The Real Outsiders: Politically Disengaged Views on Politics and Democracy

December 7, 2011
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The Real Outsiders: Politically Disengaged Views on Politics and Democracy
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Turned off? Tuned out? Dropped out?

Evidence indicates that many Canadians are not interested in politics. In the last federal election, four out of ten Canadians chose not to vote. In several of the recent provincial elections, almost half of the eligible voters stayed home. More people chose not to vote than voted for any one party.

Not only is voter turnout decreasing, but every year fewer Canadians are getting involved in other kinds of political activities, like joining or donating to political parties, signing petitions or attending protests. If nothing is done to reverse this disturbing trend, those in power will no longer hear the voices of the majority of Canadians.

This raises a straightforward, but important question: Why are people disengaging from politics? Many assume that disengaged people are simply apathetic, disinterested, or generally ignorant about politics. Thus, initiatives to improve citizen engagement often assume that the disengaged are lacking in some key attribute of citizenship and that the solution must lie in creating the ideal citizen.

Perhaps not surprisingly, then, political parties and institutions rarely make efforts to

speak to the disengaged, seeing these efforts as a waste of time. But this state of affairs limits our understanding of how people interact with the political system. Indeed, previous research has shown that despite low levels of political engagement, Canadians are quite supportive of democratic values and are well aware of what democracy should look and feel like. There are, in fact, many who may not be as apathetic, disinterested or uninformed as is commonly thought. By talking to these politically disengaged people, we can gain vital insight into our political system, which can assist in reversing the trend of political disengagement in Canada.

Between August and October of 2011, Samara, a research organization that studies and encourages citizen engagement with Canada’s democracy, did just that. We spoke to Canadians across the country in a series of focus groups designed to elicit and examine people’s perceptions of politics and democracy—the first-ever study of its kind in Canada. Participants in seven of these groups self-identified as less interested in politics and most did not vote (the disengaged). We also spoke to an eighth group of politically engaged Canadians for comparison purposes. These different groups were chosen to provide a broad cross-section of perspectives across Canadian society (see “Background to The Real Outsiders” on page 5 for more information).

Indeed, their dislike of politics seemed closely related to their perception of a gap between what politics is and what democracy should be.

The responses of the disengaged were intriguing and remarkably consistent. The types of answers that we received transcended different social and economic backgrounds, whether we were speaking to groups of lower-income Canadians, less-educated youth, urban Aboriginal people, women, new Canadians or rural Canadians. Even more remarkable was the contrast between the experiences of the disengaged and the experiences of our comparison group of engaged suburban dwellers.

Three specific findings emerged from our research.

First, whether they were engaged or disengaged, our participants universally condemned politics. Contrary to the notion that the disengaged are apathetic, we found that those less likely to participate were neither disinterested in nor uninformed about the system. Instead we found that their disdain for politics was driven by an intuitive understanding of how the political system functions and their previous interactions with it.

Indeed, their dislike of politics seemed closely related to their perception of a gap between what politics is and what democracy should be.

On the one hand, democracy is seen as a worthy ideal for society. On the other hand, for the participants, politics is a source of frustration and disappointment. These were attitudes gained through concrete experiences of interacting with political institutions—whether accessing daycare, covering tuition costs, or getting a speed bump installed on one’s street. The disappointment people feel with respect to politics may therefore be caused by a disconnect between democratic expectations and political reality.

Second, the key difference between the disengaged and the engaged is their relationship to politics. Almost without fail, the disengaged we spoke to described themselves as political outsiders. On the basis of their experiences, they described government, bureaucrats, politicians and the media as working for someone else and, therefore, irrelevant to their needs. Some went so far as to say that the political system makes them outsiders on purpose. For those who feel like outsiders, there is little reason to engage in politics when politics does not engage with them.

In contrast, those who identified themselves as politically engaged describe an insider relationship with politics, believing that the political system works for them. And even though these insiders do not always get what they want and are sometimes frustrated with the political system, they maintain a sense of hope that they can effect change. In short, it is this belief in their own efficacy that seems to keep these insiders engaged in politics.

Why do outsiders feel as they do?

The third and final finding of this report proposes that disengaged people become outsiders through their daily experience and interactions with the political system. This finding is a far cry from conventional wisdom that holds that the disengaged simply do not care or that they lack knowledge.

Some became outsiders after seeking assistance from elected representatives and civil servants in government, but ultimately receiving little help. Others, especially younger Canadians, came to understand very early on that the political system disregards their concerns. Despite these two different pathways to outsider status, there is a common destination: the disengaged have learned from personal experience that engagement is futile.

Overall, our research shows that declining political engagement is, at least in part, due to concrete experiences with politics. Indeed, participants’ answers belie the notion that the Canadian public is not knowledgeable or sophisticated enough to understand how their political system works. Rather, the people we spoke to are keenly aware of the forces that affect politics.

Our evidence shows that the political system, including the bureaucracy that supports it, has failed many Canadians in clear and tangible ways. However, there is also a silver lining to this story: if people are disengaged from politics for specific and concrete reasons, there may also be specific and concrete ways through which to re-engage the Canadian public in politics. Participants told us that they are not asking for much. They simply need to feel that those in power will consider their voices, and that politics can become relevant to their everyday concerns. Thus, the troubling trend of declining political participation may be reversible. But only by understanding the concerns of the disengaged can we begin the process of proposing solutions.

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