I no longer find references to education and politics the least bit amusing. Increasingly there appears to be little connection between the two in fundamental ways. Growing disillusionment with politics and politicians has contributed to the resurgence of populism – a movement that lacks precise definition but has at its core a belief that conventional politics is out of touch, unresponsive to the needs of the populace, and often corrupt. It also exhibits a disdain for the so-called elite and for expertise and a preference for the common sense of ordinary folk.
One of the most disastrous consequences of this movement has been the election of Donald Trump as President – a man who is the antithesis of a conventional politician. There is no indication that expertise influences Trump’s decisions, or common sense for that matter. He has no interest in background papers and briefings and apparently makes most of his decisions after watching Fox News, in reaction to which he often announces a new initiative via a Tweet – policy making in 140 characters (or fewer).
I can appreciate why many citizens are unhappy with the way they have been governed, although it would be helpful if the media would report occasionally on the many honest, hard-working politicians and the many dedicated civil servants whose programs and departments run smoothly. Unfortunately good news is not news, bad news is. “If it bleeds, it leads,” has long been the guiding principle when it comes to news coverage.
Democracy Depends on Informed Choice
Democracy depends upon an educated public informing itself of the issues of the day and the choices offered by those competing for office. There is less and less indication that this prerequisite exists. Not only has voting turnout been disappointing in many elections (barely reaching 50% in Ontario, which goes to the polls June 7) but too often it also appears that those who vote make their choice based on emotion (usually a desire to defeat an incumbent government) rather than on a reasoned assessment.
Particularly concerning is the lack of interest in politics shown by younger voters (with the notable exception of the interest generated by the Liberals under Justin Trudeau in the last federal election). According to a recent survey half of those aged 18 to 24 feel that they don’t have enough information to make an informed decision when it is time to vote in a provincial election. In contrast, a majority of older voters (two-thirds in the case of those 65 and over) believe that they have the information they need.
Choice of Sources Affects Quality of Political Information
How can this be, especially with the vast amount of information now available on the Internet and readily accessible by the tech-savvy younger generation? Ironically, the Internet (and how it is used by younger people) appears to be a major factor in their lack of political involvement. Unlike older citizens, who get almost all of their news from the traditional media (TV, radio, and newspapers), young people get their information from their ever-present smart phones, primarily from videos – which they apparently view only briefly and often on mute. No wonder they don’t feel well informed on political issues!
Traditional news sources have been subject to a great deal of criticism in recent years, and to outright attack with the fake news campaign of Trump and his supporters. But media biases are well known and easy to offset. One can make a conscious choice to look at both Fox News and CNN, to read the Toronto Star and the National Post. Doing so usually provides contrasting perspectives on the issues of the day and allows one to consider these and to decide what appears to make the most sense. Finding a balanced view when using the Internet is much more difficult and even dangerous. As I have previously blogged, we now know that our visits to sites are tracked and analyzed and gradually create a profile of our apparent interests and leanings. The more your presence on the Internet is associated with certain views, the more you are automatically directed to similar information when you use a search engine. The result, over time, is that we end up in a self-perpetuating bubble of our biases.
Combating Disaffected and Disconnected Citizens
A functioning democracy is at risk with a population comprising disaffected older citizens rejecting conventional politics and policies and disconnected young people who have tuned out conventional sources of news. The old Professor in me can’t help believing that one of our best hopes is to do more to educate our youth about our system of government, how it operates, why its decisions are relevant for them, and the importance of their role in helping to preserve and strengthen Canadian democracy.