Close the Political Participation Deficit
05/19/2016   By William 'Mo' Cowan and Scott Warren | U.S. News
Michael Dwyer/AP Photo

As this cycle's election season unfolds, it is becoming increasingly clear that our country's democracy is suffering from a sickness. But this sickness has not just recently appeared. Our democracy has suffered from a persistent illness for years, and rather than addressing the underlying issues, we have allowed the disease to permeate throughout our entire system of governance.

Despite the narrative of the ongoing presidential campaign, our democracy is not in crisis because of one candidate or one party. We are not in crisis because of Wall Street or free trade agreements. Rather, our democracy is in crisis because we, as a country, have not tended to the most important facet of our democracy: ensuring that our citizens participate in the political process.

We can act as backseat drivers and criticize our politicians until we are blue in the face. We can demonize interest groups and corporations all we want. But the simple fact is that too many Americans are rendering themselves voiceless by failing to participate in the political process.

This political participation deficit is exemplified by our nation's consistently lackluster voting rates. Lost in the media's obsession with covering the latest gaffe and controversy is the reality that the vast majority of Americans are abdicating their most fundamental democratic right: the right to vote. In the vast majority of primaries, less than 30 percent of eligible voters actually participated. Almost every primary this election season has seen turnout less than 40 percent of the eligible electorate, with states like New York, despite all of its media attention, only experiencing a 19 percent participation rate. These numbers follow the 2014 midterm elections, in which 36 percent of eligible voters participated, the lowest rate since World War II. Indeed, when it comes to voter turnout, the United Statesranks 31st among the 34 countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, whose members are also highly developed democratic states.

Our collective failure to engage in the political process is more than just a philosophical or moral failure. It has had the very real, practical consequence of creating a void in our body politic that has allowed the most extreme voices in our political discourse to emerge.

This dynamic has played out most clearly in the now-ending GOP primary contest, which has generated unprecedented levels of demagoguery. Hoping to score cheap political points, Republican candidates consistently fanned the flames of bigotry, racism and hatred. These extreme voices threaten to set our nation on a dangerous path and tear apart the multicultural and pluralistic fabric of our country. While all primaries lead to tenuous moments, the Republican race became the most troubling in recent memory.

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