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Court the youth vote with politics, not cat videos

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Young people are apathetic, don’t care about society and don’t vote. This truism is poured over the youth in the run-up to every election, whole buckets of it. Because we all know young people just lie around all day and never get up to do anything. It’s so instilled in popular culture that we even made up a quote about it and attributed it to Socrates; because if Socrates complained about the youth in his day, they must surely be a lost cause.

But politicians desperately want your vote to bolster their claim to legitimacy and some mandate for whatever. So we get the campaigns. Get out and vote. Go vote. Vote now. Won’t you just please vote? You will notice that these campaigns are all apolitical. They’re about process, logistics, the act of voting. Not whom you should vote for and why. And the campaigns try to be ever more young and hip and funny and viral and whatnot, because that’s how the PR agency told the civil servants to reach the youths.

These campaigns don’t work. 2014 marks the third time I am voting for the EP. I’ve also voted in three national elections and three elections for local government since reaching legal voting age. I vote because I care about politics and want my interests furthered. Not once did I vote out of a sense of duty or because some poster or radio ad told me that my generation is lazy, though not for lack of exposure to this message. It’s not about youth; it’s about (perceived) interests.

In the 2009 EP elections, 29 % of 18-24 year olds and 36 % of 25-39 year olds voted (p. 14). Turnout in Slovakia as a whole was 19,64 % (p. 8). Why isn’t the apathetic Slovak a cultural trope? In fact, a full six member states had lower total turnout than did 18-24 year olds across EU; Slovakia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, the Czech Republic, and Slovenia. Tellingly, five of those six countries also have a “lack of trust in/dissatisfaction with politics generally” higher than the EU average (p. 29).

This is the overlooked point of all apolitical attempts to raise democratic participation. People don’t vote because they are reminded to do so. If you doubt that, go read the table on p. 42 and the explanation that follows it. Even in Belgium and Luxembourg, where voting is legally mandated, one in ten voters will shrug and accept the fine rather than dragging themselves down to the voting booth.

People vote because they want to see their interests and needs addressed, and conversely abstain from voting if they don’t see the point. This is why the educated classes, people who understand the political systems, vote in higher numbers than those with little or no education. The former see how a vote can benefit their situation.

‘Hang on,” some of you will object. “People also vote from habit or out of a sense of duty.” Indeed, but from where does such a habit grow? This is a classic case of misunderstanding cause and effect. If the political system is seen as an effective means for addressing needs and grievances, participation will be high.

Young people on average do vote less than older generations. But what if this has to do not with their age, but with the changing perception of the electoral system; it is no longer seen as the most effective or obvious way to express political opinions. What if campaigns with political content could convince young people - or the less educated or unemployed or otherwise marginalised - that their vote can make a difference. Of course, that would be dire straits, since actual disagreements tend to make political opponents reluctant to fund each other's’ campaigns.

So instead of political discourse and public debate over topics that actually shape society we get an attempted edgy video campaign with a skateboarding cat and some violence. Because that’s what those damned, lazy young people like to watch all day through their series of tubes, right?

The author is a Brussels intern who believes Oswald Spengler was staggeringly wrong, and is habitually frustrated by copy editors not agreeing that profanity adds emphasis like nobody’s business.


Last modified on Thursday, 24 April 2014 12:03

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