Cougars discuss political awareness and involvement

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After the first presidential debate and anticipating the vice presidential debate, the political hype is high on campus.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints claims political neutrality. However, Church leaders encourage members to be politically active.

In an official statement, Church leaders stated, “(The Church) encourage(s) its members to play a role as responsible citizens in their communities, including becoming informed about issues and voting in elections.”

Although not everyone at Brigham Young University is a member of the Church, this advice is applicable to everyone. So just how politically involved are BYU students?

Not as much as they could be, according to Gary Ashcroft, recently graduated international relations student from Cochran, Ga., and former co-president of the BYU Democrats.

“I think political apathy is especially pronounced at BYU for two reasons,” Ashcroft said. “We have a large population of out-of-state students. Due to the transient nature of this population, they do not feel compelled to involve themselves in local politics, and two, the one-party dominance in Utah has led to the belief that one’s political involvement will not make a difference.”

While BYU is considered a predominantly conservative school, students of all political affiliations are welcome to share their feelings and beliefs. There are several clubs related to politics for students to participate in. These clubs are outlets for students to learn more about politics and get involved. The BYU Republicans and Democrats have well-established groups, and a new club recently made its debut in January — Young Americans for Liberty.

The co-founder of the group, Ryan Johns, a political science major from Seattle, Wash., first became interested in politics in 2007.

“I felt energized by the upcoming 2008 election because it would be my first chance to vote,” Johns said. “That same year, I began volunteering for several campaigns, mostly call center stuff. Other than the presidential campaign, I also spent time volunteering for a campaign in the governor’s race in Washington.”

Johns saw a great need for political awareness at BYU, and wanted to help others discover the impact of public policy.

“I feel like so many BYU students are apathetic towards the political process,” Johns said. “I’m not exactly sure why. Even though our church leaders urge us to participate in government, I feel that most students find it uninteresting and not worth their time. We change that by helping fellow students realize the impact public policy has on each and every one of us. When a student identifies the cause-and-effect nature of politics, he or she is much more inclined to participate.”

The Young Americans for Liberty is a national organization with over 300 chapters across the country, emphasizing the “Constitution, economic freedom and individual liberty,” according to Johns. The group has discussions on these issues, guest speakers and activities. The chapter at BYU is new but quickly growing, and it recently passed out more than 400 pocket-sized Constitutions to students in the Wilkinson Student Center. However, regardless of political affiliation, Johns gave some advice for students wanting to get more involved.

“Staying informed is probably the first and most important step,” Johns said. “Find something important to you and work towards the best solution. Most important of all, vote.”

There are many students and graduates of BYU who try hard to stay politically involved.

Alyssa Larsen, a BYU graduate living in Rexburg, Idaho, became interested in politics while she was studying at BYU. She believes it is very important for all students to try to understand what is going on, especially with the upcoming election.

“I do think it’s important for students to be involved in politics and to vote because it is a civil responsibility,” Larsen said. “I feel the upcoming election will be a close one. I think there is a strong division in our country and this election will determine if our country can move toward economic recovery and a stronger people or continue on a downhill spin with unemployment and other economic hardships.”

With the advent of the Internet and social media, anyone can get involved with just the click of a button. Important political figures have constantly updated Twitter accounts, and thousands of Facebook groups are dedicated to different causes. One student found that starting his own political blog allowed him to sort through his thoughts and share his feelings with others.

Upon returning from his mission to Ukraine last year, Brian Anderson, a junior from Whittier, Calif., studying international relations and Russian, came home to heated debates about the debt ceiling. As the primary election drew closer, he wanted to find a way to express his feelings, particularly focusing on the ignorance many have about politics.

“I wanted to start my blog as a way of expressing my frustration on how people approach politics,” Anderson said. “I got most frustrated as people from both parties would make these sweeping accusations and generalizations about political topics. In doing so, people show their ignorance and don’t help the political environment at all, and in fact make things more polarized. That’s why I decided to give my blog the primary title, ‘People v. Ignorance.’ The point being, I want us to work together to combat political ignorance in order to facilitate healthy political debate that will benefit our country.”

As he continued writing, Anderson found friends coming to him to explain current events, election procedures and government structure. This caused him to seek out questions that needed to be answered, which fueled many of his posts. His blog developed the sub-title of “Politics Explained for the Average Patriot.”

“My goal is simply to explain what’s going on in the news and our government in a way that people will understand and in a way that the mainstream media won’t,” Anderson said. “Not everyone has the time, or frankly, interest in reading every headline and article about politics. My goal is to do that heavy lifting of understanding politics in its context in order to help other people stay current and informed.”

Living in California during 2008, Anderson remembered immigration reform being a hot topic. Upon expressing his feelings to his dad, he discovered his own ignorance.

“I was expecting my dad to give me a little gold star for becoming more of a Republican,” Anderson said. “The response from my dad has changed not only my view on immigration, but politics in general. It was that day that I made the commitment that I would never again make a judgment call without first understanding both sides of the issue and considering the people that judgment would affect.”

Anderson feels that students at BYU, in general, do a better job of staying informed. However, he believes there is always room for improvement.

“I think that the problem we have most at BYU is not understanding why we feel the way that we do,” Anderson said. “It is no secret that BYU students are primarily conservatives. But I’ve seen too many people not understand why they are conservative. The Democrats on campus are generally more convinced that what they believe is right because most of them have been challenged on it. If students are really interested in getting involved in politics, the best thing they can do is try to stay current on the news. Understanding the country and the world is key in politics because politics is the debate on how to improve them.”

According to the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, college-aged students make up about 24 percent of the voting population. Whether a student is a Democrat, Republican, Libertarian or a mixture of the three, it doesn’t matter. Getting involved is more than just a civic responsibility; it has the power to change the course of the country.

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