In 2016, only 58.1% of eligible voters voted in the United States presidential election, a number which has been declining, especially among young people. As of 2019, only about 7% of the population in the US is currently enlisted or has served in the military. Since 2005, a Gallup poll found that pride in being an American has been steadily declining and today only 45% of Americans say that they are extremely proud to be American. It is more clear than ever that Americans are not connected to their country, democracy, or to other American citizens.
Aristotle believed that moral virtue could be instilled in citizens and that punishment or extrinsic motivation would translate into the values of an individual. Just as a child learns what is right and wrong and grows up to fully realize those values, laws designed to inspire virtue will create an innately virtuous citizenry.
Compulsory voting is one law that could force citizens to realize the full value of active democratic participation. When people haven’t shown up to vote, the decisions made from the elections were not truly the representation of the majority will of citizens.
Most candidates and propositions only pass by a voting margin of less than 5% and in the last election, Trump won by one of the smallest margins in the history of the electoral college. This means that if more people were voting on a regular basis, the laws and leaders of our nation could be drastically different. This would allow more people to have faith in the American political system, because it would be reflective of the average American’s interests.
Australia is one of the few democracies that mandates and actively enforces all eligible citizens to participate in voting. They make all voting easily accessible and have created national holidays and celebrations around the event. And after years of this practice, historian Judith Brett writes for The Guardian, “Australia was born not on the battlefields but at the ballot box.”
The law created this culture of active political engagement and today Australians view it as a distinct point of pride. Israel, similarly, forces its citizens to participate in the state through compulsory national service. Although it is of course out of necessity, it has also become a part of what it means to be a citizen of Israel. It is taboo for the rich to get out of it, in a way that is normalized in the United States. People serve their country because they value their state and parents feel proud, rather than fearful, when they send their children to war.
Harvard professor of public policy, Robert Putnam, argues that Americans’ sense of community is waning, and the close ties we once had to their community are disappearing. It is because of the lack of duty to the state that GenxErs and millennials feel more like individuals than members of a collective. The law mandates that in the years coming up to voting age that all citizens develop the ability to think and learn, but does not mandate a civic education. Students also need to be educated in the process of democracy and why their vote matters. Through both compulsory voting and civic education, the value of voting can be ingrained in American citizens from a young age, creating a shared identity between Americans that can ultimately rebuild our democracy.
Like jury duty and standardized tests, as a part of a society we are obligated to fulfill some duties. Nobody wants to go to jury duty or take a test, but we have to ensure fair trials and measure student’s abilities. In a civilized and functional society, some rights of the individual must be forsaken for the greater good of the community. Citizens may not fully support all candidates on the ballot, but they still must choose because ultimately someone must end up with the position and all people need to contribute to that decision. Ultimately, when people do not value their vote or their part in maintaining democracy, they do not value their country and the people within it.
Civic virtue is what could force our country to become less divided and recognize our role as a part of a larger cause and a functional democracy. When people are civically engaged, they not only feel closer with the people around them as they are united through virtue but it allows society to collectively progress. The ultimate reason that we are in a community is to learn and grow from the diverse perspectives around the country. We want to see progress in our government and respect in our political discourse. We do not want to feel separated by state lines, political parties, or identities. Yet, we consistently miss the mark because we fail to create a foundation for our values and a community of shared values.