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7 steps to re-engaging the politically disengaged

January 11, 2013

Elder-PhilContLOGOCALGARY, AB, Jan. 11, 2013/ Troy Media/ – ‘For the past decade or so, Canada has been in the grip of a democratic malaise evidenced by decreasing levels of political trust, declining voter turnout, increasing cynicism toward politicians and traditional forms of political participation, and growing disengagement of young people from politics.’

This is a direct quote from the Executive Summary of Law Reform Commission’s Report of Canada, Voting Counts: Electoral Reform for Canada, released in 2004.

Nine years later, this indictment rings even truer. Many ordinary citizens have turned their backs on politics: ‘it doesn’t matter who I vote for, they’re all the same, they lie to get elected, then break their promises and make laws they never mentioned during the campaigns. They’re all on the take too!’

What is to be done?

Commentators have suggested various ways to encourage higher voter turnouts, but perhaps they’re treating a symptom rather than the disease. Maybe we should first dig deeper and try to understand why so many are politically disengaged and ask how that can be improved and not merely low voter turnout.

Popular explanations for political disengagement include:

1. The aforementioned public cynicism, due to the incorrect belief that all politicians are mendacious and manipulative. Here is a negative feedback loop in full operation. Some politicians’ cheap one-line zingers get lots of media coverage and comments by more thoughtful representatives are buried. This enhances the electoral chances of paying attention to the 10-second-clip brigade lowering the calibre of public debate and convincing future candidates that deceptive propaganda wins. So thoughtful prospective candidates either adopt the same strategy, or refuse to run at all, adding to the public’s cynicism about politics. And so on.

2. The failure of the education system to convey robust knowledge of political history, democratic values and the need for an engaged citizenry less likely to be fooled by propaganda.

3. Popular culture’s false belief that banal internet postings about mundane matters constitute a constructive contribution to society.

4. Feelings of insignificance, lack of knowledge and hopelessness about our ability to solve global problems like exceeding ecological limits, climate change or obscene misdistribution of wealth.

5. Apparent control of decision-making systems by the wealthy who seem greedy, corrupt, callous or victims of false ideological consciousness.

6. Weak election finance laws that enhance the influence of the rich.

7. An economic system that creates high stress levels, radical income disparities and too high demands on our time.

8. Especially in Alberta, a belief that your vote won’t matter because a Progressive Conservative win is preordained.

If this list is even remotely plausible then we face a complex, and profound problem. We are left with a daunting challenge – transforming society so as to make people’s lives better and reducing or possibly eliminating these reasons for disengagement

The following ideas may be worth debating, even if some of them are discarded:

1. Better education especially about civics, the values of liberal democracy, critical thinking and applied ethics would make individuals more aware of their civic responsibilities and why it matters who forms the government. Critical thinking citizens might demand improved media content (biased outlets would either improve or go bankrupt). Better education might produce politicians and policy analysts equipped to think more creatively.

2. Stronger election finance laws (list of contributors, maximum expenditures, disallowing corporate and union donations) would reduce the disproportionate influence of the affluent. Free prime-time media exposure of all parties would also help balance the scales.

3. Should voting be made compulsory, as in Australia? Some voters might inform themselves on the issues if they have to be involved, anyway.

4. Many media outlets bear a heavy responsibility for offering infotainment masquerading as news, as well as for skewed commentary favouring the status quo and the interests of corporate advertisers. We must NEVER consider censoring them, but perhaps commentators with minority opinions should be given access to big news platforms to temper tame staff ideologues pretending to be objective. People who are dissatisfied with lousy new coverage have to speak up and let the media moguls know, perhaps by cancelling their subscriptions.

5. We need to discuss reforming our first-past-the-post (FPTP) electoral system. Many feel that proportional representation (PR) would encourage more citizens to vote, since each ballot would count (under FPTP, votes for losing candidates do not). Furthermore, there would be more representation of smaller parties who receive numerous votes in total but not enough to elect many FPTP candidates. Almost 940,000 Canadians voted Green in the 2008 federal election, but until Elizabeth May was elected two years ago they had no right to be heard in any legislative debate.

6. Our young people are key to solving these problems. Political scientist Henry Milner has suggested a double-barrelled way of scooping them into politics. He supports a compulsory civics/politics course in senior year high school, plus lowering the voting age to 16 so the kids can apply their new understanding while it’s fresh.

7. Economic reform is essential as massive disparities in wealth and influence have aided and abetted ordinary people’s political disenfranchisement, but that is a job for business people and economists.

Government action is essential, but we must remember that collective problems can be solved only if concerned individuals come together and get involved. All of us must share in this responsibility to engage politically and demand that our representatives respond. It’s no good saying ‘nothing I can do will make a difference.’

This column is FREE to use on your websites or in your publications. However, Troy Media, with a link to its web site, MUST be credited.

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