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Electoral apathy, or merely disillusionment?

The de-politicisation of the economy leaves people feeling that their votes don't matter. Sometimes, they're right.

Indifference to electoral politics is widespread in Ireland. Party membership is declining and increased volatility in opinion polls demonstrates that voters are less likely than in the past to commit to a party and stick with that support.

Ireland is not unique. Globally, average voter turnout has dropped 10% over the last 25 years. The ascent to power of more authoritarian governments (Hungary, Poland – arguably Spain) and the growing popularity of the far-right (France, Germany, the Netherlands) are worrying. Also of concern is that in Europe the proportion of voters who deem it essential that we live in a democracy has drastically fallen, and is particularly low among younger people; of whom, in a 2016 study, only 36 per cent agreed that a military takeover could never be legitimate.

Leaving aside the declining belief some Europeans have in democracy, what accounts for the increase in voter apathy? Social position is a major determinant of the likelihood to vote. In Ireland, middle-class people are much more likely to vote than working class people, and older rather then younger. In Europe, studies have shown that unemployment and welfare dependence are strong and increasing indicators of a reduced tendency to vote.

The Same-Sex Marriage Referendum reversed the trend in low turnouts, with increased turnout amongst younger voters and the working class. Outside of Ireland, the referendum on Scottish independence recorded an 85% turnout and led to a surge in membership for the Scottish National Party.

What both examples show is that when there is a clear choice to be made where the outcome will make a significant difference then political apathy dissipates. It is probable too that the reverse is true; that the increasing numbers of people not interested in politics are being driven away by the fact that they believe the outcome of elections has little relevance to their day-to-day lives. In Ireland, where the two dominant parties have very few substantive differences, voters have faced election after election – including through boom and bust – in which the people and parties in power changes but the policies don’t. Not surprisingly, studies have shown that nonvoters in Ireland are more likely than voters to believe that it makes no real difference to which party is in government.

Who is in power now is of less importance than in the past. Economics is now largely determined by the dynamics of global capitalism. But there are international- legal constraints too. For example, under the terms of the Fiscal Compact, our government cannot engage in countercyclical policies such as increased social spending or taxation during recessions, at least until debt levels reach a low of 60% of GDP. In the postwar era, control of the money supply to facilitate increased employment or growth was a basic function of the State. Today, Central Bank functions are largely carried out by the ECB.

The result is the depoliticisation of the economy. In Ireland, these limits were revealed when ECB President Jean-Claude Trichet and US Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner both blocked the imposition of losses on bank bondholders. The message was clear; what voters desired was less important than what international financial markets and the institutions that support them wanted.

So, there is some truth in the non-voters’ belief that voting makes little difference. Indeed, it may be more appropriate to describe the lack of political engagement as disillusionment rather than as apathy. This disillusionment is a self-fulfilling prophesy; people become less likely to vote because they see little benefit accruing to them regardless of the outcome of elections. In turn, they are less likely to see benefits than the socioeconomic classes more likely to vote.

Resource allocation is, however, still crucial, even in a hamstrung democracy. Decisions taken – or not taken – in this month’s budget will have real life impacts on the material conditions of citizens.

The late political scientist Peter Mair argued that democracy is being “hollowed out” and now equates merely to “audience democracy”. The argument here is that the democracy of resource redistribution and mass participation has been reduced to a combination of the management of state institutions and a form of public entertainment for the middle and upper classes.

Reacting to this there has been a return to the populist politics of the street – from Marriage Equality through the water protests to the Repeal the 8th movement.

There is, however, a danger that the politically disillusioned engage, but in a way that threatens whatever remnants of democracy we have left. This is arguably what is occurring in mainland Europe. In Germany, for example, one reason for the recent historic breakthrough of the far-right AfD is the fact that they attracted 1.2 million people who had never before voted. We are yet to see the politically disillusioned in Ireland turn to forces that could undermine our democracy. However, in a country with declining political participation, limited government desire or scope to improve the conditions of lower socio-economic classes, PR-driven politicians should not be complacent about the potential for the emergence of more sinister types of anti-establishment movement.

Zack Breslin is News Editor at The Scum Gentry Alternative Arts and Media, an online publishing and promotional network devoted to alternative, outsider and independent arts, news and media.