The United States of America prides itself in being the leader of the free world. This great nation advocates for the adoption of democratic values by all nations in the world. Within its borders, democracy is highly valued and the political rights of the citizens are fiercely protected by the constitution. However, in spite of the high ideals that the US champions, it has emerged that the general population lacks adequate knowledge about the workings of the political system in the country.
Apparently, Americans know little and care less about their country’s politics. This state of affairs is detrimental to the democratic system, which requires the citizens to actively participate in the politics of the country in order to control public policy. This paper will set out to explain why Americans lack interest in political affairs affecting them and proceed to provide solutions that will increase participation and interest.
Current Trends in Political Involvement and Political Interest
The US has one of the lowest political participation figures among the industrialized nations. Political involvement is defined as the participation in activities that have some political significance, the most important of which is voting. Other activities include signing a petition, contributing money to a political organization, attending a political rally, contacting a government official about an issue, and volunteering for a political party to name but a few.
Research indicates that in the recent past, the rate of political participations in the US has been decreasing. Voter turnout during the 2012 presidential elections was at 57%, which represented a 5% decrease from the previous election. Polls carried out in October 2014 indicated that there was a larger share of voting age adults who would not be participating in the voting process during the midterm elections (Pew Research Center par.1). This group of non-voters included voting age adults who were not registered to vote and those who were registered but did not intend to vote.
At the same time, Americans seem to have a deep lack of interest in politics. Over the past two decades, Americans have demonstrated a profound ignorance about many aspects of government. Somin declares that overall, close to 33% of Americans “can be categorized as ‘know-nothing’ almost completely ignorant of relevant political information”(4). This view is supported by research findings on the political awareness levels of Americans. Welch reveals that nearly 33% of Americans do not know the name of the vice president and this proportion has been constant for the past 20 years (91). Only 25% are able to name their two senators while only 22% can name their US representative.
One might conclude that Americans are well informed about government policies due to the fact that they have opinions about issues such as taxation, foreign aid, and government size. However, their opinions are mostly based on misperceptions due to misinformation. For example, while most American’s feel that their government spends too much on foreign aid, they have no idea what this amount is. Polls indicate that the average American thinks that the country spends fifteen times more than it actually does on foreign aid. On the issue of government size, most Americans do not know if the federal government is expanding or shrinking.
Reasons for these Trends
There are a number of reasons behind the lack of interest in politics and lack of political involvement by Americans. Political participation in the US is voluntary and this contributes to the overall participation rates. Politics have to compete with work, family, social interests, and other daily activities that demand the attention of the individual.
Welch admits that it is hard work to stay informed and engage in the political process since this activity takes time and energy (92). Many individuals are too busy with their work and family, leaving them with little time for politics. Such people therefore avoid participating in the political process of the country. They also dedicate their free time to fun activities such as watching sports instead of keeping up with the political issues affecting the country.
Another reason behind the indifference to politics and a lack of political involvement is poor civic education. The education system in America does not place an emphasis on providing civic education to the students. While a lot of emphasis is placed on sciences, language and mathematics, students are not provided with comprehensive information about their government.
Somin notes that without a proper understanding of how politics affect the everyday life of the ordinary citizen, people are unlikely to engage in political participation (3). At the present, most Americans receive their entire political information from the media. In most cases, the media’s representation of the government is negative and incomplete. This leads to political apathy as most people get disillusioned by the government and the political leaders.
The structure of the American political system has contributed to poor political participation in some ways. The US has two dominant parties and a number of minor parties. However, most States do not allow the minor parties to participate in the major elections, meaning that voters do not have a variety of candidates. Many Americans therefore feel that there is no one on the ballot paper who represents their views. This leads to a lack of motivation to engage in the electoral process.
Finally, some Americans refuse to participate in politics since they feel that their vote does not make a difference in the running of the government. People are often encouraged to vote in order to have a say in the way the country is governed. However, many Americans feel that their individual vote does not make a difference.
