I’m 28, and I’ve voted in every federal election since I was old enough to do so. Yet I understand why the majority of people my age didn’t, and won’t, and why those who turned voting age after me were less and less likely to cast a ballot. In fact, it’s easier to comprehend why most don’t vote than to explain why some do.
I am sure that some of the decline is because we’ve simply absorbed the apathy and disenchantment we likely grew up with at home. Where many older people in and outside the public eye have lamented the degradation of politics – harkening back to some golden age when politics was more civil, when kids knew the Prime Minister’s name – there was no golden age for us. Just as we stepped into our fast food uniforms long after the golden age of employment, we turned 18 long after the (possibly imaginary) golden age of politics.
We don’t remember the peak, or even some higher ground. We opened our eyes for the first time and all we saw was the ditch.
Public discourse about politics, in my lifetime, has always been rather negative. I learned as a teen that one shouldn’t bring up politics at a dinner party, because it’s divisive. When I was even younger, I learned by watching Air Farce and This Hour that politicians are stuffy old people we make fun of, not our representatives, nor even our oppressors. I didn’t conclude that politicians were good or bad; rather, I concluded that they’re irrelevant except when you need something to joke about. I still remember running around the schoolyard yelling “REFOOOOOOOOORM” after the old Air Farce Preston Manning skit.
But there’s something else, besides the negativity, in the way politics is constructed in public discourse. In the news media, and in TV and film, the political sphere is presented as an arena of warring tactics, competition, and winning, rather than a space where we hash out the values and ideals that define us. The parties are made out to look like teams one belongs to, once and for all, rather than vehicles for advancing different visions of what we, the people, want society to be.
Given that there’s no space for actual people in this rendering, except as spectators, it’s no wonder why turnout among the youngest Canadian voters (aged 18-25), just like overall voter turnout, has been on the decline since the 1970s. With each successive cohort of new voters less likely to vote than the one before it, and because young non-voters tend to become old non-voters, Canada now boasts the 16th lowest voter turnout out of 17th comparable countries.
For a brief moment during the last federal election, things looked promising, as ‘vote mobs’ sprang up across the country, aiming to translate electoral politics into a language the so-called Youtube generation could understand and feel inspired by. Rick Mercer dedicated a whole rant to the same goal. But despite the imaginative videos, the flag-waving, the pumping music and the dancing, youth voter turnout didn’t really budge.
This might stem from the fact that social media is just one of the places we turn to for cues about how to be in the world. And unfortunately, it’s awfully hard to be enchanted by the political sphere as it is interpreted and presented to us by the sum total of these other information sources. It is hard to see why a person should care.
Take, for example, the coverage of Thomas Mulcair’s election as the NDP’s new leader on March 24th. I watched the convention and voted in real time. I listened, trying to imagine the different directions each candidate wanted to take the party. I tried to decide, as did my fellow voters, which candidate would stay truest to the values that brought us to buy a membership in the NDP.
But the next day, the first headline I saw was something like this: “NDP Vote Marred by Technical Difficulties; Lacklustre Speeches.”
Sure, it’s just a headline. And as I’m frequently reminded by journalists, “deskers” write the headlines, and the headlines often make journalists cringe too. But the headline is meant to encapsulate the main point of an article, and for this article, the main point was that online voting was a bit slow and the speeches were boring. The direction of a political party, and its capacity to fight for and create the Canada its supporters want to see, was somehow marginalized by strategic and tactical shortcomings.
The day Mulcair served as Leader of the Official Opposition in the House of Commons for the first time, the story on CBC radio was this: Mulcair read his questions off of a piece of paper. The other leaders didn’t need notes.
What Mulcair and the others said, and the significance of their words against our particular political economic backdrop, were evidently not as important as putting the politicians’ performances to the Toastmasters test. Similar errors in focus occur whenever there is a protest to report on. The size of the crowd gets more attention than what the signs said, what the political-economic backdrop is, and what might have precipitated the protestors’ unrest.
I can only wager that journalists employed by mainstream news organizations shy away from “the issues” because they are afraid – indeed they are trained to be afraid – to even tread near them lest they appear to be taking a side. So, instead, they focus on the hard, objective ‘facts’ that seem apolitical because they can’t be challenged because they’re sensory. But this focus ends up feeding the status quo, because it effectively says ‘keep calm, carry on’ – there’s nothing but the nuts and bolts to see here, folks.
If we’re not easily captivated or entertained by the rhetorical and performative and numbers-based ‘game’ of politics – and that’s all it is, if you view it through the narrow lens provided by mainstream media – why would we give it another thought? Unless we are swept up into it by an inspiring political candidate or leader, or thrust into it via an issue near and dear to us, there don’t appear to be any good reasons to dwell on it any further.
What if the mainstream media bracketed concerns about whose voice shook, who tripped over their words, or who stumbled heading up the stairs, and focused instead on the critical social and economic issues at stake? What if they saw their role as defenders of the public interest, as the ones who could distil the bits of governing and politics that have real consequences for how we live our lives, make a living, and take care of ourselves and each other? My guess is that politics would change. Restoring the relevance of the political sphere would inevitably restore accountability to the political sphere. People would be watching, because they would see themselves and their concerns reflected back.