I’ve had more than a passing interest in politics for many years now and I’ve always believed that young people need to engage and be engaged in the larger political discourse. I believe that the main instrument of youth participation within Ireland’s political parties, the youth wing, is actually counter-intuitive and counter-productive and that young people and young voters shouldn’t be patronised into engagement – they should just be shown the relevancy and left to decide from there.
Based on that I believe that Ireland’s Rock The Vote campaign has been a complete and undeniable failure.
The campaign’s intention was to encourage young people to vote, which is very noble, but while attempting to reach that goal the organisation took the same tired route as all the political parties do when they’re pretending to be youth-friendly too.
Just like some hacked Hot Press interview in which a politician removes his tie, lists off his favourite bands and reminisces about the time he thought he saw someone smoke “the pot” in his general vicinity, Rock The Vote offers the kind of well packaged political candy-floss that looks impressive but contains nothing real.
Sure, the campaign has shown people how they can go about voting. It’s shown people who they can chose from when casting their vote. It has shown them when they’ll need to cast their vote. It has even shown them where they’ll need to do it. Unfortunately it has failed to tackle one question which when left unanswered renders all else irrelevant – “why?”
Rather than discuss the issues, inspire debate, highlight relevancy or encourage engagement Rock The Vote has given us silly hand-symbols, minor celebrities, a meaningless catchphrase and a series of humourless, apolitical skits called “Frazier Fraze”, which dedicate more time to discussions on Westlife and Boyzone than on anything of any remote substance.
The reality of youth apathy is that young people have plenty of political opinions and concerns, they simply may not look at them in that way.
Where the political importance of stamp duty, income tax, transportation policy and crime issues are all too apparent for someone with a career, home and family they can seem far more obscure to someone whom has no immediate plan beyond the length of their college course and whom just earns money to keep themselves going from week-to-week.
When the relevance of the political system is clear to them, however, they can become the most vocal and active people in the country. Just look at the reaction Noel Dempsey’s plans to re-introduce college fees in 2002, or the massive protest against the Iraq War in 2003, or ask any young person for their opinion on the US Army’s use of Shannon Airport or issues of road safety. These kinds of instances show that ignorance is not the problem, just a failure to find relevance in everything.
But the reality is that the current lack of youth participation is fine for most political parties. Having such an unaccountable minority out of the picture makes things far easier and besides, apathy of any kind isn’t a problem as long as they can get through to the ones who are going to vote.
Young people simply cannot sit and wait for politicians to come to them with appealing legislation and the failure of young people to organise any kind of effective lobby has meant that there is no need amongst politicians to take any heed of young people’s concerns. What is needed is an organisation that brings the debate to young people, shows them what effect politics has on their lives, the effect it will have on their future and that bridges the mental gap people may have between what concerns them and what they can do about it.
The problem with Rock The Vote is that it fails to engage and instead ends up patronising young people. It’s campaign assumes that young people need to have everything dumbed down in order for them to become politically aware. It assumes that some celebrity credibility is all that is needed to turn youth apathy into activism. It assumes that young people need to be told something is cool before theyâ€™ll bother themselves to do it. It assumes young people are too thick to be engaged in a real debate.
Worst of all it skips over the actual issues and gives young people nothing in terms of a real reason to vote.
To put it simply, all Rock The Vote says is â€œyou should voteâ€ and thatâ€™s not a message anyone should have to tolerate in isolation. For example, what would your reaction be if a politician knocked on your door and said â€œvote for meâ€? Iâ€™d bet the first thing youâ€™d say to them is â€œwhy?â€ because you sure as hell wouldn’t just accept their insistence and act on it obediently.
Maybe when the next election comes around we’ll have an organisation that tries to do this and aims to engage rather than dictate – I’ll certainly be looking to organise or get involved in one if I can.