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The Texas Blue
Advancing Progressive Ideas

Civic Engagement and Voter Turnout

I bet a number of you guys are down here in Corpus, slogging through the heat and humidity to attend the TDP state convention. If you missed the Young Democrats caucus earlier this afternoon, you may have missed your best chance to see just about every elected official and candidate in attendance -- the speaker list was long and colorful.

State Representative Mark Strama's time at the microphone was spent telling the story of one of his staffers that left the campaign to volunteer for Edwards in Iowa, struck a chord with me.

Edwards, it turns out, came out first in the caucuses among existing voters. Obama was third. Typically, effort in campaigns is spent primarily on turning out known voters, but Obama's victory rested primarily on massive new voter turnout.

This is germane today, of course, because there is a significant effort being made across the country to retain those new voters that were identified in 2008 -- with mixed success. Representative Strama noted that the youth vote made up pretty much the entirety of Obama's victory spread both in the Iowa caucuses and in the general election, and yet these were exactly the voters that would be most likely to be disillusioned now and unwilling to participate in the process.

But is that by accident?

I've criticized more than a few Democrats on what sometimes seems like a defeatist attitude -- a tacit presumption that, by default, Democrats are doomed in Texas politics and everything is going wrong for them. We as a state party have plenty to point to over the past four years that we can be proud of as far as electoral gains go, whether we look at the Democratic sweep of over 30 judicial seats in Dallas in 2006 (along with the sheriff and DA's seats), a similar wave of Democrats winning in Harris County in 2008, or having gone from a state house that was 86-64 Republican to one which is 77-73 Republican -- the closest we've been to controlling the state house since we lost it a decade before. Meanwhile, we're watching the national Republican party be torn apart by their extreme right wing in the form of the Tea Party. Regularly, we are seeing signs that races that were "unwinnable" a month or two ago are in play for us because of Republican infighting -- and this in a midterm election, where the party in power is supposed to lose seats. While we may lose some battles, we seem poised to win the overall war -- chances are good that we'll hold both houses of Congress nationally, and we have one of the strongest statewide slates we've seen in Texas in decades.

But Representative Strama's speech reminded me that there is a bigger war -- and it is a war we're losing.

Republicans' tactics nationwide don't seem to be destined to give them much in dividends in the short term, particularly as the policies passed by Democrats start bearing tangible fruit and improving people's lives. But what Republicans are successfully doing is poisoning the well. Those new voters that turned out in droves for President Obama are very possibly disillusioned and less likely to vote, but the anti-incumbent sentiment that has recently been affecting Democrats and Republicans alike shows that it's not because Democrats are unpopular -- it's because government is unpopular. The bile-filled, vitriolic turn that Congress and American politics in general has taken is something that those hope-filled voters can't associate with.

It's easy to glamorize the past, but it does seem that political discussion not so long ago was tempered with a sort of civic understanding that now seems to be absent. It used to be that we all understood that as much as we may differ, we are all Americans, we all work for what we believe is the betterment of the country, and we do this -- by design -- through an adversarial process in which we determine the best solution to problems by having vocal advocates for each side of an issue, and letting the majority decide who is right. Tthe final arbiters of what is "best" are the people, and therefore as Americans who wish to do the best for America, it is necessary for us to get involved in the process by voting.

This fundamental truth that defines American democracy seems forgotten in modern politics -- and I suppose that in a way, it should come as no surprise. Educational systems are driven by math and English scores where the fundamentals of civics are often "taught" by the baseball coach; running narratives paint government as something to fight against instead of something that benefits us, because it comes from us; even political journalism, which once held itself to be the front line in the battle to reveal truth to the masses, now too often takes the easy road of avoiding real investigation and treating all viewpoints, no matter how ludicrous, as equal, so that they can cater to the viewing preferences of the "man on the street" instead of striving to benefit society by being the medium by which that man is informed. The current Republican track of turning every possible issue into an all-or-nothing street brawl just takes another kick at the already fallen standard of American civics.

Is this intentional on the part of Republicans? Representative Strama seemed to hint at that today, and I definitely couldn't argue with the point that Republicans, as the falsely self-anointed party of small government, stand to benefit most from that.

But my instinctive answer to that question is: does it matter? Whether Republicans intend to make politics so abhorrent to the regular American that they'll want to, as Grover Norquist put it, make government small enough to drown in a bathtub is not really the point -- as, intentionally or not, that's what's happening. And in the long term, that hurts Republicans and Democrats alike, and more than that, it hurts the foundation of American government. As Montesquieu put it just a few short years before America declared its independence, "The tyranny of a principal in an oligarchy is not so dangerous to the public welfare as the apathy of a citizen in a democracy."

Do I know what to do about this? Frankly, no. I couldn't even tell you how to honestly energize a willing voting base that came to the polls in 2008 with enthusiasm and hope and which now feel beaten down by political reality, let alone how to deal with the bigger problem of fighting to make American government something that Americans can feel proud to participate in. I'd love to give the "easy" answers -- invest more in civic education in schools, encourage elected representatives to maintain respectful dialog with their peers, renew the idea of true investigative journalism and reward media outlets that are willing to prioritize Congress over Paris Hilton -- but actually implementing those things is where this all gets hard. Encouraging an idea of principled civic discourse as a fundamental part of living as an American is a project that, were it started now, wouldn't be likely to see fruition for decades. It's difficult to incentivize so long a process. But considering what is happening to American politics, I'm not sure we have a choice.

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