Friday, May 28, 2004

Apathy, Shmapathy

With the writ dropped, Canadians are gearing up for a June 28th election date, with all the verve of a retarded lounge singer. Special election coverage by the networks is abound, as the politicians position themselves to appeal to the inquisitive electorate—whether they number in the tens of thousands, or simply in the hundreds. Most Canadians have their attention directed to the Stanley Cup, and rightfully so: The Calgary Flames are making their first appearance since 1989. In fact, the Flames are the first Canadian team in the last 10 years to be in the Finals; the last Canadian team was Vancouver in 1994. So for at least the next two weeks, the news, despite being replete with vital political information, will largely be ignored—that is of course until the Flames win the Cup.

Nonetheless, don’t be surprised by all the insipid political forums that “want” to increase youth political awareness and engagement. As far as I’m concerned, youth political engagement is a risible oxymoron. The plaintive moans of youth activists who complain that politicians ignore their demands have become a tired refrain. Calls for political reform, both electoral and institutional, have fallen on deaf ears. The argument goes: the youth don’t vote because they have no vested interest to vote. This should come as no shock to both the politically literate and the politically illiterate: the youth have no vested interest insofar as they have no political and generational capital to effect political change. Admittedly, they should be concerned as regards educational policy, especially those in any form of post-secondary institution. Though, It would be nonsensical to have youth effect change to educational policy simply because we need more youthful political engagement.

We have experts for a reason; experts have experience for a reason. Just as anyone would prefer an informed opinion when assessing a situation, one should also seek an informed vote when engaging the political process.

Youth participation in the electoral process is punctuated by the amount of comfort, knowledge, and experience they bring to the table. I would much rather that someone, of any age group, decide not to vote because of lack of comfort, lack of knowledge, and lack of experience, than someone quixotically voting uniformed, just because they can.

Thus far, the term youth has been used ambiguously, to refer to youth in general; though the term must be explained more specifically to what I contend it to mean in a demographic sense. From heretofore, youth will refer to those under the age of 26, who may still be in some form of post-secondary education or already in the work field—though a difference of degree may separate those youth who work and those who are still in school. My basic point is that those youth with no vested interest in tax policy and regional issues are less likely to be affected and appealed to by politician, more specifically politicians in their constituency. The point couldn’t be put any simpler: You vote for the Member of Parliament in your riding, not the leader of the political party you want to win. Likewise, with the high mobility of youth in post-secondary education—who appear to be the group more likely to be politically apathetic—no grounding, regional experience will engage them. Not working in the area, but for months, and having little to no property commitments will generally dictate the level of engagement one has with their surroundings. This, undoubtedly, translates to one’s political engagement in the region.

Historical perspective also illustrates this point clearer. The introduction of universal male suffrage, during the tail-end of the 19th century, had much to do with the electoral inequality of having only propertied elites dictate legislation to all. Many felt that because of taxation, which fell on each male, they needed to be politically represented: No Taxation without representation.

The political term “voter apathy” wasn’t yet in parlance because people demanded franchise, and willingly participated in the process.

Greater measures to expand suffrage to women and blacks inaugurated a rights revolution that saw the disbanding of old institutions of discrimination. The universal voting age was also lowered to 18 from 21 in the 1970’s. Though foolish, one legislator in California, just this year, has proposed a bill that would lower the voting age to 14, effectively giving 14 year olds half votes.

Today, the ethos of political engagement has not changed, considerably—though voter turn out in the western industrial countries has declined precipitously since the 1980’s. Many believe this has more to do with economic stability of liberal democracies, than a general erosion of the political process—though the point can be made, and it has been, forcefully, by some, that corporate, political party financing has changed the dynamic. The corporate infiltration into the political process is a point not to be lightly disregarded, and more needs to be said of that influence.

But my essential misgiving is with the argument that the youth aren’t politically engaged because of a failure of the system. Once youth exceed the age of 26, develop roots to a region, and begin paying substantially into the tax system, then a natural and vital engagement with the political variables that affect their lifestyles will manifest. This is not to say that all over the age of 26 are more politically engaged than those under 26; however, a greater proportion of those over 26 have a greater reason to be politically engaged, than those under 26. No representation without taxation or, from a modern perspective, no reason to care about representation because I don’t necessarily pay a lot of taxation.

Youth today aren’t as politically engaged as some would desire, yet this seems to be more a symptom of their experiential situation than necessarily a fatal flaw of the political system.

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