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When Citizens Check Out of Politics

Turned off by divisiveness and partisanship, some people are disengaging. Older people are among them, and that's a particular problem for cities.

(AP/Richard Drew)
We hear a lot about how today's divisive and contentious politics are sparking a surge of engagement with public affairs, as evidenced by mass marches and demonstrations, tumultuous town hall meetings and packed campaign events. But, there is another side to the story.

While some citizens seem more fired up than ever, there is growing anecdotal evidence that others have reached a point of overload. Some candidates for office are reporting that when they knock on doors, more people are just not interested in their message. Period. Doesn't matter the party, doesn't matter the message -- just no, thank you.

A particularly troubling aspect of this is that among those who seem to be checking out of the political process are a lot of people in their 60s and 70s. That's surprising, given that older people have historically been the demographic that is most engaged in civic life.

Probing those attitudes reveals a deep disappointment with politics today. Many people feel profoundly let down by politicians, politics, and legislative partisanship and gridlock. They are beginning to decline to participate -- or even vote -- because often they feel they have no one to vote for. In simple terms, they are disengaging from the talk, hype, shouting, dysfunction, rudeness, anger and untruths that abound in the political system today.

I spoke with a very smart woman who recently entered her 60s. She was raised, as were most in her age group, to be an engaged citizen: to vote, to participate, to pay their taxes trusting that the money would generally be well spent, to assist their neighbors and give back to their communities. Today, she told me, "I'm starting to say no. I just don't trust any of them."

It's safe to say that social media and its rabid partisanship may be part of the problem. A survey last year, conducted by Radius Global Market Research for the health-care website CareDash, revealed that 39 percent of Americans were avoiding social media to reduce their anxiety because of political ... stuff. And in the wake of the Facebook/Cambridge Analytica revelations, Maclean's magazine cited an Angus Reid Institute survey in reporting that "Canadians are three times more likely to believe Facebook has a negative influence on politics and public discourse than to think its impact is positive."

If this civic disengagement becomes a more predominant trend, it has profound implications -- particularly for local governments. The participation in community life by local residents is perhaps the greatest point of differentiation among the various levels of government. "Municipalities are the order of government closest to their people" has been a rallying cry of mayors and city council members for decades. And they have been correct.

But what if that is beginning to break down? What if a generation of people who have had enormous influence in the system for decades -- the baby boomers -- is beginning to tune out and turn off, to borrow a phrase from the Sixties?

These are people who have stepped forward and served on local library boards and parks commissions, run kids' soccer and baseball leagues, contributed to local cultural organizations, often been active in local politics and have otherwise served their communities with distinction.

Society today needs greater participation not only by older citizens but also by minority groups, young people, by women, by people of differing cultural and social beliefs. That almost always starts with civic and community involvement.

Local governments must reach out more to engage their citizens of all ages and re-connect with their residents. That means many things, including developing urban environments into safer and friendlier public spaces to encourage public use. It means supporting a growing and mostly ignored segment of our society: single seniors living alone. It means going back to the basics in our schools to teach civics, so kids understand their role in the community.

And we need politicians to understand this new reality. They need to reconnect with people. They need to understand that their conduct and comments are too often inflammatory and hurtful. Many parents won't let their kids watch the news anymore.

We need honest and truthful reporting by the media of honest and truthful comments by politicians. We need relief from the daily drumbeat of scandal and to what Maclean's referred to as social media's "near-apocalyptic vitriol."

The signs we are seeing of disengagement from politics and community life are an early warning signal. Smart cities and smart leaders will respond.

A commentator and author on municipal government and community issues
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