In 1831, after touring the fledgling United States, the Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville observed that “Americans of all ages, all stations in life, and all types of dispositions are forever forming associations.”
“The people reign over the American political world as God rules over the universe,” he concluded, contending that the passionate involvement of the country’s citizens was key to its success.
Unfortunately, that means if Tocqueville was right, America has a problem.
More than 175 years after Tocqueville penned “Democracy in America,” American apathy is rising and civic involvement falling.
For example, in recent decades, membership in the country’s volunteer organizations has plummeted. Between 1993 and 2010, the Junior Chamber of Commerce (the Jaycees) lost 63 percent of its membership. During a shorter period — between 1996 and 2007 — membership in Rotary International dipped by more than a quarter. Individual volunteerism has declined as well: In 2013, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported the lowest volunteer rate for adults since the department began measuring the statistic.
Going hand in hand with waning civic involvement is waning electoral participation. The lack of voter turnout in the recent midterm election — barely more than one-third of the country’s electorate headed to the polls — continued a trend. If a presidential candidate would have been on the ballot, the results would have been higher — around 60 percent — but nowhere near the 80 percent voter turnout of the 1840 election.
Surveying the cultural landscape, a growing number of commentators have diagnosed Americans’ declining interest in political and community involvement as one of apathy. But that, said Dr. Gregory Popcak, executive director of CatholicCounselors.com, is just another way of saying “sloth.”
“Sloth is apathy,” he explained. “It’s one of the seven deadly sins. It’s not laziness; it’s indifference. It’s an unwillingness to use my gifts and talents to affect the world around me. It’s me, out of a desire for a peaceful life, sticking my head in the sand and pretending every problem in the world is just small stuff that I don’t need to worry about.”
The sin of sloth
While decidedly less intriguing than its more well known counterparts — lust, pride, envy, gluttony, wrath and greed — sloth, or apathy, remains equally deadly. That’s true politically and socially, with lower volunteer activity leaving more work for the government to do and more basic human needs going unmet.
It’s also true spiritually.
“We find ourselves by making gifts of ourselves,” Popcak said. “God has given us to the world to be a gift. He’s counting on us to do something that only we can do. Each of us is unique and unrepeatable. If we don’t do our part, if we don’t do what God created us to do, it doesn’t get done, and God’s plan is frustrated.”
According to Popcak, post-modern culture is a breeding ground for that kind of frustration.
“We’re constantly bombarded in every way we can imagine by information about problems we can do nothing about,” he explained.
He went on to note that while once people lived in smaller communities and were primarily confronted by the solvable problems of friends and neighbors, today, “We don’t know our neighbors, but we know the intimate details of problems in every corner of the globe, which we’re often helpless to counter.”
It also doesn’t help that we’re a culture on the move. Increasing mobility — moving from town to town and job to job — makes people less inclined to care about and invest in the long-term welfare of their communities. Constant busyness — racing from school to work to the soccer field — does the same.
“If I’m too busy, I don’t have time to reflect,” Popcak said. “The busier I am, the less able I am to attend to my world and be the gift God wants me to be.”
Joshua Mercer, co-founder of the nonprofit political education group CatholicVote.org, also sees America’s culture of instant gratification contributing to the problem.
“Politics, by its nature, is a long series of small victories building on each other,” he explained. “But as Americans, we’re used to getting what we want when we want it — ‘on demand,’ so to speak.” When payoffs for involvement don’t come right away, many people become disillusioned and tune out.
“If you want quick and decisive victories,” Mercer added, “watch sports.”
Don’t, however, watch “The Daily Show,” which Mercer says just feeds American cynicism and apathy.
“Politics in today’s age is ripe for mockery,” he said. “But if all we do is point hypocrisies out, it creates a perception that the system is totally unreformable, so why bother trying.”
The next generation
Oddly enough, apathy driven by cynicism is increasingly evident among America’s young.
And it’s not simply because of “The Colbert Report.”
“Thanks to global connectivity, teens are much more aware of the darkness in the world,” said Brian Kissinger, a 12-year veteran of Catholic youth ministry, currently serving at a Fairfax, Virginia, parish.
“Today’s teens were babies during 9/11. Their perception of the world is different from their predecessors.”
That perception has produced a generation of young people strangely conflicted when it comes to social action. On the one hand, teens’ heightened awareness of people’s pain makes them want to do something.
“When it comes to social causes, teens tend to be highly energized to get involved,” Kissinger said.
On the other hand, that involvement often goes no further than clicking “Like” on a friend’s Facebook status.
“Because teens live their lives online, that’s how they express their concern,” Kissinger continued. “Awareness, more than action, becomes the goal. They may feel passionately about something, but that doesn’t translate to results or changes. It translates to tweets and re-tweets.”
That’s not to say there aren’t notable exceptions. Over the years, Kissinger has seen teens commit to causes with an enduring passion and take bold stands for their faith “that many faithful Catholic adults would shy away from.”
But, on the whole, he concluded, “teens become victims of the sensationalistic news cycle just like the rest of us. They move on to the next story about the next cause and miss out on any real follow up.”
Social apathy, however, is not a problem without a solution. In his work with teens, Kissinger said two things invariably make a difference. The first is evangelization.
“Too often, especially in Catholic schools, everyone assumes the kids personally know the love of God,” he said. “But we can’t assume that anymore. We have to continually evangelize, because when the Faith becomes something that matters to them, teens become more passionate and want to be more involved.”
Connecting awareness to action is also vital.
This past summer, before taking teens to a youth conference, Kissinger first had the group engage in several days of people-oriented community service.
“The kids were so moved to be a part of helping people, of feeding people. The difference they could make really shocked them,” he said. “It also helped them see that awareness alone doesn’t accomplish much.”
A different kind of awareness, however, can help both youth and adults move from apathy to action. That awareness, explained Popcak, is an awareness of our gifts and calling.
“We need to ask ourselves, ‘What small things can I do to make someone’s life more pleasant? How can I put a smile on someone’s face today?’ We need to cultivate awareness of small changes we can make to our environment — leaving a room a little neater or another person a little happier.
“The more we ask questions like that,” Popcak concluded, “the more we’re fighting apathy in the little things and discovering that our involvement does matter. That, in turn, equips us to fight apathy in the big things.”
Emily Stimpson is an OSV contributing editor.