What Do We Mean by Politics? A Reflection on the Role of Politicians

This report details the LYAC meeting held on June 21st, 2015. The meeting was a chance to reflect on an activity the councillors completed in which they went out to different parts of the city to ask people about their views on politics and politicians. The meeting opened into a discussion on what politics means to the members of the LYAC and the current state of politics in general.

Who Should Read This?

  • Londoners concerned about the current state of politics
  • Londoners who are invested in the health of their communities
  • Londoners who feel marginalized or excluded by their representatives

What is a politician?

The councillors discussed the responses they received to the question “What is a politician?” from people in London.

  • Jana received responses ranging from a belief that politics is organized crime to responses that were more apathetic and unsure.
  • Ghadeir found different responses based on age, as teens were likely to give a dictionary definition, whereas seniors gave more specifics.
  • Hanein also noticed responses linked to age in her responses from  adults, as it seemed that the higher the age, the more negative the responses were.
  • Evan found that the response was often that people did not know anything, though others expressed excitement about the city council elected in October.  
  • Brandon encountered people who said they wouldn’t give opinions, some out of a feeling of being ignored by the government.

Although people seemed to have negative impressions of politics, they did open up when discussing community. One councillor said that people she spoke to said that they felt no relationships with politicians, but that they felt a relationship with their community. Another councillor encountered people who said they did not have an opinion on politics but usually had an opinion once he asked them about personal or community issues. From the responses they were receiving, it seemed that citizens did not always connect politics to what was happening in their community because they felt disillusioned by or apathetic towards politics.

After discussing what their constituents think about politics, the councillors considered the question themselves. One councillor defined politicians as the people who represent us, taking our views and opinions and turning them into legislation. Another councillor echoed this, saying that politicians are people who represent different beliefs and thoughts and bring them together. Speaking to politics generally, one councillor argued that politics is in our everyday life, from what students learn in school to public transit. Another councillor pointed out that people don’t realize that politics can be really entertaining and engaging because they can be intimidated by the importance of parliament and their own lack of information. A lot of people criticize what they don’t understand and subsequently don’t go in-depth. One councillor noted that it helps to know people, explaining that she paid particular attention to the last election because she had a personal connection. Another councillor agreed that connection is important and argued that people who don’t feel connected might not even think that the events they go to or resources they use may be available because of municipal funding. From these conversations, it seems that people typically feel disconnected from politics.  This seems to be because they often only have access to a narrow idea of what politics can be.

What should a politician be?

The councillors then discussed what they thought were key characteristics of a good politician.

  • Ghadeir said that a politician needs to be a genuinely good listener, and have passion for what they are doing.
  • Elizabeth added that a politician needs to have an open mind.
  • Brandon argued that a politician needs to be someone you can see as an equal, as a peer, and that a good politician is not just going in with their own agenda.
  • Cedric added that politicians should have likeability, so that the average citizen is not afraid to talk with them.
  • Violette said politicians should be unafraid to take a stand on issues.
  • Evan argued that it is important for politicians to be consistent in order to build trust.
  • Jana said politicians need to be honest.
  • Nicole added that being humble is important for a politician, and she argued that letting power go to one’s head can lead to corruption.

After establishing these traits, the councillors considered what constituents should expect of the LYAC Councillors and leaders in general. One councillor explained that she would look for the qualities that she wanted in a politician, in a friend, adding that everyone should have these qualities. Another councillor agreed, noting that these traits apply to many situations, for example, teachers and principals in schools should have similar values of representing people positively and honestly. In regards to the LYAC, one councillor commented that the LYAC are politicians on a smaller scale, and so the councillors need those characteristics too. The councillors then started to discuss how their role at the LYAC is different than the roles of other politicians, and considered whether it is any less important. One councillor said that the LYAC is just as important because the LYAC is creating an opportunity for youth voices to be heard. Another councillor added that the LYAC is about more than representation, it’s about making a government they are proud of and being the face of that government.

Media and Politics

One councillor commented that she was not surprised by the public’s negative impressions of politicians because of the attack ads that she sees on TV. These are ads that do not talk about change or the party’s platforms and seek to tear down opponents. This brought up the subject of media and the way it affects politics. One councillor argued that we would not know about politics without media. Another added that for federal politics, media is the only bridge the average citizen has to access it, unless they live in Ottawa. Another councillor commented that the media is useful if used in the right way because the media can prompt accountability. One councillor mentioned that we look to the media to gain more knowledge, but it can be a problem if you don’t have a filter to critically think about the media. Another councillor suggested that the media should not be biased against a certain government. Altogether, the media is perceived as an important tool but one that can be twisted for problematic uses. Another problem can be overreliance on media, as one councillor noted that some politicians believe that social media automatically allows them to speak to the youth demographic. While this seems to be a common perception amongst politicians, young people often don’t know that politicians are on social media, and so we still need to have one-on-one interactions with them. Another councillor commented that social media can be positive, but that while Twitter can be used for connections, politicians still need to have a presence in the community.

