Is Political Apathy Rooted in Institutional Inefficacy in the U.S.? Post #1

This summer, I participated in William & Mary’s Study in DC program and interned at a Virginia Congressman’s office on Capitol Hill. I had no idea that I would end up in the heart of politics this summer when I first created my Freshman Monroe Research proposal, and it made for an incredible experience that simultaneously got the gears turning in my head for this research project I was preparing to complete following the congressional internship and DC Summer Institute.


My summer research project focuses on the lack of civic engagement in the U.S. Why do we have such low voter turnout in comparison to other similarly developed countries? Why do most people seem to have political opinions but shy away from expressing them, especially at the polls? Why are so many people so uninformed about elections and our processes?


I am undoubtedly an idealist, so while my realizations and conclusions most likely seem like obvious facts of life to others, I personally needed a lot of time, exposure, and experience to come to terms with a lot of these conclusions: broadly speaking, everything is much more complicated than it seems—or than I am usually willing to admit.


Originally, my question was whether or not institutional inefficacy—that is, poor systems we have in place in our government—are to blame for our remarkable political apathy as a country. The question itself was naïve from the start: each problem we may have that leads to apathy is so interwoven with all of the other problems that it almost does not make sense to label any problem as only institutional. Every issue is intersectional, especially because as a group of people, Americans are not homogeneous. No group of people is homogenous, really, and so assuming that one type of solution can fix the vast majority of the varying issues that face us all is mistaken at best and dangerous at the worst.


For example, Tuesdays as voting days can impact voter turnout. Voting procedures represent an institutional aspect of the problem, because they are a system we have in place. But we can look at the voting day from a different perspective when we think about why it can be problematic. The more affluent a person is, the less of a problem Tuesday hours would likely be because they may not have to work, they can take time off work, they do not have to work long or inflexible hours, they have other resources at their disposal to take care of other detractors to voting (like kids, errands, car troubles, and much more), etc. Suddenly, this becomes a rational-material issue because lack of resources is at play in low turnout. If the voting day were moved to a Sunday or a federal holiday, that would likely produce a turnout change—though the significance of the change is questionable—but the resource gap would persist. The problem with Tuesday does not fit neatly into any box, and the same conundrum presents itself with many other possible explanations. My question seems more impossible the longer I look into the problem.


Before I began this project, I thought that the product of my work would be a literature review, synthesizing other scholars’ understandings of U.S. civic engagement; I hoped that with enough searching, I would be able to put two and two together and find a magical solution to bump up our participation rates at incredible speed. I was looking for an easy fix, to say the least, and I thought I would stumble across a plethora of information. Once I started researching, I discovered that while there is a lot of research on this topic, there is not enough research in specific areas of this topic in which I am interested. This project is only the beginning of a long journey in my passion of engaging others with democracy as well as the surrounding world. Accordingly, the final product of my research will resemble more of a journal in which I look at the ideas I have processed and organize them as a basis for what I hope to be able to research in more depth in the future.