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Apparently we don’t care

Young people aren’t voting, and therefore stuff is our fault


 

I’ve had this opinion column forwarded to me by a couple different folks now. The premise is an old one. Because young people are not participating in traditional democracy and party politics, whatever problems that may exist in the system are therefore our fault. I say “our” without fear of contradiction because Mr. Lawrence Martin has managed to define young as anything under 50 or so. Here’s his piece.

The young reject the political status quo, as they should, but they are too lazy to do anything about it. Most of the under-25s don’t even bother to vote. Instead of fighting for change, they wallow in their vanities and entitlements. Not much turns them on except the Idol shows, movies with smut humour and the latest hand-held instruments. Their disillusionment with the political class is understood. Their complacency isn’t. It will soon be their country. You’d think they’d want to take the reins.

Now with all due respect to Mr. Martin, and his very old view of politics, we moved past this level of analysis by the third week in my first year political science course. It’s well understood that young people are turning away from voting and traditional democracy. Hell, everyone is turning away from voting and traditional democracy. The numbers are down across the board. It’s just that younger demographics are down more than others. Maybe that just means we’re ahead of the curve.

What this column ignores are all the other means and venues through which young people express their views and their politics. Cause-based organizations draw all kinds of support from youth. Electronic communities and participation in web-based media has been transformative. Citizen journalism alone, for all its buzzishness, has given a level of voice and initiative to young people that they’ve never enjoyed before. Scratch the surface of any effective political action, from what’s going on in Iran to the mainstream but nontraditional success of Obama’s Presidential campaign, and you’ll find young people doing what no one has ever done before. Okay, so we aren’t voting in high numbers. Maybe that’s because we’ve become convinced there may well be something better than traditional party politics out there.

Anyway, I throw the topic out there for comments. But it’s nothing we haven’t heard before. The most amusing thing about the whole piece is that a man in his 60’s could write about how kids today are lazy and don’t care, imagine he’s saying something original, and fail to see the irony of his own perspective. Some of his points are valid and important but the tone he brings to the topic seems calculated to piss off the very people he claims to want to reach.

For the record, I do vote, and I’ve participated in mainstream politics for some time. I encourage everyone to do so as well. But I participate from a sense of obligation and a willingness to try every avenue – not from the belief that traditional party politics are the solution to our problems. I believe very strongly that new solutions will come from new means of participation and social organization. The kinds of engagement that are on the rise among the young may well turn out to be far more important than the votes they aren’t casting.

Questions are welcome at jeff.rybak@utoronto.ca. Even the ones I don’t post will still receive answers, and where I do use them here I’ll remove identifying information.


 

Apparently we don’t care

  1. First, “under 25s” doesn’t mean much, as there are more over 25s who are, perhaps, more willing to vote. I believe young people are tired of the system, so why bother participating in it?

    I haven’t been eligible to vote for any elections until a few months ago and I was always aghast by people a year older than me who never bothered to vote. I always thought that if you didn’t at least try, you can’t really complain about it either.

    But as George Carlin said: “If you vote, and you elect dishonest, incompetent politicians, and they get into office and screw everything up, you are responsible for what they have done.”
    And who wants that on their shoulders?

    What young voters need is an electrifying candidate. Ignoring whether or not you agree with his policies or think he’s going to bring the change he promised, Obama was an inspiring candidate that made people interested in politics. People wanted to listen to him.

    Find me a handful of under 25s that want to listen to Harper’s campaign speeches, Conservative or not.

    From what I know about the people around me, they don’t vote because they don’t like the way it’s represented. It’s either boring for lack of action or interesting character, or it’s tacky for attack politics and ugly maneuvering.

    Lastly, Lawrence Martin strikes me as the kind of fella that tells neighborhood kids stories about how he walked to school uphill both ways with no shoes and only half a textbook and didn’t complain so get off my lawn you hoodlums, goddamn it.

