Is Political Apathy Among Youths Prevalent Across The World Today?
Tan Hong Kai
The antithesis of social advancement, political apathy, is a pressing yet thorny issue all countries need to address. Citizens’ impassivity towards politics could destabilise a country, particularly the youths as they are the future of a nation. With the increasingly rapid pace of life, youths tend to be more occupied with keeping up with the Joneses and climbing up the social ladder rather than getting themselves involved in the affairs of their state. Recently, American youths have also made clear that they do not vote due to their dislike of politicians. Political apathy is a universal problem. It recognises no boundaries, and continues to be pervasive across many parts of the world today.
- Definition of Key Terms
Political apathy is a lack of concern and the indifferent attitude of citizens towards public affairs. Throughout this essay, the term youths will refer specifically to persons between the ages of 18 and 29.
- Political Apathy Among Youths in America
One of the main problems with American youths is the huge propensity to be politically indifferent. This attribute is seen in two metamorphic events, the 2008 and the 2012 Presidential Elections.
3.12008 and 2012 Presidential Elections
The 2008 United States Presidential Elections saw Barack Obama succeed George Walker Bush as the 44th President of the United States. The voter turnout for the 2008 Presidential Elections was 61.6%, which was the highest since the 1968 Presidential Elections.
Howbeit, Hayes (2013) pointed out that the youth vote made up a mere 19% of the electorate. The Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement pointed out that youths “make up 21% of the voting eligible population in the U.S.”
The data above can be represented in a pie chart, as shown in Figure 1.
Figure 1. 2008 Presidential Elections Voter Turnout.
Only 11.7% out of the 21% of youths casted a vote in the elections.
Four years later, in the 2012 Presidential Elections, Barack Obama was re-elected to a second term. Voter turnout, however, decreased from 61.6% in 2008 to 58.2% in 2012. According to the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (2012), 45% of youths voted, which is a decrease as in 2008, 51% of youths casted a vote. Evidently, less than half of all American youths are keen in choosing the leader they want to represent their nation.
According to Kohnle (2013), the 2013 Harvard Public Opinion Project found that most American youths would replace every member of Congress if they could. However, 26% have declined the opportunity to vote in the 2014 midterm elections. Although American youths do hold certain views against the political leaders, they are uninterested in instigating change themselves.
Stockley (2014), per contra, expressed that historically youths have been the least reliable voters as they tend to be distrust and be dissatisfied with the government for not listening to concerns, thus believing that their votes do not matter. This could be the reason why American youths choose not to vote.
The participation of American youths in the elections suggests that problem of political apathy among youths is present in America. As youths are uninterested in voting, there is a lack of political participation as they choose to abstain from voting. Political apathy is thus present in the United States.
3.2Political Participation of American Youths
Nevertheless, American youths cannot be said to be completely apathetic about politics.
During the African-American Civil Rights Movement, youth activists participated in the “sit-in movement”, which had “at least 56 colleges in the region linked to” it. A decade later, hundreds of youth demonstrated at Times Square to protest against the Vietnam War. Thus in history, youths were proactive about politics and wanted a say in the decisions the government makes.
In recent times, similar movements had taken place as well. In 2011, youths organised the Occupy Wall Street protest movement to express dissatisfaction at the country’s economic disparity and alleged political corruption. This suggests that even till today, youths do participate in politics and in this case, pressure the government to reform and ameliorate the country’s plight. American youths are hence not as apathetic as feared. American youths are concerned and do express their thoughts over state affairs through demonstrations and protest.
- Political Apathy Among Youths in China
While America is ruled democratically, the People’s Republic of China adopts a different kind of political ideology. Governed by the Communist Party of China, civilians in the socialist country do not have the opportunity and freedom to vote for a leader. Nonetheless, the difference on political ideology has no impact on whether citizens are concerned about the state’s affairs; youths in China are politically apathetic as well.
To date, the Tiananmen Square protest of 1989 was the only student-led demonstrations in China. In 1989, Chinese youths gathered in Tiananmen Square. Youths called for social equality, freedom of speech, and most importantly, democracy, amidst political corruption and economic nepotism. However, on 4th June, Chinese troops entered Tiananmen Square and opened fire on these student protesters. This attack conveys the message that the government is unwelcoming of these demonstrations and will be hostile towards anyone who partakes in such protests.
Political apathy in China can be attributed to the education system and the stringent laws the Communist Party of China had enforced in the country.
- The Chinese Education System
The Chinese education system places a huge emphasis on galvanising chauvinism.
Taboo topics such as the Cultural Revolution, the Hundred Flowers Campaign, the Great Leap Forward and the aforementioned Tiananmen Square Massacre are intentionally omitted from the syllabus. (“Political Apathy Among Youth”, 2012) As these taboo subjects are usually events which stir anti-government fervor, youths lack exposure to these movements which could have spurred them to participate in political activities and make a difference.
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Besides, in the Chinese education system, America’s multi-party system is ridiculed. In high school, students go through Political Science lessons and courses, in which they are taught sensitive yet critical issues such as Sino-Japanese relations, the “Taiwan Issue” and “Mao Zedong Thought.” These lessons stir nationalistic feelings and promote patriotism among the students. Thus, youths are taught to be loyal and committed to the Communist Party of China. As a result, youths would refrain from instigating anti-government protests or participating in politics as they are satisfied with status quo.
- The Prohibition of Demonstrations
All protests are banned in China. “Public demonstrations from dissidents that explicitly oppose the government will be whisked away by the police force.” (“Political Apathy Among Youth”, 2012) Due to such strict laws the government has imposed, youths would naturally be unconcerned about politics. Youths know that any efforts to call for change will be dismissed.
