By: Ari Tepler  | 

Students and Politics: In the Same Sentence?

Just over a year ago I attended an event in the US Capitol; a discussion between two highly esteemed former congressmen – Rush Holt, a Democrat from NJ, and George Nethercutt, a Republican from Washington State – on the topic of civic engagement. They specifically addressed the American public’s participation, or lack thereof, in the political process and involvement in issues that affect the community. I walked into this event with the misguided belief that college students in today’s society, with far greater access to a quality education and to political news through new avenues of media, are more attuned to political issues and to the way our government functions. Unfortunately, this discussion, coupled with my first year at Yeshiva University proved me very wrong. While participation in the political process among the general public is declining, the congressmen emphasized that this decline is most pronounced among students, the future of this country.

On the one hand, it was truly a breath of fresh air to observe two congressmen from ‘across the aisle’ join together, a seemingly rare occurrence. However, one statistic they quoted precisely highlights the issue today: only one in ten college students can name more than one US Senator. Only ten percent can name more than one even though each of our fifty states has two elected senators. This message they jointly conveyed to the audience was disappointing and, quite honestly, a bit frightening. As a country, our citizenry’s engagement in American government is deteriorating and basic civics education is stalemating.

Former Congressman Nethercutt founded an organization specifically to remedy the decline in basic American civics. One project conducted by the foundation was a video interview of a random sample of students testing them on basic civics knowledge. It actually is quite comedic to see how many students cannot name the Vice President, let alone the (former) Speaker of the House and Senate majority leader.

During this presidential election year, it is therefore incumbent upon us students to become involved politically and to help educate the American public. Our government is designed to act based on the will of the people channeled through elected representatives. If the people are inactive and are unaffiliated with the decision making process, then this whole concept of government by the people fails. As students, we represent the future of the American public and we have to reignite the unique American spirit which favors great strides in political participation. Find a candidate that closely resembles your vision and join their student coalition. These elections can and will have a substantial effect on our future.
It is for this reason, among several others, that I decided to get involved with the Marco Rubio campaign, becoming chairman of the inaugural NY branch of Students for Rubio. One area of public policy has clearly delineated Rubio from the plethora of other candidates in the Republican field – foreign policy. The current state of affairs in the Middle East is troubling for many voters including students. Putting the hot button issue of the Iran deal aside, ISIS and its extremist ideology is frighteningly rampant with no clear signs of abating. Our government invested $500 million to train sixty pro-US rebels in Syria and a recent report revealed that only six fighters have been successfully trained and have not defected to ISIS. New troubling reports also indicate that Russia and Iran are now collaborating to assist pro-Assad forces in Syria, against the backdrop of US airstrikes.

Senator Rubio has repeatedly displayed his clarity and depth of knowledge with regards to foreign affairs. At the start of the summer of 2014, ISIS forces rose in prominence and surged ahead with its campaign to form an Islamic Caliphate. At that time, President Obama referred to them as a “JV squad,” perhaps echoing the opinions of the average American citizen. It was Senator Rubio who rose on the floor of the Senate (and as an intern in his office that summer, I remember this experience firsthand) to declare that ISIS needs to be cut off before it spreads its influence and becomes a threat to US National Security. Fast-forward the clock one year and the Rubio perspective seems to clearly have been accurate.
Just a few weeks ago at the second Republican Primary Presidential Debate, Rubio made a bold prediction by emphatically declaring “Here’s what you’re going to see in the next few weeks: the Russians will begin to fly combat missions in that region, not just targeting ISIS, but in order to prop up Assad.” In the past few days, Russia has moved military warplanes to Syria and is conducting a bombing campaign there. Reports even indicate that US drones have had to be rerouted in Syria to avoid colliding with Russian fighter jets. Once again, Senator Rubio demonstrated his grasp of foreign policy issues.

I am also enticed to join the Rubio camp as a student with grave concerns over the future sustainability of our college education system. Rubio’s own plight to pay off student loans was certainly unique in a Congress where the average net worth of freshmen representatives in 2010 was $8,913,200 and in 2011 was $7,835,242. Rubio finally paid off his more than $100,000 in student loan debt only in 2010 as a United States Senator. Consequently, Senator Rubio has been working with Democratic Senators Wyden of Oregon and Warner of Virginia for the past few years to alleviate the problem of skyrocketing college tuition. This year, they introduced the “Student Right to Know Before You Go Act,” which requires that critical information and statistics about a university be publically available and accessible. This bipartisan group of senators is working for transparency at the university level and for greater student awareness. Students should have clear knowledge as to what graduates earn financially based on their course of study in that particular institution.

This is just a snapshot of the policy proposals Senator Rubio has concretely laid out. This presidential election year brings us tremendous opportunities to get involved politically. It is not enough just to vote (though if you haven’t registered yet, certainly do so); we must also take an active role in a campaign. Join a grassroots organization for any candidate, no matter the affiliation or ideology. Go help register fellow New Yorkers to vote. As the congressmen reminded all of us at the discussion, with so many youth today disengaged from the political process, our whole experiment in self-government fails.