The Disengaged Are Destroying America

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(Photo: Reuters/Joshua Roberts)A "vote here" sign stands in front of the polling place at the Reformation Lutheran Church in Columbia, South Carolina February 20, 2016.

There is no shortage of emotion on the part of the two-thirds of American adults who harbor strong feelings about the condition and direction of the country. During the past decade, in particular, activist conservatives and liberals have been feverishly pushing their ideals and desires for the nation in full view of the public.

The clash of worldviews represented by those two factions has created something that feels like an angry stalemate in which America is not making any progress. Some have called it a (mostly) non-violent civil war. We are definitely in a time of agitation, desperately seeking resolution.

Recent studies by the American Culture and Faith Institute have noted that no matter how you measure it, people are eager to arrive at new solutions because we are leery of our own government. Six out of ten Americans are angry about the state of the nation. Two out of three contend that the government cannot be trusted to do what is in the best interests of the country. Seventy percent say that government has too much control over our lives. Huge majorities of the people argue that the United States is moving in the wrong direction on at least three important fronts: politically, morally, and culturally.

So if we are in a democratic republic, why aren't things changing for the better?

One reason is that we lack leadership that is coalescing the people around a positive, shared vision of America. We experience that paucity of leadership everyday, as Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives, Christians and non-Christians, Millennials and Boomers, whites and non-whites express their divergent perspectives and refuse to give an inch. Without strong leaders casting a compelling portrait of a superior future and shows us how we can move forward, that existing animosity will not end.

But another crucial component of our national stalemate is the large share of the voting-age population that is disengaged from the multifaceted battle of worldviews. These people are the tiebreakers. But they refuse to show up.

There are two key segments of the disengaged. The first is those who have moderate views – i.e., obstinate ambivalence – on both politics and theology (31% of the adult population). They will not take stands on the important issues of the day, from immigration to abortion, from the veracity of the Bible to the role of Jesus Christ in modern life.

The second segment is people who are not registered to vote and pay little attention to political news and information (21%). There are times when all of us get frustrated with the political system and its players, and harbor ill-will toward the biased media. But rather than work through the garbage and distortions in the pipeline, the disengaged retire from the game altogether.

Obviously, these two groups are kissing cousins. In total, 35% of adults fit one or both of those categories.

Their ambivalence is obvious when you see that:

  • They are less likely to feel angry about the state of the nation: 47% vs. 70% among other adults
  • They are less likely to have an opinion about President Trump's current job performance
  • They are more than twice as likely as other Americans to give President Trump a middling grade (a "C") or to have no opinion about his first year's performance in office
  • They are much less likely to claim that they are actively working for the positive transformation of American society

Why are such a bland feelings and lack of participation a problem to harp on? Because, unfortunately, this group of absentee citizens may hold the future of our nation in their hands.

We are essentially in a political impasse and they hold the tiebreaking vote. Imagine if the U.S. Senate had an evenly-divided floor vote and the Vice President refused to show up to cast the deciding ballot. What would we call the VP? Irresponsible. Abandoning his civic duty. Wreckless. Uncaring. Derelict in his duties.

Conservatives and liberals want to change America. But the Disengaged, through their apathy and ignorance, are effectively destroying it.

Let me make this even clearer. The latest ACFI survey asked people to summarize their feelings about capitalism, socialism, and democracy.

Republicans, Democrats, conservatives, and liberals agree on very little. But three-quarters of them expressed positive feelings about democracy. The Disengaged? Just 37% of them had positive feelings about the basis of American civic life. A majority said they were either undecided on the matter or no feelings at all.

When asked to make a choice between capitalism and socialism, conservatives overwhelmingly opted for capitalism, liberals vied for socialism. The Disengaged? A majority of them (56%) said they had no preference.

Part of the challenge may be their lack of information. Whereas two-thirds of the engaged population follows news about politics and governance "a lot" or "quite a bit," few of those who are Disengaged pay attention to such information.

These are the people who don't know and don't care. Their failure to participate in the battle for the nation's future is paralyzing us all.

On the one hand, I hate to have these cultural sluggards shift the direction of the nation one way or the other. Will they be as irresponsible in their choices as they have been through their disengagement?

On the other hand, if they do not engage, without vibrant leaders suddenly emerging to put the nation on course, we will all continue to suffer. If the Disengaged would man-up and uphold their civic duty to participate in national life, we could break out of our political paralysis. Wouldn't it be better for the nation to move forward than to continue our agonizing slide into the quicksand of ambivalence and throes of political chaos?

If you are among the one out of every three Americans who fit the description of the Disengaged, would you please invest yourself in your own (and everyone else's) future by getting involved in the society around you? We know you're busy and overwhelmed; the rest of us are, too. Hiding from cultural controversies or not "taking a stand" is not helping you or your countrymen. There is no real value in staying neutral. Please, spend a little time studying the state of the union and the opportunities and challenges that lie before us. Figure out what you believe and how to translate those views into positive action.

No, you don't have to be a brain surgeon or rocket scientist to take your obligation to your country and freedom seriously. Less than one percent of us are in those heady professions yet we're engaged in the admittedly messy sociopolitical process, trying our ragged best to make the world a better place. We need your help!

George Barna is the Executive Director of the American Culture and Faith Institute, a division of United in Purpose. He founded the Barna Research Group in 1984 (now The Barna Group) and has been President of Metaformation, a faith development organization, since 2009. Barna has written more than 50 books, mostly addressing cultural trends, leadership, spiritual development, and church dynamics