Jim O'Brien: Voter apathy is a symptom of our broken politics

Residents on remote Atlantic islands off the coasts of Donegal, Galway and Mayo cast their votes a day early (Niall Carson/PA)
Residents on remote Atlantic islands off the coasts of Donegal, Galway and Mayo cast their votes a day early (Niall Carson/PA)
Jim O'Brien

Jim O'Brien

Last week, I was talking to someone who spent time canvassing during the recent elections. She was amazed at how many door-knocks went unanswered. What was more gobsmacking was the number of houses where the residents were clearly at home, but wouldn't open the door to canvassers.

Perhaps these people are perfectly happy with things as they are and have no need to engage with the political process. On the other hand, maybe they are so disillusioned they couldn't be bothered, and then again, maybe they just don't want to know.

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I doubt if my first conjecture is accurate - contentment and happiness are not the conditions of our age. However, if the other two suggestions are in any way accurate, then our democracy is ill and needs fixing.

Indeed, democracy across the world is in bad need of repair and reimagining; otherwise its tired remains will be seized upon by sinister interests as a macabre stepping stone for their own ends.

There is clear evidence of that throughout Europe. A less than enthusiastic engagement with civic and public life is leaving swathes of territory open to people fired up about their own agendas, many of which are narrow and vile.

It is vital that people are engaged and involved in the electoral process. This involvement means more than turning up at the polling station on election day; it means engaging in ordinary democratic life between elections.

In my local electoral area, for some reason the various parties and candidates agreed to eschew the use of posters, leaving poles, piers and grass margins free of smiling faces looking for 'the No 1'.

This 'ban' meant that there was scant collective awareness of the Euro and local elections in this locality. The absence of these electoral visuals had a detrimental effect on the exercise of democracy around here.

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Elections don't happen too often, and a key element of any campaign is the colour, the pageantry and the 'gallery' attached to the events. The colourful bit to the electoral process is often a gateway into engagement with the issues and an introduction to the candidates.

A poster might just tempt someone to google the candidate or look up the party policies to find out more. This kind of research will ultimately lead to a more informed electorate, a better political process and more meaningful political choices.

A lot of po-faced nonsense goes on in relation to election posters and election literature.

Political campaigns last about three weeks to a month - they don't happen very often and are a vital part in the process of how we keep ourselves together as a society.

They may interfere with the occasional hanging basket and temporarily alter the aesthetics of town and country, but if they encourage people to engage in their political system, then they are worth it.

Besides, there are very strict local authority regulations surrounding posters, in terms of when they are to be put up and when they are to be taken down. There are heavy fines, charged per poster, for any carelessness in this regard - believe me, I know only too well.

One of the big concerns in democracies at the moment is rising interference in the democratic process by nefarious forces attempting to skew election results.

Forces domestic and foreign are using data garnered from social media to target people with fake news and, in some cases, are interfering directly with electronic voting systems.

While this is all very worrying and is rightly occupying governments and security services, in many of the more established democracies, the bigger enemy is disengagement and apathy.

The yawn factor leaves the door open to all kinds of interests that are happy to fill the vacuum left by apathy. It might be too late when we wake up and realise that while we were lost in the last episode of Game Of Thrones, the game of life was going on all around us and our world has taken a shape that many of us might not want.

As a journalist, one is expected to stay out of party politics. One can have one's leanings but cannot be seen to have a vested interest. At times, this is very frustrating. As a commentator, I find myself increasingly despondent about the world and the capacity to alter the destructive trajectory on which we appear to have put ourselves.

In these times of instant information and constant news, one would expect people to become more engaged in public and civic affairs. On the contrary, I see them retreat behind their farm gates and their front doors or sink their faces into their phone screens.

I recently read the summary of a work by Hannah Arendt, a German-born scholar, philosopher and writer. As a Jewish refugee from the Nazi regime, she escaped a forced march between camps in France and found her way to the US, becoming the first woman appointed a full professor at Princeton University.

One of Arendt's earlier books, The Origins of Totalitarianism, makes for instructive reading for these early decades of the new millennium. She traces the prejudices and myths that led to the near collapse of democracy and WWII. She says that when totalitarianism takes hold in a society, it's a sign that the people have disengaged from analytical and political thought.

The only thing that matters is the leader's vision for the future. When factual evidence disputing or disproving the vision is presented, this is seen as an attempt to mislead the public.

Does this ring any bells?

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