The Establishment’s Mistake: Ignoring the Youth Vote

If you’ve been paying attention, election results aren’t turning out the way that the pollsters and the pundits expected them to in four of the most high-profile recent elections in Western democratic countries.

In the highly contentious 2015 Canadian federal election, at the beginning of the campaign it looked as though people were angry enough that they were ready to oust the Conservative government under Stephen Harper that had reigned for a decade, but the NDP was clearly the front runner.  By the beginning of August, Maclean’s Magazine, a middle-right leaning magazine that is highly respected in Canada for its analysis of business and politics, said it was anybody’s game.  And of course, at the last minute, what actually happened was that the Liberal Party under Justin Trudeau swept in to claim the victory.

In the 2016 United States Presidential election, it was clear to everyone that Hillary Clinton was going to win, and by a landslide.  Of course, though she did win the popular vote, that’s not what actually happened.

Most pundits were refusing to call the 2017 French election.  But of course most of the world breathed a sigh of relief when Emmanuel Macron beat far-right Front National leader Marine LePen.

And in Britain just this past month, Elizabeth May and the Conservative Party of the UK called a snap election, smugly confident that this would result in the vast majority needed to give them a free hand in Brexit negotiations.  But it didn’t turn out that way.  The Labour Party under democratic socialist Jeremy Corbyn showed so well that they stole the Conservative majority, endangering their control of government to the point that they had to make a devil’s bargain to keep power, and most pundits treated it like a victory for Corbyn, rather than May’s defeat.  This, despite the fact that the Conservatives won their highest vote share since 1983, rivaling their results under the Iron Lady, and despite sabotage within Corbyn’s own party from people who thought he was running too far to the left.

So what gives?  How could these expert opinions have been so wildly inaccurate?

I believe it comes from an Establishment tradition of underestimating the youth vote.  This has been exacerbated in recent years by the difficulty of polling young people, who do not participate in traditional models like phone polls, and whose voices on social media are being drowned by fake accounts and internet bots.  But in part, it’s deliberate.

It is not in the Establishment’s interests for the youth to vote.  They engage in a policy of denigrating the importance of the youth in election results.  They project the impression, furthered by the media, that the youth do not care about politics, and their vote won’t matter anyway because they’re so outnumbered by other demographics.  Conservative and right-wing parties, knowing that they don’t do as well when more people show up to vote, institute policies when they’re in power that make it more difficult to register, such as requiring ID under the pretense of “voter fraud,” something that is more difficult for young and poor people to acquire.

This policy is threatening them at the polls.  Galvanized by consistent policies that our youth rightfully see as contrary to their values and destructive of their future, there is a huge movement in today’s youth to be more politically involved.  If the system is the only way to change the future, they will engage, and when they do, sh*t gets real.

The voter turnout at the Canadian 2015 election was the highest in 2 decades.  New voters and the youth demographic were considerably more involved than in previous years.  And they were overwhelmingly behind Justin Trudeau.  Some cynically claim it was because of the Liberal position on legalizing cannabis (and there may be some truth in that); others think maybe it was just that Trudeau was the youngest of the candidates; still others believe it was genuinely because the Liberal Party made an effort to engage young voters.  Whatever the reason, it worked.

In the UK general election a massive surge of young voters almost turned the tide completely in the Labour Party’s favour.  More than a million new voters registered in the month that Ms. May and the Conservatives allowed before the UK election.  The youth turnout was the highest in 25 years, according to the statistics, and they were mostly behind the Labour Party and its socialist platform.

On the other hand, in some places, youth engagement and this policy of ignoring the youth vote seemed to benefit the New Right more than the left.  Early polls suggested that almost half of France’s youth vote supported LePen and the Front National (though later this was amended to 34% of the youth vote, just a little more than her typical support level across the voting spectrum.)  And of course the American election remains a tangled, ugly mess, vote tampering from outside forces aside.  But it’s clear that one of the factors that influenced that election was that the youth supported Bernie Sanders, felt he was cheated of the Democratic nomination, and decided to cast their votes on third parties or on no one instead.

Speculation runs rampant among political pundits as to why the youth supported one candidate or party or another.  Some say that the parties who engaged the most with social media did better among the youth than those who did not.  If you discount the fact that Trump may have won because the millennials opted out of Clinton, this would seem consistent.  And this could also be confusing cause with effect.  Young people drive social media, so more young people are going to be engaged by definition.

Others disparagingly observe that “populists” are doing better among younger voters.  I think this is an oversimplification.  The truth is that young people are angry.  They know that not only is the existing system not working, it is rigged against them and is selling away their futures.  They have no loyalty to their companies because they know their companies have no loyalty to them; and I think the same holds true in politics.

But does that mean they will jump on any populist parade that comes along?  I don’t think so.  The election results in the US tell us that.  When given the best of bad options, they’ll choose not to choose, and without the youth to help contest them, that allowed the core right wing supporters to take the victory.

