OPINION: Election Day might be long gone, but the issues aren’t

By John Irwin

It’s easy for anyone, but especially busy college students, to put politics aside after an election and not think too much about government for the next several years.

After all, the election is over, right? The Republicans won big-time in the U.S. Senate and throughout Michigan’s state government.

Nationally, the elections were seen as a rebuke of the status quo (although nothing is going to change over the next two years from a policy perspective.) Closer to home, they were seen as a message for state leaders to stay the course.

So, I wouldn’t blame anyone if they decided not to pay too much attention to politics over the next several months. Nothing is expected to change and gridlock will continue to be the norm, so it’s fair to wonder why it’s worth it to put in any effort. And as someone who follows politics religiously, things can get maddening.

Here’s why it’s important to get active, though: Much of your future, rightly or wrongly, is in the hands of your elected officials.

And that future looks somewhat bleak right now.

Student loan debt is the obvious and most immediate issue for students, and for good reason. Debt has surpassed $1 trillion nationally and is rising rapidly. The reasons for this are complex, but it mostly comes back to universities struggling to adapt in the wake of slashed state funding, The gap in funding as state appropriations decrease (and as costs increase) is closed by passing costs on to students.

(We’ve detailed how state appropriation cuts and costly tuition promises from administrators have cost CMU students significant amounts of money in recent weeks. Click here and here for more.)

That’s not the only barrier to a comfortable life for many students as they graduate.

Wages have been stagnant in the United States since the late 1970s, and the problem has not been addressed to a satisfactory degree by leaders of either party in that timespan.

In fact, that’s probably the biggest reason voters expressed their dismay with the status quo last week (aside from Democrats not running on anything in particular other than “I’m not Republican”). The economy as a whole is recovering from the Great Recession relatively well, better than any other industrialized nation.

The problem is that unless you’re solidly upper class, you’re not feeling the recovery. The top 10 percent of earners have accounted for nearly all income growth since the recession.

It appears that neither party, as a whole, has any interest in truly addressing the problem. Republicans have had little to say on the issue except to blame President Barack Obama for being the sole reason behind it (as they do with everything else). Many Democrats, including Obama, have noted the problem, but have done little to address it beyond proposing a raise in the minimum wage (a surface-level fix to the wage stagnation issue, at best).

Given the historically toxic levels of political discourse on Capitol Hill, it’s unlikely leaders in either party will be able to propose and successfully pass any fixes.

But that could possibly change if Americans, specifically young people, become engaged in the political process.

The reasons for wage stagnation, student loan debt, our hyper-partisan political culture and more are complex and complicated. But one of the main culprits is voter apathy. As a whole, Americans might care a bit about politics around election time, especially when it’s a presidential election, but low voter turnout numbers among young people indicate that we don’t care enough.

That’s understandable considering the political process has been broken for years and has been tilted against young Americans for a long while.

But just sitting on the sidelines for most days out of the year and only showing up to the polls once every two or four years, if we remember to, does little to fix that.

All that does is enable those same politicians who are potentially screwing your future over to continue screwing you over.

Don’t let them do that. Voting is a start, but then make your voice heard for the next two years.

Write to your congressmen and state legislators. Attend public meetings and rallies. Get involved on campus. Let those in power know about the issues that matter to you, no matter what they are.

Make your voices heard. That’s the one thing the average, young American can do to have a significant impact on the political process. Special interests and billionaire donors can flood the system with money, but not with voices and votes.

Pay attention and force action.

Your future, and the country’s, depend on it.

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