Most of the important decisions are made at a high level of government and American’s feel that their voice is not considered. Many of the citizens who hold this view are the poorer and less educated members of the public. The Pew Research Center confirms this by noting that most non-voters do not have a college degree and about 50% of them come from low income households (par.5).
In addition to the poor and less educated, ethnic minorities have low political participation. The low participation among this groups leads to political inequality, which in turn makes many people indifferent to the political process. Somin explains that political inequality increases as voter turnout decreases since voter turnout decreases disproportionately across all groups in society (7). Consequently, the opinions expressed through the elections are biased in favor of those who participate in voting.
How to Make Americas More Active in Politics
Political participation, especially through voting, is considered an important indicator of democratic legitimacy. The political indifference demonstrated by Americans is therefore a threat to the democratic foundations on which the nation was built. Strategies should therefore be adopted to increase political participation by the citizenry.
The American public can be motivated to engage in politics by being provided with civic education. Providing civic education, to old and young citizens, would ensure that they have a basic comprehension of how the government works and their role in it. The citizens would learn to appreciate how much power they hold and how they can wield this power by being politically active in their communities.
Citizens should be encouraged to participate in social activities and be a part of community organizations such as community support groups, churches, school groups, and sports clubs to name but a few. Involvement in community organizations plays a part in mobilizing people for voting. Panagopoulos reveals that organizations such as churches have a positive impact on political participation in the community (270).
Such organizations disseminate political information such as raising awareness on morally-charged political issues. School groups are likely to sensitize the members on policies that affect the operations of the school. They also provide members with information on voting date and venues therefore increasing voter turnout. As such, we can make Americans more active in politics by encouraging them to engage in social activities and join organizations within their community.
Another way through which voter participation can be promoted is by praising and acknowledging members of the community that participate in the electoral process. High voter turnout is a desirable outcome in all democratic societies. Voter turnout is an important factor since higher levels of voter turnout are directly related to higher levels of equality in political participation. Voting is perceived as a social norm that all civic minded citizens are encouraged to engage in. Research by Panagopoulos indicates that social pressure can play a part in promoting voting (265).
Positive social pressure can stimulate voting by motivating pro-social behavior among the voting age adults in the country. Research reveals that activating prideful emotion motivates pro-social activity like participating in elections (Panagopoulos 267). Public recognition would generate prideful sentiments in the individuals that have engaged in voting. We can therefore promote voting in America by implementing a strategy that publicly recognizes the members of the community who have participated in voting. This action will exert positive social pressure for the non-voters to vote and therefore attain the distinction themselves.
This paper set out to discuss the political ignorance and apathy among Americans and provide some solutions to increasing participation and interest. It began by noting that while America is one of the most important democracies in the world its citizens are not as engaged in the political process. The paper documented the extent of this problem and went on to provide some reasons for this alarming trend. These reasons include a lack of time, poor civic education, and the feeling that participation is futile.
Promoting participation in politics and encouraging voting is crucial to giving government legitimacy. The paper listed some ways to make Americas more active in politics. They include educating the masses, encouraging community involvement, and recognizing citizens who participate in voting. Such efforts will have the positive effect of increasing political participation among American citizens. This will strengthen the democratic system in the US by ensuring that the government is a true reflection of the will of the people.
Panagopoulos, Costas. “Positive Social Pressure and Prosocial Motivation: Evidence from a Large-Scale Field Experiment on Voter Mobilization.” Political Psychology 34.2 (2013): 265-275. Web.
Pew Research Center. The Party of Nonvoters: Younger, More Racially Diverse, More Financially Strapped. 2014. Web.
Somin, Ilya. When Ignorance isn’t Bliss: How Political Ignorance Threatens Democracy. NY: CATO Institute, 2004. Print.
Welch, Susa. Understanding American Government. Cengage Learning, 2009. Print.