The political wisdom suggests that middle-centrists are the best the left can do in a popular vote.  But remember, the political pundits are paid mostly by multi-million dollar media corporations, who are clearly invested in the Establishment, corporate interest.  Left-wing policies cut into their profit margin.

When given the option, young voters choose the candidate they perceive as being the most Progressive, as evidenced in the Canadian and UK federal elections.  They want change, and they overwhelmingly vote in a way that suggests that they value progressive change.

So, what can the Establishment do to win over young voters, which is becoming a more and more significant demographic with every passing year, as slowly the Baby Boomers fade into the sunset?  They can run on more Progressive, left-wing platforms, and then do the things they’ve promised when they get elected.

And if you’re a young voter reading this, and you’ve been feeling despair, I hope if nothing else this shows you that the path to victory is to get involved in the process at a grassroots level.  Primary your Senators, register to vote, join movements like #Resist.  Because you are a far more powerful force than you know, and our hopes for the future rest upon you.

 

British Paganism is Dying. Why?

A few years ago, I gave a talk to the OBOD Summer Gathering about the role of young people in Druidry. I began by pointing out that the average lifespan for an adult during the Iron Age was about 30 years – even if the sky-high rates of infant mortality were excluded. Today, we tend to think of elderhood as something reserved for those over 65; but to our ancestors, anyone over 30 would have been looked upon as an invaluable source of wisdom and experience. To accentuate the point, I invited the audience to stand up, and then asked all those over 35 to sit down again. If we were Iron Age druids, the majority of those seated, I explained, would be dead. Although the point I was making about the relativity of youth and eldership is an important one, this little experiment – getting anybody over 35 to sit down – revealed something else. Of a room full of 150 people, only about 9 were left standing. If this sample is taken to be indicative of the Order as a whole, that means only around 6% of OBOD’s members are aged between 16 and 35. By contrast, this age bracket covers some 26.4% of the UK’s general population.

This lack of young people at OBOD gatherings made manifest something that had been lingering in the back of my mind for some time; something that had previously only been whispered over campfires, on kitchen tables, late at night when the wine was flowing. Not only are few younger people coming to OBOD events, but some of my friends report that there seem to be fewer people of all ages taking an active role in organising events and rituals. While people are still coming to big public rituals at seasonal festivals, they are less and less inclined to volunteer to organise them, or to take on regular commitments of any kind. Moots are shrinking, it’s harder to fill up workshops, and getting enough volunteers to set up and run camps and gatherings is a struggle. For a long time, I suspected that this was confined to OBOD – Druidry, after all, has a powerful association with old white men with old white beards – but having spoken to friends of mine involved in other traditions, it appears to be more widespread, if not as extreme in other parts of the community. I’ve been told that the number of registered members of the Pagan Federation has gone down for the first time. At the Harvest Moon Conference in 2016, Melissa Harrington confessed that she felt that this decline in active participation was indicative of Paganism “going underground” again. Most of the Pagan Federation events I’ve been to recently have shown a similar demographic spread to OBOD ones.

All this is developing in the context of our experience of the most recent UK census in 2011. Ronald Hutton calculated in Triumph of the Moonpublished in the mid-ninetiesthat the number of initiated Pagans was around 17,000 – 20,000, with a larger number of “active engagers” of about 120,000; people who may revere Pagan gods, practice magic, and mark seasonal festivals, but are not initiated into any Pagan group. When the 2001 census recorded some 44,000 Pagans across Scotland, England, and Wales, this figure attracted considerable press attention, both positive and negative. Hutton speculated that if 44,000 people were sufficiently invested to identify themselves as Pagan on a censusdouble his figure in Triumphthe number of more loosely affiliated “active engagers” could have doubled too; creating a figure of 250,000 people.

In advance of the 2011 census, major Pagan organisations in Britain led the Pagan-dash campaign, encouraging people to identify themselves as Pagan on the census. However, the number who reported themselves as “Pagan” increased to only 56,620 peopleand depending upon how broadly one defines “Paganism,” the number of those identifying as a member of a Pagan or esoteric tradition increased to around 80,000 people. As Vivienne Crowley pointed out, this indicates that the meteoric growth of the 1990s had slowed. My concern is that the declining number of young participants in the Pagan community in Britain, and the general diminution of those taking an active role in the community as a whole, indicates that that growth has stalled. British Paganismas a subculture and as a movementis in trouble.

The clickbait-y title of the piecechosen to encourage you to read what I have to say (sorry)is doubtless an exaggeration. As such, I’ll need to make a couple of caveats. The problem I mention above is not some catastrophic dissolution of the social relations from which the Pagan Movement in Britain is forged; there is no imminent disaster, we’re not all in schism or at each other’s throats. The fact that this crisis is a slow crisis, I suggest, is what makes it so easy to ignore. But communities are not just vulnerable to feuds and disruption; time itself is an enemy. It is said that we are all dying, one day at a time—but communities have ways of warding off the parabolic curve toward the grave, by recruiting new members from new generations. If none of these ways are followed, however, then a community will necessarily disappear, subjected to the remorseless attrition of the passing of years. The death of the Pagan Movement is some way off; my aim here is not to pronounce its imminent demise, but rather to draw attention to a set of problems that, if unaddressed, will necessarily lead to the movement dying away.

