All the local discussion and punditry hype and think-tank mush about the political disengagement of Oklahomans fail to note the obvious and the reality.
The obvious and the reality are that political apathy here is based on the fact that conservatives—both Republicans and Democrats—and the right-wing corporate media here have shut down any real political debate in the public square.
This means people are labeled freaks if they passionately question whether the hydraulic fracturing process, or fracking, leads to environmental damage or if they believe impoverished people should have access to health care or if they want to argue teachers should get paid halfway decent wages.
These arguments are presented by activists, for sure, and on a blog like this, but under present circumstances they’re never going to get a full and extended hearing, say, in The Oklahoman or on News9 in Oklahoma City. Why become politically engaged when news anchor Kelly Ogle or the editorial board of The Oklahoman will dismiss such engagement with sarcastic, self-righteous indignation worth about two cents?
Better to just move out of this place or shut up, right? That’s the prevailing message that everyone eventually gets in Oklahoma one way or another.
Here’s a link to a blog post by Niraj Chokshi in The Washington Post, which outlines Oklahoma’s pathetic “political disengagement.” Here’s the gist of the matter from Chokshi enlightening post:
Oklahomans consistently rank near the bottom on a variety of measures of political obsession — or engagement, depending on your perspective. Only two states saw a smaller share of eligible voters cast ballots in 2012, and just seven states had a smaller share of residents registered to vote, according to census data. People in Oklahoma were 10th most likely to say they never vote in local elections, 11th most likely to say they infrequently discuss politics with family and friends, and 14th most likely to say they don’t express their political or community opinions online, according to data collected by the census in 2013.
It’s a rough assessment, but when those five rankings are combined, Oklahoma scores higher than any other state on political disengagement — ahead of Arkansas, Arizona, Tennessee and Texas.
The Oklahoman editorial board supposedly laments this lack of participation and calls it a “perpetual problem,” but the newspaper itself is the problem. It operates as a monopoly in the dying business of hard-copy newspapers, and it doesn’t allow consistent, dissenting opposition to its extremist right-wing views. Why participate?
Of course, the newspaper didn’t even think low voter turnout was a problem way back in 2014.
One of the newspaper’s former editorial page editors, Patrick McGuigan, was unabashed about it back in 1998. McGuigan said back then, “"We're trying to change the political culture; we're trying to make Oklahoma a conservative bastion." Mission accomplished. That’s why McGuigan is being inducted into the Oklahoma Journalism Hall of Fame this month.
Obviously, there are solutions beyond better and fairer journalism to the problem. We can make it easier to register to vote. We can start combining our local election days with general election days. We can teach our children in schools about the importance of civic duty, but that’s problematic here in the era of right-wing, gay-bashing extremists, such as state Rep Sally Kern of Oklahoma City. She might call that liberal indoctrination. Better to just move out of this place or shut up, right? But I said that already.
The Oklahoma Policy Institute lays it all out here in its incredibly wonky and beautiful way as usual, but I see OKPolicy as part of the morass these days. I didn’t think this at one time, but now I do. The organization has absorbed The Oklahoma Observer, for example, and has become the token “liberal” viewpoint for the media, especially for The Oklahoman, but its centrist-to-left views hardly challenge the right-wing orthodoxy here. On some of the real important issues, such as the environmental impact of fracking in the state, OKPolicy doesn’t have much to say at all. Since its creation, the state voters have become more conservative and monolithic and apathetic. I guess you could say that about this blog, too. But I don’t get paid by or take my orders from corporations. I’ve never accepted one cent of advertising money or even contributions of any kind just to prove Okie Funk’s complete independence.
It can be absolutely scary when you don’t know what someone might say or do. Sometimes in the world of politics, and especially when it comes to political engagement, that can be a useful tool. We all know what OKPolicy and The Oklahoman are going to say or do. How will that sameness and repetition help people become more politically motivated? What new chart or statistical analysis will help us here? What groundbreaking, right-wing editorial will motivate some young person to become politically active and help end the earthquakes here in central Oklahoma?
Maybe, New York Times columnist and professor Paul Krugman is correct that politics these days is now all about the party. The Republicans here and elsewhere have moved so far to the extreme right, according to Krugman, there’s little to do but vote against a party and its ideas. It’s not about the individual running for office anymore. Ignore all that. Anyone but a Republican? But this can breed its own form of apathy, too.
In the end, though, it might just be something in the water here in Oklahoma. Maybe it’s all the mental illness, the poor health care, the poverty, the closed minds, the religious fundamentalism, the denial of any personal agency for anyone seeking it, the tornadoes and now the earthquakes that no one will do anything about. Let’s just call it the vortex of apathy with two sides of anxiety.