Civic engagement is shaping up as one of the most important challenges of the 21st Century. Around the world, voter turnout is low and many demographics report being disenfranchised. If your needs and aspirations aren't being addressed, what incentive do you really have to participate in the political process?
The issue is a particularly timely one in New Zealand at the moment. We are currently in the middle of local body elections. Voter turnout in such elections is historically very low, and it looks like things won't be any different this time around.
In this post, I want to suggest that this lack of civic engagement is a shared problem. Even if we follow the news, take an interest in politics and vote in elections, having a significant amount of the population not doing those things harms us because it harms the society in which we live. It means we miss out on new ideas as politicians pander to the diminishing voting classes. It means we lose some of the legitimacy that is supposed to attach to the democratic process. It means we forget what it means to live in a community where we have shared values and goals as well as individual wants and needs. And I think over time it means we are all at risk at becoming less tolerate, less open to compromise, less empathetic.
So, at least as I see them, the stakes are pretty high. How do we go about fixing this problem? One idea, which I think has real potential, is as radical as it is simple - make voting fun. This idea comes from Eric Liu, a considered voice on democratic process and civic engagement in the United States, but I think it could work well here in New Zealand. By making voting fun, Liu means finding ways to encourage voting as a performative act. Maybe dress up with your friends to head to the pooling booth. Maybe organise street parties to celebrate democracy. Maybe simply talk to your neighbours about voting (rather than politics).
Part of Liu's aim here is to disrupt the traditional thinking that sees voting as a civic duty - something that has to be done. It should be seen as something we want to do. I think its a great idea, and I keen to try and come up with ways we might be able to make voting fun ahead of the general election next year (suggestions welcome).
Liu's ideas are expressed more fluently than I can do them justice in this Ted Talk. I highly recommend you check it out.