I’d also stress that the scope of my observations above is necessarily quite limited. This situation applies solely to British Paganisms, and not to those of other countries. On a recent trip to Australia, for example, I witnessed a quite different realityin which a great many of people my own age are getting involved in and leading Pagan traditions. In European countries, I know, the demography is similarly diverse. Are there thriving covens and groves, recruiting many members under 30, out there in the UK somewhere, that I have yet to meet? Very possibly. If they do exist, I’d very much like to meet them; it’d be fascinating to learn how they’ve managed to buck the trend that I’ve observed in my own experience of the British Pagan Movement.

I also think it’s important to point out that the decline in British Paganism does not mean in the slightest that magical practice, animistic beliefs and ritual, British folkways, or the celebration of the wild and mythic heritage of these islands as a whole is under threat. Indeed, I would suggest to the contrary; that all these cultural practices are very much alive, and growing, amongst the younger generations as anywhereindeed, witchy stuff, hippy vibes, eco-activism, and nature mysticism are more on trend than ever. Which makes it all the more bizarre, to my mind, that existing British Orders, Traditions, and Camps are not riding the wave of the neo-folk, authenticity-seeking, sustainability-conscious zeitgeist. Hutton’s distinction between initiated Pagans and “active engagers” is very useful hereit is important to stress that becoming an initiate of a mystery school, and actively engaging in a broader cultural tradition of enchantment do not necessarily relate to one another. They are two rather different things.

What is in decline, then, is something quite specificthe Pagan Movement; a collection of organisations, publications, ceremonial genres, training courses. That collection is no longer feeding the appetite of the general public for the magical. That appetite has not gone away; indeed, it has potentially increasedso we must ask ourselves what has changed.

Dealing with some existing explanations

When I’ve raised this issue in the past, some of those I’ve spoken to tend to comment upon it in a number of ways. Firstly, they tend to argue that young people are just inherently less interested in spiritualitybeing more concerned with enjoying themselves, having children, or workingand that they will find Druidry when they become more spiritually-inclined as they get older. Secondly, the argument is made that there are probably many younger druids, but they just don’t come to the existing selection of events. Finally, some druids argue that most people are fundamentally ignorant and insensitive to the subtle forces and immanent power of wild places. Each of these commentaries serves to minimise the problem; the assumption being that the absence of younger people will resolve itself in time. With regard to the dip in the number of people prepared to take on organisational responsibilities, people tend to simply shake their heads, and mutter darkly about adverse economic conditions. I’ll deal with each of these responses in turn.

The suggestion that young people are necessarily less spiritual is one that doesn’t reflect my own experience, nor does it chime with the history of Paganism as a movement. I routinely meet people my own age with a deep and profound engagement with religious and spiritual practicebut they’re just normally involved other organisationssuch as Western Buddhist Orders, the Brahma Kumaris, or even liberal churchesover Pagan ones. As I’ve already pointed out, much of what Paganism is all about is very popular amongst young adults today. This reflects a long and passionate history of youthful involvement with magical and mystery traditions; the 1990s “Teen Witch” phenomenon demonstrated an enthusiastic appetite for enchantment amongst teenagers, and as Helen Berger and Doug Ezzy eloquently point out, the derisory views of this phenomenon by more experienced practitioners was largely ill-founded. As I pointed out at the beginning of this article, if you go far back, pretty much all the Druids and priests of pre-Christian times would have been in their 20s. And although many people will get more inclined to involve themselves in spiritual practice as they get older, the same could be said in the reverseit is a well known phenomenon for spiritual ardour to cool with age.

The more moderate claimthat young Pagans are out there, but they aren’t coming to events or undertaking coursesis more plausible. As I’ve said, there’s plenty of evidence to suggest a large population of “active engagers” in Pagan materialeven if they aren’t accessing that material through active participation in the community itself. But that begs a further question: why are British Pagan community leaders not organising events and courses that better cater to the majority of people? What might resources of this kind look like? The fact that the majority of those interested in “Pagan” themes in Britain aren’t being catered to by what’s already on offer within our community is not a reason for complacency; if anything, it should be the opposite. I would suggest that we’re simply doing as we’ve always done, even though it clearly isn’t working in the way that it once did.

