Recently, while responding to a question about how to get young people involved in politics, President Obama expressed fears that they see politics as a “sideshow in Washington” and should be taught that “government is not something separate from you — it is you.”
Young people need to understand, according to the president, that politics determines everything in America. According to the president, politics and government even decide if there will be a job waiting when students graduate from college.
The president, tailoring his message to a young audience, articulated his remarkably government-centric view this way: “When you are a junior in high school … if you decide you and your friends are going out, you have got to make all kinds of decisions about, where are we going to eat? What movie do you want to see? You take votes, and you are trying to figure out — maybe one of your friends does not have enough money, and we have to chip in to help make sure she can go too.”
In reality, even in high school, there’s more to this process than voting. Just because a group of students vote to go somewhere doesn’t mean the others are obligated to tag along. If five friends vote for pizza and a sixth doesn’t want pizza, he or she doesn’t have to go. Some of the time the five would enjoy pizza and the sixth could stay home or do something with another group of friends.
Or, if the kid who doesn’t want pizza is the coolest of them all, the other five might change their mind to hang with the cool kid!
The point is that voting is not the only part of the decision-making process. That’s true in high school, and it’s true in America.
In the president’s example, the real power possessed by each of the friends is not their right to vote, but the fact that they are free to choose what they want to do. There is nothing obligating a student from going where the majority wants to go. Regardless of the vote, each student has the power to walk away. And if one person walks away, it could change the decision of others.
In the larger world, voting is important because it determines who will oversee the government.
But voting isn’t everything because government is only one of many important institutions that make our society work. In addition to government and politics, there are businesses, churches, civic groups, families, friends, communities and more. Most Americans feel more connected to such groups than they do to politics and government.
These groups do not have the power that government has, and they cannot compel anybody to join any more than one group of high school kids can force another to have pizza. But they actually do the heavy lifting of making America work and solving problems.
That’s why Americans are more likely to express their civic commitment through community groups rather than politics.
Let’s face it. If government really determined whether recent graduates could get a job, turnout would be a lot higher among 18- to 21-year-olds. But the vast majority of Americans have a healthy understanding of the fact that there is much more to life than politics.