Oregon Values and Beliefs Center survey finds a citizenry on the sidelines
A survey conducted earlier this year by the Oregon Values and Beliefs Center came up with some disturbing insights into what Oregonians think about participating in the civic and political activities of their communities.
I'd summarize the survey's first set of findings as follows: Things are not great, something needs to change, but I'd rather not be part of making change happen.
An overwhelming number of respondents (74%) reported that they are worried about the future of their communities, while less than half that number (34%) report that they have a positive impression of their local governments.
Not surprisingly then, the survey failed to find a majority agreeing that "being politically involved in my community or area of Oregon is important to me." If government is not working, why get involved?
But, in the same survey, more than eight in 10 Oregonians reported that "social and political change in (their) area" is important to them as a "top priority" (6%), as something that "feels pretty important" (45%) or is at least something they "think about sometimes" (30%).
So, at this point, the survey tells us that there's a disconnect between angst and agency and a tension between frustration and engagement.
"I'm burnt out feeling my efforts are not useful," commented a middle-aged Republican man in Wasco County.
"I am so fed up that I think change is hopeless in Portland," wrote an older Democratic woman in Multnomah County.
Younger voters (age 18-29) were even more likely to opt for the sidelines, trailing their elders by 10 percentage points in their agreement with the importance of political involvement in their communities. That may be in part due to a "whatever" attitude or the fact that these young voters are the only age cohort with a majority reporting that their area of Oregon is doing "good" or "good enough." Or it may reflect early onset disenchantment with politics generally.
A second set of findings in the survey was a bit more hopeful: The glass is nearly one-third full when it comes to what voters say about their desire to be more active citizens. Almost a third (31%) of respondents wish they could spend more time on social and political change-related activities. Many of these respondents blamed job demands, family obligations, advancing age and disability for not following through with their good intentions.
But another, more concerning theme emerged in the open-ended answers to this and a related question about respondents' "interest in social and political change-making activities or skills": fear of conflict and even retribution. This emerged as a new concern, echoing an earlier finding in a February OVBC survey that more than seven in 10 Oregonians (71%) feel "we can no longer share honest opinions with each other in our workplaces, schools and social gatherings."
"Anyone who gets involved socially or politically and has views other than the radical left risks getting cancelled," complained a Republican man in Lane County. While a Democratic woman in Jefferson County blamed "anger and hostility exhibited by closed-minded extreme conservatives" for staying out of politics.
Other commenters, from both sides of the partisan divide, complained of getting "bullied and denigrated" and "taking a lot of s**t" for expressing their views.
The April OVBC survey, only recently released, was sponsored by the North Star Civic Foundation, which provides "resources to elected and community leaders to build trust, discover new common ground, and accelerate change." The results I've gleaned from the survey may appear challenging for the foundation's goals. But that glass-one-third-full represents more than a million adults in Oregon who say they want to be more involved in their communities civic and political activities.
How to reach those Oregonians is the challenge of the moment for our democracy, beginning with the sentiment expressed by the Republican candidate for governor in the first gubernatorial debate: "I'm tired of having someone yell at me."
"I would love to connect with those who are similarly interested in non-partisan problem-solving," commented an Independent Party member in Washington County.
"In reality when one can actually discuss and hear one another we learn that people have more in common, furthermore we can actually find unity in many areas," added a Democrat in Yamhill County.
When feelings like that span the political hierarchy, from disengaged citizens to candidates for governor, the need for more dialogue and civility in our politics becomes as good a takeaway as any from the OVBC survey.
Tim Nesbitt, an Independence resident, is a former union leader in Oregon and served as an adviser to Govs. Ted Kulongoski and John Kitzhaber.
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