The final claimthat most people simply don’t appreciate what the Pagan movement has to offeris, I think, the reason for this complacency about the narrow appeal of our movement in Britain. For much of the 20th century, Pagans have been viewed with thinly-veiled hostility by British society at large, with most of our valuesfrom respect for nature to equality for women, from sexual liberation to a valorisation of the imaginationbeing decidedly countercultural in nature. This had direct consequences; in custody battles, in dealings with the police, in employment and at home. This experiencepart of living memory for most Pagans todayhas reinforced the perception that the rest of society simply “doesn’t get” what we’re all about.

But the fact is that British society and its values have changed dramatically since the 1980s. Much of what once made Paganism radical is now widely accepted by those of all religions and none. It is no longer particularly progressive to believe in the central importance of the natural world, or in basic equality for all. Though these values are under attack from corporations and far-right populist movements, the very fact that the opposition to these values has crystallised at this moment demonstrates the broadening of their appeal. People would have no need of the gurning outrages of Nigel Farage and Katy Hopkins if everyone still took their regressive views as common sense, as they once did. While British Pagan organisations have concentrated on mainstreaming, it has escaped the notice of many of us that the mainstream is now increasingly flowing in our direction. We are winning the argument.

And yet, rather than harness this tectonic shift in the soul of Britain, some Pagans have remained pretty insular in their thinking. The recent memory of bigotry shown toward our community has become a shield for other, less edifying attitudes. Like members of most subcultures, it’s tempting for Pagans to look down on those outside of our small community, characterising the general public as mindless, uncritical “sheeple” or “muggles,” enslaved to societal expectations. We are all familiar with the extreme form this attitude can take; the British Pagan Community has its fair share of what an American friend of mine referred to as “Grand High Poobahs.” But I would suggest that we all need to be vigilant against this tendency within ourselvesmyself included. In the past few years, I have met so many people who shared identical values to those of contemporary British Pagans. Though lapsing into a bit of mild snobbery is a ubiquitous trait in British society, I suggest that it has led us initiated Pagans into underestimating the current reach and appeal of the things we care about most. As such, we’ve become vulnerable to a sort of Religious Hipsterismtreating our religion less as a vision of a better world, and more as a mode of personal distinction that lifts us upward in the unending churn of the class system.

To return to Hutton’s formulation, then, it appears the problem is not the decline of all cultural practices that can be connected to the Pagan revival. Rather it is a disjuncture between the orders, traditions, newsletters, groups, literatures, and organisations that make up the “Pagan Movement”and a broader audience of “active engagers” that is larger than ever. But how has this rift emerged? I suggest that, of the comments I’ve mentioned so far, the one that sets us on the path to understanding this process is the lastthose grim reflections upon economic adversity, and its impact on people’s ability to engage in the time-consuming task of organising and volunteering for community activities.

The Political Economy of Paganism

In one of my first essays on Gods and Radicals, I explored the political economy of contemporary Paganism. There I argued that Paganism is quite unlike more established religions, in that the prevailing economic structure is not a church, or a monastic order, or an ashrambut rather a fandom. It is a group of avid enthusiasts, who consume content produced by a smaller circle of creators, who distribute their content through an open marketwith that content being celebrated through events organised by enthusiast-volunteers. My aim in producing this description was to provide the most accurate picture of how goods, services, labour and authority circulate in our community. The point is not that individual British Pagan authors, workshop leaders, diviners, and shopkeepers are greedy capitalists. In fact, all the creators on the British scene that I have met are generous and altruistic, with spiritual rather than profit-motives. The point is that the system in which they all work is a market-oriented one. And as it lives by the market, I suggest, so our community is now dying by it.

Within the British Pagan Community, two kinds of organisation played a key role: the Independent Small Business and the Unincorporated Association. Mind Body Spirit Shops and Bookshops are all small businesses; institutions that rely upon commerce, but provide a hub for existing initiates, and, crucially, allow new seekers a means of finding their way into the community. Through the gateway represented by the MBS Shop, the seeker would find their way into a network of covens, orders, groves, moots, ceremonies, and camps. All of these are forms of Unincorporated Associations, run by volunteers, usually at costif any money changes hands at all. The key feature to both these types of organisationSmall Private Companies and Unincorporated Associationsis that they’re both very vulnerable to fluctuations in the wider market.

The fate of the MBS Bookshop makes this vulnerability plain. Like all small, independent shops, a great many pagan or MBS bookshops have been forced to close, afflicted by economic instability in the wake of the Great Recession, rising business rates, andmost importantlyout-competed by internet retailers. The Internet has now largely replaced the bookshop as the first place seekers go to find out about our traditions. Pagans were early-adopters of the Internet, and the web provided an invaluable means for Pagan groups to meet and work with one another. But the Internet itself has transformed drastically since the 1990s. Web design, search-engine optimisation, and e-marketing have become tremendously advanced, funded by vast amounts of corporate capital. In the crowded marketplace of online content, it’s easy for your brand to be drowned out unless you can successfully deploy a rich supply of fresh, original content, distributed adroitly through social mediamuch of which consumers expect for free. British Pagan organisations have been slow to adapt to this environment; and while being slightly dated and tatty adds to the charm of an independent bookshop, a website that is poorly designed or has late 90s coding won’t look any better for it. To those of us who have grown up with the internet, an old-fashioned website is downright off-putting.

