Here we go again. Amid snow and ice the 64th session of the Montana State Legislature met in Helena for the start of its biennial session on Jan. 5. The session will continue for 90 days, until April 29.
There are a few things we can expect from this (and every) legislative session. Lawmakers will bicker, lobbyists will lobby, and people on campus, from administrators to professors to ASMSU senators, will tell you that you really should be paying attention to what is going on in Helena. They’re right. You should be.
But chances are you won’t. Many students look at the Legislature’s actions in a removed, noncommittal way. With some consideration, this isn’t too surprising. Research conducted by the Tufts University Center for Information and Research on Civil Learning found that in 2010, 33.5 percent of millennials reported that they did not vote that year because of their work or busy schedule. When legislative processes spans weeks instead of just a day like voting, it’s logical to assume that time constraints play even more of a role in non-participation.
The same Tufts poll found that 17.2 percent of millennials did not vote in 2010 because they said they either weren’t interested or because they felt their vote didn’t count. Similarly, numerous studies across different mediums seem to show not that millennials simply don’t care about politics and governing, but that they are instead driven away from voting and political participation by their deep disenfranchisement with the political system.
And why shouldn’t they be? It can feel like the only thing politics (and especially government) consists of is partisan bickering and petty attacks. It seems that elected officials ostensibly don’t care about the issues our generation cares about, and when you live in a state of 1 million people, the payoff of participating can seem pretty small.
However justifiable the intentions, though, this habit of nonparticipation seems deeply ironic to me. Passive protest doesn’t benefit anything, especially the anti-establishment cause it claims to support. It is simply misunderstanding masquerading as dissent, stubbornness pretending to be knowledge. More troublesome, it compounds the problem by reinforcing the systems and problems in place.
Whether we like it or not, in a democracy change begins with participation. The behavior of politicians and government officials is reinforced and changed through their interactions with constituents, who are the ultimate authority they answer to. Any demographic who takes the time to reach out and care is the demographic whose interests are most catered to by politicians. So passive protesters not only don’t draw attention to their interests, they actively work against them.
From a government accountability standpoint, the most toxic thing you can do is lose track of the political action taken in your name. What the Legislature does this session does matter, especially if you are a student at MSU.
If you are an in-state student H.B. 2 will determine if the tuition freeze continues, deciding what you pay to go to school next year. Another bill, H.B. 13, determines if MSU staff members receive pay increases. The proposed $28 million Romney Hall renovation, which would provide space for student-oriented activities and resources, has its fate resting in H.B. 5. Are you a smoker? S.B. 66 would ban youth access to e-cigarettes and similar paraphernalia.
The list and implications for MSU students and Montana citizens goes on and on, and they are topics that deserve your attention. You can choose not to participate because you don’t care, you can choose not to participate because you don’t have time, but don’t not participate because you think it doesn’t matter.