Why young people are disengaged with politics

Last fall, I went to a public lecture in Brian Mulroney Hall, given by Jeffrey Simpson. He’s a 65-year-old national affairs columnist for the Globe and Mail. He talked about political conversations he had over the years with former prime ministers in front of 60 sleepy-eyed students and professors. About halfway through his lecture, he asked us, “Why is it that young people don’t vote?”

(Andrea Bárcenas/AQ)
(Andrea Bárcenas/AQ)

As a student who had never voted, I knew the answer right away: “The reason why young people don’t vote is because we don’t know much about politics at all –” Right at that moment, he cut me off. “What is it that you don’t understand?” he asked. “Well, the basics,” I said.

“Like the ethics?” And that’s when I heard it. From the back of the room, a loud and annoyed voice shouted, “For Godsakes read a book.”

Some people giggled and laughed and even clapped. I turned around to see who it was. All I could see were the blank stares on everyone’s face. Some people avoided eye contact. Even the people sitting beside me didn’t say a word. “I’m a smart person,” I yelled back.

Simpson just stood there, ignoring the comment. He carried on with the lecture as if nothing happened.

That pissed me off more than the actual comment. From that moment on, I have no idea what Jeffrey Simpson said. I sat there, shaking, lips clenched as I sunk into my seat.

When it was over, I didn’t clap. I ran across the upper courtyard to my next class in Margaret McCain. Of course, my next class was my politics of communications class. Many of the students were political science majors, and I was scared because I thought they were the ones who laughed at me. The professor of that class actually congratulated me for speaking up during the lecture, and I got a round of applause from my peers.

This whole thing made me realize something when it comes to youth and politics. Politics is a subject reserved for a special class of people. If you aren’t brought up in a family who has voted, or you don’t know how the voting system works, then you are out of the loop.

The people who study it, and the people involved in it, don’t want simple questions to be asked, and they don’t want to break it down for the entire public either. If you want to know about politics, you have to do it yourself.

Young people today are not used to doing things for themselves. They aren’t even used to reading regular-sized articles. So if New Brunswick politicians, political science professors and others who are deeply involved or infatuated with politics expect us to understand the subject at a basic level, they better begin answering those simple questions and breaking it down for us to understand, or at least accept that it’s a complicated.

What is a party? How does voting work? What’s the role of an MLA? What does the Governor-General do? The biggest issue with politics isn’t about fracking or pensions or abortion. The biggest issue is that we as citizens of New Brunswick and Canada have the right to vote, but not all of us are voting. In fact, a large percentage of us aren’t.

The newest generation of voters aren’t going to the polls because they don’t understand what’s going on, or they don’t care. And a lot of the young people who are voting are only doing so because we’re told it’s good to vote. In order for this to change, politics needs to be taught in high school, just like it was before. It needs to be an open conversation that includes everyone.

And by the way, days after the incident at the Jeffrey Simpson lecture, I found out who yelled the famous “for Godsakes read a book” comment. It was a political science professor. He apologized to me by email.

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