This article on the ongoing decline in Canadian voter participation, particularly by youth in the Globe today by
One reason for declining turnout is a deep shift in social values away from deference to institutional authority. It used to be that if society’s leaders told us to do something, we did as we were told. Now people are more likely to make personal calculations about whether voting is worth the effort. Canadians are also less driven by a sense of duty than they once were. Eighty-three per cent of Canadians over 60 say voting is a duty; 48 per cent of those 18 to 39 agree."
The decline in voter turnout over the past several decades is an inarguable fact, in large part driven by the continuing low turnout of Canadians under the age of 40. An interesting idea, however, is that while Canadians have turned away from voting as duty that must be done in service, Canadians do seem to still be engaged in voluntary civic activity that could be described as informal activism, compared to the "hard" activism of casting a ballot:
"Indeed, recent research conducted by the Environics Institute as part of the biennial Americas Barometer survey, supported by the Ottawa-headquartered Institute on Governance, found Canadians expressing civic engagement in a number of ways besides voting. These included signing petitions, sharing political information online, and participating in demonstrations and protests."
A couple of thoughts: One, I think the relationship between these two sets of data (declining voter turnout but a continuing level of engagement in politics and public affairs being expressed through other, more informal activity) is a point against mandatory voting, a potential idea the authors float in the piece. Introducing mandatory voting would be a way to bootstrap voter turn out for sure, but given that Canadians are turning away from voluntary voting when cast as a duty, I have serious doubts it would improve the actual character of Canadian politics. (I'm also going to take this opportunity to shameless promote improving civic education, an issue I have heavily advocated for and engaged with as readers of this space would know).
The other thought that I have related to casual vs formal political engagement, particularly as it relates to youth. When you sign a petition, go to a rally, share something on Facebook, re-tweet something, or yes, write a blog, you get an immediate result, some emotional fulfillment that you have done something. People might like the post, re-tweet it to others, post a photo of going to a rally, etc. It gives you an immediate return on the emotional investment you put into it. It feels good to do these things, and they are relatively simple and time effective ways to help promote a cause you feel inclined towards.
If you are effective enough, or the enough people are a part of the same cause, you can even get some pretty tangible results from casual activism, particularly since online activism happens in real time and can snowball pretty quickly. We've seen this happen enough times that I don't have to link a particular example even; a person, brand, company etc sends out an insensitive tweet, says something discriminatory, etc. It gets publicized, hundreds of thousands of people tweet, Facebook, blog or something else the dismay and condemnation towards this, and the offending party issues an apologize, removes a social media manager, or announces a change in policy. I'm honestly not demeaning those who engage in a lot of political activity and activism online, since it can in fact have a pretty quick result. You see something you don't like, you share a message publicizing the offending content or spreading a message, which lets you feel like even as an individual you are part of a greater cause, and not infrequently, you actually get a tangible reaction.
Compare that to the relatively more glacial pace of "hard" activism in politics and government. Bills go through multiple readings, go to committee, and can take years to be fully implemented, and that's just on the government side. Within political parties, ideas can take years to gain popular support and become politically acceptable enough to become official party policy.
Right now, I have plenty of things that I'm annoyed at about the Harper government. Using the traditional tools of formal political engagement, what are my options. Well, I'm helping out my local Liberal candidate, encouraging people to read up on him, and consider voting for him...in an election that is scheduled to happen 8 months from now. And even if I do manage to change to minds of a lot of people at the doors, we have a majority government federally right now, so if the Conservatives just want to try and ride out the storm and push whatever issue and policy forward, they're fully capable and entitled to under out parliamentary system.
Sure, occasionally we've seen public opposition ferment to the degree that the Conservatives have had to back track or change course on a handful of initiatives such as the Fair Elections Act and potentially Veterans Affairs, but by and large in a majority government, the ruling party can do whatever they please as long as they keep at least a certain segment of the electorate onside, regardless of how loud those who are in opposition howl, or tweet, or blog, protest or petition. (I'm using the Conservatives as a punching bag, but I'm take my partisan hat off as the core concept remains the same regardless of which party holds power.)
So with that in mind, what can political parties and "traditional" political activists like myself do?
I think blending the ideas of formal and informal activism, through use of national days of action to train volunteers outside of an election period, but also things like internal petitions and social media teams are important. These are both ideas that have been developed in large part from the Obama campaign and brought north. While constant emails from parties can get annoying sometimes, you wouldn't get them so constantly if they weren't effective at engaging you in between elections.
I also think this should be a lesson to parties and activists to push to make sure they are responsive and relevant to the issues that people care about, as opposed to scandal mongering whatever happens to be the issue of the day. This is something that, to be frank, in the run up to the last federal election I think the opposition did too much, and it allowed Harper is position himself as "the only leader focused on jobs and the economy", with a similar scenario I think playing out in Ontario with Hudak's relentless focus on smearing the government when people had in large part moved on and wanted to hear what parties said on other issues.
Ensuring parties themselves are open is also important to make sure people's itch of engagement is scratched. The introduction of the supporter category during the federal Liberal leadership was a good first step, but personally I wouldn't be opposed to going a step further and letting supporters vote in nomination meetings.
If we are, as Susan Delacourt suggests in Shopping for Votes, that Canadians are taking a more consumer based approach to politics, Canadian political parties can't afford to overlook the importance of instant gratification in appealing to both the population as a whole and potential volunteers and activists.