WASHINGTON - Does the steady stream of scandalicious news coming out of Washington taint your opinion of politics? Ken Stroupe thinks it does. He even thinks that people who are too young to vote are forming negative perceptions of government as a result of front-page scandal news. And he's afraid those perceptions could be potentially damaging to young voter turnout.
"[Front page scandals] absolutely color [young people's] perceptions," said Stroupe, director of the Youth Leadership Initiative at the University of Virginia Center for Politics. And it's not a just the recent headlines about CIA leaks and domestic spying that are doing it, the process has been going on for quite some time.
Two years ago Stroupe co-authored a study that questioned high school students from freshmen through seniors about their trust of each branch of government and political parties. When asked about the presidency (not necessarily a specific president), 34 percent of students said they had a lot of trust and 42 percent said they had some trust in the office. Similarly, 24 percent of students said they had a lot of trust in Congress and 42 percent said they had some.
The real bottom-feeders in the trust department were the political parties. Only 4 percent of students said they trusted political parties a lot, and 42 percent said they had some trust. The most trusted branch of government was the Supreme Court. Of the students polled, 50 percent said they had a lot of trust and 40 percent said they had some trust in the High Court.
According to Stroupe, the students were polled at the same time as Enron was coming unraveled and Martha Stewart was answering insider trading charges. Researchers asked students about their trust in corporations in America. Of those polled, only 3 percent said they had a lot of trust in corporations.
If there was a silver lining in all of the mistrust, it was that the numbers can hardly get any lower. "[Trust] has already bottomed out," said Stroupe. "Government officials can only 'fix' things so many times before people lose faith in them."
Stroupe believes the decline of trust in government can be traced through the last 40 years, to baby boomers living through President Richard Nixon's Watergate scandal in 1974.
"All of the young people in America today are the products of a generation that was also disengaged, disinterested and did not trust politics," Stroupe said. "Voting is a learned social behavior. If you don't teach that behavior, you can't expect young people to learn and appreciate the value of it."
The New Voters Project, a program run by the State Public Interest Research Group (PIRG) is one of a growing number of campaigns designed to increase voter turnout among 18 to 24-year-olds. David Rosenfeld, director of the project, said young voters are absolutely affected by the corruption and scandal they see as part of government.
"They don't perceive politics as relating to their lives, they view it as corrupt," Rosenfeld said, adding that the belief extends to all parties and areas of politics.
According to Rosenfeld, the only way to fix this perception of the government as and to engage young people is to fix what he calls "the cycle of mutual neglect": Young people think politicians ignore them, and politicians fail to target young people as an important voting population.
In 2004, the New Voter's Project and other organizations across the country mobilized young people to vote in the presidential election. According to Rosenfeld, "18 to 24 year-old voter turnout skyrocketed."
In Virginia and New Jersey, the project studied precincts where colleges and universities were located, and young voters were the main population. In those areas, according to Rosenfeld, voter turnout increased 15 to 19 percent.
The challenge, according to Rosenfeld and Stroupe, is to keep that interest in government going throughout the non election years.
- By Kate Cooper Medill News Service