When Donald Trump said earlier this month that the U.S. election system is rigged and threatened to contest the vote, some young people reacted in a way that seemed sensible to them. They tuned out.
This is a problem. The number of registered U.S. voters just hit 200 million but a spot on the voter rolls isn’t enough; not for students on campuses like mine in Minneapolis or for anyone else. We must all now take the next step and exercise our right to vote.
Students may feel like turning away from a political culture they see as toxic and polarizing, one rife with accusations about unfairness, legislative deadlock, and corruption. But they mustn’t.
The fundamental claim upon citizens of our country is to engage in our political system by exercising the right to vote as guaranteed in the U.S. Constitution. It is a right that has been fought for over the centuries and it is a right that continues to require fighting for as jurisdictions far and wide seek to limit its power.
This election season, the members of our college community are standing firm in our resolve to get out the vote.
And we are proud to be inaugural partners in the efforts of the ALL IN Campus Democracy Challenge, which is committed “to working with higher education institutions to improve, measure and celebrate efforts to change campus climate and encourage informed participation in our democracy.”
I hope that college and university students see voting not as an end in itself, but as a basic building block for something much more inspiring and compelling — our democracy itself — not simply the political system, not a creed we recite, but a robust way of life together: Democracy as a social ethic.
Jane Addams, the great social reformer of the late 19th and early 20th century, argued that democracy is like a “thronged road” that we travel together and that our responsibilities as citizens are to recognize each other’s burdens and gifts – to see each other as fellow travelers deserving of our respect and engagement.
Voting is a first – and important – step on this road of hope for our students and for all of us. Voting says that I have the responsibility and with it, the power, to be a co-creator of our democracy.
My colleague at Augsburg, Harry Boyte, reminds us of the compelling power of the anthem, “We are the ones we have been waiting for.”
It is our work as citizens – in all of its mundane and transformative forms – that will make our democracy strong and vital. No one else is coming to take up the work in our stead.
There most certainly is work to be done. As President Obama reminded us earlier this summer, it isn’t enough to boo a candidate—we must vote.
If voting is a first step, then there follows the often difficult and messy work of finding common purpose, listening to each other, organizing with each other to effect change, and being open to the need for forgiveness and reconciliation and having our minds changed.
I have the privilege to lead a college located in one of the most diverse ZIP codes in the United States – the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood of Minneapolis, where our neighbors are immigrants from Somalia, Ethiopia, Vietnam, Korea and elsewhere. What I see every day in the extended classroom that is our neighborhood are new citizens pursuing the American Dream, building businesses, pursuing education, making lives for themselves and their families.
And then I turn my attention back to our college community, populated by thousands of diverse students being educated for lives of meaning and purpose, and I am filled with hope: Hope for our neighborhood, our democracy, and our world – hope that begins with casting a vote and continues with the work we do together each and every day.
Paul C. Pribbenow is the 10th president of Augsburg College, a comprehensive university affiliated with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and located in Minneapolis.