Once upon a time in a disenchanted Kingdom, there lived a paradox in American democracy

BY ELLIE LONGMAN-ROOD

As a Politics student heading back after a Friday afternoon seminar one would be amazed someone could be awake enough to pick up on such a fleeting comment of “Student politics is just pathetic” from a passing conversation. Needless to say, it occupied my train of thought for the rest of the evening. So much so, that when I was stuck for article ideas this not only seemed appropriate but incredibly striking in today’s society. A real disenchantment with politics has been the social norm across the globe and today we hardly seem to challenge it any more. I found this to be only too true when family and friends alike asked me what I would be studying when heading to University. The answer “Politics” was often met with one of two responses. “What a interesting time to study that! Chance to fix what’s going wrong at the moment” in light of the Brexit result and the rise of Trump or “Urgh, why do you want to be a politician?”. Either way it doesn’t appear that those in power have the public cheering their name at the moment. Yet, very aware of the ramifications of my questioning, I cannot help but wonder if we are letting the politicians down as much as they are letting us down us?

Let’s look at the United States. It is very hard to argue against that this recent election has been one of the most controversial and heavily media driven we have ever seen. In fact, the phrase ‘the lesser of two evils’ was not uncommon on the news, or even in public discussions on the matter. Granted, the candidates were hardly promoting engaging and striking political debate. However, if this was one of the most controversial elections the United States had ever seen, why was the turnout lower than ever at 58%? I acknowledge that there is a simple answer. People did not see the point in voting for either candidate. In the week approaching the election you couldn’t switch on the news or log in to social media without experiencing this mad rush of the latest punch from one campaign to the other. In fact, it was often a common thought in seminars I was present in. The phrase “Don’t get me wrong it’s important, but it will be a relief when it is all over” was not unheard of. What is alarming, is these comments are coming from politics students at university. What about those who don’t hold the same genuine interest? The butchers, bakers and candlestick makers who see politics as endangering their peaceful daily lives. Or perhaps, as a threat to add to the already hectic lifestyle citizens lead. It hardly seems surprising that by November 8th the motivation to vote was exceedingly low for the nation.

While this isn’t surprising, I cannot wholeheartedly write that I am convinced by such reasoning. As far as I’m concerned, if you can vote you should. Voting is your payment to society, no matter how sick to your stomach you are of politics by election day. A chance to show loyalty to those who represent your interests or to act against those who disregard them. More than that, what about those who cannot vote in their country? Those to whom a freely and democratically elected leader seems like a fleeting dream that they cannot quite grasp. Or even journeying back in the US to those who fought for the right to franchise and the very ideal of voting? Those faced with grandfather clauses and literacy tests or being born female? Yet, here we are, fed up and disenchanted with our democracy. Personally, it makes me feel quite ashamed. No matter how dismal the situation seems it is always essential to head to the ballot box on election day. We must never let our disenchantment defeat our ability to speak out. Even if when the votes are counted your voice has been overruled that’s better than not having a say at all. This doesn’t mean coming in last place; it is democracy at play.

It is at this point where our response is crucial. We jump up, dust ourselves off and try again. That’s what any good coach would say when trying to train the next gifted Olympian. So, why is it any different when it comes to society’s approach to democracy? If we turned engaging in politics and tackling the loss of democracy into the new social norm perhaps the intrinsic value of elections could be reaffirmed.

What’s even more disheartening is that disenchantment is not as much of a novel idea as it would first seem. In 2014 the turnout for the mid-term elections reached an all-time low of 36.4%. To put that in perspective, the last time US national turnout reached this low point Hitler was in power in Germany and President Roosevelt was in the Oval office. Granted this was for midterms and turnout for presidential elections are generally much higher. For example, turnout reached 58.2% in 2012 and 61.6% in 2008, the highest recorded since 1968. While this is encouraging it is still not perfect. On the day President Obama was elected in arguably one of the most symbolic presidential campaigns the nation had seen, there was still 38.4% of the nation who still felt to unmotivated to reach the ballot box on election day. It may the optimist inside me, but I cannot help but wonder why is it unreasonable to ask for 90% turnout on election day? or even 100%. It’s not as if everyone is wholly content with the way government is run. It’s hard to go one day without hearing a comment on the street about fuel prices, education or immigration. Maybe the Australians have got it right in that voting should be compulsory. While this raises issues over the nature of democracy, surely this is a price worth paying to create a duty to vote as a social norm. Rather than on election day the question “are you voting today?” being all too casually flung around.

Obviously, I’m not sitting here in my student kitchen pretending to know all the solutions, far from it. Only I can’t help but ask, until we fully invite democracy to take a more engaged role in our lives, how can we write it off due to its faults. How do we know that if this year’s 58% turnout had been a little higher, the first 100 days of the recent presidency could’ve been an entirely different picture? Jean Paul Sartre once said, ‘like all dreamers, I mistook disenchantment for the truth’. This is exactly what we need to do now. To not accept this boredom of politics as the truth just because it has surrounded us globally for generations. We need to beat this paradox of democracy or else our lack of interest will end up killing our beloved ideal for society that generations yearned and fought for so long ago.

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