Monty Python's "Constitutional Peasants" – What are your expectations of the political process?
CityCaucus.com is pleased to present a guest editorial from 24-year old Gabe Garfinkel, a political organizer who has worked in Toronto and Vancouver
As a politically active young person and a volunteer on several federal and provincial elections, I often get asked by other politicos and volunteers why I am so involved. The reason for this is simple: I believe that Canada’s democratic system rewards those who participate, and that the issues I care about will be better heard and represented by doing so. Indeed, I have lots of friends, peers and neighbours who have "better things to do with their time" than voting, so I stick out somewhat by being politically active.
I recently encountered some articles weighing into the debate about young people and politics. All of the pieces have merit, and each writer adds to the debate around the "democratic deficit" among youth today, but I disagree with some of their points which I'll explain further on.
The editorial by the Globe and Mail's Lawrence Martin is what kicked off the discussion. Titled If there's an inspiration deficit in our politics, blame it on the young, Martin uses the expression "Boring Old Guys" (BOGs) to describe the guys running the country. While I think 'BOGs' deserve some of the blame, young people have to share some of the responsibility for not getting involved. And in my opinion he fails to properly substantiate and connect the paragraph criticizing (my) under-25 generation to the rest of the article.
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.
I think Martin's editorial is really intended to spark debate (which it has), and it argues the need for both future and current politicians to work harder reaching out to youth. Lawrence's recipe is to rely on the charisma of political leaders to inspire, connect and (most importantly) engage young, new and apathetic voters.
Challenging Lawrence is Alison Loat, also published in the Globe. Loat's article titled Let's not blame youth for general voter apathy offers a more well-rounded critique of youth political apathy. Her first paragraph reciting the historic and systemic nature of growing youth political apathy was dead on. Low voter interest is not a new, she says. Politicians and their advisers trying to find the magic formula to reach out to young voters is also not new. And blaming youth for not participating is also an argument we've heard before. Loat gets this. But I think Loat's prescriptions for young voter malaise are vague and do not provide practical, short and medium term solutions.
Also critical of Lawrence Martin (and supportive of Loat) is local blogger David Eaves, who has also been politically involved in recent years. Eaves' article titled Eat the Young! provides some interesting views on why youth can't be blamed for looming current crisis in voter turnout. However, Eaves refuses to put on any onus on himself or his generation for the lack of interest in the political system.
Eaves names a few smart and ambitious Gen Y and X friends, arguing that Martin doesn't see the real substance of his generation. It is easy to see his point, but he overlooks that the same Baby Boomer generation he criticizes has also accomplished a lot, in addition to voting. Nevertheless the best paragraph of the three articles must go to Eaves, when he calls out Martin and the Baby Boomer hegemony in the political process and mainstream political discourse by listing the ages of Globe and Mail journalists.
So is youth political participation as really as bleak as the writers suggest, or is progress being made?
I am optimistic because people are debating these issues. I am hopeful because there are youth wings in political parties. I am encouraged by the prevalence of politicians using social media to connect with their voters and constituents, and by the digital activism that grassroots supporters now pride themselves on. However, changing one's Facebook status is neither voting in an election nor getting one's hands dirty on the campaign trail. But it's a start...
After a quick brainstorm of my own, here are a few suggestions that may help engage younger voters.
- Political parties need leaders (yes, with charisma) who are able to relate to youth and make sense of complex problems.
- Political communication and messaging must be short, simple and empowering. "Yes, we can" will always get more people to the voting booths than "Gordon Campbell hates you."
- Be relevant. Relevant issues can inspire people from all corners of this country to get politically involved. Sometimes, people just need to find the right issue to become active. But without the knowledge that these individuals can, in fact, make an impact on issues they care about, little will ever be done.
- Teach the system in schools. There is deficiency in BC's education system in that it does not adequately teach civics, politics, and community involvement. Students are leaving our high schools without a basic understanding of how our government and the political process work. I only recently learned in university that the political process was much closer to me than I knew, and that people like myself could, in fact, have an impact. Developing political participation and public pride must take place early - well before we can vote. There must be a more thoughtful effort put in place to connect 'high politics' to local grassroots politics.
- Parties must reach out to youth more profoundly, and more often. Facebook and Twitter aren't enough; social media must complement, not substitute, one-on-one contact and outreach. Election campaigns currently focus their time and resources on seeking the highest voter return. In doing so, their outreach ignores the low-voting youth (because they don't vote) and focuses on other groups that do (perhaps senior citizens). This is a cyclical pattern that will continue to marginalize the youth vote.
When working for the Canadian Jewish Political Affairs Committee in Toronto last year, I remember going around giving presentations on this very topic to Jewish youth. There, we were using relevant issues to recruit and galvanize volunteers and supporters for the 2008 Federal Election. It was interesting to me, because I was trying to convey an old concept - you can get involved and make a difference - to a new audience. This not-so-new concept was popular, popular enough that many would sign up to donate a few hours on an election campaign to have their individual and communal voice heard.
At the end, it wasn't that hard to get a few empowered young citizens out to vote, volunteer and tell their friends to do the same. It just took a little effort.