The negative trend in political participation amongst the younger generation has been well publicised in recent years. Though political participation ranges from being a member of a party, attending political rallies, and/or local political debates etc., most of the criticism aimed towards the younger generation is the decline in voter turnout. There is some debate as to what has caused this dramatic decrease, and this essay will explore key arguments made by Aeron Davis, Brian McNair, Jurgen Habermas and Peter Mair, in reference to arguments surrounding apathy towards modern democratic processes, and the influence of media-effects within the new media.
Recent general election figures indicate that ‘…voting and political trust levels are lower than most comparable established democracies’ (Davis, 2010; p.16), with the younger generations being amongst the worst demographics for overall voting turnout. Statistics show that less than half of all 18-24 year olds voted in the last UK general election, and only 54% of those aged between 25-34 year olds (How Britain Voted in 2015, 2015), placing millennials at the bottom of voting polls by age.
These figures have been met with harsh criticism by both the general public and mass media; following the controversial results of the recent EU referendum, younger generations were attacked for voicing any opposition, after Sky Data had released statistics showing that only 36% of 18-24 year olds had actually taken the initiative to vote (Parkinson, 2016). This sparked a trend of attacks against young voters, including belittling and offensive headlines such as: ‘Young people – if you’re so upset by the outcome of the EU referendum, then why didn’t you get out and vote?’ (Rhodes, 2016). Another article goes so far as to describe young voters as ‘lazy youngsters’ (Dunford and Kirk, 2016), further supporting the ongoing narrative that young voters are simply idle and uninterested in current affairs. However, should we not be concerned that the future majority of voters appear completely disengaged from the current political system? Should we not be investigating the reasons behind this apparent apathy?
In reference to the low turnout in young voters during the EU referendum, Hannah Parkinson raises another interesting point in her article about why she believes millennials are not voting; Parkinson argues that the younger generations ‘…do not vote because they feel politicians do nothing for them… But, quite frankly, that is because under the current system, politicians won’t do anything for the people who do not vote.’ (Parkinson, 2016). Here, Parkinson places the responsibility solely in millennials hands, but is this justified? A vicious cycle has been highlighted, whereby it is argued that young people do not vote, as they feel their interests and needs are not reflected in popular democracy, while politicians continue to side-step these issues, in favour of those that will appease those in demographics with higher voting turnouts. This further highlights a wider issue in our political system; Peter Mair argues that the way we elect governing parties leads to short-sighted policies being created, ‘Politicians, by definition, worked only in the short-term, or at least were only capable of committing themselves in the short term…’ (Mair, 2013; p. 4). According to Mair, then, a governing party would invest less time and energy into creating policies that would ensure long-term wellbeing across the board, and invest more into satisfying their stronghold, in order to maintain their party’s govern. This could well lead to disengagement amongst younger voters, who yearn for a change that our government is hesitant to manifest, through fear of losing crucial votes.
Another contributing factor for the low turnout of young voters, is the belief that their vote won’t count. In response to Rhodes provocative ‘Young people – if you’re so upset by the outcome of the EU referendum, then why didn’t you get out and vote?’ article, a disgruntled millennial writes, ‘We voted. We came out. Even if 100% of us had we would have still been outvoted. So we might as well just sit back and let the old decide our future because they obviously know what’s best for us.’ (Rhodes, 2016). Brian McNair writes on this ‘phenomenon’ in An Introduction to Political Communication, he states, ‘…it may be argued that political apathy is an entirely rational, if slightly cynical, response to a political process in which it may appear to the individual citizen that his or her vote does not matter.’ (McNair, 2011; p.21). This further highlights the frustrations of the younger voter, and opposes the belief that they are simply lazy or uninterested in politics, rather that they feel as though their voice will not be heard. Mair further argues that this is down to our outdated model of democracy, which ‘actually discourage[s] mass engagement’ (Mair, 2013; p.8). This might also explain why young voters place less faith in traditional political practices, opting to vote for parties that seem less ‘conventional’ or ‘exclusive’ (Mair, 2013; p.8).
Though political engagement amongst the younger generations is at an all time low, voting statistics for smaller parties, such as the Green Party and UKIP, are amongst some of the highest (How Britain Voted in 2015, 2015). This attempt to breakaway from a Conservative/Labour rule, which has dominated UK politics since the mid 90s, highlights the younger generation’s desire for change, by stepping away from mainstream politics and traditional ideas of the ‘politician’. Mair saturates this distrust down to, ‘…politics as a process often being denigrated or devalued [sic]’ (Mair, 2013; p.3). Mair writes about the phenomenon where even leading politicians have capitalised on this distrust, in order to gain votes; he uses Tony Blair as an example of this, when Blair states, ‘I never grew up as a politician. I don’t feel myself a politician even now.’ (Mair, 2013; p.4). The notion of downgrading other politicians, in order to gain momentum in conventional politics seems quite paradoxical, however it has proven quite effective, and we now often see this narrative played out in party election campaigns; Donald Trump, a politician shrouded in controversy, recently achieved presidency despite having little to no experience in politics. However, the Trump campaign appeared to use this fact as a strength, as opposed to a weakness. Leading up to the US general election, in an interview with CNN, he stated: ‘I’m not a politician – politicians are all talk and no action.’ (Donald Trump: I’m not a Politician, 2016; 00:47 – 00:51secs). Is it any wonder that young voters do not place a great deal of faith in politicians, with hopeful presidents making such statements as this? Arguably, the efforts to distance Trump from the label of politician, and towards such descriptions as businessman or everyman, eventually won him the election. We have also seen the effectiveness of this anti-political method employed in the UK, after businessman-turned-politician Nigel Farage secured over three million votes in the last general election. But what does this say about our overall perception of politicians?
