Is Political Apathy Rooted in Institutional Inefficacy in the U.S.? Summary

My research did not contain many surprises; it just opened a lot of possibilities for further research. I would like to highlight what I learned, why political participation is important, and where I would like to go from here.

Some possible solutions I gathered include:

  • Electoral reform
    • Proportional representation and alternative voting systems
    • Abolish or reform Electoral College
    • Weekend or federal holiday for voting days
    • Automatic or one stop shop registration
    • Compacting and streamlining elections
  • Cultural reform
    • Increase civic engagement education in school systems
    • Lower fundraising needs for elections and other distractions from constituents
    • Make effective change in tone of media output

However, fixing these individually would not do too much. If I have learned anything in my growing involvement in the political world, it is that every issue intersects with others more than most people really understand, and civic engagement is no exception. Targeting institutional inefficacies specifically would only make a dent in our engagement—an important dent, but just a dent nevertheless. If we really want to fix our political sphere, we have to work to improve the whole sphere, not the individual parts: the sum is greater than its parts. Perhaps this take sounds idealistic and naïve, and perhaps it is. But the new generations entering politics seem to be idealistic and seem to believe that a better system is possible; maybe a take that purports this broad and seemingly unrealistic idea as a successful one is something that we need to make it happen.

On an individual level, participating might seem like more effort than the award reaped. The paradox of democracy is that it makes ordinary people feel as if their vote does not count, but democracy does not work as well without widespread participation. “Bad officials are elected by good citizens who do not vote.” –George Jean Nathan. Civic engagement is important for the success of our country. If a large segment of the population does not participate, their voices go unheard and their opinions unvalued. Of course they will be ignored and consequently disgruntled with the result.

The problem is that the typical rational actor probably would not participate in our government: the cost of going to vote is greater than the benefit that one vote has the potential to create. A two-party system, single-member districts, the large quantity of elections, the Electoral College, Tuesday voting, voter registration laws, identification access, and other policies and systems built into the American way have made the political arena a difficult and exhausting one to navigate for someone who does not have the time, resources, or specific passion to dedicate to the cause. One vote hardly ever makes a difference for all of these hurdles to feel worth it to so many Americans, and that is understandable. But a lot of these systems can be changed if citizens join forces: one vote may not make much of a difference, but if one person gets five people out to vote that normally would not have done so and those five convince another five, that ripple effect can make a difference. Voting is only the most basic way to participate and is certainly the most direct way to alter these hurdles to make participation more convenient.

Of course, some of these systems are designed to dissuade voters. When I lament low participation, I also must acknowledge that I am coming from a place of privilege. Voting is easily accessible to me, and I was fortunate enough to be handed an education that informed me of these processes and sparked a desire to grow politically. Due to this, I consider myself responsible to pave the way for others: part of this responsibility is informing myself on the issue and the bigger part is to create meaningful change within the issue. The goal of this project was to accomplish the first, but if anything, my research has at least showed me that I actually have a much longer journey in understanding the issues before I can actually apply this knowledge, and I hope that during the remainder of my time at William and Mary I can start to understand the problem of political apathy much more deeply.