It seems like every year around this time we are bombarded — along with a new registration drive or voter awareness initiative — with accusations of student apathy. The newest in this tradition is an initiative, on behalf of the Election Law Society and the Election Law Program, to increase students’s political participation by encouraging them to volunteer as poll workers. It comes with the same high-minded goal that is usually trotted out — trying to “infuse the youth with a sense of civic engagement,” which implys a current dearth thereof.
Now, it is hard to argue that students at the College of William and Mary are very politically active. Political protests, when they occur at all, are sparse and widely unattended. Voter registration, after a spike during the Scott Foster ‘10 election, will almost certainly sink. For many, this is cause for alarm, but we can’t help but see it as inevitable fact: At least right now, there’s no reason for students to care. Decrying student apathy without particular incentive or evangelizing cause is nothing but wasted breath.
Often, political participation is an unquestioned value, a virtue unto itself. It’s assumed that undergraduates should be more politically minded than others their age, since education leads to a greater awareness of political issues. But the idea that college campuses somehow breed political activism is, in fact, an antiquated one, a relic from the 70s, when Vietnam and the draft gave elections a life-or-death sense of consequence. Unless students today are presented with equally terrifying stakes, and we hope they aren’t, such heights of political involvement are unlikely to return.
That’s not to say that students are entirely lacking in pathos. Students have voted at a historic rate in high-stakes elections (as in the 2008 presidential election), or when they were particularly energized and actively courted (like in the recent Williamsburg City Council election). We at the College also have a reputation for engaging regularly with the community, by volunteering on a consistent basis. Of course, much of the service students engage in also doubles as resume padding, but neither is activism particularly selfless; people are self-interested, especially in their politics.
Currently, there is simply no catalyst for action. We are presented with no driving, politicizing force. True, there are politically oppressed groups in the United States. There is poor policy, and there are unjust, corrupt, and callous leaders; there are causes worth fighting for. But, for whatever reason, these fail to connect personally with student voters, and crying apathy won’t. As a vague, unqualified assertion, the accusation of students’s political apathy carries little weight.
Instead, it may be that, after an unprecedented wave of political interest (extended in our case by Foster’s campaign), we are returning to a norm. We have reverted to a political system that rarely lobbies for our support, and students have likewise refocused on their own singular experiences, giving no more than cursory thought to any of the macro-concerns of politics. Or, we have just decided that a major investment of our time is not worthwhile, and have left involvement (voting, campaigning, etc.) up to others.
Whether due to general indifference, or to an inability to change that fact, we can’t seem to care.