The strength of democracy depends heavily on active, engaged citizens – people who are building communities, solving public problems, and participating in the political and electoral processes. The younger generation is a significant and growing demographic. In 2000, the estimated population of young people between the ages of 15 and 25 was 42.2 million. The U.S. Department of Education reports that college enrollment hit a record level of 17.1 million in the fall of 2004, and enrollment is expected to increase by an additional 14 percent between 2004 and 2014. There are many college-age voters to engage.
Unfortunately, civic disengagement is especially prevalent among our nation’s youth. There seems to be a generation gap in civic engagement. Americans growing up in recent decades vote less often than their elders, pay less attention to politics, and show lower levels of social trust and knowledge of politics.
Some believe that the excessive individualism of American culture has created a society which is increasingly polarized and fragmented. There is little sense of being united by shared values. Goals of personal advancement and gratification dominate the younger generations. This is frequently at the expense of broader social, moral, and spiritual meaning. This generation of college students is cynical and distrustful of government, apathetic and indifferent toward public affairs, unknowledgeable about politics, self-centered, and generally unconcerned with society.
We are becoming a nation of spectators. Few people actively participate in the democratic process. Some argue that by not voting is to withdraw from the responsibilities of democracy. Since young people earned the right to vote in 1971, however, electoral turnout among 18-24 year olds has repeatedly been the lowest of any age group and has been declining with each election, dropping from 42% in 1972 to 28% in 2000.
Voter participation is merely the most visible symptom of a broader disengagement from civic life. Political knowledge and interest in public affairs are also critical to civic involvement. Research has demonstrated that young people are considerably less knowledgeable of and interested in political affairs. Only 26% of students entering college expressed an interest in keeping up with politics.
A recent study found that most everything college students have learned, seen, or heard about politics makes them believe that politics is not about solving problems. They believe that politics is individualistic, divisive, negative, and often counterproductive to acting on the ills of society.
While the above statistics paint a dim picture for the future of political involvement, we are seeing signs of an increase in political activity among college students. This was seen most vividly in political participation and young voter turnout in the 2004 election. A study by Harvard University’s Institute of Politics in 2003 found that 82% of college students planned to vote in the 2004 General Election, 81% thought their vote would matter, and 45% were closely following the election. Moreover, 21% (up from 7% in 2002) said they had participated in a political organization, and 35% attended a political rally.
A growing movement on college campuses is defining a different kind of politics. This movement enables students to find participatory, inclusive, open, creative, and deliberative ways of addressing public problems. Many students are deeply involved in non-traditional forms of engagement. Many look at this as a sign that today’s students are beginning to think and act politically. Students prefer “political engagement,” rather than “politics” to describe the various strategies students use within the public realm to create change. Some things that students are doing include putting pressure on entities that do business in countries that routinely violate human rights and are boycotting corporations to protest socially irresponsible business practices. These small, but organized efforts seem to be working.
In 2004, six nonpartisan groups spent over $40 million to get out the youth vote. They used many methods, but found that the Internet is a great way to reach technology-minded college students. Some web activity is political. 61% of college students had participated in online political discussions or visited a politically oriented Web site. On average, college students belong to almost four Facebook advocacy groups. According to a Tufts study, Facebook tends to be used more for advocacy of Democratic political candidates and liberal or Democratic causes than for Republican candidates or conservative or Republican causes.
When asked which political party they identify with, 32-42% of college students identify as Republican or Republican-leaning and 37-49% of college students identify as Democratic or Democratic-leaning. There are often campus organizations supporting both parties, as well as others.
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