Commentary: Activism & Apathy Amidst a Pandemic

From the Great Toilet Paper Panic to the danger of the medical frontline, the creeping hardships of quarantine have taken a toll on all aspects of our community. With a loss of control over our own lives and the increasing stakes of actions taken on the political stage, social precedents set during this time stand to have a lasting impact on our communities.  

Yet, before we can dig into what those changes may be, some context is required.  

Defining Political Apathy  

  1. Wright Mills, a prominent mid-20th century sociologist, described a person’s level of political involvement as a scale: the measured ability to draw connections between their “private troubles” and the greater political landscape. 

“Being political” then becomes much more than party affiliation or voting tendencies. At a more basic level, it’s one’s sense of community, and their ability to acknowledge that certain human forces may change and impact said community.  

A more modern take on this comes from sociologist Anna Zhelnina, who posited in a 2019 study that political inclination is a tendency to “acknowledge that individual lives are positioned at a particular historical moment.”  

For example, one of my roommates has described himself as being completely apolitical. He’s never registered to vote, nor planned on voting. When asked why, he remarked that it “doesn’t seem like anything ever changes,” and that he doesn’t feel like it will affect him. 

Since we’re considering “being political” as one’s stance towards the world, these apolitical individuals are those choosing to have little stake in what’s around them, instead putting that emotional investment in other aspects of their lives.  

Is There A Choice?  

  “Choosing” may be a misnomer that oversimplifies these matters, as the reasons behind a person’s lack of political involvement can stem from a wide variety of things. Zhelnina references several studies that have suggested that apathy is not a “natural” thing, and is instead a product of “collective and individual efforts on the microsocial level.”  

In other words, political apathy is thought to be a condition taken on by individuals as a result of an overarching “societal script,” which dictates which subjects an individual considers are worth being political about. Additionally, political apathy may be produced as a method of defense, a “response to feeling powerless in the face of political realities one cannot control.”  

Drawing from the concepts given to us by Wright and Zhelnina, political apathy comes from a feeling of disconnection between one’s self and the events forming around them. This disconnection can stem from cultural norms, regarding what ‘should’ or ‘shouldn’t’ be talked about, or it may come about as a method of self-defense meant to safeguard an individual from unpleasant situations.   

The COVID Connection  

With this in mind, we can start to draw connections between the COVID-19 crisis and its potential influence on our community’s political involvement.  

To start, self-seclusion – while absolutely necessary – can exacerbate feelings of community-wide disconnection. Individuals may start to feel aloof during this time, coming to see the situation as being out of their control, which could prompt a disinterest in political participation.  

“On one hand, there is evidence to suggest that the quarantine will be harmful for political life,” said Chris Stout, a professor of political science at OSU. “A plethora of studies demonstrate that the more socially connected we are, the more likely we are to be engaged in politics.”  

“On the other hand,” he continued, “the decisions that politicians make now may feel more pressing to individuals who feel that politics is far removed from their lives… After all the dust settles, this may create political winners in losers. This in turn may make people more invested in politics.”  

As Stout posited, the COVID-19 crisis as a whole may heighten political interest in the long term, as involvement with one’s community and a strong dialogue between the individual and their government seem to become of greater importance. In this uncertain time, our leaders and systems of government are undergoing a trial by fire.   

Trial by Fire  

The sudden raising of the stakes within the political world may cause more people to be invested in politics. For these individuals, the actions of politicians during this time may serve as a crucible where the flaws and strengths of our leaders are shown.  

When everywhere’s a ghost town, it’s easy to lose touch with those around us, much less the goings on of the political sphere. However, it’s important to remember Corvallis’ vibrant activist heart in the backdrop of the pandemic, so we can be there to pick it back up again “when the dust settles.”  

“Here in Benton County,” said Benton County Democrats’ Taryn Bazurto, “we’ve regularly seen everything from marches and rallies put on by youth-led groups, to long-standing protests for peace, to the activity of many local groups concerning the environment, healthcare, homeless services, and the need for traffic safety. All this gives me hope.”  

Information from this article was partially sourced from an article by sociologist Anna Zhelnina. Check out her work here.  

Commentary by Thomas Nguyen