Only government-sanctioned protests are permitted. This can be seen from the 2012 Anti-Japan Riots. Tang (2012) reports that “Outside the Japanese Embassy, student protesters shouted slogans demanding that Japan relinquish the Senkaku islands.” While Chinese youths do not initiate any movements or demonstrations as it is banned, they would still participate in protests approved and led by the Communist Party of China. Political apathy is hence prevalent amongst Chinese youths as they do not display any interest or concern unless they are instructed by the government to do so.
- Political Apathy Among Youths in Singapore
Singapore has always been known as the bridge between the East and the West. As mentioned, both the youths in the East and the West are politically apathetic. Intriguingly and idiosyncratically, that is not the case in this hybridised cultural melting pot.
- Political Participation of Singaporean Youths
Singaporean youths have actively participated in politics. This can be seen from the organisations youths have established in response to certain political issues.
5.1.1Youth for Ecology
In 2013, the government released the Population White Paper which proposed the Singapore population to hit 6.9 million in 2030. The release triggered a countrywide debate as Singaporeans did not welcome the import of foreign labour.
A group of youths from Singapore Polytechnic realised that “there was little said about the environmental impact of what was outlined in the paper”, thus they formed the “Youth for Ecology” to raise awareness. Dialogues were organised and papers were written and submitted to Nominated Member of Parliament Faizah Jamal to address in Parliament.
Singaporean youths are concerned about the nation’s future as well. They are also willing to take action to appeal to the government certain aspects they might have missed out.
According to Lee (2013), a Singapore Polytechnic survey found that “almost 71% of those aged 15 to 19 said they speak up on politics and the Government on social media, while 68% of those aged 20 to 24 do so”. Social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, all of which are hugely popular among the tech-savvy youths, can be used to express their opinions on state affairs. A study conducted by the Institute Policy of Science (2010) showed that 25.5% of youths participate in politics online as compared to 16.8% adults. Over 77% of Singaporeans in their 20s have a Facebook account (Nielson, 2009) while more than half of Singapore Members of Parliament have a Facebook account. (Hussain, 2010)
Thus, social media can be utilised to convey their opinions on political issues and ensure it is heard by the Members of Parliament. With such a convenient platform, youths are recommended to air their views freely and encouraged to participate in political activities.
- 2006 and 2011 General Elections
Nonetheless, the voting turnout of Singaporean youths has been largely disappointing.
Chang (2012) found that in Singapore, despite its compulsory voting, the youth turnout had a 40% drop from 63% to 2006 to 38% to 2011. About 70% of young voters had hardly voted in elections.
A survey conducted by The New Paper found that 40% of youths will not vote if voting were optional. Furthermore, 25% of youths bemoaned that they have little say in government policies. (“Are our young Singaporean voters politically apathetic?”, 2011) This suggests that Singaporean youths believe that it would have been pointless to vote since they could not influence any plans the government proposes.
As Meheresh Yeditha puts it so nicely, “As the youth, we are its future. Our habits, political views, and actions will have a major effect on the future of our country, and the future of humanity. We as a youth have a moral obligation not only to be informed about current situations, but also to try to make a difference.” Political apathy is something any country could not afford. Youths, being a crucial subset of every electorate, can influence election results to a huge extent. Despite, political apathy is still present in today’s world.
Youth turnout for the American Presidential Elections in 2008 and 2012 was low. Nevertheless, American youths have organised political movements to protest about certain issues. Saying that American youths are politically apathetic would be a sweeping statement.
In China, due to the education system which places a huge emphasis on chauvinism and the prohibition of demonstrations, youths believe that any participation would not have any impact on how the country is ran at all. Therefore, Chinese youths would not be concerned about state affairs knowing that there is no room for contribution.
In Singapore, youths are actively participating in the country’s state affairs. For instance, youths have established organisations which provide feedback to Members of Parliament on certain governmental policies. Youths have also used social media as a platform to express their opinions. However, youth turnout has declined, and youths would choose not to vote as they believe they had little say in politics.
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Nevertheless, voter turnout should not be the only measure used to determine whether a country’s youths are politically apathetic or not. Political participation should also consist of how vocal they are and how much they engage themselves with political issues. Such is the case in America and Singapore, where youths may not vote but are proactive in voicing out their concerns through protests and peaceful demonstrations.
As in the case of socialist China, since there are no elections and freedom of expression is limited, Chinese youths are demotivated to participate in politics, which explains why they are politically apathetic.
Plato once said “”One of the penalties for refusing to participate in politics is that you end up being governed by your inferiors.” For a democracy to work, people must participate in that democracy. The same applies to any political ideology. Governments worldwide have gradually become aware of that and are starting to take measures to curb political apathy.
In America, MTV has established the “Rock the Vote” organisation, which strives to fuse pop culture and technology to encourage youths to register and cast a ballot. It allows youths to register online, which is a more convenient process.
In Singapore, the People’s Action Party has set up and developed a youth wing, called the “Young PAP”. Formed by Singaporean youths, it seeks to influence youths to participate in politics as they are indispensable to Singapore’s future.
In China, while plans have been made to provide more channels to allow youths to express their thoughts, it remains to be seen what will be put into effect. During the 2011 United Nations High-Level Meeting, Senior Official Zhou Changkui mentioned, “As youth is an important political force, facilitating youth in political participation symbolizes equality and progress of a society. Participation is a way for young people to improve their status, exercise their rights and promote common development.” It could only be a matter of time when barriers are removed and Chinese youths start to engage themselves in political activities.
It is therefore unfair to say that political apathy among youths is prevalent across the world. While it exists, it is not pervasive and widespread. Youths in democratic countries such as Singapore are less politically apathetic as compared to those in countries with lesser freedom, such as China. Hence political apathy among youths is not prevalent across the world today, but it is existent and is a pressing problem for countries to curb and prevent.
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