A further problem from a commercial standpoint is the fact that Paganism’s “brand” has suffered in recent years. As John Halstead has pointed out, we’ve gone from being perceived as a threat, to being seen as a joke. Although efforts to mainstream the Pagan movement have brought undoubted benefits, it has nonetheless had the unintended side-effect of removing some of the edgy charisma that was once part of the movement’s appeal. This effect has been compounded by the fact the British Pagans who most assiduously court publicity are amongst the most eccentric, with the lowest production values. Those of us who are less inclined to dress up crushed velvet, or give ourselves grand titles exceeding our actual accomplishments have ended up avoiding the limelight entirely. Though understandable, this reaction has meant that the British public now have a mental image of Paganism that amounts to little more than bad cosplay at the Summer Solstice.

If we turn away from the shop front, towards the community meeting in the function room upstairs, we run into a different set of issuesbut ones that can nonetheless be traced back to market forces. The Pagan Community is reliant upon the voluntary labour of enthusiasts, as the events rarely collect enough cash to pay the going rate for the labour involved. During the 1990s, when many camps and moots were being set up, this was not a problembenefits and wages were generous enough to allow people copious spare time that they could devote towards voluntary activities. But after decades of cuts in state finances and stagnant wages, paired with a rising cost of living, people across the country are struggling to make ends meet, and are working longer hours. With their increasingly limited time off, they now need to focus upon domestic labour, spending time with their loved ones, and on recreationactivities that “recharge the batteries,” allowing them to continue working.

Voluntary labour and extra-curricular learning have both suffered, as people no longer have the time or energy to spare to engage in them. Unfortunately, these are precisely the two types of activity upon which the Pagan community was built in the mid-20th century. As the amount of spare time available has collapsed, so have the number of people prepared who can find the time to become initiated, learn the mysteries, and then enact them for others for free. The only exception are those who have already secured sufficient assets so that they no longer need to work for a living; that is, retired people.

In short, the same reason lies behind the aging of British Paganism, and the decline in the number of active initiates prepared to run events. The Pagan Movement was constructed, quite unintentionally, as a network of commercial relations, that in turn stimulated a thriving voluntary scene, all gathered around a common genre of writing and ritual. But as market conditions have changed in the past few decades, this delicate arrangement has been yanked out of alignment. The Movement has not remained competitive in the crowded marketplace of online content, and has not made the most of its distinctive brand. Given that people are more pressed for time and money than ever, fewer young, working people are attracted to it, and there are no longer enough volunteers available to run its events.

Beyond Commerce, beyond work: The way forward

Although I have taken pains to reveal the commercial underpinnings to British Paganism, this does not mean that I think this situation is an ideal, or even good state of affairs. There are a great many alternative ways of organising ourselves that would make our core activities much less vulnerable to shifts in the wider economy. Equally, in saying this, I do not mean to criticise anybody’s individual way of making a livingas I’ve said, I have not met anybody on the British scene who I would describe as a profiteer, exploiting their spirituality to collect a tidy sum. Instead, what I’ve experienced is lots of passionate, enthusiastic people, aspiring to earn a wage in a fulfilling way. But it is interesting that the social structure that developed organically around our Movement was in the first instance a capitalist one. Even our voluntary arrangements, as I have argued, have been directly affected by adverse market conditions. This just goes to show that the British Pagan Movement is not exempt from the prevailing capitalist logics that structure British society in general. And these same logics are now placing the very longevity of our community in question.

To lay out the issues before us plainly, there are two things with which the market once supplied the Pagan Movement in Britain. Namely, a means for “active engagers” to find out about the Movement and become initiates within it; a shop-front, in other wordsand sufficiently generous and un-taxing sources of income to allow for initiates to pursue the mysteries in their spare time. The market in Britain no-longer provides us with these things, and so our community is withering on the vine. Although there are, perhaps, more “active engagers” than ever, we are cut off from them. The question that now lies before us is this: How can we better connect with this large pool of active engagers, of all ages, and how can we better sustain the practice of the mysteries, now that people’s time and energy is so short?

