As political tension continues to escalate on a national and global level, a movement called apoliticalism has emerged. Apoliticalism is defined as “a lack of engagement or involvement in politics” or “an aversion to politics or political affairs” by the Merriam-Webster Dictionary. This political disengagement is a result of both political culture and our political systems. Political neutrality is commonly justified as an attempt to “maintain peace” or to “heal political polarization.”
However, this neutral approach to politics is not a solution to systemic issues. Being apolitical is an implicit endorsement of the current political structure. In the words of Desmond Tutu, South African Bishop and anti-apartheid activist, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” Actively choosing to sit on the sidelines in a society rife with injustice is privileged complacency. Byronie McMahon, Student Representative on the Portland Public Schools Board of Education, explains, “It’s only possible to ignore something when you have yet to experience the painful reality [of injustice]. There are many who, because of their race, or their gender, or their economic circumstance, have yet to experience that reality, so they feel little need to engage.” But no matter if you are directly or indirectly affected by systemic issues, we all have a responsibility to fight for a just and equitable society through political engagement.
In reality, it’s impossible to be completely apolitical because politics are a part of our daily lives. McMahon adds, “politics affect everything; the lives of our family, our children, and our education.” Even ordinary decisions like where to shop and what to buy at the grocery store are political decisions. Governments dictate how food is grown, stored, distributed, and accessed. So with every cereal box and milk carton you buy, you are taking a stand on government policies, whether you know it or not. Although these small choices might not seem important, they are a part of a bigger system. McMahon admits, “It’s much simpler to pretend that politics is an opt-in activity.” But, the truth is no matter what, we are living in a political society making political decisions everyday.
In the 2020 U.S. presidential election, voting reports conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau found that the 12.8 million non-registered voters in the United States were most likely to cite “disinterest in the election” or “not being involved in politics” as their reason for not voting. There are many consequences to this widespread political apathy. A healthy democracy is dependent on citizen engagement. The voices of the people, our voices, regulate those in power. Without this balance, democratic governments can evolve into authoritarian dictatorships, jeopardizing the freedom and rights of citizens. Political engagement starts by empowering people to believe that their vote matters and that the political process is relevant to their life.
Although increased participation on an individual level is part of the solution, systemic change to the U.S. voting system is also needed. McMahon explains, “So many communities, specifically communities that have been historically disenfranchised, have fought so hard to make their voices heard despite the challenges.” Equitable access to voting varies dramatically from state to state. For example, in states like Florida and Texas, restrictions on absentee and mail voting have caused widespread disenfranchisement, especially amongst low-income communities of color. These laws not only discourage, but in many cases prevent voting. “It’s difficult to keep the faith, and to push for what’s right or what’s best for your community when, despite your efforts, nothing seems to change,” reflects McMahon.
Going forward, we need to actively engage in the politics of our community and world. It is our responsibility as citizens of America to educate ourselves on what is happening in our country, converse with family and friends about issues in the community, and show up for causes that we believe in. McMahon says that political involvement starts with identifying your passions, “Whether it’s education policy, human rights, climate change, or youth representation, find an issue that makes your heart sing and stomach flutter.” She adds, “No one teaches you to be an activist (well maybe some non-profits), but learning the skill is a necessary journey.” Political engagement can be as simple as registering to vote through NextUp Oregon, following political leaders and activists on Instagram, or listening to credible news sources such as OPB. A better world is possible if we stay politically engaged and hold our government accountable.