The Canadian Policy Research Network is no more but the Web site is still up and that's where you can find the following paper: Brenda O'Neill, “Indifferent or Just Different? The Political and Civic Engagement of Young People in Canada“, Canadian Policy Research Networks, June 2007
O'Neill assesses young people and politics:
Young Canadians display a pattern of civic and political engagement that differentiates them from other Canadians. They are less likely to vote, are less likely to be members of political parties and interest groups, are less interested in politics and know less about politics than other Canadians.
Young Canadians are not, however, indifferent to politics. On the contrary, they show levels of engagement in non-traditional political activities – signing petitions, boycotting and buycotting – that are similar to those of other Canadians. They are also more likely than other Canadians to participate in political demonstrations, to volunteer and to be members of a group or organization. Rather than being indifferent or apathetic, their engagement is merely different.
My gut instinct is that this was a pretty accurate description when O'Neill wrote this in 2007 and continues to be so as we get set to close out 2011. Despite the so-called “Occupy” protests and any number of other interesting demonstrations involving young people, such as the vote mobs during the the federal election this year, we have seen only fractional change in Canada's political landscape in the last six months. The Harper Conservatives were returned to government, this time with a majority. The McGuinty Liberals were also returned to government in Ontario but this time with a minority. All in all, through seven federal, provincial, and territorial elections since May 2, the incumbent party has swept the table. We will shortly see a provincial election in Saskatchewan where the incumbent is again heavily favoured.
O'Neill argues that young people (in 2007 at least) possess “increased political sophistication” and she attributes this to measureably different ways young people have of engaging with politics. She says young people are experiencing “cognitive mobilization”. I'm not sure I understand what it is to be “cognitively mobilized” but I'm almost certainly sure that I disagree with her conclusion that young people today display an “increased political sophisticiation”. There are many, frequently valid, criticisms of Canada's first-past-the-post electoral system but the only way any person can demonstrate “political sophistication” is to actually vote. And young people have been voting less and less for a decade now.
Through the last four general elections, I have watched political operatives for the federal Conservatives, Liberals, and New Democrats and, believe me, they suss out pretty quickly who it is that is likely to vote and they tailor their politics to suit. Mainstream political parties know that young people, for all their “political sophistication” at boycotts and demonstrations, simply do not vote and, as a result, can be safely ignored.
That said: The party that figures out how to get young people to actually vote likely holds an immense advantage over their rivals and, as a result, all three of those aforementioned parties have different kinds of outreach to get young people to “occupy” a voting booth.
But are young people “politically sophisticated”? A “sophisticated” group of voters is one, presumably, that understands political processes and exercises influence over political actors at the appropriate time for appropriate effect
Pollster after pollster has found that, at the federal level, younger voters favour the Liberal or New Democratic Party by a wide margin over the Conservative Party. And yet, the Conservatives have won three elections in a row.
That's easily explained: O'Neill cites Elections Canada data that shows fewer than half of those eligible to vote and who were under the age of 30 at the time of the 2004 election actually voted. And yet, better than 2/3 of those over 50 for the same election voted. In the 2011 federal election, pollster Ekos [pdf] found that those under 25 were six times likelier to not vote than those over 65. Even those in Generation X were twice as likely to be non-voters than Baby Boomers. And, as Ekos noted: “Support for [the] Conservative Party is strongly linked to age.”
I've talked to some pollsters who say that if young people voted with anything close to the same frequency as older voters, Stephen Harper would never have been prime minister and Stéphane Dion may well have had the chance to bring in his carbon tax.
This fact alone, it seems to me, is proof enough that young people cannot be considered “politically sophisticated”.
Sophisticated voters will “occupy” a voting booth because that is still the best way for a citizenry to exercise political power.
Many of those excited by the “Occupy” movement have written to tell me that their protests are a response to the absence of real choice in the voting booth; that political parties on offer “were all the same” on May 2; that it seems no matter what they do on voting day, they never see the change they want.
Forget for a moment that it seems patently obvious that there's a world of difference between, say, Stephen Harper and Elizabeth May, and let us return to O'Neill who reminds us that older voters are actually much more cynical about the voting process — and yet they still vote!
In a 2000 IRPP survey, 81% of Canadians between the ages of 38 and 47 strongly or somewhat agreed with the statement “Those elected to Parliament soon lose touch with the people,” 10 points more than those in the youngest age category. The lack of an elevated level of cynicism among the youngest Canadians is important because it underscores that lower levels of voter turnout cannot be accounted for by increased levels of political cynicism (Gidengil et al., 2003; O’Neill, 2003). In a related vein, research by Pammett and Leduc (2003) observes that young Canadian are less negative about various aspects of elections than are older Canadians, reinforcing results obtained elsewhere (O’Neill, 2001). Whereas 6% of Canadians aged 18 to 24 suggested that they lacked faith and confidence in candidates, parties and leaders, for example, the share among older Canadians ranged from 15% to 21% (Pammett and Leduc, 2003: 17).
There are no easy answers to the problem of declining youth voting rates though there have been a rash of papers and books over the last few years looking at the problem. O'Neill's paper, which is a decent survey of the literature in this area, outlines some possibilities for further study but also presents some reasonable policy considerations worthy of further study. That said: I must take issue with this policy consideration:
Fourth, governments ought to focus the lens inward to consider how institutions and processesmay no longer “speak” to the youngest citizens and how they may even discourage theirparticipation. For the cognitively mobilized, the formal processes and hierarchical organizationsof representative politics provide little in the way of satisfying and results-oriented practices.Wherever possible, participatory decision-making structures ought to be adopted, fully supportedand implemented. This necessarily involves the ceding of a measure of political power butbrings with it a host of benefits in the form of an engaged, informed and involved citizenry.
If we start “ceding a measure of political power” to groups that have lower voter turnout, then what motivation is there for any group to show up and vote? Political power, by definition ought to accrue to those groups that can demonstrate their political sophistication by actually voting. To paraphrase, George Jean Nathan, “bad governments are elected by good citizens who don't vote.” Message to young people and others who are “cognitively mobilized”: There is no substitute for voting.