Apathy & Oligarchy in the Public Sphere


Photo courtesy of Filippo Minelli.

This post is part of a serialized collection of chapters composing my recently completed Master’s of Education degree at the University of Victoria. You can access the other chapters on this site here, and access a pdf of the completed paper on the University of Victoria library space here

Two forces at work in North American society at the outset of the 21st century present a troubling prospect for those considering the citizenship education of Canadian youth in an era of digital shock: those of apathy and oligarchy. Research into both the perceived and actual influence of individuals on the political process reveals a body politic that is, even if motivated to effect political change, ill-inspired to participate in the process of electoral politics (Howe, 2007). In the era of the Occupy Wall Street movement (Calhoun, 2013), carbon divestment campaigns at major North American universities (McKibben, 2013), and public demonstrations against austerity measures implemented across Europe (Della Porta, 2015), young people demonstrate signs of being politically engaged and do act in political ways (MacKinnon, Pitre, & Watling, 2007, p. 5). However, in North American contexts, these trends fail to affect significant political change due to downward voting trends and the rise of an influential financial and media elite.

While it acknowledges that “Participating in elections is the essential starting point of any democratic system,” Elections Canada’s own working paper on the Electoral Participation of Young Canadians (Howe, 2007, p. 5) cites a characterization of the nation’s youth as “political dropouts,” building on the dour findings of Ottilia Chareka and Alan Sears (2015) that even though “Youth understand voting as a key element of democratic governance, a hard won democratic right, and a duty of democratic citizenship […], most indicate they do not plan to vote because voting does not make a difference” (p. 521). The paper notes that despite being politically inactive when it comes to voting habits, young Canadians are more inclined toward other forms of political engagement – political rallies, demonstrations, or public awareness campaigns and petitions – that offer encouraging signs that positive change may be possible. McKinnon, Pitre, and Watling (2007) similarly observe that “youth have tended to reframe engagement in more individual and less institutional terms” (p. iii), which may create a more engaged voting block as the millennial generation comes of age.

In the meantime however, available data presents a troubling landscape. Drawing on Election Canada Studies (1997, 2000, 2004, 2006, and 2008), Blais and Loewen (2011) note that “[voter] turnout decline is a long-term phenomenon” and “that this trend is not unique to Canada” (p. 13). The authors observe that “At least two-thirds of new voters would cast a ballot in the 1960s; by 2004 it was about one third” (p. 12), and explore different possibilities leading to such a declining interest in voting, ranging from gender, to marital status, to socioeconomic class and religious affiliation, finding inconclusive data to support a case that any of these factors in isolation could prove the cause of the trend. Similarly, the political contexts affecting youth attitudes toward the democratic process – the tone of campaigns or partisan advertising, the competitiveness of electoral contests, or narrow interests represented by national political parties – fail to yield a singular cause of disenchantment among youth voters. However, “There is ample evidence that the attitudes and values of recent generations are different from those of their predecessors and that this change is in good part responsible for the recent turnout decline” (p. 18).

This disinterest in the franchise of voting itself threatens to amplify the trend Gilens and Page (2014) identify in the United States wherein the political economy has been transformed into (or returned to) an oligarchy, where “mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence” (p. 565). “When a majority of citizens disagrees with economic elites or with organized interests,” they write, “they generally lose” (p. 576). While many are quick to champion the levelling or democratisation that digital tools have brought the global public sphere (see subsequent sections of Literature Review), recent trends in the privatisation of educational resources (Ball, Thrupp, & Forsey, 2010), the revelation of corporate cooperation with government surveillance (Lee, 2013), and the strident defense of private intellectual property that might otherwise benefit the common good (May, 2013) are less inspiring.

Habermas (1991) describes the rise of the period leading to the establishment of our modern democratic institutions as having created the bourgeois public sphere, where “for the first time in history, individuals and groups could shape public opinion, giving direct expression to their needs and interests while influencing political practice” (Kellner, 2000, p. 263). However, the course of Habermas’ Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere (1991) charts “the path from a public critically reflecting on its culture to one that merely consumes it” (p. 175), which aptly describes the findings of the previous paragraph. Kellner notes, however, that “Habermas offered tentative proposals to revitalize the public sphere by setting ‘in motion a critical process of public communication through the very organizations that mediatize it (1989a, p. 232)” (p. 65), a sentiment which underlies the motivation for this project to explore the role that the experimentation with and the discovery of one’s voice within digital spaces might play in the citizenship development of young people, as well as the reclamation of the public sphere.

Indeed, a 2007 synthesis report of the Canadian Policy Research Networks series of papers, entitled “Charting the Course for Youth Civic and Political Participation,” cites schools, “and, more precisely, civics or citizenship education – both in content and pedagogy – as being both a significant cause of and solution for declining political knowledge and skills” (MacKinnon et al., 2007, p. 15). The authors note that “educational institutions, governments, political parties, politicians, the community sector and youth themselves” must collectively engage in the process of citizenship learning, a dynamic process which is not simply an act of “transferring knowledge from one generation to another – rather, it is about embracing youth as co-creators and partners in renewing civil and democratic life in Canada” (p. vi). In concert with the critical framework for citizenship learning outlined here, the report stresses that,

As young people reflect on their civic and political roles, it is clear that many of them must first find their own identity as a Canadian[.] They need opportunities to practice being a citizen – through discussion and debate, at home, in schools and in their own and broader communities. (p. vi)