To fix democracy, start with the voters

There’s no point fixing the institutions the institutions if there aren’t any voters left who know and care enough to appreciate them.

The highly entertaining Maclean’s/CPAC “Our Democracy is Broken: How Do We Fix It” show was mostly about what’s wrong with political institutions—Question Period is a disgrace, election campaigns are devoid of ideas, MPs mindlessly follow the party line.

It’s all important stuff, but misses, in my opinion, a deeper problem: our citizens know less about politics than they used to and are less inclined to vote. In particular, young people tend to be poorly informed and politically inert, and it’s getting worse.

This is hardly a problem unique to Canada. There’s a lot of international research exploring variations on this troubling trend. But a good starting point for a consideration of the situation in our context is this rather flat quote from an Elections Canada’s report titled Estimation of Voter Turnout by Age Group at the 38th Federal General Election (June 28, 2004):

“Voter turnout at the 2004 federal general election continued the downward trend observed since 1993. Research conducted after the 2000 general election shows that this overall phenomenon was largely due to a significant disengagement of Canadian youth.”

If only that “significant disengagement” could be interpretted as a verdict from idealistic young citizens on the daily shouting match in QP, or the dumb, striving behaviour of MPs, or the dearth of ideas debated during campaigns.

That would be inspiring—but no such luck. In fact, young people, as a whole, don’t feel all that alienated. In fact, one survey, reported here, shows that young Canadians are markedly less cynical about democracy and elections than older folks.

The problem is rather that younger adults just don’t know enough to be constructively active in politics. Their ignorance is a precursor to their lack of participation, including their failure to go out and vote. This has been demonstrated pretty clearly by researcher Henry Milner in studies (including this one) published by the Institute for Research on Public Policy.

A taste of the data Milner mines: based on a survey conducted back in 2000, only 41 percent of 18- to 27-year-olds said they were interested in politics, compared with 68 percent of those 57 and over. Results on specific skill-testing questions backed up that self-assessment. For instance, only 22 percent of those 18-27 could identify the finance minister, while 65 percent of those 57 and up could.

If you don’t know anything about politics, it follows that you’re likely to stay home on election day. Elections Canada commissioned a study that found that 38.7 per cent of eligible first-time electors voted in 2004—after a federal campaign interesting enough to eligible voters 30 and older that nearly 70 per cent of them cast a ballot.

All this leads me to the conclusion that by far the most pressing problem in Canadian democracy is political illiteracy and lethargy.

There’s no one answer to this malaise, but I like Milner’s emphasis on teaching politics in high schools. It’s no panacea, but it’s the best idea I’ve heard. And Milner makes it clear he means teaching real politics—the kind with partisanship and campaigning and arguing and ideology and voting—not some sort of tepid notion of citizenship that amounts to encouraging volunteerism.

In the U.S., he writes, they’ve tried stressing “nonpartisan volunteer activities” in the schools, but the results are far less promising than European efforts to instill traditional political knowledge. In other words, we in Canada should try to inculcate a taste for robust political life, not mere community-mindedness.

Here’s the good part: that would mean fun in the classroom, at least wherever the teacher exploited the subject properly. Politicians are entertaining, whether scoundrels or statesmen. Lots of policies are worth shouting about. Mock elections play to natural high-school cliquishness. Teach it right and politics gets under your skin.

If our democracy is broken, this is where to start repairing it. There’s no point fixing the institutions if there are going to be no voters left who know and care enough to appreciate them.




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To fix democracy, start with the voters

  1. The problem with Canadian politics is that it is becoming more centralized in the leadership of the different parties. Why should a young person become interested in politics when there are no meaningful roles that they can play in Canada's political system. They can't help nominate local candidates because the candidates are becoming appointed by the party leaders. They can't help develop policies because they are being developed by the party leaders. What can young Canadians do besides being back-drop cheerleaders for party leaders?

    • I think the centralisation is a symptom of the disengagement, not the other way around. If the local riding association is active, if the local candidate has community support, then the centre can't easily push them around (look at how strong candidates can successfully change parties, or even run as independents). Similarly, if the local MPs are reasonably happy being MPs (and reasonably secure that their future electoral prospects are in their own hands), then the party has less control over the backbench, since their carrots (appointments) are less attractive.

      • One only has to look at the riding of Halton to realize that the 'centre' can do whatever they want. The 'centre' came in to the local riding and told them their MP better start toeing the line or else.

        Shortly after that, the MP that had won the nomination in the local riding, and won the election, was sitting as an independent'

        • I agree with EB and Skinny Dipper. A locally popular candidate may only serve to back off the leadership circle to a limited degree. But with all the money, all the parliamentary tools and all the dynamics where campaigns and media coverage rest largely on the leader, the leadership of the party sets policy, runs the campaign and the candidates get elected or not largely on the coattails of the leader.

          Parties represent a very small percentage of the population, but they select our candidates and an even smaller portion of them select our leadership candidates. There should be more of a draw for people to get involved at that level, but in the end, they see that once selected the actors are outside of their control and that their influence is negligible.

