Lessons from Europe: Civic Engagement

This is the first post in a new series I am trying out, “Lessons from Europe,” and I wanted to begin with a topic that it is very important to me- civic engagement.  It is essential for the future of democracy to have youth involved in the process.  They should understand the political systems and policymaking processes where they live, and they should have their voices heard by our elected leaders and government officials.  This point is reinforced by Article 12 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which states the following-

“1. States Parties shall assure to the child who is capable of forming his or her own views the right to express those views freely in all matters affecting the child, the views of the child being given due weight in accordance with the age and maturity of the child.

2. For this purpose, the child shall in particular be provided the opportunity to be heard in any judicial and administrative proceedings affecting the child, either directly, or through a representative or an appropriate body, in a manner consistent with the procedural rules of national law.”

I found two great examples of youth involvement in the political process in Europe- Children’s Parliaments and the European Youth Event.

Children’s Parliaments
In his book, Europe’s Promise, Steven Hill talks about the Children’s Parliaments in Germany.  These bodies are composed of school-aged children and meet throughout the year.  Hill writes that they “convene and debate issues and are actually permitted to propose legislation to the local city council.” (p. 243, italics in original)

In Finland, students 15-16 years old have the opportunity to participate in the Youth Parliament.  According to the brochure the Embassy of Finland sent me, “Its objective is to promote social participation and integration among young people and foster interest in social affairs in general and Parliament in particular.”  The brochure makes the point that one of the most important pieces of participating in the Youth Parliament is contacting MP’s and local government officials.

European Youth Event
In addition to the Children’s Parliaments, I also found something called the European Youth Event.  The EYE was a three-day event organized by the European Parliament and other agencies.  During the event thousands of Europeans ages 16-30 discussed a variety of topics pertinent to Europe.  According to the report, “The core aim of the European Youth Event was to demonstrate that young people are willing to engage in developing a brighter future for a more prosperous, inclusive, innovative, and sustainable European Union, and that they are an invaluable source for ideas on how to achieve this.”  (p.9, italics mine)  After the EYE finished, the final report was given to MEP’s, and some of the participants were allowed to present ideas to MEP’s themselves.  I think its great that one of the main institutions of the EU, along with other bodies, see the importance of youth participating in the political process and organize an event such as the EYE.

The biggest lesson here is that while youth in the US are allowed to speak at local meetings (especially school board meetings) and write to their elected officials, our local/state governments do not organize anything like the Children’s Parliaments or EYE.  We have simulations like Model UN or, in the case of Wisconsin, Badger Girls and Badger Boys, but they are just simulations.  To really make them more beneficial to participants, they should be able to present their work to elected officials or policymakers and take their discussions “to the next level.”  Why don’t we have an American Youth Congress that gathers in Washington, DC, for three or four days, discussing issues and presenting ideas for solutions to members of Congress and other officials?  Surely, we could have something like that at the state level.  The key though, is that like the Children’s Parliament and EYE, our actual legislatures must be involved in organizing them and promoting them.  Our elected officials must see American youth as invaluable as well.

The other lesson is more of a broader issue- the US has not ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child.  We signed it (five years after it entered into force), but we have not ratified it.  Why is that?  What are waiting on?

In my next post, I will continue this theme of political participation and discuss the political festivals in Sweden (Almedalen) and Denmark (Folkemødet.)

Thanks for reading.

New Series: Lessons from Europe

This past year, I read Steven Hill’s Europe’s Promise: Why the European Way is the Best Hope in an Insecure Age.  As I went through it, I took notes of some of the more interesting ideas that I would like to see adapted here in the U.S.  Since I have not written anything on the blog about Europe for a while, I thought this would be a good time to start a new series called “Lessons from Europe,” during which I bring up some of those interesting ideas and discuss the possibilities for the United States.

Here’s what I’m thinking as far as possible topics go:

1) Civic engagement

2) Family values (focusing more on early childhood)

3) Environmental policy

4) Public transportation

5) If I’m feeling particularly ambitious- political systems (specifically campaigns and representation)

If I focus and work diligently every day, I could have the first four done before I go back to school in late August.  Of course, it is summer break, so that may not happen.

For my European readers (if there are any)- if you think you’ve got a good thing going where you are, some sort of policy or way of doing things that you think we Americans can learn from, please feel fee to leave a comment below.

Thanks for reading.

**I would like to thank my former colleague Kris Cody-Johnson, English teacher extraordinaire, for the inspiration to attempt this series.  She recently launched a similar project focusing on the Wisconsin Idea.

