AUSTIN, Texas -- Texas, we need to talk. And we need to talk about what we talk about and what we don't talk about.
Apparently -- surprisingly? -- it turns out too few Texans talk about politics. A new study says that's bad for our civic health.
So, in the name of improving our civic health, please take time today get a political conversation going with somebody. Here are two suggested opening lines: "Hey, is that Trump guy unbelievably great or what?" or "Hey, is that Trump guy bat-droppings crazy or what?"
Let me preface this by noting I've never found Texans shy about sharing their opinions about politics. However, I've spoken with relatively few Texans when you consider there are more than 28 million of us.
But the University of Texas Annette Strauss Institute for Civic Life has spoken with lots of Texans, sort of. Its recently released 2018 Texas Civic Health Index is based on statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau's Current Population Survey that asks questions to about 60,000 households across the country.
The Texas Civic Health Index includes a section called "Discussing Politics." (Spoiler alert: Texas' civic health isn't healthy.)
"A regular practice of discussing politics with family and friends is an indicator of vibrant civic health," says the report. "Texas, however, ranks 50th in the nation, with only 23 percent of Texans saying that they frequently discuss politics. This is less than half of the percentage of respondents from the national leader -- the District of Columbia -- who talk about politics with their family and friends at a rate of 48 percent."
There's lots to talk about here, and we'll do so. But first, more from the report:
"Social and economic factors predict how often Texans talk about politics," the report says. "Those with lower income and less education discuss politics with less frequency."
The numbers show that Texans who earn less than $35,000 a year "profess frequently discussing politics only 14 percent of the time, while those making more than $75,000 annually report talking about politics 33 percent of the time."
There's also an education correlation: The more of it you have, the more likely you are to talk about politics, according to the study.
OK, let's start with the fact that it seems fewer Texans regularly talk about politics than in every state other than North Carolina, which came in last at 22.4 percent, just below Texas' 23 percent.
By comparison, the 2013 version of this report said 26 percent of Texans said they discuss politics "with family or friends a few times a week or more." That was not much below the 29.3 percent national average and placed Texas 44th in the nation.
I also was struck by the report's section on "Reasons for Not Voting" in the 2016 presidential election.
In Texas, the leading cause (28 percent) was "Didn't like candidates or campaign issues." Second (20 percent) was "too busy, conflicting work or school." Those two semidefensible-at-best reasons accounted for about half the ballot box no-shows.
And the report notes it's "notable" that in the 2012 presidential election, only 13 percent of Texans said they skipped voting that year due to "dislike of the candidates and issues." In 2012, the most common reason for not voting (21 percent) was "too busy" or "conflict with work."
I continue to believe that for most folks it's pretty easy to cast your ballot. Early voting for the upcoming March 6 primaries starts Tuesday and ends March 2. There are plenty of convenient places to vote. Check your county clerk's website for the list.
Self-suppression seems to remain the most common and easily solved version of voter suppression.
The bottom-line diagnosis in the 2018 Texas Civic Health Index is that our civic health remains unhealthy. Texas voter turnout in 2016 was 47th in the nation.
"The benefits of civic health remain elusive for many Texans," the conclusion says, "and on most measures of civic engagement Texas does not compare favorably with other states. These findings should sound an alarm for anyone who cares about the future of Texas and of the United States more broadly."
Overall, the report found that folks who are younger, have lower levels of education and lower incomes "are less civically engaged."
"While efforts to improve the symptoms of our ailing civic health can alleviate our engagement problems, the findings of this report suggest we will not see lasting and sustainable change until we address the root cause," the report said. "Finding solutions to these challenges will not be easy -- they require our leaders to be forward-thinking and our citizens to be active and engaged."
Those last two goals are lofty indeed. Talk about them with friends and family.
Ken Herman is a columnist for the Austin American-Statesman. Email: kherman(at)statesman.com.
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