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America's Scary Non-Voters

And the alarm they raise for Canadians.

By Barbara McLintock 17 May 2006 | TheTyee.ca

Barbara McLintock, a regular contributor to The Tyee, is a freelance writer and consultant based in Victoria and author of Anorexia’s Fallen Angel.

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Call them Democrats vs Republicans in the U.S., or New Democrats vs Conservatives here in Canada. Ask any random sample of citizens, and the answer would almost certainly be the same: voters for these parties are representative of big divides in the key values of our society. Those who believe in the same values as George W. Bush don't share many values with those who voted for John Kerry. Someone who enthusiastically endorsed Stephen Harper couldn't be further from someone who worked to get Jack Layton New Democrats elected.

Now a massive public opinion poll conducted in the U.S. shows that those traditional beliefs don't hold true any more – and the key differences in values in American society are much scarier than those between Democrat and Republican supporters. The poll was undertaken by the highly-respected polling company, Environics, and the results are published in a new book, American Backlash, written by the polling firm's Canadian president, Michael Adams.

The key finding of the poll, which surveyed more than 8,000 citizens in four waves from 1992 through 2004, is that the differences between Democrats and Republicans are small indeed compared with the gulf that divides those who vote and participate in the democratic process, and those who do not. The values divide gets even bigger when one looks at the values of the politically involved with the thousands of young adults who appear to have become so disenchanted by the political process that they are completely alienated from political activity in any form.

In the last elections in Canada, numerous pundits have decried the lack of interest among young voters in participating in the process. However, the Environics poll shows that this lack of interest is not going to be easily cured, because it is a symptom and not a cause in and of itself.

Types of non-voters

The poll did not consider only what citizens thought about issues like gay marriage or taxation policy or welfare reform. Instead, it used more than 600 questions to drill down to try to discern the deeper values that led to someone's beliefs on those controversial issues. The questions asked not only about the respondents' views on politics and political life, but their views on consumerism, on environmental issues, on multiculturalism, even on beliefs in the supernatural.

The analysis of the results then focused on the question of which values most drove: those who voted Republican, those who voted Democrat, and those who didn't vote at all. It was the values of those who didn't vote – the "politically disengaged" as the study calls them – which were growing fastest over the past decade.

The values, they found, fell into three categories – none of which would appear to be much cause for optimism for those looking at the future of the democratic state. The three: Risk-taking and thrill-seeking; Darwinism and exclusion; and, consumption and status-seeking.

The non-voters appear particularly attracted to things that give them "strong jolts of sensation" – extreme sports, gambling, realistic video games, and psychotropic drugs. None of these are likely to encourage people to make good judgments about their own lives – or about what should happen in their communities or the larger society.

Darwinism on the rise

Even more worrying, however, is the rise in the values that Adams categorizes as "Darwinism and exclusion." Those who embrace these values, he writes, demonstrate "a mindset that sees brutal competition as a natural, exhilarating, and even cleansing condition for human coexistence …a dog-eat-dog world in which winners win by any means necessary, including violence, and losers get what they deserve – and are unworthy of sympathy or help."

In fact, the single fastest-growing value in the U.S. over the 12 years covered by the study was "acceptance of violence." It, and those values that support it, are certainly not the dominant values among American citizens at this time – but they are the values that are growing in acceptance faster than any others. And they are growing fastest among young people. When those aged 15 to 20 were asked to agree or disagree with the statement, "It's acceptable to use physical force to get something you really want," a full 38 per cent agreed. These values are also espoused by much higher numbers of the politically disengaged than by either Republicans and Democrats.

The over-all conclusion, Adams suggests, is that Republicans and Democrats both believe in the same over-arching vision. They believe that the state is a valuable tool to improve life for all citizens, that citizens have a responsibility to their community and to the larger society, and that the democratic process will lead to the best possible outcome for the largest possible number of citizens. They disagree, in fact, only on the details – the details of how much the state should provide help to the poor or tax relief to businesses, how much and what sort of aid should be given to developing countries, how far changes should go to guarantee principles like gender equity and equal treatment for immigrants.

Haters of politics

The politically disaffected, on the other hand, do not share this vision. They see political life as corrupt or ineffective or both, and have become convinced that the only person you can or should depend upon is yourself in this "survival of the fittest" culture.

The Environics poll did not study the responses of any Canadians, nor does it purport to be expressing Canadian views. At least until the latest federal election, it argues, Canada's values, like those of Western Europe, appeared to be moving in the direction of greater tolerance and acceptance of differences.

That may be changing with the new agenda brought in by Harper's Conservatives. And there's no question that the proportion of young adults interested in voting is decreasing with every election that comes around.

But perhaps the question is not just how to persuade young adults to vote, but how to persuade them that voting is part of a system of community that is worth working for, as well as voting for.

American Backlash: The Untold Story of Social Change in the United States by Michael Adams is published by Viking Canada.

Barbara McLintock is a contributing editor to The Tyee.  [Tyee]

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