Democracy in Canada

The discussion turned to the state of politics in Canada and the apathy of voters. One councillor told a story about telling a friend that anyone could attend city council meeting. Her friend said they did not believe in voting, adding that even if someone votes this choice does not actually affect them. Another councillor said that she had a high school teacher who would tell her and her classmates that those who don’t vote or make any effort to understand politics shouldn’t complain if they don’t like a political decision. One councillor asked how a system largely dominated by two parties can be democratic. Another councillor echoed this, saying that the lesser of two evils approach is bad democracy. What would happen if Canadians rejected this system?

One councillor asked the group what the image of Canadian democracy would be if 98% of people spoiled their ballots.1 She argued that such a display of non-confidence would prompt reform. The councillors’ responses to spoiled ballots were varied. One councillor said that if she were a politician, she would say that people are jeopardizing their chance for change by spoiling their vote. She added that while she understood the anger behind spoiled ballots, people have to be realistic and find someone who shares some of their values. Another councillor argued that politicians have to find out why voters spoiled their ballots. One councillor agreed that it is important to investigate, but he felt that voters do have a duty to at least pick someone. The other councillor argued that the point of spoiling the ballot is trying to get attention to bring about change that has not been happening in the current system. Another councillor said that politicians are not going to care; they will care about voters who chose a candidate because they showed that they were decisive. A councillor agreed that spoiling a ballot is a statement, but that’s all it is;  she added that spoiling is still better than offering an uneducated vote. Another argued that people have the right to spoil the ballot, and that she did not think someone should have to vote for someone they do not want to represent them.

The councillor who brought up the issue of spoiled ballots explained that many people who spoil ballots are involved in politics 365 days per year, including groups such as Food Not Bombs. These are people who are engaging in alternative ways. She added that political engagement cannot just happen one day a year. Another councillor argued that politicians should be as engaged as activists. He added that that everyone in Canada should think of themselves as a politician so that people understand that they can play a role in changing the way that things work in our country. The councillors then discussed the idea of creating change more from the bottom rather than waiting for top-down change. One participant suggested that the LYAC is about creating a new type of politician and getting people connecting with constituents. This connection is often missing and public frustrations are not always well-translated, so the LYAC tries to speak to people who are often left without a voice.

1 Reporter’s Note: Spoiling your ballot is when a voter indicates that they are voting for none of the candidates on their ballot. This spoiled ballot is then recorded, and can provide an indication of how many people feel unrepresented by the choices they have for political representation.

 

Personal Stories

Maia shared a canvassing experience that revealed just some of the stigma that youth face when sharing their opinions.  She explained that when she went to one person’s door, they asked Maia if she pays taxes. When Maia explained that she did not, the response was that  if she is not a taxpayer, she does not deserve an opinion. Maia’s story spurred an important discussion about whose voices are marginalized by this kind of perception. Elizabeth argued that just because someone does not pay taxes does not mean they do not contribute in a positive way, with Evan adding the fact that every high school student does 40 hours of volunteer work. Skylar commented that she felt it was a ridiculous opinion because a lot of people do not pay taxes and deserve an opinion, with Evan adding low-income people as a demographic. Kayley added that people also see renters, students as people who are not taxpayers. She also pointed out that everyone pays taxes through GST. It can be frustrating to encounter perspectives such as these that are focused on financial contribution when that is only one factor of building a functioning society.

On a positive note, Hanein knocked on one door, explained that she wanted a basketball court for her ward and ended up talking to a congregation of kids, showing that youth are already engaged – they often just need someone who is willing to listen to them.

Big Questions

  • How do we reclaim politics from the attack ad-based “game” people believe it to be?
  • How do we broaden the conception of politics in general to include our everyday lives?

Reporter’s Notes

The LYAC seemed to be particularly torn when it came to the discussion on spoiled ballots. While many councillors felt that spoiling a ballot was an important statement, some still felt that it is preferable to pick a candidate, even if a voter does not fully agree with their policies, in the belief that politicians will not care about spoiled ballots. On the one hand, councillors argued that the current system dominated by a couple of parties needs reform, but on the other hand, there is a fear that failing to cast a vote in the system leaves a citizen without a voice that politicians will hear. It is a dilemma without a clear solution.

I also found the discussion on the relationship between media and politics particularly interesting. It is certainly true that media becomes the window through which we can see and create an understanding of what is going on in Canadian politics. It would be interesting to move beyond the private media conglomerates as our main conception of “media” and talk about the potential for citizen media and commentary. Being that we live in a time where many people (though certainly not all ) have access to basic camera hardware and Youtube, how can citizen media complicate the relationship between politics and media, which the LYAC has argued is an important relationship but can also involve bias and sensationalism?

Things We Still Need to Learn

 

  • What are some specific reasons people have for spoiling ballots?
  • What have politicians said about spoiled ballots? Do they really ignore these voters or are there examples of outreach that we can find?