Political Perspectives is produced by the students and faculty of Carleton University's School of Journalism and Communication, Canada's oldest journalism school.


Canada’s Silent Near-Majority: How Our Parties Are Failing The Future

Posted by padams under Election 2011, Election 2011 Campaign strategy, Political Strategy

Paul Adams

The genial former Tory minister, Monte Solberg, tweeted this week that he thought he had election fever, only to realize it was actually cholera. I don’t remember an election that inspired so much dread right from the outset, even from the political and media classes for whom elections are normally the equivalent of the Stanley Cup final. And no wonder. The last few weeks have seen a barrage of unpleasantries intruding into our evening viewing pleasure. In the House of Commons, the economy turned up briefly — for about 48 hours this week — and then receded as the opposition raged about the government’s moral failings. In question period yesterday, Ralph Goodale went after John Baird, who went at everybody else, as the snarling dogs of war strained at their leashes.

And of course, many people believe that the election result is already close to a foregone conclusion: a return of the Harper government, whether as a minority or a majority.

It probably isn’t too soon to say that Canadians’ dismal record in turning out at the polls will likely be matched or even exceeded in this election. In 2008, the turnout was just 59%. The number had been 75% as recently as 1993. If something doesn’t happen, it seems perfectly possible that before too long a majority of Canadians will be sitting on their hands at election time.

How have the existing parties reacted to this? Essentially, not at all. In a provocative article in the Globe and Mail this week Joe Friesen and John Ibbitson argued that the three national parties have locked onto seniors and their concerns as they prepare for this election because they have a higher propensity to vote than younger people. I am certain that they are right. My father’s generation (he is 91 in a few weeks) have voted in substantially higher numbers than mine — the vaunted Baby Boomers — and we, in turn vote more than the members of so-called Generations X, Y, Next and Me.

But think about what this really means. The parties are fishing in the diminishing pool of voters, and in doing so largely neglecting the concerns of non-voters, which is likely further to alienate them from the system and reinforce their behaviour. The recent vogue for negative ads plays into this even further. We know from American research that negative ads work in large part not by winning voters over, but by persuading potential voters for the other guy to stay home.

Politically, this phenomenon of ever more feverish attempts to cultivate those made of such robust stuff that they still turn out to vote, seems to be treated by the parties as more or less inevitable. But doesn’t it seem obvious that the political future will belong to whichever party or politician is able to tap this growing pool of non-voters?

If it doesn’t seen obvious, just look at our American friends who have been working on precisely that over the last decade or so. While our turnout has been falling, the American political parties have successfully concentrated their efforts on bringing new groups of voters into the political system.

Does anyone remember that John Kerry took more votes in his race for the presidency than any other Democrat in previous history? How could it be that this dull, forgettable man achieved such a feat in a losing cause? Quite simply, because both Democrats and Republicans have won their recent victories by increasing the electorate.

The Republicans did it first, of course. Evangelical Christians had long been reluctant voters, on quasi-theological grounds, seeing politics as the grubby work of Man rather than the exalted work of God. George W. Bush, only the second evangelical to run for the presidency (the first was Jimmy Carter), built on a growing conservative Christian political movement to turn this substantial demographic out for him. After losing the election of 2000, and having to be rescued by the Supreme Court, Bush (and Karl Rove) determined that this would never happen again. Through a variety of means, including getting moral issues such as gay rights and abortion on the ballot in the form of referendums in many states, Bush-Rove were even more successful in 2004, increasing Bush’s total vote by about 11.5 million voters.

Meanwhile, the Democrats had been using the labour movement, black and Hispanic organizations, community groups and so on to mount their own intensive get out the vote campaign. Kerry took eight million votes more than Al Gore had in 2000, and 12 million more than Clinton had in the winning election of 1996. In 2004, between the two of them, Bush and Kerry increased the American electorate by 20%!

Of course, this trend continued with Barack Obama in 2008. John McCain actually didn’t do much worse than George Bush had in 2004. Obama won mainly by increasing the Democratic presidential vote by ten million votes over Kerry, the previous record-holder. He did so by energizing blacks, Hispanics, youth and other previously marginalized elements of the electorate.

Whether it was the Republicans or the Democrats, in this century the American parties have succeeded through a combination of increasingly robust organization, inspirational leadership, and policies aimed directly at these target groups of relatively reluctant voters.

In this country, it does seem likely that the increased competition between the Liberals and the Conservatives among some groups of New Canadians — such as Chinese-Canadians, for example, who were traditionally a low turnout group — may be having some effect.

But by far the largest group of non-voters — and getting larger as they grow more numerous and their elders die off — are the post-Boomer generations, especially the youngest of them. The Green Party seems to have great appeal in this demographic, but they have very little organization to back that up. This is the principal reason why the Greens tend to perform better in the polls than they do in the polling booths: their young supporters simply don’t turn up to vote.

In a quick scan of the other national party websites last evening, I found very few direct appeals to young Canadians — unlike the lavish treatment of seniors. Even educational issues seem to be framed more around the concerns of their Baby-Boomer parents. The twitterization of our politics in this election, which is in general a healthy thing, is likely to hyper-charge the minority of young people already committed to the political system rather win new recruits.

