Commentary | Vote or bust

Our political systems are broken, but we should not disengage

Young people are not turning out to vote because of a disgust for a political system that does not represent them. As a group, young people are increasingly choosing complete non-participation – this solves nothing.

However, this sentiment is not only found among young people. The British comedian and actor Russell Brand recently shot to fame for advocating non-participation in an interview on the British news panel show Newsnight, which caused a large backlash; his remark that “there is nothing worth voting for, that is why I don’t vote” caused a mixture of consternation and approval among politicians, celebrities, and the general voting public. Brand further clarified by saying that mainstream political parties are unrepresentative and that voting makes no difference. Summing up his attitude, he stated, “Give us something to vote for and then we will vote for it.” Brand is mainly popular among young people, and the sentiments expressed are indicative of how many feel that their concerns are underrepresented. The short YouTube video of the interview has over ten million views.

The statistics clearly indicate that younger voters are less inclined to vote, and this is problematic.

Election turnout results support Brand’s claims. In the recent midterm elections in the U.S., while voter turnout was low overall (with only 36.4 per cent voting), 78.5 per cent of those who did not vote were between 18 to 29. Likewise, during the 2011 Canadian federal elections, 61.2 per cent of the 18 to 24 age group did not vote. However, the problem is not particular to North America. In the elections for the European Parliament this year, 72 per cent of 18 to 24 year olds did not vote either. The statistics clearly indicate that younger voters are less inclined to vote, and this is problematic.

What is Brand’s answer to this malaise? Revolution, mobilization, and a fuck-the-system attitude. The older generation may sigh, but from a student perspective this viewpoint is completely justified. Expanding austerity measures means we have to pay more for education, increasing our debt sizeably, while the quality of education plummets because of budget cuts. Not only this; when we graduate, we are left with limited job opportunities and thus little means of paying back this debt. As for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, did 15 million people on the streets worldwide not indicate to governments that citizens did not want war? It’s a truism that the establishment does not represent voters on an array of their critical concerns.

We have a democracy in name, but not in practice, and therefore according to Brand, we need to bring down the system, dismantle corrupt political structures, and replace them with directly responsible and democratic organizations. Providing such direct representation is indeed an answer to the concerns that young voters, and students in particular, harbour. Such a system could provide an accountable link between young voters and their representatives.

A party or group of parties still wins if you choose not to vote, and if anything, students and young people not voting means there is no desire to represent the concerns of this group among elites.

Direct-democratic mobilization has also been highly successful in achieving change, but arguably, it is limited and can easily backfire. The Parti Québécois’ so-called support for the student strikes, only to hike university tuition fees once in power, is a good example of this. Anger toward this sort of betrayal has led to the visibility of protest-vote parties like the Parti Nul, established on a platform of allowing voters a chance to express that they feel unrepresented by elites. The argument is that by acknowledging nullified votes, one step is created toward real democracy. However, this points to a more troubling question: we may not be able to change the system without participating in it. The solution to the problem of lack of representation is precisely participation in the system. Efforts at establishing direct democratic structures are valuable and have produced gains, yet repeated efforts to mobilize outside of the political system still have not led to systemic change.

While the premise of the argument for non-participation is admirable, failing to turn up at the ballot box is not a solution. In fact, not voting, or even spoiling your ballot, changes absolutely nothing. A party or group of parties still wins if you choose not to vote, and if anything, students and young people not voting means there is no desire to represent the concerns of this group among elites. Voters aged over 65 consistently turn out to vote and are rarely threatened by the kind of budget cuts that young people are. Thus, by not voting, we are shooting ourselves in the foot. Historically, it has been through participation in the system that relevant gains have been achieved for those who felt underrepresented by the system. Think about the eight-hour workday, paid holidays, paternity and maternity leave, anti-discrimination laws, and affirmative action policies. If young people continue to disengage, they risk losing the momentum of decades of gains.

The argument should not be “give us something to vote for”; rather the onus should be on us to provide something for ourselves to vote for.

Though statistics clearly indicate that young people are disillusioned with the system, what is evident is that there is no lack of passion. Sales of Brand’s book raked in roughly $400,000 in the space of 11 days, and his YouTube channel has 750,000 subscribers. However, the issue is how to guide that passion in a direction that causes a change within the system. If citizens or young people do not get involved in politics, others will. This opens the door for them to rob you of democracy, your rights, and your wallet. The argument should not be “give us something to vote for”; rather the onus should be on us to provide something for ourselves to vote for. This could come in the form of creating a political party. This may sound a little like a pipe dream, but it can be a successful tactic. In Spain, the Podemos party was formed from a protest movement and is led by a political science professor. It achieved 2.25 million votes in the European elections and won five seats in the European Parliament. The effect of the party’s success has led to politicians in Spain admitting that the results represent a “serious warning” from voters and even led to the resignation of the Socialist party leader. Furthermore, in an opinion poll on voters preferences in October this year, Podemos was preferred by 27 per cent of Spaniards.

Mass participation in the system invariably leads to the requirement that the establishment take notice. If we are to have our views represented in government and our concerns listened to, we should unshackle ourselves from the demand culture of ‘give us something to vote for’ and stop expecting the establishment to deliver change. Instead, we need to recognize that disengaging from voting can be dangerous; organizing along party lines can change the system.


Thomas Burgess is a Masters student in Political Science. To contact him, please email thomas.burgess@gmx.com.


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