OPINION: With election season ahead, young voters must reverse trends of political apathy

Presidential exploratory committees are already being formed, and there is a tension in the air as the U.S. braces for 2020. Even a normal election season is characterized by polarizing headlines, polarizing people and polarizing ideas. It’s unpleasant, and it’s bizarre; complicated ideas are marketed as simple binaries, people argue with their friends and have to awkwardly watch as people like Michael Bloomberg try to relate to farmers in Iowa. Even worse, this won’t be a normal election. President Donald Trump is the physical manifestation of a strawman argument, and that’s going to make everything in the presidential election season go from terrible to even worse.

However, despite the negative aspects of an increasingly political culture, election season is something to embrace, not dread.

In the U.S., and at USC in particular, aversion to political involvement is not new. According to the Pew Research Center, only 56 percent of voting-age citizens casted ballots in 2016, trailing the voter turnout rate of most other developed nations. Political apathy is even more dire at USC.

In 2016, UCLA was able to register over 10,000 students in a voter registration competition against the University, while USC only registered 411. Since the VoteSC 2018 initiative, USC has seen a sharp increase in voter registration levels, yet the student body still proportionally trails its less population-dense crosstown rival — and the general population — by a significant margin.

USC’s political apathy may have understandable causes, but such justification is selfish. People don’t engage in the political process because they read headlines that imply they must take action, and that scares them away. Many people would rather not pick a side at all than educate themselves on issues and risk being questioned about their decisions. This risk-averse behavior assumes that because one is involved in politics, politics comes to define them. And by abstaining from participation, they absolve their culpability in the outcome.

This viewpoint is flawed for many reasons. Politics isn’t just about the voter. Politics is about people born 40 years from now who want ample access to drinking water. It’s about people in Yemen whose villages run the risk of being wiped off the face of the Earth every minute of every day. It’s about the patient with an autoimmune disease who wonders if she’ll have to choose between shelter or medical treatment if her insurance provider is given permission to charge extra for her pre-existing condition.

In a democracy like ours, the fate of these people lies in the hands of voters. The majority of Americans and the majority of USC students are eligible, voting-age U.S. citizens.

Abstaining from politics leaves decision-making to disproportionately powerful private actors with vested interests in advancing their profits rather than the common good. Political apathy abandons vulnerable populations in need of the support that could be easily given if more Americans didn’t see politics as a mess.

The upcoming election and its ensuing changes to legislation, executive positions and other parts of government aren’t the most interesting to talk about, and it’s definitely not the most pleasant, but those concerns are secondary when compared to the needs of those whose fate lies with public policy.

Granted, increased engagement doesn’t ensure better outcomes, but it does encourage more authenticity. By surrendering political impact, one also surrenders its effects on one another, leaving people to be governed by lawmakers elected to protect only the shrinking minority of the population who put them in power.  

In political conversations, USC students should not shut down, but instead listen. Even if they aren’t interested, it’s a civic duty to be involved, because no matter how little students believe these issues affect them, so many others are affected. Regardless of how little students understand at the moment, it’s going to be on the test in November 2020, and people are counting on voters to pass.