Who teaches the practice of democracy to our youth?

3:36 PM

Since I have returned to the U.S., I have repeatedly heard expressions of frustration, disregard, and even dismissal of American youth because they do not vote. In June, the U.S. Census declared that Millenials now outnumber Baby Boomers. While their lack of voting is troubling, frankly, I do not think that the problem is with American youth, Millenials or younger; the problem runs much deeper.

For some, the practice of democracy is little more than to inform oneself about the issues and the candidates, to vote in primaries and elections, and to contact elected representatives (via letters, letters to the editor, emails, online petitions, Facebook shares, and Twitter hashtag campaigns, or any other means that may come along). If these are the obligations, and so few achieve even these modest goals, it seems foolhardy to expect more.

11 9 07 Voter Apathy Bearman Cartoon Used with permission
Our modern political parties do not seem to help. Mostly, we receive emails generated on slivers of issues to motivate campaign donations and antipathy toward the opposing candidate. Any analysis of the modern democratic landscape likely generates only despair. Neil Postman's assessment in his 1985 book Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business remains sadly relevant. What we remember from candidate debates are the putdowns, not the policy. What we learn is that many elections are simply exercises in mass manipulation. Candidates deliver poll and focus group-tested messaging, appealing to the democratic ideals of our founders while funded by a mechanism that is precisely anti-democratic. No wonder so many turn away in disgust.

The landscape is not entirely depressing. Current efforts around #BlackLivesMatter have powerfully engaged young people. Some electoral campaigns have engaged substantial numbers of youth. Here in Salina, KS, I was encouraged by young people that I saw at a recent NAACP event. Some young people recently met with the Salina Chief of Police, Brad Nelson, to talk about firearms in the city. There is an energy, but it has to be cultivated, formed, trained in the practices of democracy.

When I learned to play soccer, I played on teams organized by the local recreation commission. I practiced at home and played during recess at school. I had a coach, someone who taught me the rules, drilled me in how to play the game, and convoked others to play alongside me. In high school, I even spent a season coaching kindergartners. Just as playing soccer is not learned from reading a rulebook, the practice of democracy is not learned from simply reading the U.S. Constitution. It is about the virtuous cultivation of a set of practices, habits, and skills. Wanting my soccer team to win the game was not enough, we had to know how to play, by the rules, with teamwork. Likewise, a desire for social change is not enough. We need to know how democracy works, the rules of grassroots democracy, and how to work together.
(Used with permission)
Where do we learn to practice skillful and virtuous citizenship? I suppose that I learned first in my family, and, then, it was reinforced in the Boy Scouts, high school debate, high school U.S. history and government classes, and Boys State. I also learned about citizenship in my parish, learning about my values and responsibilities in service of the common good. As an adult, I learned in the context of community organizing. While some will criticize Saul Alinsky or Barack Obama, neither of whom need me to defend them, community organizing is an essential vehicle for the transmitting the practice of skillful and virtuous citizenship. It builds teams, teaches the "rules" of democracy, and provides trained coaches in organizers. Democracy is hard work, but, like soccer, it can be a lot of fun and yield a tremendous amount of satisfaction.

Let me extend my soccer analogy one step further. There is a big difference between watching a game on television or in the stands and actually playing on the field. Professional soccer is a money-making endeavor. I believe that the World Cup and FIFA are, above all, money-making enterprises. Yes, they promote goodwill and support youth soccer leagues and the like, but they are also rife with corruption. So long as people pay to watch and sponsorships roll in, FIFA is happy. Likewise, the political process in the U.S. encourages "team" loyalty and financial support and a lot of watching on television and computer screens and, occasionally, in person. That "watching," being entertained and amused, was the point of Postman's critique.

In a democracy, we all need to get off our couches and practice democracy with skill and virtue. We urgently need a renewal of our democratic life in the U.S. Our troubled times require us to find the means to successfully harness the discontent of so many, the anger heard on all sides of the political spectrum, into concrete changes in our society, but, if we are not skillful and virtuous in our practice of democracy, then we will continue to deserve and get more of the same.

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