After the disastrous war in Vietnam came the scandals of Watergate. There was deepening economic insecurity for much of the population, along with environmental deterioration, and a growing culture of violence and family disarray. Clearly, such fundamental problems could not be solved without bold changes in the social and economic structure. But no major party candidates proposed such changes. The "American political tradition" held fast.
In recognition of this, perhaps only vaguely conscious of this, voters stayed away from the polls in large numbers, or voted without enthusiasm. More and more they declared, if only by nonparticipation, their alienation from the political system.
Passages like this really stuck with me. My brother turned 18 a few years after Kurt Cobain killed himself. Interviewers were asking Cobain constantly if "Smells Like Teen Spirit" was about teenage apathy because the story of the time was that my brother's generation, the one right before mine, was apathetic. They didn't vote because they didn't care or so said the media.
That story continues today. Sean Combs "Vote or Die" Campaign seems based on the idea that if teenagers and people in their twenties just really understood how incredibly important it is to vote, if they were just whipped into a frenzy, they would be voting.
But perhaps apathy masks something deeper and more frightening, despair.
Again, Zinn writes, "In a two party system, if both parties ignore public opinion, there is no place voters can turn."
The apathy story is a good one for the government and the media because it turns nonparticipation into individual moral failing (laziness, being uneducated, selfishness). The "despair" story is a much more difficult one because it requires us to admit the system is failing the people rather blame people for failing to participate in it.