Just over half of the registered voters in Placer County cast ballots in the November 2014 election. Only 41 percent of voters across California turned out. Those numbers do not include another 25 percent of Placer County’s eligible voters who remain unregistered.
Weak voter turnout across our country can be attributed to mistrust of government inflamed by a lack of civil discussion.
A Pew poll in January 2014 found 75 percent of Americans trusted the federal government to do what is right “only some of the time” or “never.” In September 2014, a Gallup poll revealed Americans estimate Washington wastes 51 cents for every dollar it spends.
Accelerating the decline of citizen engagement in our government are two notable demographic shifts under way: millennials maturing into adults and immigrants from within the Hispanic community.
More than half of the millennials in our country are uninvolved with government policy. For their entire lives, disrespectful discourse among adults, including candidates and government officials, has been the norm. The general sentiment in society teaches them not to trust politicians.
“Couldn’t lead a puppy to a hamburger” and “Absolutely delusional, she has disqualified herself to be commander-in-chief” are actual quotes from a Democratic politician and a Republican politician. This is just a mild sampling of daily political “rhetoric” many have learned to ignore. It is no wonder our young adults are disinterested or even repelled by this behavior and do not want to participate.
Many young people entering adulthood and the political world are surprisingly uninformed about how government works and their connection to it. Traditional civics courses based largely on history in textbooks do not motivate involvement.
Teaching students how they can use the government to change things would be more effective.
Another demographic shift contributing to declining civic involvement is the trend in immigration. In the next 15 years, it is estimated that eligible Hispanic voters in California will increase to 53 percent, while 30 percent will be white.
Politicians understand these growth trends well. Meg Whitman spent $20 million to reach the Spanish-speaking population in her campaign for governor, but her position against education of the undocumented lost her votes from the Latino community.
President Obama’s websites lack Spanish translation of fact sheets and policies, while it clearly states in English that he supports Latinos.
To appeal to those it proposes to help, Hispanic policy currently lacking in tangible content must become an immigration-integration policy.
For example, Latinos stop speaking Spanish by second grade and are not given the opportunity to study it again until high school. Many Latinos choose to come here because they believe in democracy, even though it costs more than $2,000 to naturalize. Unable to identify policy relevant to their lives, a mere 30 percent of registered Hispanic voters actually vote.
Incorporated into a non-participating culture, immigrants learn not to engage in a way that is similar to that of the millennials.
When Hispanics, who eventually make up more than half of eligible voters and only vote a third of the time, are combined with a younger population who are not engaged, it causes one to wonder how much lower voter participation will go before our system becomes illegitimate.
By age 16, George Washington had copied by hand “10 Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation” numerous times in penmanship class. The most substantial problem of civic involvement can be rectified by simply following the first rule.
Rule No. 1: Every action done in company ought to be with some sign of respect to those that are present.
Civility in our democracy is not about squelching assertiveness, protest, civil disobedience or rigorous discussion of issues. Civil deliberation is a set of attitudes, behaviors and skills that support thoughtful acts and values-based discussions when community members and public officials come to the table to talk.
Civil discussions occur when we are able to regulate the cognitive and emotional information necessary to bring our best selves to the task of talking about challenging issues.
Complicated problems like water and homelessness require inescapable tradeoffs, made in a way that is mutually constructive, respectful and courteous.
Only by considering all sides is it possible to make progress while keeping everyone’s dignity and rights intact.
If people feel a need to harbor hatred for those on the other side, so be it. But it is best if ugly remarks are kept to themselves as a courtesy to everyone else.
Dwight D. Eisenhower advised, “We need to celebrate diversity of thought, not pummel those with whom we may disagree. Civil discourse should be, above all else, civil.”
Ask your representatives on the City Council, the county board of supervisors and in Congress what they are doing to promote civil discourse in their district.
After all, everybody honors he who honors everybody else.
Randi Swisley is president of the League of Women Voters of Placer County.