Easy is good, but it’s trust that draws voters to the polls

Another election campaign is about to begin — provincial, this time — and you know what that will bring: more hand-wringing about how terrible it is that so many people have become politically disengaged, and what can be done to get them out to the polling booths, such as online voting.

These efforts to encourage people to get out and vote will be particularly aimed at the young, who are often said to be disengaged from traditional politics.

There is some truth to that claim. The 2005-09 wave of the World Value Survey found that only 43 percent of younger Canadians aged 15-29 years showed any interest in politics — and that a mere 12 percent considered politics to be “very interesting”.

By comparison, 59 percent of Canadians aged 50 years and over expressed an interest in politics, including 17 percent who said that politics is “very interesting”.

Canada is not the only country where most young people show little interest in politics. The majority opinion was the same among young people in France, Britain, Spain, the United States, Australia, New Zealand and Japan: “Politics? Mehhh…”

Even in more civic-minded countries such as Sweden, Switzerland and Germany, the percentage of young people who took any interest in politics was still just barely above 50 percent. Norway was a rare exception, with 63 percent of young people saying that they took an interest in politics.

Since a person’s level of interest in politics is the single strongest predictor of whether or not they will turn out to vote, raising the level of public interest in politics is critical to boosting voter turnout rates. Early civics education, as suggested elsewhere, can help in this regard, as can more competitive races: the less predictable the outcome of an election race is, the higher the turnout tends to be.

Yet a closer look at the World Values Survey data shows another factor behind voter turnout rates that doesn’t get mentioned often enough: trust.

Among those Canadians who said that they are very interested in politics, nearly one-half said that they have “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in the work that Parliament does.

Among those who said that politics did not interest them at all, only 25 percent expressed confidence in Parliament. Fifty-one percent of them thought it would be a good thing if experts made the critical decisions about how the country was run, instead of elected representatives.

But among those who found politics very or even somewhat interesting, decisive majorities rejected taking Parliament and the provincial legislatures out of the picture.

The data also showed that people who felt that they could trust most strangers were more likely than those who were more guarded to be interested in politics. Sixty percent of the former said they found politics to be at least somewhat interesting, versus 45 percent of the latter.

Not surprisingly, these more trusting people are more likely to vote. If you feel that you can trust most strangers, your probability of having voted in the latest election is about 25 percent higher than it would be if you were more the suspicious type.

And if you feel you can trust most people in your neighbourhood, your odds of being a voter are nearly 40 percent better than they would be if you felt the people who live in your neighbourhood were untrustworthy.

By global standards, trust levels in Canada aren’t bad. The vast majority of us — as is the case in most other affluent democracies — have a feeling of trust about our neighbourhood.

But only 51 percent of Canadians felt they could trust strangers even a little bit. This is still not bad, as it puts us roughly on par with Britain, Australia, Switzerland and Finland. (The U.S. came in a bit lower at 41 percent, still well above Spain’s dismal 31 percent.)

At the same time, our 51 percent puts us well behind Norway and Sweden, where 67 and 70 percent respectively said they felt they could trust strangers at least a little bit.

Yet if trust and confidence bring more people into the political sphere, the “best practices” devised by Canadian and American political operatives over the past 30 years seemed designed to do the opposite — to turn people off of politics.

Think of the attack ads that you’ve seen over the past year, regardless of which party or group they came from.

How trusting of others, or confident in the political process, did that make you feel?

If attack ads were to become a permanent part of our political discourse, would people even bother to vote if it were as easy as point-and-click?

If politics has taken on a more war-like tone over the past 30 years, then it should be completely understandable why people are getting turned off of politics and are developing hostile attitudes toward political parties and the ballot box. They’re political war refugees.

Wars always produce refugees in one form or another, whether it be a conventional war, a political or cultural war, or an organizational war. Those refugees take their talents elsewhere, as has long been the case with those who traded in life in various war zones around the world for a better life in Canada — and whose talents are our gain and their homelands’ loss.

In Canada, refugees from political warfare will always find other outlets for their skills, whether it be as business executives, leaders of not-for-profit organizations, lawyers or teachers — which is not entirely a loss for society.  Others will simply turn off the news when a politico appears on the screen, and watch Mad Men or Seinfeld re-runs instead.

Making it easier for them to vote won’t do anything to resolve their lack of trust in politics and parties.

Yet, if there is one possible silver lining behind political disengagement, it’s the hope that a pragmatic and less partisan younger generation will eventually create new opportunities for change.

It can be seen in the new brand of young American Christians, refugees of the so-called Culture War, who are seeking to take Christian involvement in U.S. politics in a different direction.

Turned off by party politics and more accepting of the fact that peoples’ sexual habits and tastes are as complicated as their tastes in movies, food or books, younger evangelicals are now saying they want to move beyond the Culture Wars, roll up their sleeves and get busy on quality of life issues like reducing poverty and improving access to education and health care — without immersing themselves in party politics the way their elders did.

Such pragmatism should be warmly welcomed in politics, on both sides of the border.

Give the pragmatists people they can trust and a political system which inspires their confidence, and they will come out to the polls in greater numbers — even if it’s not as easy as clicking a mouse.

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About theviewfromseven
A lone wolf and a bit of a contrarian who sometimes has something to share.

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