After the 2016 election, people have been fired up, exercising their political voice in several different ways. From the 2017 Women’s March, to people calling their representatives about policy issues such as DACA and universal health care, to unprecedented and historic election results (like the victories of Doug Jones, the first Democratic senator in Alabama in 25 years, and Danica Roem, the first openly transgender state legislator), it has become clear that people all across the country are eager to participate politically. But do UChicago students’ political habits reflect this national trend toward higher and more diverse 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 five 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 these forms of political participation and why students may remain politically uninvolved. This survey included 223 responses, allowing UCDI to see how UChicago students are generally involved in politics, and consequently, to highlight ways in which our engagement can improve.
One of the survey’s goals was to determine what types of political participation the student body believes are most and least effective at creating change. According to the results, when asked what is the most effective form of political engagement, 45.7 percent said voting and 20.4 percent said calling representatives. When asked what is the least effective form, 32.1 percent said participating in a political organization and 22.5 percent said protesting.
Although a large percentage of UChicago students see protesting as ineffective, they still have a more favorable view than the average adult. According to a 2009 Pew Internet and American Life Project survey, only 4 percent of American adults participated in a protest in the past 12 months. Both college students and adults are more likely to have negative opinions on protesting, which is surprising given the popularity of contemporary protests such as the Women’s March and NFL players kneeling during the national anthem. While UChicago students’ opinions on protesting do not reflect this popularity, their opinions did correlate with political activists’ increasingly vocal pleas for Americans to vote and call their representatives. It may be the case that UChicago students think that the most effective forms of political engagement are through elected officials.
While a slim majority said they vote in elections, the vast majority of survey respondents said that they don’t participate in the four other activities: protesting, calling representatives, attending a political event, and participating in political organizations. The most common reasons selected for why people don’t participate in these ways are that they don’t have time, they feel too lazy, or they don’t have enough information. According to the aforementioned 2009 Pew survey, 30 percent of American adults contacted a national, state, or local government official about an issue, 24 percent attended a political meeting on local, town, or school affairs, 12 percent attended a political rally or speech, and 15 percent were 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 the sample size was smaller and thus potentially more unreliable, 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 UChicago students generally agree that voting is effective in catalyzing 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 percent of eligible UChicago students voted in the 2016 presidential election, which is under the country’s average of about 55.7 percent according to a U.S. Census Bureau study. And according to the NSLVE data, although 73.5 percent of UChicago students who are registered to vote voted, only 68.4 percent of UChicago students are registered to vote. Ironically, it appears that UChicago students aren’t even fully participating in the political engagement methods that they think are most effective.
In today’s climate, it is more important than ever not only to express your voice through voting, but also to engage in different forms of political participation. We must challenge ourselves to seek out methods of political engagement that seem most effective to us. Whether it be calling your representative or marching in the streets, democracy only works when the people being represented are voicing their opinions. Therefore, with the 2018 midterm elections less than a year away, the UCDI hopes that you will make your voice heard and be politically engaged in any way, shape, or form—starting March 20 with the Illinois gubernatorial primary election.
Aimee Hwang is a third-year in the College majoring in public policy. She is a member of UCDI's Political Engagement Research Project.