          I believe the stats show that young people are trending towards single issue organizations as a venue for influence over political parties. That's the telling evidence: the invisible hand of the political market place is leading them away from parties and that's what needs to be addressed.

  2. "…our citizens know less about politics than they used to…"

    Most notably demonstrated by the "the-coalition-is-overthrowing-a-democratically-elected-government" crowd a few months back.

  3. Interesting idea about teaching politics in school.

    I guess it's Catch 22: we need the youth to change the system, but we need a changed system in order to inspire the youth.

  4. The problem has more to do with the media than with youth and no extra course work in high school is going to change that. We had politics in high school, but it was only later in life that I started tuning out.

    Citizen engagement isn't about knowing how to do politics…it's about having a good understanding of current events, especially those with substantive public interest. And that's difficult to discern exactly with a news media that gives us nothing but celebrity gossip, shopping guides and sports, sports, sports. And of course, ossified pundits who should have retired long ago to free up resources for new blood.

    • I don't know about that. It seems me any high schooler could read a copy of one of the Globe/Star/Post every day, or at least watch a national news broadcast on television, and stay reasonably abreast of things. And it's not like they're unable to jump online and research more background as needed.

      I wonder if parents are instilling the value of this sort of knowledge with their kids enough?

      • I think Mr. Geddes has it backwards, myself. It isn't an interest in politics itself that is needed. It is an interest and understanding of how the policies of political parties and the current events news intertwine–or don't. Once you determine that you support, say, more or better regulation in the financial sector (because you lost your job) you might look to the politicians to see if their platform includes better regulation in the financial sector. But because you either can't find the politicians' platform, or none of them mention whatever you are interested in, you conclude politics doesn't matter to you. Your issue could be world hunger, or military support, or environmental concerns–whatever it is, I doubt you'll find it in a coherent plan put forward by any political party. I mean a detailed plan of action; not rhetoric, not sound bites.

        Continued . . .

  5. Why is it that any argument the begins with a premise of "kids these days…" always seems to fall short of the mark? The Milner data cited here doesn't tell us anything unless we were to compare it to how kids in the olden days had performed on similar tests. I suspect there would not be much of a difference.

    The premise that kids are ignorant these days seems flawed to me. I have spent time on campuses in the 70's and 80's and time quite recently, and the level of expertise is, if anything, superior now than in my previous experience. Perhaps it is just the reverse that is true: that it is us older folk that are ignorant for not recognizing that the difference between the major political parties in any maturing western democracy has been constantly diminishing since the fall of Keynesian government, and that the value of participating in the exercise has diminished. In Canada, the difference between the performance of a Liberal government versus a Conservative government is almost negligible. The same is likely true of most Western democracies.

  6. Politics is a means to an end, not an end in itself. Specifically it's the art of governance for the common good.

    Therefore, teaching students the machinations of politics (partisanship, intrigue, rhetoric, debate, etc.), while good, is superficial. But teach them to act for the common good and they will treat voting, and voting in an informed manner, as a civic duty. It becomes the equivalent of giving to charity and acting with integrity: something you do because you see it's worth, not because it's glitzy.

    So in the end the question is the ancient Socratic one: how do we teach virtue?
    By example. If parents exhibit personal responsibility, children will be inclined to the same. If parents then emphasize that voting is a shared reponsibility, the next generation will be a vast improvement.

  7. Politics is a means to an end, not an end in itself. Specifically it's the art of governance for the common good.

    Therefore teaching students the machinations of politics (partisanship, intrigue, rhetoric, debate, etc.), while good, is superficial. But teach them to act for the common good and they will treat voting, and voting in an informed manner, as a civic duty. It becomes the equivalent of giving to charity and acting with integrity: something you do because you see it's worth, not because it's glitzy or happens to interest you.

    So in the end the question is the ancient Socratic one: how do we teach virtue?
    By example. If parents exhibit personal responsibility, children will be inclined to the same. If parents then emphasize that voting is a shared reponsibility, the next generation will be a vast improvement.

  8. Politics is a means to an end, not an end in itself. Specifically it's the art of governance for the common good.

    Therefore teaching students the machinations of politics (partisanship, intrigue, rhetoric, debate, etc.), while good, is superficial. But teach them to act for the common good and they will treat voting, and voting in an informed manner, as a civic duty. It becomes the equivalent of giving to charity and acting with integrity: something you do because you see it's worth, not because it's glitzy or happens to interest you.

    So in the end the question is the ancient Socratic one: how do we teach virtue?
    Answer: by example. If parents exhibit personal responsibility, children will be inclined to the same. If parents then emphasize that voting is a shared reponsibility, the next generation will be a vast improvement.

  9. And of course politics (the game) is set up (at least it is these days, I don't know but would be interested to know if this has changed over time) to do everything it can to confuse and obfuscate the positions various political parties have on every issue. So even if you were lucky enough to find your particular issue dealt with in a party's platform, you couldn't trust the words on the page, anyway–or at least you'd be exhorted not to trust them by the other political parties.

