LOS ANGELES, September 20, 2014 — Wednesday marked the 227th anniversary of the signing of the United States Constitution. The document remains the foundation of American law, a testament to the resiliency of that guiding document. But a survey by the Annenberg Public Policy Center shows that only 36 percent of Americans can actually name the three branches of government the Constitution created.
That was once taught in grade-school civics lessons; the fact that less than half of Americans know the branches of government is pretty pathetic.
As the Washington Post observed, “it shows a huge percentage of Americans might need to take a civics refresher course.”
That’s an understatement. The state of this country’s electoral engagement is depressing. A quick perusal of my Facebook and Twitter feeds shows people focused on: 1) Domestic violence in the NFL, an organization whose problems go way beyond a few players; 2) Apple enthusiasts standing in line for days to pay from $200 to almost $900 for the latest iPhone; and finally, 3) income inequality and the minimum wage, and demands that the government raise the federal rate.
My question is, how many of these people who demand the government “do something” have actually bothered to vote or to track the votes of their elected representatives on their pet issues? It’s a good guess that it is probably about the percentage of people who know the three branches of our government — less than half.
The Post article pointed to a grassroots organization, the Civics Education Initiative, who are pushing to include more civics education in high schools. They want students to pass the same citizenship test that immigrants take when they apply to become U.S. citizens.
The group plans to introduce legislation in seven states that would make passage of the citizenship test a requirement to graduate. That’s a step in the right direction, but does not solve the problem of voting-age Americans who are choosing either not to vote, or who vote the same way they vote on American Idol: They like the way the candidate looks and sounds, yet know (or care) little about the candidate’s record or policies.
It is no surprise that many Americans were captivated by the goings-on in Scotland, where the citizens of that protectorate turned out in droves to vote on independence from the United Kingdom. The nays had it, with 55 percent voting against, but the telling factor was the turnout: 85 percent of Scots came out to the polls. This reflects a decisive commitment by the people of Scotland to have their voices heard, and a strong example of the democratic process.
We could take a lesson from the Scottish people, who cared enough about the fate of their future to engage in the process. In the 2012 United States Presidential election, a little more than half of the citizenry came out to vote. According to the Bipartisan Policy Center, the exact number was 57.5 percent. This was a drop from 2008, when 62.3 percent of eligible citizens appeared at the polls.
According to the Center, that figure was below the 60.4 level of the 2004 election, but higher than the 54.2 percent turnout in the 2000 election.
This is shameful. As an African-American woman, I know men and women fought and died so that I could have this right, and I never forget it as I take the time to educate myself on issues and candidates before filling out a ballot. Yet so many other Americans are more concerned about the season finale of The Walking Dead or who got voted off the last Dancing with the Stars than they are about who is running their city councils.
The bigger question is, faced with important cultural and national issues such as income inequality, gender inequality, the militarization of the police, and domestic violence, why do we demand or expect so much from a government that we take little to no initiative to participate in?
In April, a Harvard University Institute of Politics survey polled 18-29 year-olds on the electoral process. It found the usual cynicism about politics, a distrust of the institutions of American government, and concerns about economic inequality. We have known this for quite some time. What is most disturbing is the “low interest in voting in the midterm elections.” If government institutions cannot be trusted, then who will change them if we do not take a stand, engage, and vote accordingly?
The midterm elections may be more influential than the Presidential election in 2016, because it is a vote to change the makeup of the body that creates the laws under which we live, not just choose the one who is supposed to execute them. One affects the other, and attention and action now means a different result in 2016.
Americans’ refusal to engage because “it doesn’t make a difference anyway” is apathetic foolishness. The refusal to vote is an automatic abdication of power — power that was bought and paid for with blood. A friend tells his friends who do not vote, “You know you just handed me more decision-making power, right?” He is spot on.
Why do Americans take no thought to constantly giving away their power and going on default when it comes to the issues that affect their everyday lives? Elections have consequences. We already see this in the confused mess that President Obama is making of foreign policy, and the current gridlock in the houses of Congress.
Yet Americans not only keep handing power to their fellow citizens who do vote, and who may or may not have their interests at heart, but they keep handing more power to corporate cronies, thieves, wolves, and liars who only have their own interests in mind. These entities work very hard to use their money, time, and votes, knowing that they can and do change government for their benefit. Yet we treat our process like we treat last week’s tabloid—old news to be discarded rather than recycled material to create a better product, i.e., a better government for our benefit, not theirs.
The wholesale takeover of our government — whether it is by political interest, special interest, or bought-and-paid-for candidates — is a direct result of a disengaged electorate who fails to tap into its power and continues to abdicate its authority. We are like that frog in a pot of water where the heat is slowly rising; we need to leap out and take action before we are boiled to death.