According to the likes of Donald Trump and Nigel Farage, politicians are untrustworthy and out of touch with the needs of the general public, and statics show that the general public would most likely agree with them (Davis, 2010; p.16), but how might this shared, national distrust in politicians have been shaped? Jurgen Habermas argues that the media plays a vital role in how perceptions of politicians are formed; ‘…the political, economical, cultural and technological developments of the press played a fundamental role: the modern conception of an active, reasoning “public”…’ (Goode, 2005; p.5). Here, Habermas argues that mass media, or the fourth estate, function to shape a well-informed public. However, other theorists argue that, as time has gone on, the media seems to place a lot more focus on political mud-slinging, scandal and ‘propaganda’ (Goode, 2005; p.6), as opposed to in-depth critiques of manifestos and party politics. For example, the private affairs of US presidents (Howe, 2016), or UK prime-ministers forgetting their children in pubs (Siddique, 2012), or MPs labelling their party’s Justice Secretary a ‘gossiping drunk’ (Michael Gove a ‘gossiping drunk’ – Boris ally attacks Tory leadership hopeful, 2016).
Brian McNair argues that it is integral for the media to act as a ‘watchdog’ to maintain a healthy, functioning public sphere (McNair, 2011; p.19), however, how far can it be argued that UK media institutions supply ‘quality’ journalism (McNair, 2011; p. 50), and ‘perform the role allotted to them in liberal democratic theory’ (McNair, 2011; p. 21)? McNair further adds that mass media ‘…focus on issues “in Britain, and in other capitalist societies, of “popular”, “tabloid” journalism, not normally associated with the public sphere, such as sex scandals, human interest, and bizarre crime stories”’ (McNair, 2011; p. 49-50). This ‘apolitical’ form of journalism, in turn, ‘encourages “alienation, silence and non-participation” in the political process’ (McNair, 2011; p. 50). Could this attempt to explain the level of apathy found in young voters? According to Jurgen Habermas, journalists must, ‘protect their objectivity, since their value as educators presumes a professional detachment from the issues being analysed’ (McNair, 2011; p. 19). Therefore, mass media messages and information should be unbiased and informative, however, McNair argues that what we now witness is more ‘opinion-articulation’ or ‘opinion-formation’, which he states is accompanied by varying levels of ‘distortion, untruth and sensationalism’ (McNair, 2011; p. 69 – 71).
McNair would argue that media institutions are failing in their role to educate the general population, which has arguably significantly effected how individuals now participate and engage with political practices. There have been many debates surrounding the role that the media plays in influencing the masses, and the degree to which individuals are free and able to interact with these messages (Barker and Petley, 2010; p.65). One who holds an opposing view to McNair is Colin Sparks, who argues that the media-effects debate is too simplistic, and ‘tends to undermine the audiences ability to make sense of events, and hence to think and act rationally.’ (McNair, 2011; p. 50). Pippa Norris somewhat agrees with Sparks, arguing that, ‘media “effects” on audiences are “minimal”, and that those most engaged with politics are also greater news consumers.’ (Davis, 2010; p.152). However, McNair’s arguments also seem to be supported by other academics and theorists, including political scientist Robert Putnam, who guesstimates, ‘that up to 25 per cent of the decline in civic engagement is down to “the effect of electronic entertainment – above all television… and the “TV generation”’ (Davis, 2010; p.152). Various studies also show evidence of media-effects on viewers, such as the Bobo Doll experiment, which exposed children to violent images, in particular of adults acting aggressively with a doll. Researchers found that, after watching these short films, the children would also act aggressively with their dolls when left alone in a room with it (Branston and Stafford, 2010; p.385).