I cannot provide a comprehensive programme of solutions here, though I will venture some suggestions in future articles. But there are some key observations I wish to make, by way of concluding remarks:

  • It is clear that our movement’s focus around long-term, expensive, extra-curricular pedagogy – that is, upon initiation pursued in one’s spare time, with one’s spare incomeis becoming harder to sustain. In these trying times, active engagers need healing and well-being as much as they need initiations. Now is the time for us to reflect more than ever upon our responsibilities as magicians, rather than our rights as religionists. We must care for the Earth and its peoples.
  • This does not mean we should abandon our drive to initiate more people into the mysteries; but it means we should re-think how and why we do this. If we are serious about broadening the reach of what we do, we need to find ways of making it accessible and feasible for people to learn about it.
  • This, if anything, shows us one thingBritish Paganism is being killed by capitalism. Although I have cast it in quite stark, commercial terms, at the heart of the Pagan community sits a utopian vision of free-association: a Bookchinite imagined village, in which individuals are free to interact with one another regarding matters of mutual interest, and to exchange goods and services in a similar manner. There are many ways in which this vision has been put into practice; particularly in the voluntaristic dimensions to the Pagan experience. I have lived and breathed this sort of lifestyle at Pagan camps I have attended. But it has become increasingly hard to sustain in the cut-throat landscape of post-recession Britain. If we’re serious about wanting to build a village-like community in contemporary Paganism here, we’ll need to destroy capitalism in order to do it.

Jonathan Woolley

1b&w copyJonathan is a social anthropologist and human ecologist, based at the University of Cambridge. He is a specialist in the political economy of the British landscape, and in the relationship between spirituality, the environment, and climate change. A member of the Order of Bards, Ovates, and Druids, and an eco-animist, Jonathan maintains a blog about his academic fieldwork called BROAD PATHWAYS.

Millennials & the Revolution of Politics

Right now in the United States, Super Tuesday is just a couple of days away.  It’s pretty amazing that I know that.  I have never paid such close attention to American politics before.  I never cared that much; not until it came down to the actual Republican vs. Democrat.  In general we, your neighbours to the North, breathe more easily when it’s the latter.

But right now there’s a political revolution going on that has broad implications in both of our countries.  There’s a huge generational divide.  It’s the generation we call the Millennials.  They’re changing how everything works.  In current North American politics, both in the recent Canadian federal election and in the upcoming American Presidential election, there has been a visible, undeniable generational split in opinions at the polls, and it has made, and is making, a significant difference.  Millennials are the reason that the Conservative Harper regime in Canadian government was finally overthrown, and Millennials are changing the face of American politics even as you read this.  Nothing in national democratic politics is ever going to be the same again.

Why?  Is it that Millennials are creative and innovative?  Well, to some degree that’s true; the younger generation is almost always more flexible and more willing to try new things than the older generation.  Is it that they realize how fixed the system is and they are desperate for change?  Well, that’s partially true too.

But more than anything, I think it comes down to one simple thing: Boomers watch TV.  And Millennials don’t.

The Problem with Corporate Media

We in democratic capitalist societies labour under the delusion that the media is the Fifth Estate, which exists as an independent watchdog to inform us on the benevolence, and abuses, of those in power.  The media, we believe, reports on events in a way that delivers the news with forethought, expert consultation, and a fair, if not entirely unbiased, lens.  My parents still share this subconscious assumption.  But it’s not true.  It’s never been true.

Corporate media is, of course, interested in furthering the interests of things that benefit corporations.  In general, they support right wing policies because right wing governments support bigger corporate tax breaks, trickle-down economics, low wages, and lack of regulation.  It’s only common sense, really.  These things benefit any large corporation, and I don’t think there’s any denying that broadcast media is entirely ruled by large corporations.   What you may not know is just how large they are.

You would think that print media would be different; the last bastion of the independent journalist.  But again, you would be mistaken.  Almost every major newspaper in Canada is owned by two companies.  That’s right, just two.  They are Sun Media and Postmedia.  How big do you think a corporation has to be to own so many newspapers?

It didn’t used to be that way.  There was the CBC, and then there were mostly local private companies.  Until our broadcast media was partially deregulated in 2008, and again in 2011, by the Conservative government of the time.  Is it any wonder that the news seems to be favouring the right wing view more and more all the time?

Sometimes the bias is so blatant that it’s a suitable subject for ridicule.  But most of the time it is subtle; so subtle I know most people don’t notice it.  Watching coverage of the Bill C-51 protests here in Canada was most instructional for me, because I had just caught on to the tricks and so I really noticed them:

Two very different stories may be observed in the Vancouver Sun, which is a major corporate newspaper, and the Vancouver Observer, which is a somewhat respected but smaller and decidedly more left wing “alternative” media source.  Both papers are reporting on the exact same protest in the same city.  If you’d like to play along at home, I urge you to fire both of those links up in separate tabs and compare them as you read.

Our first clues as to the tack of the stories can be found in the headlines.  The editor of a paper is the one who chooses the headlines.  The Vancouver Sun headlines their story with “Vancouver protesters rally against Tories’ Bill C-51.”  Seems innocuous enough, right?  But let’s break it down a little.  First, limiting the story to Vancouver divorces it from the national movement in the minds of the readers.  Vancouver has a reputation for being a sort of “San Francisco of Canada,” and is regarded as a haven for what the right wing sees as “leftist nutbars.”  So this makes it sound like the protest is a local phenomenon.  Note, also, that the Sun is quick to call it “The Tories’ Bill.”  This demands polarization.  It makes it personal.  It suggests that anyone who might disagree with the bill is only taking exception to the then-unpopular Tories, rather than objecting to legislation which gives unsettling powers to the government. It trivializes it as “party politics.”  It’s a “nothing to see here” tactic.