  2. There’s a lot in that article, Carson, and I’ll take a while to parse through it. It’s very much in the vein of Martin’s editorial but with a sophisticated argument to back it up rather than Martin’s tone of grievance. I still think there are flaws in the perspective but it won’t be so easy to knock holes in it.

    My gut instinct is that this study is still far too philosophically committed to very mainstream definitions of participation. Its interest in Internet usage begins and ends, for example, with whether or not young people are using it to look up information on Canadian politics. You know how many times I got bombarded recently with the request that I change my Twitter timezone to that of Iran, so that Iranian citizen journalists couldn’t be targeted for their role in the protests? That kind of engagement doesn’t show up on anyone’s radar. But I believe it is real.

    Anyway, I will read through that report more carefully, and I recommend it to anyone else as well. But I do tend to be a critical reader of such things. Any argument that starts, essentially, with “kids today…” needs to be approached very skeptically.

  3. Hey Jeff,

    Another author to look at is Brenda O’Neill of the University of Calgary political science department. Sorry, I don’t have a paper of hers immediately handy.

    Anyway, she has looked through the data and one of the conclusions she came too, which is also one of the conclusions that the paper I linked to came too, is that those who aren’t voting aren’t doing other things.

    So the question is who isn’t voting? Youth voter turnout has dropped about 10 per cent since the 1960s. So even accounting for the fact that people become more likely to vote as they age, there are still fewer young people voting.

    Interestingly enough, the university educated young continue to vote in very high numbers and their participation hasn’t budged since voter turnout began to fall. The article I linked to concludes that education helps people to develop critical skills that they then use in participationl. I quivel with this conclusion somewhat. Data from the Dominion Institute concludes that young people who grow up in homes where politics is a common topic of discussion are more likely to vote. This suggests to me that voting habits are largely developed before students even step into a post-secondary classroom.

    So if university students vote, and young people engaged in non-traditional politics also engage in traditional politics, who isn’t voting?

    I interviewed O’Neil awhile back on this question. She suggested to me that in the past party identification was stronger, so people who today wouldn’t vote, did in the past, perhaps because party’s were more visible, and a developed interest in politics wasn’t required to decide who to vote for. You just knew.

    So, over the past generation or so, Canada, which isn’t a very ideologically inclined country to begin with, saw party tentacles largely withdraw from engaging directly with citizens, which I would argue is one the greatest reasons for decline in voting.

    There is some evidence to support this, though it is largely a hypothesis of mine at this point. In PEI where there are only 4 tiny ridings, voter turnout was over 70 per cent in the last election. I wonder if that has to do with the fact that smaller ridings leads to more visibility for political parties?

  4. The problem as I see it, is that young people don’t vote, so candidates of all parties more or less ignore their needs/wants and so young people don’t vote. It’s circular. The candidates are going to discuss issues pertinent to the group of people who vote. So young people who complain that politicians don’t deal with their issues have nobody to blame but themselves. If a huge percentage of under 25’s started voting, you can be certain that politicians would start dealing with our issues. A claim that any group doesn’t vote because they don’t care is pretty ridiculous. Of course there are people who don’t care, but I would put money down on the fact that most people don’t vote because politicians don’t deal with their issues and/or they don’t see the point (becuase all politicians are corrupt, for example). A smart politician, from any party, will take the first step and campaign heavily in “university towns” and present a platform that MATTERS to students. This is the proactive step that will likely hugely benefit students. Or we could be adults and start voting.

  5. Hey Jeff,

    I find this statement surprisingly accurate for most of my peers. They do not want to put the effort into researching the political system in Canada, and a larger majority cannot even name the 3 top parties in our system. If it doesn’t come with an Apple logo attached, isn’t on Facebook, or Twitter it might as well not even exist.

    They have political opinions but need someone who can capture their attention. Political leaders as well as local leaders must make the effort to reach out to the “under-25ers” and grab the attention of the younger generation. An example that I think is perfect would be the last election.