Though McNair focuses his arguments towards print journalism, Aeron Davis introduces a more in-depth analysis of ‘new media use’ (Davis, 2010; p.103) and online media coverage. Davis observes both the internet’s strengths and weaknesses, and how internet journalism has seen, ‘communicative ties between political participants thickening [sic]’ (Davis, 2010; p.109). However, he also observes the draw-backs; he states, ‘First, new media is further hastening the decline of traditional mass mediated public spheres. Second, it is contributing to the exclusionary political “elite discourse networks” that exist in traditional, offline politics.’ (Davis, 2010; p.109). Davis’ first point can be related to McNair’s earlier concern, regarding the quality of political journalism, when he observes popular web-based news companies ‘have all devalued basic news content.’ (Davis, 2010; p.110). Davis argues that online media is ‘reproducing offline tendencies’ (Davis, 2010; p.109); such tendencies can be compared to McNair’s findings in print journalism, where he found incidences of sensationalism, bias and untruths. Davis also comments on the rising trend of ‘“infotainment’ at the expense of ‘“hard” news coverage.’ (Davis, 2010; p.109). As a result of this sensationalism, combined with ‘elite discourse networks’ (Davis, 2010; p.109), Davis concludes that, consequently, ‘ordinary citizens are also becoming further disconnected as a consequence of what is taking place in the newly forming online networks around the political centre.’ (Davis, 2010; p.110). Davis’ second point, regarding elitism, also crosses over with arguments made by McNair and Habermas, who all stress the effects of having an exclusive, agist, classist and sexist political media format.
McNair writes that a fully functioning public sphere also needs a media platform that is accessible to all ages, social classes and genders (McNair, 2011; p. 19). However, Habermas observes how much of the political literature is aimed towards the ‘bourgeoisie’, written by the bourgeoisie (Goode, 2005; p.8), making information inaccessible to those demographics that have not had access to certain levels of education and/or have been excluded from certain elitist social circles. This would then, arguably, cause differing patterns in political participation amongst the various social-classes. McNair observes the emergence of different media institutions, which claim to ‘speak’ for certain social-classes, i.e. The Sun – right-wing, working classes, and The Guardian – left-leaning, middle-classes (McNair, 2011; p. 70), which can be used to illustrate this unspoken, but accepted norm, that social-classes engage with politics differently. According to key arguments made by Davis, Habermas and McNair, this divide could be explained by a combination of certain demographics not feeling as though their wants and needs are reflected in conventional politics, and a faulty functioning public sphere. This exclusion can also be compared to the opposing ways in which different age demographics engage with politics. For example, refer to earlier points made by journalist Hannah Parkinson, whereby she observes, and accepts, how politicians often ignore issues that effect the younger generations, as they do not actively participate in political affairs in the same way as their seniors. This highlights how, though media information is accessible to the younger generation, the relevance of its contents is debatable. Thus, the younger generation is effectively penalised by it’s government, and effectively excluded from political discussion for their apparent non-participation, resulting in further apathy and disengagement.
Aaron Davis argues that disengagement and non-participation found in most ‘mature democracies’ signifies a crisis in politics and communication (Davis, 2010; p.146); he writes that the ‘“journalist/media” crises was the one that came up most consistently with interviewees…’ (Davis, 2010; p.153). Davis argues that the cause of this crises can be due to the quality of the media coverage, which is, ‘…being driven by personalities, scandal and conflicts, rather than policy or investigation.’ (Davis, 2010; p.153). He adds that the current strain on the media industry, where profits are low and continue to drop, most notably in print media, has in turn put strain on journalists, who are under pressure to produce news swiftly within the ‘modern twenty-four-hour news environment’ (Davis, 2010; p.154), which ‘encourages them to cut corners [sic]’ (Davis, 2010; p.155), and favours quantity over quality news. Due to the rapid advances in technology and news coverage, Davis argues that it has also made it more difficult for these mediums to be regulated (Davis, 2010; p.155), indicating that our current political/communicative structures are perhaps out of date, and need re-working under the current political climate. Jurgen Habermas also supports the idea of ‘reforming and renewing’ political institutions, in order to ensure that political writings are ‘inclusive’, and pay close attention to, ‘the ways in which particular groups or individuals are marginalised.’ (Goode, 2005; p.27). This would include the ways in which the younger generations appear to be excluded from political conversations in the media, unless they are being attacked for their apparent complacency and/or ‘laziness’.
In conclusion, though overall turnout amongst all ages appears to show a steady decline, it is the younger generations that have been the most effected. As discussed in this essay, this could be due to the fact that millennials have grown up in a society where global news is accessible at the touch of a button, however, that news paints a sorry picture, whereby politicians are quoted downgrading their peers and political practices, coinciding with the running narrative that politicians are not to be trusted. Evidence of young voters being ‘called out’ and criticised in various news publications also shows how they are somewhat excluded from political conversations by elites, who claim to write for their audience (assuming young voters do not read articles that reference politics). The media, in this way, works to disengage the younger generation, as these messages act to inform the masses that their leaders are not competent enough, nor willing, to implement the changes they would like to see. Political theorists, such as Davis and Habermas, would argue that we should look critically at our political and media structures in order to engage with certain demographics that appear to be excluded. This may include changing the way we regulate online and print media, and even the ways in which we vote.
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