Texans must know freedom is not all celebrating and fun

Posted Wednesday, Jul. 03, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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July 4 is the greatest day in the world to wave flags, go to parades and watch fireworks displays, all celebrating the birth of our nation.

But how well do we Texans do in our effort to hold up the burdens of that nation and its civic life?

Not well, according to a report recently released by the University of Texas at Austin’s Annette Strauss Institute for Civic Life.

“Much of the information presented throughout this report leads to a troubling conclusion,” the report says. “Texas ranks among the lowest in the nation on many measures of political and civic participation.”

Scholars at the institute gleaned their information from U.S. Census Bureau surveys covering the 50 states and the District of Columbia.

Especially on Independence Day, most Americans, including Texans, seem convinced that this nation and its democratic government are right in their founding principles. Yet there seems to be a disconnect when it comes to the work involved in keeping those principles alive.

Thousands of people converged on Austin in the past two weeks for rallies, committee meetings and other action related to a bill to restrict abortions. That shows a lot of Texans pay significant attention to what’s going on in state and national government, right?

Well, not so much. Take the most basic measure, voter registration, for example.

“In 2010, 61.6 percent of voting-eligible Texans reported being registered to vote, compared with 65.1 percent of voting-eligible Americans overall, making Texas 42nd in the nation,” the Strauss Institute report says.

And where do Texans rank in voter turnout? In 2010, a midterm election year for congressional seats, only 36.4 percent of Texans reported voting — dead last in the nation as a whole.

“In fact, the trend lines show that voting in Texas has lagged behind the national average in every presidential and midterm election year since 1972,” the report says. “In 2008, a presidential election year with comparatively high levels of turnout nationwide, 56.1 percent of eligible Texans voted, compared with 64.6 percent for the U.S. overall.”

Some other measures of civic involvement:

• Contact with public officials: 8.9 percent of Texans say they have visited with a public official. The national average in 2011 was 12.3 percent, and Texas ranked 49th in the nation.

• Discussing politics with others: 26 percent of Texans say they talk about political issues with friends or family a few times a week or more. That’s close to the U.S. average of 29.3 percent, but Texas ranks 44th in the nation.

• Expressing opinions online: 7.2 percent of Texans put their opinions about community issues on the Internet, slightly below the national average of 8 percent.

This is a good point to branch out and address the differences between demographic groups in the state.

As might be expected, people with higher incomes and higher education tend to have the time and information be more involved in civic life. Race, ethnicity and citizenship status also correlate with political participation.

And then there’s this point: People who are younger than 30, what’s called the millennial generation, don’t take part in civic affairs as much as their elders. In 2010, only 16.1 percent of those in the 18-29 age group reported voting, versus 42.7 percent of those 30 and older.

Millennials and others who don’t share as much of a sense of duty in civic life aren’t wrong, exactly. They have rights to live the way they want. But the nation will be stronger, everyone’s rights and freedoms more assured, if at some point more join in.

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