Tuning Out

There's an entire generation ready to get involved, but our current political climate is leaving them cold

Harvard University recently published its spring survey results, recounting the expected voting preferences for "Millennials" aged 18-29, including college undergraduates. Its findings should signal concern for Republicans and Democrats alike as the November 2014 elections draw near.

The survey found that fewer than one in four (23 percent) intend to vote in November, and there's an increasingly lower "trust in government" — the lowest in five years for young people. Even though self-described "conservative voters" have more energy for the November midterms, all elected officials should be disturbed that young voters are so disillusioned with politics and governmental institutions.

Lunchtime Politics, an online daily polling update, recently reported that only 22 percent of those polled favor re-electing their own Congressional representative, with 66 percent declaring they'd like to "look around" for someone new. Likewise, Americans have generally lost faith in President Obama. His "trustworthiness" scores have diminished due largely to Obamacare promises unfulfilled, perceptions of dishonesty relating to the IRS and Benghazi controversies, and his drawing of false "red lines" internationally. That's not good for either representative government or our voting obligations as citizens.

Likewise, many politicians have disappointed voters of all ages as a result of their intransigence on issues of the day, self-serving actions and silence about America's place in the world. Consequently, public cynicism reigns.

When a Republican congressman was recently photographed passionately kissing a staffer who was not his wife, public disgust ensued. When another Republican congressman was arrested and indicted on multiple fraud and tax evasion charges, the public was again let down. When a Democratic congressman claimed that opposition to Obama's policies are simply race-related, the public took issue and cynicism increased.

With the national economy stuck in low growth, few jobs and the burden of college student debt ever-present, millennial-aged voters are asking "Where's the hopefulness?" America has traditionally symbolized hope, where anything was possible with industriousness. PBS' American Experience has commented on the optimism of a century ago, when an American sense of assertion and its own purpose prevailed, stemming largely from the aftermath of the Civil War and the emergence of a new nation looking positively at its future, in spite of the racial problems that would burden America in the years ahead. That common purpose has dissipated for many young people.

Public officials, particularly American presidents, are generally charged with setting a national tone, urging the public forward on social, economic and foreign policy issues, to represent the best interests of all Americans for the greater good. For the past five years, we've seen optimism dampened, perhaps caused by America prosecuting two messy wars, a faltering economy, the current 24-hour news cycle and self-serving leaders who seem to care more about personal ambition and political drama than national progress.

Researchers from Princeton and Northwestern universities recently suggested that the U.S. political system is an oligarchy, dominated by special interest organizations and the economically elite, instead of the majority of voters. President and Mrs. Obama haven't helped that perception by vacationing lavishly and spending extravagantly while the rest of America is hurting.

Under these circumstances, how can the U.S. re-engage young voters and students who will become the next generation of leaders?

For starters, the quality of congressional leaders needs improvement. Leaders should be elected to serve the public good, not personal ambitions. Millennials want to believe in a candidate's goodness, large purposes and credibility. They also need early exposure to political issues discussion. If students are exposed to political party differences in their K-12 school years, they'll be better informed as voters at age 18.

Public confidence can be restored if elected officials put the public interest first, with actions that demonstrate their sacrifice for public benefit. Young voters want public interest to rank above political self-interest. They want tangible results to show for their political involvement.

Members of Congress should convene advisory groups of young voters to advise them through social media outlets regarding their views on policy matters — and then those members should produce results by giving progress reports on suggestions implemented. Voters also should demand that their public officials periodically explain how their service has improved the public good and offer young people hands-on projects that achieve a public or policy objective. Fair competition also means frequent candidate debates.

If we don't act now, the next generation of leaders will continue their disillusionment and the United States will suffer. ♦

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George Nethercutt

From 1995-2005, George Nethercutt was the Republican Congressman from Spokane. He contributes to the commentary section of the Inlander.