In Defence of Electoral Apathy


People's apathy, particularly young people's, towards elections is normally presented as some sort of failing in civic responsibility. However, indifference towards the outcomes of elections is actually a sensible position to have - it recognises that the emperor has no clothes.Despite all the exhortations encouraging people to vote, large numbers do not see any point - it's not a particularly difficult or time consuming thing to do, about as much work as going to the local shop and buying a pint of milk - yet fewer and fewer people are voting. Politicians, media and the powerful in general tell us that this is because there's something wrong with the public - lazy, self-centred and so on. The case that voting in these elections is an important, civic responsibility is so widely accepted that it is rarely questioned. It's like the cast of a play which attracts small audiences giving out about the lack of sophistication in the public, and never thinking to ask themselves if their play just might be crap.

In this case we can see that a sizeable chunk of the population has decided that they can see no practical difference to their lives depending on which particular government gets elected - it makes less of a difference than having milk for your tea. They are sceptical about politicians and elections and they are right.

There is little or no differences beyond the rhetorical between the underlying philosophies of the parties, or their basic policies - to such an extent where it's impossible to identify any definite thing that will be different if this or that government gets in. Instead most of the debate is about who makes the best manager - the policies are assumed and they are assumed because they are decided in advance, completely outside of anything resembling democracy. A good example of how non-existant the differences are is that Colm O'Gorman had been in discussions with the labour party before he eventually decided to join the PDs - who claim to be on opposite ends of the political spectrum.

Winning elections nowadays depends primarily upon having money and attracting favourable media coverage. In both cases this means that the primary target is to win over the rich and powerful - they're the ones who own the papers and who fund the parties (the best-known example being the FF tent at the galway races). This means that all the parties shy away from anything that might annoy the multi-nationals, the developers and the media barons - meaning they basically follow neo-liberal policies, privatisation, consumer taxes for basic services like waste and water, public-private partnerships and so on. If they step outside this consensus, they will get hammered by the media and the business community, their funding may dry up and they may face threats of capital flight - it doesn't take much to provoke this and, for example, although Sinn Fein's policies only represent a minor adjustment to corporation tax and capital gains tax, many articles have been devoted to telling the public that a vote for SF would destroy the economy. Indeed, for a period of several months last year, the Sunday Independent attacked SF on their front page virtually every week - with virtually zero news content. The repeated media attacks have obviously hurt SF and will also help to make them moderate their policies to avoid such attacks in future, a dynamic that is alread well-evident in the north where their economic policies are sufficiently close to those of the DUP that they can form a government with them with very little argument about important economic matters and most of the debate about nationalist symbolism.

As a good example of this, the only actual issue that has generated much debate in this election is stamp duty. This is because the parties are chasing the approval of the Sunday Independent who have waged a campaign against stamp duty since August 2006 - or more accurately they are chasing the approval of its owner, Tony O'Reilly. Absurdly the sunday independent issue of April 22nd was largely devoted to trumpeting the fact that stamp duty was the election issue, in the same paper they published the results of an independent IMS opinion poll which revealed that stamp duty was ranked in last place of all the issues mentioned in terms of its importance to the electorate.

By contrast the major issues that have motivated large numbers of people in Ireland since the last election have been things like the use of Shannon airport by US troops travelling to and from Iraq, the exploitation of immigrant workers and the 'race to the bottom' and Shell's attempts to bully a community in Rossport. All of these issues have motivated tens, if not hundreds of thousands of people, predominantly young people, to hit the streets. Yet none of them are anywhere near the election agenda. In fact the media has been so reluctant to investigate public opinion in recent times that PANA had to pay a market research company to investigate public feeling on the use of Shannon by US troops - the results? 58% of people were opposed, just 19% of the public supported the practice - yet these views are just completely ignored by all the major parties.

In this globalised world, governments are increasingly bound by global financial institutions and treaties - the EU, WTO, IMF all serve as bodies that limit the range of policies available to national governments and more or less constrain them to implement neo-liberal politics.