What would a party that could appeal to our young people look like? Well, first of all, it would likely be led by someone under fifty, perhaps under forty. Or at least someone like Pierre Trudeau in 1968 who seemed to embody the values of a generation younger than his own. It would be more idealistic than our current politics allow — Yes We Can. It would be liberal, cheating toward libertarian, on issues of personal morality, such as gay rights and abortion. It would be rigorously secular, preferring claims based on fact and analysis to those based on ideology or belief.

It would be hopeful about the capabilities of government, but not dogmatically so. This is a generation which has, due to deficits and debt, seen government literally taking more out than it puts in. And furthermore, they have lived under a political system which is far much more responsive to their elders’ concerns than their own. Still they are generally willing to judge government on its results — always alert to the dangers of government secrecy and intrusion on individual liberties. This party will need to be (not just pretend to be) much more consultative, and it will put much more emphasis on individual choice when shaping government programs.

This party would be open to the world, in terms of immigration, cultural diversity and trade. At the same time, it would be skeptical of the claims of business that its priorities — deregulation, smaller government low corporate taxes, and unfettered freedom to compensate its own — are identical to those of the community. It would be concerned about inequality at home, and increasingly about the concerns of the developing world.

This party would  be much more committed to the environment than any of the incumbents, save the Greens. A consumer-friendly policy on cell phones and high-speed internet would be much more prominently in the window than it is for any of the existing parties — and that just might be a good thing for the country. More subtly, it would have to renegotiate the bargain between my generation and the young. For decades now, we have built pension, health care, and education systems that suit the Boomers, and in many cases assume that the young will bear the burden even while their concerns are relatively neglected. The 2011 election is on target to reinforce that trend.

This party will not emerge in this election, and perhaps not the next. It is not clear at this moment that any of the existing parties is well-positioned in terms of organization, culture, ideology, leadership and style to become this new thing.

But as reluctant as they may be to admit it, the Boomers will die. And long before they do in large numbers, they will be physically enfeebled and numerically less significant. The political future belongs to whoever figures this out.

Paul Adams is an associate professor in the School of Journalism and Communication at Carleton. He is a former Parliament Hill reporter and worked in the polling industry. You can follow him on Twitter @padams29

Reader's Comments

  1. Ted Nott |

    You have nailed it! I am a senior and in my time have voted for candidates of all stripes, directing policies at me might make me feel good, but in 10 or mso years I’ll be dead, then what. Compare that to winning the allegiance of an 18 year old who could well be a supporter for decades to come. Hopefully, my grandchildren will see the kind of leader and party you have described, I sure as hell wont.

  2. Wilf Day |

    What would a party that could appeal to our young people look like? Well, it would advocate letting every vote count. No longer would Alberta Liberals, most Quebec New Democrats, and others stuck in our “regional silos” as Chantal Hebert calls them, have to choose between staying home or casting a useless vote. No longer would Green voters everywhere face the same poisoned choice. Back in 2003, Quebec’s Estates-General on the Reform of Democratic Institutions voted 90% for the Scottish model of proportional representation. It’s simple. It’s the future.

  3. Annette Nicholson |

    This is a very well reasoned piece, with which I mostly agree. Notwithstanding your central thesis that the parties are currently targeting and benefiting the elderly and the Baby Boomers, I have been remarking lately that I don’t have the sense that anyone wants my vote. (Disclosure – I am a female Baby Boomer.) I put this down to the extraordinary polarization we see and the theatrical attempts of the parties to distinguish themselves from the other parties by false tilts to the left or right, completely unencumbered by evidence that these “policies” will achieve the stated aim.

    What happens to the voter who is driven away from the Conservatives by their inability to speak us as intelligent human beings, yet still hopes for rational fiscal and economic policy that does not continue to spend our children’s money? Do we depend on the pattern repeating itself of the Liberals running on expensive platforms, but then finding fiscal discipline when they get into office? That is a leap of faith that has to be taken to vote Liberal.

    The ideologically driven policies that we hear so much about in elections (e.g.”tough on crime”) are not only expensive, and usually counterproductive in and of themselves, but they also keep the middle of the road voter from knowing where to place their vote. It is my impression from reading polling data between elections that many Canadians are like me – fiscally small-c conservative and socially small-l liberal. I don’t feel like any party is asking for that vote.

    It is really eye-opening when you feel for the first time that a politician is actually speaking to you, not at you. It forces you to realize that never before has anyone spoken to you. I felt that way for the first time when I heard Bill Clinton speak during the Democratic nomination process and his language was so inclusive that I felt he was speaking to me, not at me. The irony was not lost on me that it was all for naught, as I am a Canadian citizen. No doubt, his ability to speak to both genders was a big factor.

    I look forward to the day when I feel that way again during a Canadian federal election.

  4. Marit Quist-Corbett |

    You’re absolutely right! It’s a crying shame that none of the parties apparently sees fit to consider young people worth the effort of directing some policies towards them. I hope many young people will read this and start something like a twitter/facebook revolution, demanding that someone, ANYONE in government give them the time of day!

    Come on , you guys, you can do it! Start that revolution! This is your moment!

    I am a boomer, and dismayed at the lack of interest young voters show…but I understand it. None of the politicians seem to value their opinion. So –you young people, you have to do something about it! Get off your skateboard and tweet something revolutionary!!