After the most recent elections, people have been fired up, exercising their political voice in many different ways. From the 2017 Women’s March, to people calling their representatives to voice their opinions on policy issues such as DACA and universal healthcare, to people getting out to vote in 2017 which led to historic elections (such as with Doug Jones, the first Democratic senator in Alabama in 25 years, and Danica Roem, the first openly transgender state legislator), it became clear that people all across the country are eager to participate politically. But do UChicago students’ political practices reflect this apparent increase in the scale and diversity of people’s political engagement?
During Spring Quarter 2017, the University of Chicago Democracy Initiative (UCDI) conducted a survey in order to better understand the UChicago undergraduate community’s opinions on the effectiveness of 5 different types of political engagement: voting, protesting, calling representatives, attending political events, and participating in political organizations. The survey also asked students how frequently they participate in those forms of political participation and why students may choose to not be politically involved. This survey included 223 responses, and the UCDI was able to see how UChicago students are generally involved in politics, thereby highlighting the ways in which our engagement can improve.
UChicago’s Political Engagement
One goal of the UCDI in distributing the survey was to determine what types of political participation the student body believes are the most and least effective at causing change. According to the results, the top two most effective were voting (45.7%) and calling your representative (20.4%). For least effective, the top two were participating in a political organization (32.1%) and protesting (22.5%).
Although a large percentage of UChicago students believe that protesting is the least effective form of political engagement, they still have a more favorable view than the average adult. According to a 2009 Pew Internet and American Life Project Survey, only 4% of American adults participated in a protest in the past 12 months. Both college students and adults have negative opinions on protesting, which contradicts the popularity of current protests such as the Women’s March and NFL kneeling. While UChicago students’ opinions on protesting did not correlate with today’s rise in protesting, their opinions did correlate with the current climate’s increased calls to action through voting and calling representatives. Therefore, it may be the case that UChicago students think the most effective forms of political engagement are through elected officials.
Aside from voting, the vast majority of survey takers said that they don’t participate in the four other activities (protesting, calling your representative, attending an event, and participating in political organizations). The most common reasons selected for why people don’t participate in those ways are because they don’t have time, they are too lazy, or they don’t have enough information. According to the aforementioned 2009 Pew survey, 30% of American adults contacted a national, state or local government official about an issue, 24% attended a political meeting on local, town, or school affairs, 12% attended a political rally or speech, and 15% were an active members of groups that try to influence public policy or government in the last 12 months. Although it is important to keep in mind that its sample size was smaller, the UCDI’s survey seems to indicate that UChicago students are slightly more politically engaged than the average American; however, that doesn’t mean that we should not strive to be more involved.
Although it seems that UChicago students agree that voting is effective at inciting change, our community’s actual participation in politics doesn’t seem to reflect this belief. The National Study of Learning, Voting, and Engagement (NSLVE), which provides data on collegiate political participation, found that only 50.2% of eligible UChicago students voted in the 2016 presidential election, which is under the country’s average of about 55.7% (according to a U.S. Census Bureau study “Voting and Registration in the Election of November 2016”) . And although 73.5% of UChicago students who are registered to vote voted, only 68.4% of UChicago students are registered to vote. Therefore, it appears that UChicago students aren’t even participating in the political engagement methods they think are the most effective.
In today’s climate, it is now more important than ever to not only express your voice through voting, but also by engaging in different forms of political participation. We must challenge ourselves to seek out other methods political engagement that we think are effective. Whether it be calling your representative or marching in the streets, democracy only works when the people that are being represented are voicing their opinions. Therefore, with the important 2018 midterm elections less than a year away, the UCDI hopes that you make your voice heard and be politically engaged in any way, shape, or form, starting this month with the primary elections.
*To see UChicago students giving their opinion about some of these issues, check out the following video: https://youtu.be/2fhYjPa0THQ.*