Building trust in the political process
For the past quarter century, I’ve portrayed Thomas Jefferson in full theatrical regalia. I visit schools, libraries, churches and neighborhood gathering spots for youth. Some onlookers wonder why I use my time in this way as a thespian.The reason is that many citizens, especially our youth, have dropped out of the political process. They donít vote. They refuse to read newspapers. They are tuned out to politicians who they lump with advertising pitchmen.”I have seen a tremendous cynicism (among the younger generation) about news itself,” reports David Mindich who wrote “Tuned Out: Why Young People Donít Follow the News.” “There’s a feeling that we can’t trust anyone in the news, we can’t trust anyone in politics. And the byproduct is theyíve chosen to disenfranchise themselves from the process.”Mindich does not act totally cynical about our youth lacking interest in the political process. He sees many students as earnest, reflective and engaged in social causes to help the poor, though they spurn politics.”We need to do more to translate the desire to volunteer in a soup kitchen,” says Mindich, who teaches at St. Michael’s College in Vermont, “to a desire to change the political underpinnings that determine whether that soup kitchen gets the funds to keep running.”For people under 30 who turn their backs on the voting booth, one in five tells pollsters that they learn what’s happening in campaigns from comedy shows such as “Daily Show with Jon Stewart” and “Saturday Night Live.” TV news doesn’t inform serious young viewers of what’s happening in the political theater when it interjects clips in newscasts of Jay Leno, David Letterman and Stewart voicing a comic edge to what’s occurring on campaign trails. Viewers conclude that engaging in the political process is a big joke not worth their time. They become cynical about politics and tune out.Too many citizens regard voting as purely optional. They donít think that their pulls of levers in the voting booth make much difference.Ranking the world’s democracies by their voting records, the United States ends up on the bottom with Switzerland. How can a government truly represent all its citizens when only a few who carry clout vote?Showing little civic awareness is symptomatic of a larger trend. Our citizens are not joiners but loners. Robert D. Putnam, professor of public policy at Harvard, tracked this trend in his best seller, “Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community.”Comments Putnam on the rise of citizen participation in groups during the first half of the last century, “The number of folks voting was going up. Then, without warning, in the late 60s and 70s, all those trends turned around. There’s been a drop of 25 or 30 percent in electoral turnout. There’s been a drop of about 40 to 50 percent in membership in all sorts of organizationsóthe PTA, the Elks Club, the Kiwanis Club, the League of Women Voters and the NAACP.”Lest we imagine that citizens crammed voting booths in the past, we need remember that Franklin Delano Roosevelt in his first presidential campaign realized many would skip voting. They had become so desperate about our nationís economic collapse and their empty pockets that a deep cynicism set in. How could their vote make any difference?FDR called to memory another Roosevelt who roused citizens. Speaking on October 27, 1931, FDR sung out with his lilting tenor voice a strong challenge.”Theodore Roosevelt would make [a clear call] were he alive today, to the people of this whole nation, and especially to the young people of this nation, for their active participation in the solution of pressing problems which affect our national life and our very national existence.”I portray Thomas Jefferson because he faced a similar voter frustration when he ran for president in 1800. Many common folk did not intend to cast their ballots. They would allow the country to be run by the cultured and educated crowd. They avoided the Apostle Paul’s contention that governing authorities do a better job when their constituencies trust them. Give “honor,” instructs Paul, “to whom honor is due” among those holding governing authority (Romans 1:7).Federalists who opposed Jefferson did not shirk everything in their British monarchical heritage. They believed that every white citizen who owned land should be granted voting rights. But after the ballots had been cast, then the more educated, more moneyed, more genteel part of Americaís population should take control of the government.Jefferson called his election in 1800 America’s Second Revolution, “as real a revolution in the principles of our government as that of 1776 was in form.” Jefferson despised any talk of a privileged few, high in social rank, having more clout. He went to bat for the ordinary citizen. He knew that democracy would thrive when American citizens did not bypass their voting booths. Carrying on Jeffersonís revolution, I play him on stage, hoping to inspire more civic participation, especially among our youth before they spurn their voting privileges. The Rev. Dr. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister serving with Creative Growth Ministries, enhancing Christian Worship through story telling and dramatics presentations.