    In Newfoundland, primarily St. John’s, Jack Layton made the effort to reach out to the students and capture the attention of the citizens simply by walking around the campus and talking with us. His efforts certainly paid off as the NDP won that riding by a landslide over a typically Conservative/Liberal riding.

    Canadian politics needs to be refreshed to say the least, politicians need to go out and be seen. If more leaders take the effort to reach out to the younger generation, the numbers will rise and the “under-25ers” will start to become politically active.

  6. I think Murdoc raises a good point. If a politician talks to you around election time, it increases your chances of voting. This is true for young people as it is for people of other demographics.

    Alysha,

    I am curious when people discuss “youth issues.” I am not really sure if there is anything that could uniquely be a “youth issue.” The cost of tuition could very well be, but it could also be an issue for middle aged parents putting their kids through school. Job training is important for young people, but it is also important for older workers recently laid-off.

    When people talk of youth issues, I often get the sense that they are arguing that young people might be unified regarding particular policies. I am not saying that is what you are doing, but it is the assumption that some make. Again, with tuition many young people think it should increase, and for a party to talk about controlling education costs, they are not talking to youth, they are talking to people with a certain ideological bent.

    Further, assuming there are distinctly youth issues also suggests that people vote out of self-interest, and if a party does not speak to that self-interest then that is why people are not engaged. I am just not so sure it is entirely true. As an anecdote, everyone I have ever discussed politics with always approaches it on a level considering what is best for the country and not necessarily what is best for them specifically. There is a literature addressing this. Bryan Caplan in his book, The Myth of the Rational Voter, deals with some of it.

  7. http://oncampus.macleans.ca/education/2009/08/17/apparently-they-dont-care/

    Here is something I thought I’d share, a propos the topic you raised.

    PS: Lawrence Martin has succumbed to sounding crochety but, as you said, he made some excellent points and I don’t think he was so far off. He’s not quite as out of touch as you’d think. He has two young-voter daughters.

  8. Politicians need to make an effort to be seen. In our generation we’re bombarded with information constantly through various media outlets every day, if someone takes the time to make the situation personal and add the human element they have a much larger chance of coming across and effectively promoting their parties platform.

    Just an observation that hopefully someone will pay attention too.

  9. Carson, the best way for politicians to figure out what the youth issues are is to go to areas where there are lots of youths. Universities are a good place to start. I’m not painting all youths with the same brush, but I am certain many under 25’s have tuition issues. There is also a big difference between a youth entering the work force for the first time (not including part-time jobs) and the issues facing laid-off workers (like EI. A laid off worker is more likely to be eligible than a fresh-out-of-univeristy worker –> a different issue surrounding the same problem). So just because the issue that youths face are the “same” as issues facing older voters, I am CERTAIN there is at least ONE unique aspect. Ergo, there ARE youth issues. Even if we put aside “youth issues” how many politicians go to campuses and TALK to students? In my 4 years at undergrad and my time at law school, I haven’t seen one. Hosting a talk where 1000 students can attend doesn’t count. Come to the main student meeting area and mingle. Ask me why I do/don’t vote. Ask me what matters to me. And listen.

  10. Alysha,

    The suggestion that university students don’t vote is largely a fallacy. Above I posted a link and made reference to another author who conclude that in fact university students and young people with degrees do vote. In numbers as high as 70 or 80 per cent, which is well above the national average.

    The suggestion that university students don’t vote simply stems from the fact that overall young people aren’t voting, and the numbers are presented usually as an aggregate of all 18-24 year olds or 18-21 year olds. Certainly this covers much of the university demographic, but university participation is only 20 or 25 per cent.

    Perhaps I was a little strong in suggesting that there are no issues that are uniquely youth issues. But it is an overstatement to suggest that youth issues are so different from issues concerning other people that it contributes to their not voting.

    People who begin voting early on tend to because they come from families that consider politics important. Interest in politics is a often a result of networks, and not because a politician talked about tuition or not.

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