The Media and Bernie Sanders

I like Bernie Sanders.  I like his ideas, and I like his approach to campaigning.  Out of all the candidates that have officially announced their candidacy for president, only Sanders has outlined sensible policies to take care of the American people.  He is also the only candidate to have drawn a crowd of 10,000 supporters.  So why does the media label him an “underdog” or a “long shot?”  Here a just a few examples of what I’m talking about.

“Bernie Sanders has been running for president for two months, but Wednesday night in Madison, Wisconsin, his long-shot campaign got real.”- Dan Merica, CNN, July 2

“The haul marks a strong performance for the underdog candidate, but still puts him well behind Democratic front-runner Hillary Rodham Clinton.”- John Wagner, The Washington Post, July 2

“The Vermont senator is winning over progressive voters and has raised millions in small donations. Could this underdog campaign have a fighting chance?”- Lauren Gambino and Ben Jacobs, The Guardian, July 3

“Bernie Sanders an Unlikely Source of Competition for Hillary Clinton”- Good Morning America, ABC, July 3

I get that Hillary Clinton is the “big-name” nominee, and I understand that she has a well-oiled political machine already in place.  I also know that a lot of people have been waiting for 2016 to see her run.  When the media, however, has all but crowned her the Democratic nominee, what message does that send about our political system?  What does this mean for democracy?

I see the media portrayal as having two possible effects.  First, people love to root for the underdog.  As such, the more the media says Sanders doesn’t have a chance, the more support he’ll receive.  Second, it could take support away from Sanders because people also like the sure thing.  They don’t want to feel like their support is wasted on somebody who might not be the nominee.

What are your thoughts?  Will the media’s portrayal of Sanders help, or hurt, his chances?

Thanks for reading.

Differing Perspectives

Last night, Gov. Bobby Jindal spoke in Iowa and sent out a tweet with this image, calling it a “great turnout.”

Screen Shot 2015-07-02 at 8.02.18 AM

Also last night, Sen. Bernie Sanders spoke in Madison. Here’s just one photo illustrating the turnout.

Screen Shot 2015-07-02 at 8.06.07 AM

Notice the difference?  Granted, Sen. Sanders has been an official candidate longer than Gov. Jindal, but I think the size of the turnout for the respective candidates speaks volumes on whose ideas resonate more with the voters.


Thanks for reading.

Bernie Sanders’ Campaign Kickoff

On Tuesday, May 26, Sen. Bernie Sanders gave his official campaign kickoff speech in Burlington, VT.  He spoke for about thirty-five minutes, first describing the problems of the United States and then outlining his agenda to fix them.  In the video clip below, he takes the stage at around 40:00.

One of the things that stood out to me was his perception of the American political process.  Early on he proposed, “Now is not the time for thinking small.  Now is not the time for the same old, same old establishment politics and stale-inside-the-beltway ideas.”  Given that many pundits and policymakers have argued either the U.S. is in decline or others are catching up, we need big, bold reforms.  The U.S. is no longer “Number 1″ in many areas (especially social indicators).

Even though the U.S. is stagnating, Sen. Sanders has a plan to “revitalize American democracy.” The national voter turnout in the 2014 midterm elections was around 36 percent- the lowest since the Second World War.  The Pew Research Center conducted a poll in the wake of the midterms, part of which looked at reasons why non-voters did not vote.  Here is what they found:

Why Some Didn't Vote (p.21)

Although he probably did not plan on it, Sen. Sanders addressed the “Didn’t like vote choices/didn’t care/didn’t know enough” crowd during yesterday’s speech.  He talked about the lack of confidence and feeling of cynicism pervading the American electorate and how he wanted to reach out to voters.  His campaign, he argued, “will not be driven by political gossip or reckless personal attacks.”  He went on to say that the problems facing the U.S. require “serious debates,” and the media must not turn the campaigns into game shows or soap operas.  This kind of talk (and subsequent action) should help decrease that 20 percent who didn’t care or know enough.

Among the issues that ail the U.S., Sen. Sanders focused on wealth and income inequality, poverty, the decline of the middle class, campaign finance, and climate change.  He proposed to increase the current minimum wage of $7.25 (a “starvation wage”) to $15 (a “living wage”) over the next few years and to introduce a progressive tax system.  One way to create good-paying jobs, he said, is to invest in infrastructure.  Additionally, Sanders discussed the idea of universal pre-K education and making public universities tuition-free.  He lashed out at conservative donors the Koch brothers and Sheldon Adelson for their role in distorting the democratic process and argued for public funding of elections.

Sen. Sanders introduced his agenda as a “simple, straightforward progressive agenda which speaks to the needs of the American people” which would bring about a “very different America.”  If people took the time to listen to Sanders and read about his ideas, I think they would realize that he is exactly what America needs right now.  No other candidate has such a clear vision and agenda.  It is indeed time for a political revolution.

Thanks for reading.