Alienated from what? By whom?

OttawaCitizen.com – business – Are voters disengaged from politics? It depends what you mean by disengaged, and by politics
December 8, 2011.   By Andrew Potter, Citizen Special

Despite growing concerns about things like the decline of Parliament, voter apathy, and public alienation, it turns out that even disengaged Canadians love democracy. It’s the politics they don’t like.

A new study by Samara, a Toronto-based organization that researches citizen engagement, found non-voters are not apathetic or ignorant of the political system. Instead, the responses of the disengaged were “intriguing and remarkably consistent,” the study says. For them, politics only became a source of frustration through unpleasant interactions with political institutions.

These findings (available online at samaracanada.com) are based on seven focus groups made up of non-voters, drawn from such demographic groups as new Canadians, francophones from Quebec, and lesser-educated youth.

Samara’s work on civic engagement in Canada is creative, ambitious, and necessary, and if these results are a fair indication of popular sentiment, it is obvious that our democracy is in crisis and something needs to be done. The question is, can we take these results at face value? There are a few reasons to be skeptical.

Start with the remarkable similarity of complaints voiced by these self-described political outsiders. “Almost without fail,” the report’s authors write, “- they described government, bureaucrats, politicians and the media as working for someone else and, therefore, irrelevant to their needs.” It is possible that this signals a commonality of negative experience across the demographic spectrum.

But perhaps something else is at work. Take a look at how politicians are described by the members of the various focus groups.

They’re described as “greedy” and “untrustworthy,” people who make and break promises repeatedly yet “still have a job at the end of the day,” and are only “concerned for their own interests.”

These may be descriptions of actual experiences, but they are also threadbare cultural clichés. This is what Orwell denounced as the corruption of thought by language, “gumming together long strips of words which have already been set in order by someone else.” Is it possible that when it comes to political engagement, most Canadians are in a position somewhat similar to Schrödinger’s cat: they are neither alienated nor engaged until they are asked by a social scientist, at which point they just fall back on the default public vocabulary of a broken machinery of government manipulated by knavish politicians.

This suspicion is only amplified when you consider the groups that made up the focus groups.

While some of them – urban aboriginals in particular, and certain segments of the youth vote – have every reason to feel like political outsiders, can we really say the same about francophone Quebecers, new Canadians, and members of rural communities? More than any other constituencies in the country, these three groups have been relentlessly courted by political parties from all points of the political compass. It is not an overstatement to say that making these three groups happy has been the overriding focus of federal policy for the past 40 years.

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