In the meanwhile, the Vancouver Observer tells us that “Thousands protest Bill C-51 across Canada.”  We are meant to be alarmed.  Thousands? What is horrible enough to get “thousands” to protest?  And “across Canada?”  What could be causing such a sweeping concern?

Our next big clue is image.  The Observer has chosen an image that shows a vast sea of protesters, standing politely with their signs and listening to a speaker on a stage.  I am sure that they were trying to get as many people as possible in the shot to display how widespread the opposition to the bill is.

In the meantime, the Sun has chosen a much closer angle, so that you really have no idea how many people are at the event.  And they have also chosen a picture intended to make the protesters look as stupid as possible.  The big sign in the center of the image says, “Harper Darper,” which sounds like a child making fun of someone in the schoolyard.  If that weren’t bad enough, the most clearly-visible sign other than that one says, “Honk to defeat Happer!”  Obviously it’s a misprint, and the protester tried to correct it – you can see a black Sharpie line turning that first P into an R if you squint – but it’s difficult to see and obviously your first impression is meant to be “what a bunch of buffoons!”  You are supposed to dismiss them as “stupid left wing crazies.”

Now let’s break down the articles themselves.  Our first paragraphs set the stage nicely.  In the Sun we are told that “more than a thousand people” gathered to protest “Harper” in particular, and “the new anti-terror bill” by extension.  Okay, yes, there were more than a thousand people.  The Observer tells us that there were actually about a thousand more people than a thousand people, which is a total of two thousand.  So the Sun was telling the truth, but the implication minimizes things just a little.  Also, the Sun is letting us know that the protesters are protesting Harper because they don’t like him; not the proposed legislation because it’s objectionable.

In the Observer, our first paragraph tells us that about two thousand people “descended on the streets” to “express frustration with the federal government’s proposed anti-terror bill.”  So in this key sentence we are told a) there are a lot more people out there than the Sun was saying there were; b) they are frustrated with the federal government, not any party or person in particular; and c) that the bill is still a proposed bill, not something that is already law.

It seems like it’s a conspiracy.  But it really isn’t.  It’s the natural result of the corporate system of ownership; reporters making subtle changes to their pitched articles to make them palatable to their editors, who must then make them palatable to the company management, usually passing through several layers of bureaucratic stratification in between.  And ultimately, the paper is printed to please the boss, who likes things that benefit corporations just fine.

Most of Canada’s newspapers endorsed Prime Minister Stephen Harper in the last election despite plummeting popularity; the ones who didn’t supported mostly the Conservative Party with Harper’s resignation as a caveat.  People couldn’t understand it.  But Postmedia ordered all of their subsidiaries to endorse the Conservatives; which is actually a traditional owner’s prerogative.  In other words, every media company that has ever existed has a bias.  And they are expected to.

This is where publicly-owned media, run properly, can provide an alternative view and thus widen the lens we are given to look at the state of things; but even that has its problems.  Because the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation is a Crown Corporation, meaning that the Canadian government is the primary shareholder, there are limits to the powers of the CEO and the Board of Directors.  As a result, a significant faction within the CBC, angered by the Conservative appointments and the reduced budget, supported – almost downright campaigned for – the Liberal Party and our current Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.  But we need to understand their bias as well; the Liberal Party promised all kinds of things to the CBC as part of their campaign platform, including a lot more funding.  Thus, even in Canada’s nominally non-partisan public media company, every time we heard about the New Democratic Party or its leader Tom Mulcair, it was to deride and discredit their campaign promises and to make Mulcair look as foolish as possible, with photos seemingly selected for the purpose.  And that was regardless of which mainstream media company was reporting on the election.

But even publicly-owned broadcasting is not safe.  The CBC, long regarded as a public resource with a decidedly left-wing approach (and it used to be) was gutted completely by Stephen Harper in his last couple of years as Prime Minister.  He cut its funding, fired most of its executives, and appointed a whole bunch of his Conservative cronies to significant positions.  Justin Trudeau’s attempt to fix some of this has been actively stymied by tactics from these appointees that look a lot like crazy Republican stunts to me.  (Incidentally, when a government changes hands, requests for appointees to step down like this are a normal, expected part of the system; which of course, the current CBC isn’t telling us.)

Things like this have already been done to the BBC several years ago and are now firmly entrenched.

It’s an interesting point because I see the American media doing the exact same thing to Senator Bernie Sanders that the Canadian media did to the New Democrats, for the exact same reason; corporations hate social democracy.  Social democracies limit corporate powers and increase wages.  Social democracies believe in what’s best for all of the people, not just a select few.  I think it’s a safe bet that the mainstream media will never show us an unbiased view of policies that might put more limits on corporations; which is why so many people seem to think that Mr. Sanders’ “socialist” policies are “unrealistic.”  Even my parents.  The funny thing about this is that most of Sanders’ platform is the way Canada did things, from the 60s right up to the Harper administration, and it worked just fine.