    Who wants to be interested in politics, besides the politicians (and us few regulars here)? With so much else to be interested in, this is the last thing that need take the little time left beyond worrying about your own home, family, job, etc. In theory, one could still show up to vote for the candidate or party most likely to advance the cause or tackle the concern without paying attention to QP and the other nonsense.

    • Now you've got me thinking about another possible factor to account for…

      Is it possible that the disconnect between governments/politicians and the citizens (youth in particular) is partly due to non-political factors which we could describe as worldview?

      It can be argued that our society places a high premium on the individual – his or her identity, meaning, etc.. – and that we encourage each unique individual to create his or her own "custom life" (think everything from occupation, to music on Ipods, to being in touch with one's emotions, to home decoration, to finding true love, etc. (ignore the irony of all of us being different in the same way – humans are never that coherent in matching ideal belief systems to actual practices).

      • Hmmm, it's too bad your post wasn't first and my posts second, because I think reading them that way makes for a plausible theory! Or, a bigger load of crap. :)

  10. OK, so I'm one of "them." That is the young-Canadians who are apparently thwarting democracy, and ruining the country. I'm also a second year political science student, but that's not important for this posting.

    To be honest, I'm a bit annoyed with the charge and conviction of youth for ruining our political system. The blame rests, in my opinion, with the blamers. In the Elections Canada study cited those between 38 and 47 are more likely to think that politicians are out of touch with youth. I think this is an extremely telling statistic when coupled with the fact that if someone does not vote in the first election possible, the chances are extremely high they will never vote.

    I would argue that most political initiation happens over the dinner-table, not the classroom desk. If we were to step into kitchens across the country, or into anywhere for that matter, do you think we would be hearing anyone espousing the virtues of a particular leader? From what I have gathered, in the federal realm, when door-knocking and canvassing is that many Canadians are disgusted with all politicians – but they're still going to vote and they're still going to vote.

    Youth are not the same, when they/we/I hear people cry the curses of the political system I question whether it's even worth buying into. If they're all the same, why vote? If the system isn't proportionate, why vote? If it won't matter, why vote? I would argue that many adults vote out of habit, and youth lack this habit and moral will.

    When adults whine about lack of youth involvement they should lack at themselves – when you open your mouth someone hears you.

    P.S. I don't understand how someone can be "satisfied" with elections. Does that mean they like elections? That they think they're important? Or that they're fair?

    P.SS. I don't intend to speak for all youth, these are just my thoughts.

  11. Going to add another "youth" (28) who doesn't vote's opinion here:
    I currently live in northern alberta. I can tell you before the election is called we're going to elect a Conservative, probably with at least a 50% lead over the nearest candidate. The other political parties knowing this are in fact not even going to make an effort. They're going to pick a young candidate who somehow got suckered into it "for the experience". Said candidate is going to spend most of the election nowhere near the riding.

    Why WOULD i vote? It's not going to change anything anyways.

  12. This isn't to say i think democracy is broken. I don't like any of the political parties that much. I'm not particularly happy with the fact they'd prefer villifying each other to discussing policy. But if there was something that actually mattered that came up, I feel the system could adequately handle it. Even if it's not my riding that matters ;)

    That said, i would certainly prefer proportional representation, and would be much more likely to vote under such a system. But what's the chances that a party that either the liberals or the conservatives are going to want to change to a system where they're both going to lose seats to the benefit of smaller parties?

  13. Politics is a means to an end, not an end in itself. Specifically it's the art of governance for the common good.

    Therefore teaching students the machinations of politics (partisanship, intrigue, rhetoric, debate, etc.), while good, is superficial. But teach them to act for the common good and they will treat voting, and voting in an informed manner, as a civic duty. It becomes the equivalent of giving to charity and acting with integrity: something you do because you see it's worth, not because it's glitzy or happens to interest you.

    So in the end the question is the ancient Socratic one: how do we teach virtue?
    Answer: by example. If parents exhibit personal responsibility and concern for the common good, children will be inclined to the same. If parents then emphasize that voting is a shared reponsibility, the next generation will be a vast improvement.

  14. WE don't need smarter voters. We need smarter government. Start by giving federal power back to the communities, which would end the charade of special interest and large election foolery. Then the populace would have something to get engaged in again.

    The whole world, especially companies, are flattening and empowering and thinking small and fast given technology and communication in today's world. Why are governments the only organizations still growing more centralized and bureaucratic? Duhhh. Big government is a failure; it's bankrupt economically, and ideologically. And there's no reason for its continued interference when small communities would be much more adept, quicker and innovative to respond to an ever changing world..

  15. Sweeping generalizations about idiot youths who don't vote don't help the cause of voter engagement, particularly when they stem from interpretations of opinion polling that are akin to drunks using lamp posts (to co-opt a really good quote): for support, and not illumination.

    Engagement is best measurable by qualitative exploration, not quantitative data. It is highly individualized.

  16. If it's done right, teaching students about democracy and how our system of government works can lead to a better understanding of both by the students themselves, and by their friends and families, with whom many of them discuss what they've learned at school. It's simply a matter of engaging students in the process of discussing politics in a non-partisan way, with the only purpose being to make them feel more knowledgeable and empowered to bring about change.

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