Barack Obama and Governor Mitt Romney are making last-minute efforts to appeal to these citizens, but overall the bulk of the campaign effort on both sides has been directed to those young Americans already more likely to vote. This speaks to an alarming trend in political culture: the growing divide between the educated upper and middle classes and the less educated and less economically stable lower class. Unemployed young adults are not participating not because they do not care, they are not participating because they feel disconnected from what can sometimes appear to be a process dominated by political elites [2].

This trend is significant not just to the presidential election but also to the future of American politics. As more young adults enter the competitive job market and find themselves unemployed and struggling to make ends meet, the gap between those who participate politically and those who believe their voice carries no influence only continues to widen. Society may no longer be dominated by the social and racial hierarchies that defined our parents’ and grandparents’ generations. It may come to be defined by this worsening class divide, and if this is the case, American democracy could evolve to represent only those opinions of the educated, upper classes, contributing to the growing rift in society.

Dalton may be right in saying that direct political involvement is increasing across the country. At the same time, however, America is progressively growing more and more divided by a disconnect from politics that threatens to redefine the social structure of our country. If any candidate hopes to bridge this gap, he or she needs to appeal directly to the rising group of young American citizens that feels alienated by and removed from government before politics becomes a concern of only the wealthy and educated.

[1] http://www8.georgetown.edu/centers/cdacs/cid/daltonoccasionalpaper.pdf

[2] http://www.nytimes.com/2012/09/20/us/politics/struggling-young-adults-pose-challenge-for-campaigns.html?_r=2

[Image Credit:]