Never in our nation’s history has access to news stories or political platforms been more readily available for our consideration. Thanks in part to Facebook, Twitter, and other new-generation media outlets, access to news and world events is literally at our fingertips. Yet young people, who spend an overwhelming amount of time connected to their phones and computers, remain perhaps the least politically engaged and least likely age group of all to participate in the political process.
The answer lies in the concept of political efficacy, which – at its most basic level – is something we lack. Political efficacy seeks to explain our personal feelings about politics and government. How do we feel about the government? How do we feel about voting? These personal feelings, in turn, correlate with voting rates and how we as individuals do or do not believe that we fit into the political process.
But for young people, political efficacy might be better and more simply summated by asking: Do we care? Do we care enough to vote? Do we actually believe that we can make a difference?
Though many would argue that the most former of these questions is the root cause of our supposed disengagement, I believe that the contrast between them is quite different.
It’s not that young people don’t care, are disengaged – or that we are so far buried in our Instagram applications that we are hopelessly removed from the more serious issues taking place.
Rather, it’s that we far too often believe that we as individuals – our individual votes – can’t make a difference. We eagerly buy into the narrative that the political process, though participatory, is above and beyond us. This is not a new concept, or one that is necessarily exclusive to millennials. But it’s a way of thinking that is self-inflicted and self-perpetuated. It’s a pattern that breeds low voter turnout and has come to summarize our role in elections.
A recently published national poll released by the Harvard University Institute of Politics found that a mere 1 in 4 (23 percent, to be exact) of individuals ages 18-29 “definitely” plan to vote in this November’s mid-term elections. With a multitude of important votes on the table, particularly in the state of Washington, it is hard to believe that we would have such a lack of participation.
But again, the issue lies not in disengagement – but in a disbelief or lack of efficacy regarding our own worth. We know what is going on, and we are aware of the issues at hand. But I think that to a lot of young people, voting feels a lot like dropping a tiny pin in a bucket the size of the entire country. When the bucket is that big, it can be hard to see where we stand within it.
I know many people who view our generation as lazy, self-absorbed, or disinterested in social events that extend beyond our weekend calendar. Many of them hold those views legitimately, and some of them may even be true. But the point is not the perception that others have of us, but rather the overwhelming perception that we have of ourselves: The perception that we don’t matter, and that our votes don’t make a difference.
The political process doesn’t have to be one that overwhelms us, or makes us feel small. Our political efficacy and, in turn, our thoughts on voting, don’t have to be summarized by a lack of participation, or the helpless feeling that what we do won’t matter.
We made that decision for ourselves, and we can change it. We should change it.
Because I bet if we all dropped pins, we might just fill up the whole bucket.