Thursday 13 March 2014

Thoughts on Negative Politics and Youth Participation

Recently, the majority of political news has been centered around secret trusts, undeclared donations, conflicts of interest, withheld information, and other non-policy issues. I find these sorts of stories very frustrating, because they don't lead to any progress on the issues that face our country or people every day. They're political attacks focused on individual politicians (whether from the opposing party or from the media), in an attempt to discredit the candidate. They attempt to influence voters minds and opinions of a candidate by making them a less attractive option at the voting booth. And while we will never be able to completely stop this, to me it highlights one of the biggest problems with politics.

The stereotype is that youth don't vote because they don't care about politics or what is happening around them. I mostly reject that premise; in my interactions with other young people everyone generally has a sense of what is going on, they understand what the issues facing the country are, and they usually have some ideas for how to fix it themselves as well. They might not know who all the MPs are or what political parties there are, but they want the country to continue to improve and become a better place in the future.

I think the youth vote makes the difference in the average NZ election - the majority of the rest of the population (>80%) votes, but they're also more likely to have developed their opinions to the extent that they are one a particular side of the political spectrum. Youth are, by and large, undecided swing voters. There are plenty of youth in political movements, but a lot of others don't necessarily have an opinion on which party they would vote for if they did turn up. This is why it's important for political parties to work at getting youth voters, because that's where the biggest gains can be made and is the smart place to invest their effort and resources. Once young people's opinions are shaped and formed, they're unlikely to change significantly in the future. They might switch parties but in general they stick to the same ideological side. There's a parallel with business marketing; banks know that people tend to stay with the same bank for their entire life, and hence make a huge effort to attract students with packages that probably cost the bank money in the short term, but will lead to life-long customers.

Research in the US shows that negative campaign ads can be effective in moderation, but a big part of the advertising environment in New Zealand is that we don't really have negative marketing in general. The most companies will do is say that they're "better than competitors" but fall short of naming those competitors with concrete examples, and this is encouraged in the Advertising Standards Authority codes. This a huge contrast with politics - there's mud slinging all the time and politicians are constantly taking pot shots at each other. It's more abrasive, and young people mostly don't like it very much. Parties try to make themselves electable based on policy, but there's just as much trying to make other parties unelectable by making them as unattractive as possible. It's something that we can't really take out of politics, but it hampers parties' abilities to attract young people to join their forces because conflict isn't attractive.

Political parties at the moment mostly try to get the youth vote mostly by trying to pander to them with policies that they think young people will agree with, such as interest-free student loans or alcohol/marijuana (de)regulation; things that (they think) young people care about right now in the short term. But for politics to be attractive to young people, it's more about changing the image of politics so that it's more positively framed, and making young people feel truly empowered and that their vote actually matters. Part of it is about making young people understand that voting isn't the only way they can influence the governance process as well - whether that's through select committee submissions, contacting their MPs, or otherwise, getting buy-in into the political system is how to get young people to participate and (at least) vote. 

Doing this doesn't necessarily encourage someone to vote for a particular party, it just gets them to vote at all, and that isn't necessarily a very good incentive for political parties to be part of that movement. In the US there is a definite bias among young people to be more left-wing, more in favour of the Democratic party, so it works in their favour to "get out the vote", but in NZ we seem to have a pretty even spread among young people, so there's always a chance that if you're Labour and encouraging an undecided to vote that they'll end up voting for National. It's also a matter of priorities for the parties - they don't have an infinite amount of effort and resources, so they have to choose their markets.

But at the end of the day, I feel that the negative politics hurts the overall image of NZ politics more than it helps, and this pushes prospective voters away. People like a good sledge now and again, but not when it is constantly in the news all the time. Pointing out the flaws of policies is important, but character assassinations are not. Phrasing politics more positively, focusing on policy, and playing the argument not the man (or woman) is critical to convincing more New Zealanders, particularly young New Zealanders, to head to the polls and make an informed, justified decision.

Meanwhile, from Vectorbelly:

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