by John E. Traynor

Presidential election years remind us of the many sides of American democracy. Political discourse is enlivened as politicians and pundits debate various records, policy proposals and qualifications. Unfortunately, along with these noble traits of the election season, we are also reminded of the dark side of American democracy. The amount of money spent on campaigns is mind-boggling, with the presidential candidates and parties having raised in excess of $1 billion for the election. The 2000 election saw the average winning House campaign spend $636,000, while the average winning Senate campaigns spent $5.6 million. These numbers are up again during this election cycle. Additionally, we've seen the issues overshadowed by the divisive nature of interest group advertising.

There is hope, however. While these trends are indeed disturbing, there are other more encouraging developments worthy of mentioning as well: increased volunteerism, particularly among youth, increased interest in alternative parties, increased efforts to "get out the vote" in traditionally underrepresented communities. Additionally, there seems to be new interest in civic education. In February 2003, the Carnegie Corporation and CIRCLE (The Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement) released The Civic Mission of Schools. This report underscored the evidence supporting need for civic education in schools.

How have our schools done in educating young citizens? One would think that after 12 years of schooling, students would be champing at the bit to participate in society once they get out of high school. But just the opposite is the case, with political participation among 18- to 25-year-olds the lowest among all age groups. However optimistic the "get-out-the-vote" efforts this year have been relative to turnout by youth, data from the 2000 election reveals that only 36.1 percent from that age group voted as opposed to 72.2 percent of 65-74 year olds. These statistics should shock both politicians and schools alike.

In my work as an American government instructor for the past seven years, I always welcomed the energy that a November election brings. The timeliness of elections and the energy that students, teachers and school communities possess in the fall provide fertile ground for political discourse. Sadly, calling the current trends in political debate "critical thinking" is a stretch. Most often what is being modeled by young people is a method of "full-contact debate" where the emphasis is on talking points as opposed to listening. As the media features the likes of The O'Reilly Factor, Hardball and Crossfire, we're led to believe that this is how mature adults communicate. Our students need to be taught to think in such a way that dialogue is valued much more than demagoguery.

Here's another statistic: Confidence that government officials listen to "people like me" was at 80 percent among 18- to 25-year-olds in 1960. That number has been down to 60 percent in 1980 and to just 40 percent in 2000, according to the CIRCLE Report. It is also no surprise that a decline in confidence in their ability to impact the system corresponds to a decline in their willingness to participate in and legitimize this system. This should serve as an alarming notice that there is broken connection between young people and government that is eroding the civic fabric of the American democratic experiment.

But young people find other ways to connect. A 2002 survey of college freshman conducted by the Higher Education Research Institute revealed that in 2000, 81 percent of young people said that they had volunteered, while the result of the 1989 survey was 67 percent. These findings should be encouraging to civic education advocates because they reveal that young people have the desire and the interest to participate and to make a difference.

There is hope in our youth. It doesn't happen on its own, however. We should be encouraged that our schools are working to develop critical thinkers who also have an ethic of service and a sense of personal responsibility to the community's greater good.

John Traynor is an instructor at Gonzaga University. He has also taught American government at Gonzaga Prep, where he is the coordinator of the service learning and community outreach program.

Publication date: 11/04/04

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