Political participation in a crowded age

Whether we call today the information age, the digital age or the internet age, it is very true that society today has changed radically from the society we saw fifty years ago.

Massive personal access to information, entertainment and communication means this is the crowded age – every person has a plethora of choices and can individually decide what they watch, read, create or participate in.

I’ve been reading an interesting thread in the Australian Public Policy LinkedIn group discussing the lack of young people involved in politics, the falling level of participation in political parties and the impacts this is likely to have on our society in the future.

Named Where’s the young blood?, the thread has seen a great deal of interesting and considered views on the topic.

I thought it would be useful to share my thoughts on this topic in my blog, as well as in the thread, as below as I believe this shift is a consequence of our increasingly digital world and will have a profound impact on the depth and professionalism of Australia’s political leadership over the next twenty years.

My say:

Falling political party memberships is not a unique thing – it should be considered in the broader context of falling participation in all kinds of voluntary organisational activities.

And this is a symptom of wider social change – people have more engagement and entertainment options than in the past.

Thirty years ago the choices for what active minds did in the evening or weekend was more limited, so active participation in political parties (or unions) was a more common choice – it brought like-minded people together to share their dreams and visions, to socialise and form tribes.

People today form these social bonds in different ways, but still form them. Hence the old political party ‘branch’ where people attend every Wednesday night with cupcakes and a readiness to debate, discuss and romance, is no longer as attractive as it once was.

By and large political parties in Australia have failed to modify their membership and participation model to remain relevant to people aged 40 or under – which is why we see a vast underrepresentation of young people in political party memberships, and much lower participation and engagement from most who still sign up.

This isn’t solely due to parties being led by older people, steeped in ye olden days, or due to the fact that the lower participation actually suits some active young people as they have less competition for attention and position in political parties. It is also a function of the legal framework in Australia around how such organisations must be formed and registered, and the traditions these organisations have built over a hundred or more years.

There is little radical innovation in party structures to find one which will work for present-day society, and as a result the political party tree is dying from the roots up.

One of the implications is much poorer representation for Australians. Political parties used to be testbeds for peoples’ ideologies – challenging them to think, consider, test and assess their ideas in the light of broader views. Politicians who emerged from this after a ten or twenty year ‘apprenticeship’ in party positions were professional, broadminded and good at their jobs – sound in their own thinking, committed to the public good (whatever their ideological view of ‘public good’ was).

As membership numbers have fallen and people have had to be fast-tracked into political office without these long apprenticeships, we’ve seen a focus on the popular and less commitment to specific ideological viewpoints. While this has its benefits, it also has many disadvantages – less tested views, a lower commitment to the public good and more commitment to self-entitlements and promotion.

While the long apprenticeship approach had its flaws, creating more group-think and less ideological flexibility, with politicians ground in the values of their youth, it also had many advantages in terms of a professional political ‘class’, politicians with broader exposure to views and to what worked or didn’t work in practice.

We are losing these advantages as people are increasingly entering politics with less party grounding, and as we are drawing from a thinner and thinner (and more incestuous) talent pool.

How do we reframe politics for the modern day? That’s yet to be seen.

In twenty years we might employ politicians like corporate managers in order to attract professional and more objective individuals to these jobs, with citizens being shareholders in massive corporate states.

Or we might see a massive change in how politicians operate, having online ‘brains trusts’ of thousands of citizens, who are selected, like juries, to contribute to selected decisions via algorithms, picking how their representative should vote using their always-on mobile devices and have the politicians be merely a proxy votes in a more direct democratic model.

We may even see political parties reinvent themselves for a modern age, potentially the most unlikely option!

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