Apathy and civic engagement

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Published: May 1,2011

Tags: civic engagement, MBJ column, Phil Hardwick

When it comes to civic engagement — voting, participation in town meetings, political involvement and the like — apathy is often cited as the primary reason that most people do not get involved. Dave Meslin, a community activist and self-described “rabble-rouser” in Toronto, Canada, says that we need to redefine apathy not as some internal syndrome, but as a complex web of cultural barriers that reinforce disengagement.

Statistics about voter apathy are often cited as evidence that the citizenry is apathetic about civic engagement. The voter turnout rate, which is defined as the percentage of eligible voters who cast a ballot, in U.S. Presidential elections has ranged from a low of 36.4 percent of the voting age population in 1986 to a high of 63.1 percent in 1960, according to the Federal Election Commission. The Presidential election of 2008 saw a voter turnout rate of 56.8 percent.

Also cited as evidence of voter apathy are things such as lack of attendance at public meetings, such as those at city hall and the county courthouse. Many mayors lament the turnout at neighborhood and community meetings and so-called listening sessions. Attendance at such meetings seems to be standing-room only when citizens feel that a particular issue personally matters to them. Robert Putnam’s best-selling book “Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community analyzed the trend of lack of involvement in community activities.

Meslin adds a new twist on apathy by propounding that people really do care, but that today’s world discourages engagement by putting barriers in the way. In an October 2010 TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) Talk in Toronto he offers seven examples of such barriers. And while his is one perspective of why citizens are apathetic and subject to disagreement, it is worth considering. So here are his examples:

City Hall – Legal notices are almost impossible to read. It is as if they are worded in such a way to keep people from attending meetings instead of encouraging them to do so. He uses an example of a rezoning notice, pointing out that a reader must search a long text printed in 10-point font to even find out where the meeting will be held. He says that if the private sector did it this way the notice would be simple and inviting.

Public Space – He uses billboards and other outdoor advertising as examples of public space to make the point that whoever has the most money gets the biggest and loudest signs. Public space is therefore almost always about commercial ideas or products.

Media — The media play a very important role in how the public perceives its political figures and the issues that are brought to the forefront. He says that the problem with the media is that it focuses more on scandals and celebrity than on real issues. He used examples of how magazine and newspaper articles would refer readers to websites and local contacts when the subject was commercial, but if the articles dealt with community issues there was no listing of contact information or websites. He says that the media, “… reinforces the idea that politics is a spectator sport.”

Heroes – Meslin begins this portion of his talk by showing a list of the top general audience and children’s movies.  He says that what they all have in common is that the hero is someone who is “chosen” by someone else, and that the hero receives the message that he or she is told that they are to be a hero. The problem with this is that it sends the message that the average person is not to get involved in a heroic effort unless he is ordained to do so by someone else. Thus, popular movie culture doesn’t encourage the idea that leadership comes from within, and is about following one’s own dreams uninvited, and then working with others to make those dreams come true.

Political Parties – Although Meslin really “disses” the political parties in Canada, some of what he says has relevance to any democracy or republic. He says that political parties should be the basic entry point for someone who wants to get involved in the political process, but instead they do just the opposite because they rely on polling and focus groups to “regurgitate”  what people say. He would have them be the catalyst to generate new and bold ideas for solving public problems.

Charitable Status – In Canada, as is generally the case in the United States, charities are forbidden to become involved in politics and to endorse candidates. He says that many of the people who are involved in charities are passionate people, and should be able to voice their political views through their charities.

Elections – Again, he is referring to elections in Canada, but there is some relevance to elections in the United States. In many cases, elections are poorly run and inconvenient for voters. In the United States, there are often qualifying deadlines that are months prior to the actual elections, which causes potential candidates not to run.

Meslin concludes by issuing a call to action to identify obstacles to civic engagement, and then to dismantle those obstacles. His talk can be found online at www.ted.com.  Enter “Dave Meslin” in the search box.

Although this writer has a few contrasting views on some of his points, his talk is well worth watching and discussing.  To not do so would be apathetic.

Phil Hardwick is coordinator of capacity development at the John C. Stennis Institute of Government. Contact Hardwick at phil@philhardwick.com.

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