There’s another concern with corporate media.  The media makes a lot of money on political campaign ads, as politicians try to make their messages heard; and also on election coverage, as corporations backing particular parties or candidates sponsor programs that feature those candidates.  And the more political tension they create, the more money they make; which is probably why every political campaign is portrayed as a horse race, even when it’s not.

How the Internet is Transforming Politics

In the early days of media, there were newsletters and newspapers.  Media was a lot less centralized and thus, people read what they wanted to read.  Since there were a couple of dozen New York papers, you just read the one you preferred; or maybe a handful, if you were really well informed.  When it came to politics, you read the papers that supported your political view; for instance, if you were a socialist, you read the socialist papers.

Slowly, larger papers began buying up the smaller papers, and so your options of what to read, and thus the viewpoint you were shown, gradually diminished.  Why did the New York Times become so respected?  Because everybody read it.

We have seen how that sort of centralization reduces the scope of the information lens so that we only hear what the corporate media wants us to hear.  But that’s changing.  There are alternative sources of media emerging; blogs and journals like ours, for example.  And the reason is – you guessed it – the internet.

Right now, political blogging is in its early growing stages.  We are graduating from a few random commentors to semi-professional small blogs and YouTube channels.  And the Millennials, having realized that the food that they’re being fed is (un)liberally flavoured with Corporatist propaganda and always tastes the same, have started seeking out those alternate sources.

Or so it would seem.  The truth is actually simpler than that, if I might cast a pall of cynicism on this ray of hope with an intention of helping us to make use of it in the most efficient possible way.

Millennials don’t watch TV anymore.  They don’t read newspapers.  Between their computers and their cell phones they go online for everything; their information, their entertainment, their social outlets.

So the fact that they’re discovering the alternate media is a cosmic accident, really.  And the only reason why the alternate sources are doing so well is that we’ve been here longer.  Fortunately the large media corporations were initially more interested in fighting or discrediting internet media than they were in using it. But that’s changing too.

Before you dismiss this as a fad, it’s clear that this has changed the way Millennials think.  They are perhaps the most literate generation that has ever existed.  Because they surf the web they know things that previous generations do not.  Because of Google Translate they can talk to people in other countries even if they don’t understand a word of the language.  And thus, it has never been so easy to find like-minded individuals and organize along ideological lines as opposed to geography.

More than that, most Millennials have probably experienced a situation in which they were humiliated on social media for not fact-checking a link or a meme.  Whether this or something else is the reason, Millennials who are politically aware check their facts.  They look up the definition of “social democracy” on Wikipedia.  They Google any statistics they are offered.  They use Snopes to confirm or denounce rumours and scandals.  You can’t just give them the facts you want them to hear, cherry-picked for your convenience.  They will double check.

As a result, we are beginning to see huge ideological divides between generations and it’s starting to make a difference.  Why did Justin Trudeau and the Liberal Party win the Canadian federal election?  Because two significant demographics supported him almost unilaterally; First Nations Canadians, and young voters.

Note that these are both traditionally underrepresented groups in the political landscape.  But this time they overcame their reluctance to engage with a system so obviously stacked against them and came to the polls.  This, despite deliberate changes in election laws, such as gerrymandering electoral ridings and requiring proper picture ID as well as a voter registration card to vote – a tactic almost never done in Canadian history and obviously disadvantaging the young and the poor.  And as a result, our First Nations and our youth changed the course of Canadian history.

We are seeing this in American politics as well.  Would Bernie Sanders be doing so well against the likes of former Secretary of State and First Lady Hillary Clinton if it weren’t for the massive support he’s receiving from America’s youth?  Millennials hear Sanders using the language of the Occupy Movement and his call to fight the 1%, and they are protesting the system with their ballots.  It is even starting to affect demographics that were believed to be unassailable, such as creating a generational divide in the black vote.

Will this factor change the course of this American election?  It already has.  Even among the Republican voters, nobody expected Donald Trump to do as well as he has.  In a way he’s the right wing equivalent of Bernie Sanders; he sounds like a rebel against the system.  He’s just going about it in a way that openly reveals the fascist heart of Corporatism.

Either way, this is likely the last U.S. Presidential campaign that will be so strongly influenced by the mainstream media.  It’s a whole new world out here.

But the battle isn’t over yet.  The halcyon days of net neutrality are already behind us, and there are ways in which large corporations are manipulating the internet to their advantage.  Also, the way in which we access the internet and social media corrals us into echo chambers which entirely lose touch with anyone who doesn’t share our views.  I will address these issues in my next article.

 

*I have chosen to use the gender-inclusive singular “they” as my default general pronoun in this article.