We also should remember that much decision making has been outsourced to private companies and to unelected bureaucrats and quangos - much of which the government has no real control over.

And this is well known to those working within the system, although they rarely put it honestly. One example however, saw Barry Andrews write in the Irish Times in 2003 that:

"The following is a rough attempt to grade them in order: (a) capital markets; (b) the European Union; (c) the Government (not quite non-parliamentary, admittedly); (d) the Social Partners; (e) the World Trade Organisation; (f) the Civil Service; (g) the United Nations and (h) county managers. The role of Dáil Éireann trails in somewhere after these."

Therefore, due to the convergence of policies as parties pursue the support of the wealthy and powerful, our election campaigns consist mostly of the following:

* banal utterances which just amount to saying "good things are good, bad things are bad" - for example, many politicians will boast that they are "for safer communities" - who the hell isn't?

* attempts to claim credit for all sorts of stuff that mostly involved other people's hard work (e.g there has been a fight over which party is responsible for Ireland's economic boom - as if all those people who actually did the work to produce stuff had nothing to do with it and it was all merely down to a clever politician.

* attacks on opponents and these are coming more common as at least the candidate can be honest when criticising opponents.

* aspirational promises which have a long, consistent history of being broken

The increasingly meaningless nature of elections stems from a fundamental problem in representative democracy - it doesn't contain very much democracy at all. We elect people who are supposed to make decisions on our behalf, but it's entirely up to them to decide what they will actually do once elected. We can't vote for policies, we can't force our elected representatives to implement any particular policies and we can't even replace them if they break all of their promises and implement the exact opposite of what we elected them to do. Probably the best example of such anti-democratic cynicism was seen in the election of 1987 - Fianna Fail flooded the country with posters and billboards declaring "Health Cuts hurt the old, the sick and the handicapped". When they got elected, FF minister Rory O Hanlon cut 3,000 beds in two years - the most extreme cuts that the country has ever seen and the beds have still not been replaced.

Even when politicians have some intention of fulfilling their promises, anything distinctive is likely to end up being bargained away in coalition negotiations or to be ditched when budgetary restraints kick in, or turn out to be impossible to put into practice due to some unexpected factor (the garda reserve and the cafe-drinks licenses were the two promises that McDowell attempted to fulfil - he failed miserably in both in the face of opposition from publicans and rank and file gardai - we often over-estimate the power of government vis a vis the institutions of the state).

Therefore, for all these reasons, I think people are right to be indifferent about the outcome of the election - the only thing it is likely to change, whichever way it goes, is the set of faces on our tv screens and whose bums are in the limos; the candidates aren't even as entertaining as big brother candidates, so it's no surprise that lots of people are sensible enough to not trouble themselves to vote.

Having said all that, being indifferent to elections is not the same as being indifferent to politics and the evidence suggests that most people are acutely concerned about the basic political problems - how resources are distributed and how public services are provided. Health, education, security, housing, all consistently elicit strong opinions from the public.

Lots of people are also involved in political activity outside the electoral sphere. For example, I am involved with Anti-War Ireland, Indymedia Ireland and the Workers Solidarity Movement and am broadly supportive of various other campaigns yet I always either spoil my vote or abstain - all of that political activity requires far more effort than it takes to go out and vote - yet I am somehow supposed to be apathetic?

Now, although most people probably aren't involved with many overtly political groups, involvement with grassroots organisations is actually very pervasive - residents associations, community groups, voluntary associations campaigns, trade unions and so on provide a useful way for people to engage with political issues, albeit often on a small scale. That's the type of political activity that I advocate - and I think that people should get involved in such things and demand that they have a say in the decisions that affect them. It's only by building public involvement in political issues through such democratic means that we can start to take back control over our lives from distant forces - and while changing the government doesn't make much of a difference, all governments and powerful institutions feel and respond to pressure on the streets.

The democratic freedoms that are most important are civil liberties, the freedom to organise and freedom of speech - we should be using those freedoms rather than fooling ourselves into thinking the our rights and responsibilities begin and end at the right to put an 'x' beside the name of some inherently untrustworthy individual or another.