If you list the 34 countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development—generally considered to be the most highly developed, democratic nations in the world—and you rank them by the percent of citizens who voted in the last major election, the United States will come in at number 31.
This week and next, our leaders are gathering to nominate their candidates for president, where they will proclaim, as they always do, that the United States is the paragon of democracy. They will declare that the people’s voices have been heard and that the candidates before them represent the true wishes of the public.
Naturally, they will not reference voter turnout.
Of the people who are eligible to vote in this country, approximately 36 percent did so in the last national election. That means, two years ago, nearly two out of every three citizens didn’t participate in the democratic process.
It’s not hard to see why. Over the last 50 years, Americans have lost faith in their politicians, from a time when over 70 percent said they trusted government to only 20 percent today. Psychologists have found that people vote less when they distrust the system.
This does not bode well for either party. Americans are significantly more dissatisfied with their candidates this year than they have been in most election cycles.
When this disillusionment doesn’t result in disengagement, it may veer toward riskier, anti-establishment candidates. Economists call this phenomenon “gambling for resurrection.” It often results in people regretting their decision because they only compounded their losses.
That’s the bad news.
The good news is that we know how to rebuild much of the trust that has been lost. A wealth of sociological research has demonstrated that the key to trust is, not surprisingly, people. The more people in your social network—the more friends and neighbors and family members you know and have and feel connected with—the more involved you tend to be in collective institutions. We care about others when we see them as a part of our lives.
“It’s a simple insight, but a powerful one: Community is a key ingredient in democracy.”TWEET THIS
It’s a simple insight, but a powerful one: Community is a key ingredient in democracy.
Community has been fraying in this country. Americans have become increasingly segregated by class and race, sorting into like-minded neighborhoods cut off from the views and experiences of the rest of the population. We now drive greater and greater distances to live apart from one another, and we have invested less and less in the infrastructure needed to bring us together.
We are, quite literally, a people divided.
Our housing policies, unfortunately, do not address this reality. For too long, they have focused almost exclusively on homeownership, but housing is about more than just homeownership. Housing is about neighborhoods. Housing is about communities. Housing is a commitment to be invested in the nation in which we live, whether we rent or own, for the long term. The sociological research teaches that we care when we feel connected, not just when we have wealth accumulating.
As Americans, we all care about the future of our nation, but we may not feel connected to it. We may feel, especially in this election season, that it is moving further and further from our grasp. This is not a good feeling, and it is not what our founders intended. But if we disengage now, we dishonor their sacrifice.
The hope that this nation has always represented, to me and to everyone I know, has not been found on a convention stage or a national television. It has been in my own backyard, where my family and my friends and my community have always made this country the home I love. And so, in this turbulent election season, I urge you to find strength in the communities around you, and in so doing, I think you will find that trust is not dead. It is all around us, if only we remember the fundamental fact that democracy is an act of inclusion—and therefore, it only works if we all participate and we all care.