Our parents had Vietnam. We had Meatless Monday. They went on strike, boycotting class to protest a war. We wrote some snippy articles, bought a Big Mac, and let Fox News holla at us. Political engagement isn’t dead at Bowdoin, but it’s on life support.
Before the Bowdoin Democrats—or Republicans for that matter—get all up in arms, yes, everyone got your emails. And no, they’re not really interested in phone banking, canvassing, or purchasing the T-shirts that your chosen state representative is selling.
These acts of political support involve minimal effort, yet the line is hardly out the door. Norma certainly isn’t impressed.
Sure, we watched the debates and people posted Facebook statuses about them, but is that genuine political engagement? Does posting “Romney binders full of women” memes on your profile count as involvement?
What does it say about us as Bowdoin students that no one is sure whether or not we give a shit? Is this some kind of moral failing?
The answer is yes and no. My first instinct was to write a guilt-laden article about how half-assed political support is a sign of privilege. That only those who know their lives are fundamentally insulated from election outcomes can afford to hold on to lukewarm feelings. I wanted to say that we should be desperate to fight for a cause, any cause. I wanted to say that we should be leading the charge on the world’s most pressing issues, demanding change on things like climate change and health care reform. I wanted to criticize our government for being able to ignore two wars because no one can force us to serve.
And maybe there’s a little truth in that. But I don’t think that’s the driving force behind Bowdoin’s political malaise. If you talk to Bowdoin students individually, they do have strong beliefs. There are government majors who can speak intelligently about the benefits of universal health care, or the dangers of the “nanny state.”
There are students writing twenty-page papers on America’s tradition of divisive politics, populism, and the nuances of the electoral College. There are economics majors who model the mathematical theory behind social security, and English majors who deconstruct each sentence of campaign speeches. Heck, many students even worked on political campaigns this past summer.
The problem is that we have learned the lessons of liberal etiquette and polite table manners too well. At the heart of political action is the pressing need to mobilize people for a cause—to create consensus and form a majority. And Bowdoin students just aren’t that interested in changing their classmates’ minds. We respect everyone’s right to have an opinion so much that we’ve stopped asking if they exist at all. It’s like our school is a never-ending young-professionals’ cocktail party. Stick to the safe subjects. Don’t be overbearing. Never disagree.
In theory, that should be fine. Everyone would think his or her own thoughts and show up on voting day to silently express themselves. In practice, it is a terrible system.
When you stop debating, when you stop having to defend your beliefs to skeptics, your ideas atrophy. Steely convictions forged in fire turn into flimsy cardboard cutouts. Without dialogue, political progress quickly mutates into political stagnation.
Unfamiliar with opposing arguments, shouting loudly becomes the only way to make yourself heard. Just look at the debates; pundits always award bonus points to the candidates interrupting the most frequently and slinging one-liners with the most zeal. More disastrously, the political attendance you took for granted—that everyone would at least fulfill his civic duty and vote—begins to disappear. Activism and civic engagement are communal activities; when the community dissolves, people tune out.
Our politicians kind of suck. There’s no doubting that. They’re petty, and representative of only the smallest slices of America. But crappy politicians aren’t a good enough reason for the lack of enthusiasm at Bowdoin.
No matter what our political beliefs, we have a responsibility to discuss these issues with our peers. It’s our job to seek out opposing opinions. And when we disagree with what we hear—because that’s inevitable—we have to be prepared to say something. You can call it the opposite of “don’t ask don’t tell.”