Political apathy is a term usually associated with youth. Whether it’s low voter turnout, disengagement from democratic processes or the lack of knowledge to make informed decisions, young people have been identified as the one demographic seemingly beyond saving.
A sweeping statement maybe but when we consider a recent study conducted by the Hansard Society indicating that only 12% of under 25 year olds within the United Kingdom plan to vote in the 2015 general election then a very worrying picture emerges.
The reality is that a large percentage of young people are politically engaged but the conventional metrics used to measure their involvement do not include, among other things, non-electoral civic engagement i.e. voluntarily acts performed by citizens to influence decisions at different levels of a political system. These can be anything from signing a petition to boycotting a certain product or even displaying a campaign sticker on your car. Full definition available here.
Voting remains the one activity recognised by governments in the UK and elsewhere as defining the relationship people have with politics. The usual formula applies; those who don’t vote, they say, don’t care. Governments believe this to such an extent that in some countries, voting is a legal obligation and those who do not cast their vote on polling day are subsequently prosecuted.
The UK has yet to introduce such a rule but the amount of time spent by political parties trying to get your vote – a seemingly unending ritual regardless of whether an election is imminent – would make you think that the ultimate goal of any political process was winning an election. What about Public Service?
This is where governments and young people in particular see things very differently and this is also where non-electoral civic participation can play a major role in redefining what political engagement is.
“What we are seeing among young people is the very opposite of apathy, but it exists outside the narrow structures of Westminster politics.”
Brie Rogers Lowery, the Country Director for Change.org , the world’s leading online petitioning platform, believes that political engagement is being redefined and identifies the World Wide Web as giving an appetite to those who never imagined political engagement being anything more than voting.
“It’s not young people who are disengaged at all, maybe it’s that politicians aren’t talking to them about the issues they care about in the places where they are.”
Lowery refers to the work being done by ‘incredible campaigners and campaigning organisations’ as giving inspiration to young people who go online seeking alternatives to the political mainstream and, contrary to popular belief, go on to create positive change without ever entering a polling booth.
In fact, campaign groups are having such an effect that many are ‘putting political parties to shame,’ explains Sadiq Aman Khan, a British Labour Party politician.
Khan acknowledges that the public increasing react to ‘the issues which affect people’s lives’, the foundations of many campaigning organisations, as opposed to the big political challenges that politicians usually focus on that seem largely irrelevant on a day-to-day basis.
A great example of this was revealed when the results of the largest ever millennial survey were released. The Global Millennial Survey, which involved over 12,00 people from 27 countries, showed that not even half of millennial leaders – the most civically-minded of all young people across the globe – participated in their country’s political process. However, when asked if they felt optimistic and driven about creating positive change, an astonishing 74 percent of millennials believed they could make a global difference.
Yet, if voter behaviour is to be believed, political apathy is rife and the ongoing decline in turnout means the general populous have finally succumbed. Or perhaps, as I believe, people have finally realised that there’s so much more to political engagement than the manual task of voting. And maybe this awakening is due, in part, to a platform that allows you to participate on your own terms – the internet.