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Guest op-ed: Getting young people to engage in politics

By Justin Stapley - Special to the Standard-Examiner | Oct 8, 2021

Justin Stapley

The why is just as important as the how.

How do we get young people to vote and engage in politics? There is extreme difficulty in answering this question. Part of this difficulty arises from the different places this question might arise.

Various political and ideological interests, as well as different sociological perspectives, would ask such a question for different reasons and might have very different outcomes in mind. Given these realities, we must consider the who, when, where and why different interests and perspectives intend when they posit how to increase voter participation from younger citizens.

In answering these questions, we would discover that higher voter participation in any demographic is not in itself the cure to our society’s ailments, not if they participate as unwary tools of interests happy to use them without adequately educating them.

As our first example, we can look at a TED Talk by Mindy Romero from five years ago, “The Power of the Youth Vote.” In the first several minutes of her presentation, she presents a list of movements that young people have engaged in. Her list includes the anti-war movement, the environmental movement, Occupy Wall Street, the gay rights movement and Black Lives Matter.

She also later asserts her belief that the students listening to her presentation are far more informed than the average American voter. From just these two moments of her presentation, we can infer that the “who” she is talking about when she says she wants higher voter participation by the youth is very specifically college students. It’s also clear that her “why” is to effect socially liberal and progressive change in government and the culture.

Other prominent political figures might agree with Romero’s desire to get young people more involved in politics, but with motivations that are a world apart. As our second example, we can look to Charlie Kirk, founder and president of Turning Point USA and chairman of Students for Trump.

Last year, Kirk was one of the key speakers at the 2020 Republican National Convention. He’s also created an extensive network of on-campus organizations that have mobilized young voters in support of the Republican Party and former President Donald Trump.

While claiming to champion limited government and free markets, TPUSA has strongly influenced the trend towards populism and nationalism in the American right. The who, when, where and why motivations of Kirk couldn’t demonstrate more of a polar opposite to Romero’s and other left-wing proponents of active youth participation in our elections.

But besides a desire for more participation by young people in politics and elections, there is another thing that both Romero and Kirk have in common: a desire to wield the young vote as a weapon toward desired ends.

Here we have an underlying factor that could very well provide an answer as to why participation is so low, why efforts to increase participation have had little impact, and what sorts of actions could offer a path forward, not only for more voter participation from young citizens but how to craft responsible and knowledgeable citizens with a sense of civic virtue and an appreciation for the systems that allow them the role they can have (a role still denied to many young citizens elsewhere).

Romero was precisely right when she mentioned the failure of civics education in America’s educational system. The failure is so acute that her belief that the students she spoke with are more informed than most Americans rings hollow.

The average American high school graduate enters adult life with math and science skills they are unlikely ever to utilize, and yet has little to no understanding of the system of government they are now empowered to participate in, the system of laws they are expected to navigate, nor the historical context of why things are the way they are. Instead, they’ve been immersed in the social sciences and have come to see the world around them through the prisms of conflict theory and with an eye for social justice.

The very movements that Romero mentions provide excellent examples of the average young American’s failure to grasp history, politics and the systems they are inheriting. The Occupy movement, for example, was begun by an amalgamation of anti-consumerists, socialists and anarcho-communists. Many young people who participated in these protests would be hard-pressed to understand the underlying motivations of any of these ideas. But they’ve been conditioned to view any inequality of outcomes as emblematic of systematic and systemic injustice. Therefore, they step forward and participate in acts they view as “speaking truth to power.” They willingly weaken and tear down the institutions they view as corrupt and unjust.

But this phenomenon is hardly only seen on the political left. Young Americans with conservative backgrounds, similarly ill-prepared for responsible and knowledgeable citizenship but rejecting a left-wing narrative in favor of a right-wing one, are ripe candidates for radicalization by other ideological forces.

While Kirk’s TPUSA flirts with nationalism, other youth movements, such as the Groypers, have begun popping up over the last half-decade and providing a young and aggressive cadre for a full embrace of alt-right views, including ethnic nationalism, neofascism and neoconfederatism.

There are forces of contention in American politics today that poison any attempt to increase voter participation in any bloc of American society. Leaders and influencers from both sides of the political aisle claim to know each demographic’s interests and work to mobilize them toward those interests. Any one member of a given demographic who stands independent of a narrative is considered by their peers not to be a genuine member of that demographic. (Joe Biden’s comments on Black voters during the 2020 election is a case in point: “If you have a problem figuring out whether you’re for me or Trump, then you ain’t Black.”)

The goal should not only be to increase voter participation among young people. Voting should be the culmination of civic engagement. As I myself stated last month in an article for the Salt Lake Tribune about the problem of voter participation in general:

“Instead of only focusing on a single, narrow political exercise, we should be doing what we can to create and cultivate a culture of complete civic engagement. Not only should we advocate for better and more extensive school instruction on these important subjects, but they should be dinner table conversations. We should be asking our children basic questions, challenging them to think through political issues, and teaching them to articulate their thoughts effectively. We should be challenging ourselves to engage with our friends and neighbors in respectful dialogue about the difficult topics of politics and government.

“We must reacquire the broader perspective that, while failing to vote is a failure to exercise an important right, failing to vote as an informed and engaged citizen is a more significant failing of the important civic duties of responsible citizenship. The problem ultimately facing our nation is the absence of civic virtue and astute engagement. By redirecting our efforts towards these underlying problems, the issue of voter participation will likely solve itself.”

Justin Stapley is a student at Utah Valley University studying political theory and constitutionalism. He works part time as a research assistant at UVU’s Center for Constitutional Studies.

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