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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