Written by Rich Clark, Professor of Political Science
After his primary losses on Super Tuesday in 2020, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders conceded that his campaign had not been, “as successful as I would hope in bringing young people in.” He added, “It is not easy.”
Maybe it is not easy, but it is essential.
The great American philosopher, John Dewey, grew up in Vermont in the late 19th century and attended the University of Vermont before making his mark on American political thought. Mostly, Dewey is remembered for his contributions to the field of education. He believed that education is less about acquiring a fixed body of knowledge and more about developing skills in critical thinking and applying those skills as active citizens. Consequently, the value of education goes well beyond the individual benefits; an educated citizenry supports democratic norms and a more robust civic life.
Dewey was a strong proponent of democracy as the best means for meeting the needs of the public. In his book, The Public and Its Problems (1927), Dewey tried to reconcile civic engagement in American democracy with the depersonalizing forces of industrialism and capitalism. While Dewey recognizes the importance of policy experts, he also argues that popular participation in government is necessary to uncover the problems we collectively face because experts will be too removed from the public to clearly see the problems people confront. “The man who wears the shoe knows best that it pinches and where it pinches, even if the expert shoemaker is the best judge of how the trouble is to be remedied” (p. 207).
So it is at Castleton that we take up the mantle that fellow Vermonter Dewey passed along to educate our students to be active and effective citizens in our democratic government. While some students opt to pursue a Certificate in Civic Engagement as they build the skills of citizenship, self-advocacy, and leadership, all students participate in the liberal arts foundation of a Castleton education through our General Education Program. One of the explicit goals of general education at Castleton University is that the program, “promotes students to be engaged as active citizens on campus and beyond.”
Perhaps the most basic act of citizenship is participation in the electoral process by voting.
Political scientists and civics educators often express the idea that voting is important without explaining why that is the case. To many students, and to too many Americans, voting appears to be fruitless and unlikely to make a difference. And yet, the 2016 presidential election hinged on approximately 78,000 votes in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, or less than 0.06% of the total votes cast in the presidential election. Putting aside presidential elections, there have been many elections at the state and local level where a single vote made the difference. In 2017, the 94th District of the Virginia House of Delegates, wherein 11,608 ballots were cast, resulted in a tie, and the winner was chosen by randomly drawing a name from a hat. More significantly, control of the House of Delegates depended on the outcome of the 94th district, as the Republicans held 50 seats and the Democrats 49.
Most elections are not closely decided, but that does not mean that one’s vote does not matter. The very act of voting is a form of civic responsibility and the exercise of a right for which many American citizens had to fight. For many Americans, voting is their only form of civic engagement.
As Americans, it is part of our common creed that the government’s legitimacy is based on the consent of the governed. Yet, without any formal rites of citizenship or national service mandates, Americans who do not gain citizenship through the naturalization process never explicitly avow their consent to be governed; instead, we accept the idea of tacit consent. Voting is one of the few opportunities for most Americans to weigh in and express one’s preference on the direction of government, thereby recognizing the legitimacy of the government through participation in the process.
I may be among the few who love the political campaign season. Campaigns are opportunities for political parties and office seekers to express visions of and ambitions for our collective lives, and as voters, we are able to question those candidates, express our own thoughts on the politics of the day, and eventually select whom we wish to represent us moving forward. We choose whose vision most closely represents our own. And we do this together.
And still, many Americans don’t even engage enough to vote.
The highest turnout for a presidential election since 1972, the first presidential election following the ratification of the 26th Amendment lowering the voting age to 18 years old, was 61.6% in 2008, and the lowest presidential election turnout was 51.7% in 1996, meaning just over half of all eligible voters cast a ballot. More discouraging, in midterm elections—elections for Congressional races without a presidential contest—voter turnout hovered between 36.7% in 2014 and 42% in 1982 before reaching a record high of 50% in the recent 2018 midterm elections.
These turnout rates for the general population are high in comparison to turnout among younger citizens. Only 32.6% of eligible voters ages 18-29 voted in the record-setting 2018 midterm election, while 65.5% of voters 60 years and older cast a ballot. Voting rates for college students is slightly better than rates for young voters generally.
There are many reasons that young adults vote at lower rates than older adults. Young adults are often more transitory, less settled than older citizens. They may be away at college, settling into new jobs, or finding their place in a community as adults for the first time. Pundits and politicians have often attributed the lower participation rate for younger voters to apathy, lethargy, and general disinterest in public affairs. Political scientists have cited a visceral antipathy toward politics, noting that younger voters are less likely to attach to any political party or overtly political movement. For decades, we believed that students simply lacked the necessary civic knowledge and that by including politics and government in the curriculum we could overcome the barriers to voting.
A recent contribution to the political science literature by John Holbein and Sunshine Hillygus, Making Young Voters (2020), challenges many of these explanations for why young people don’t vote, emphasizing instead the non-cognitive barriers to voting. Holbein and Hillygus argue that, “the act of voting requires minimal cognitive abilities and a desire to participate but it can also require persistence, fortitude, energy, and patience to actually make it to the ballot box” (p. 33). Young people, our students, are as informed as most voters, and they often understand the importance of voting as well as the average voter. But when students see campaign ads, when they are greeted by candidates, when they attend political events or public meetings, and when they visit their precincts to vote, they do not see representations of themselves. They are not always comfortable venturing into this new area where they perceive most everyone else to be better informed and to belong. These are the non-cognitive barriers that Holbein and Hillygus cite. The good news is that they are not insurmountable, and once they’ve been breached, the habits of voting begin to adhere. We know that when voters start at a young age, they are more likely to remain active voters for a lifetime.
Now we are engaged in a campaign to encourage our students to participate in the electoral process. An informal, multi-disciplinary cadre of faculty, including Mary Droege from the natural sciences and Candy Fox from the English Department, are working the Content Lab—a group of creative students led by Communication Professor Bill DeForest—to develop messages to help and encourage students to vote. We are here to help them figure out if they are registered to vote, and if not, how to register. We are here to help them navigate the process of voting, either through absentee ballots or in person. Most importantly, we are here to assure them that they belong in the civic sphere.
The 2020 presidential election is shaping up to be extraordinary in several ways, and our students face challenges as a result of political division, climate change, the pandemic, and the economic woes connected to the pandemic. They face mounting debt and a weak job market upon leaving college. In order to respond to those challenges, the political system needs students in the electorate to uncover those collective problems, so that our democracy could respond as Dewey believed it was intended.
Vote, Spartans, vote!