Told to ‘Go Get Hung’?

Posted Saturday August 21, 2010 by Lisa Gunders in |

This one is not about religion, I promise.

Among the things that I’ve been reading up on lately are young people’s attitudes to politics, media, and citizenship. Most of the information that I have to date is from the UK, but what I’ve been able to find on Australia so far suggests that many of the same issues are relevant here as well.

For some years now, there has been a concern across Western capitalist democracies that young people are increasingly disinterested in politics, and less likely to become politically or civically engaged. It seems that when this is examined more closely it is not a new phenomenon and it’s really only the political system that they have lost trust in, and party politics that they don’t much care for.

What’s more, it is not just young people. We tend to focus on young people in a form of moral panic about society going to pot (sometimes literally), but when you look more closely at that, whatever we panic about when focusing on young people is usually only a reflection of what is going on in the wider society.

This post is not a dry run for the paper that I’m working on, just some notes from the readings that I’ve been doing because when you take these factors into account and look at trends beyond our shores, the current situation in Australia, where it seems we might end up with a hung parliament, kind of makes sense.

In the UK, where voting is not compulsory, large numbers of people simply do not vote. Voting is compulsory here in Australia, but in yesterday’s election, more than half a million people voted informally. Most commentators take this as voters being too stupid to know how to fill out a voting paper, or having trouble with English if it is in an area of high migration, or any number of explanations that assume people did not understand what they were doing. What they rarely consider is that informal voting in a compulsory system may be a very rational decision.

At least in the UK, the people who don’t vote also tend to avoid political coverage and, particularly among the young, are disillusioned and often cynical. Sometimes a bit hard to avoid political coverage in Australia, but how often have you heard people say that they don’t follow politics. Research suggests that there are a number of reasons for these attitudes.

A major reason is a feeling that politicians and the political system are unresponsive to the interests of voters. This basically boils down to questioning the value of getting involved or taking an interest when nothing the individual can do, and increasingly nothing collective action can do, seems to make any difference to the policies adopted. Voters don’t even always blame governments for this, or at least not directly. They are not stupid and can see that the interests of global capital pull the strings and are the ones that governments serve. In this case, it can seem that it doesn’t matter who you vote for, the result will ultimately be the same and minor parties probably don’t have any more chance of standing up against the forces of the big corporations than do the major parties.

Which comes to another of the reasons people give for their disengagement: the feeling that there is so little to differentiate the parties that it really doesn’t matter who you vote for, or indeed if you vote. Both major parties have tried so hard to ‘capture the middle’ in recent years that they’ve abandoned what used to be their core principles and constituencies. There are reasons given in the research for this to do with the way party politics is now run, but I won’t go into that in full here.

They do lead to some of the other reasons given though. Many people feel that politicians are out of touch with the lives of ordinary people. This is certainly not new in Australia and is often cited as the reason that Pauline Hanson initially garnered so much support. Their lifestyles and interests seem to be completely different to those of the people they claim to represent, but sometimes they seem to live in completely different worlds. One of the researchers that I’ve been reading notes that the language of government is all about business and markets and is disconnected from many ordinary people who do not believe that some things, like healthcare for instance, are best handled as markets.1

The media comes in for a share of the blame too. Politics is treated as a horse race, and coverage of campaigns focus on the strategies of the parties rather than on the policies or what the parties stand for. US research has shown that people do not like negative campaigns.2 Some want a good, all in political debate of the issues, but a lot just want a concise, positive, summary of what the candidates stand for so that they don’t have to sift through the detail but have enough information to make a decision. The same research found that those people most likely to be turned off parties by negative campaigns were the ones who were most disaffected. In Australia, this translates to the ‘middle’ that both parties are scrambling to win over.

Another complaint sometimes leveled against media is that all the attention is on the nation’s capital, and local issues are largely ignored. Local news doesn’t seem to be undergoing the same decline as mainstream news.

In view of the above situation, some people just don’t feel that they are well enough informed to make a meaningful decision at the ballot box. The ones who feel like this tend to have lower levels of education and fewer networks and resources to help them to become informed and engaged. Neither our politicians nor our media are doing anything to help address this situation at present.

There is some interesting research out there. I’ve just touched on a few of the common points in what I’ve read so far. Those of us who are interested in politics and live our lives in echo chambers of like-minded people too frequently ignore the reasoning of those who claim not to follow or have an interest in politics. Worse still, we sometimes write them off as being less intelligent than us. Bad move. In many ways people who disengage from the system or decide to vote informally are making a very rational choice and expressing their valid judgment of the state of politics in this country.

So, we might end up with a hung parliament. Is that really such a bad thing if it forces us to take a good hard look at ourselves and start listening to voters rather than trying to scare or seduce them?

1 Wayne, Mike, Julian Petley, Craig Murray and Lesley Henderson. Television News, Politics and Young People: Generation Disconnected? Houndsmills: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010.

2 Lipsitz, Keena, Christine Trost, Matthew Grossmann, and John Sides (2005), Political Communication, Vol. 22, pp. 337-354.

Your Comments

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