Picture a long, steep staircase. Now, picture an extremely obese individual climbing up it. There's a lot of sweating and heavy breathing, no doubt, accompanied by a chorus of unseemly grunts and muttered curses. There's a not-too-distant risk of cardiac arrest.
In this scenario, put forward on Monday in the University of Texas' Annette Strauss Institute for Civic Life's first-ever Texas Civic Health Index, the person is a metaphor for Texas. The rolls of fat are things like voter apathy and disengagement from government and civic life. The stairs are a well-functioning democracy.
For the time being, Texas continues to wheeze up the stairs. But the UT report poses the question of how high the state will be able to climb before collapsing in a flabby heap of apathy. The answer, hinted at by current measures of civic engagement, is not encouraging.
Take voter registration. In Texas, 61.6 percent of eligible residents are registered to vote, which puts us at No. 42 among states and the District of Columbia. The numbers get worse -- "alarmingly low," in the words of the report -- when it comes to actually voting. In the 2010 midterm elections, Texas was dead last in voter turnout, with 36.4 percent of registered voters coming to the polls. And don't even get them started on local elections.
We show comparable levels of interest when it comes to contacting public officials, discussing politics, donating to charity, volunteering, trusting neighbors and communicating with family and friends.
The report takes a shot at explaining Texans' remarkable apathy, asking the question, "If everything is bigger in Texas, why is our civic engagement so low?" and suggesting a handful of possible answers.
Some are demographic. "Given the dramatic growth in the state's immigrant population, a considerable challenge in Texas is how to integrate these new and potential citizens into the life of the state." Many young people are, on average, self-involved narcissists with no time or interest in politics or community life.
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Other factors are political. Democrats don't have a chance in statewide races, giving voters in both parties little incentive to show up at the polls. There tends to be relatively little media coverage and nonpartisan voter guides, contributing to Texans' general ignorance about politics. The report doesn't really offer an explanation for why Texans are so disengaged in other aspects of life.
The study suggests remedying the situation by doing things like teaching civic literacy in schools, increasing access to higher education and increasing the supply of public affairs information.
That said, there seems to be a very low ceiling for how high Texas can climb. The rest of America isn't exactly a triathlete bounding to the top of the Empire State Building. It's wheezing too, albeit a few steps further up. Maybe it'll stop at a landing so Texas can catch up. Then, everyone can take a nap.