Years ago, during an effort to look at newspaper customers and what they wanted from their paper, I had the chance to sit in on a series of focus groups. (That alone was an interesting effort, simply because trying to figure out what exactly people wanted was a minefield. A vast majority wanted “local news,” but defining the concept was tough. Parents on the panels wanted more local news about education, but what they were really interested in, once you dug in a bit, was information about their children’s schools. Information about other schools? Well, that was wasted space. “Local news” seemed, more than anything else, to mean “The news I personally want.”)
But that wasn’t the biggest thing that came from the focus groups, or from future groups. No, the biggest thing for both me and The Telegram’s managing editor at the time, Brett Loney, was something we nicknamed “the black hole.”
There was a substantial block of people — mostly younger adults — who got their news from nowhere. More to the point, they didn’t get news. Didn’t read the paper — didn’t listen to the radio — didn’t watch television news at all. Didn’t vote.
If you asked them about how they found out about things they needed to know, they’d say, essentially, “if it’s important, my friends will tell me.”
I was assignment editor at the time, and more concerned with how many reporters I’d have the next day, and how many things I’ve have to find a way to cover. But Brett? Brett was deeply shaken by the black hole, and he was even more shaken by the fact that, every time we did a focus group, the number of black holes would grow. It was a pool of people who, outside of their immediate surroundings, had just checked out from the normal bounds of what it means to participate in a typical community. Perhaps it was frustration with their inability to change anything. Maybe it was the fact that, after decades of living in a comfortable democracy, they’d lost any sense that their right — and responsibility — to vote had any real value.
Well, now the black hole has a name — and a number.
Last weekend, Michael Valpy, a journalist working on the Atkinson Fellowship in Public Policy, started a series in the Toronto Star on a group of people now being nicknamed the Spectators — the name comes from a political strategist named David Herle.
(A good starting place to look at the series is here: http://www.thestar.com/news/insight/2013/12/08/suppose_they_threw_an_election_and_nobody_came.html)
The Spectators aren’t involved in anything.
They don’t care about community any further than clicking a “like” button on a Facebook petition. And one of the real reasons they don’t care is because they feel they are unable to even make change occur. Mainstream Canada’s beliefs, to quote Valpy, are seen as “alien. A pack of cards. A sham. According to Herle’s research, they share few if any of the life goals or aspirations as their fellow citizens. … At the core of the Spectators’ alienation, says Herle, is a feeling of lack of control over the direction of their lives.”
It is the McJob generation, a generation that can realistically expect that their economic future offers them less than their parents had.
But what’s really alarming is not that the Spectators exist, it’s how many of them there are.
Valpy and Herle put the number at as much as 25 per cent of our population.
The problem is that they’re also, sadly, a self-fulfilling prophesy.
If the Spectators don’t vote, Canada’s politicians don’t care about them.
Why focus attention and services on a group of people you can’t get to the polls?
That means that the attention goes to the cohort that does vote — the already self-entitled baby boomers, now sailing into retirement — which is why political talk about the future of the Canada Pension Plan gets so much more attention than education costs or housing affordability or almost any of the issues that affect the daily lives of people under 40.
Because it’s the group of people under 40 that has the most Spectators.
Herle pegs the largest percentage as being under 35, male, and living in the suburbs of major cities.
If a politician could actually mobilize them, they would be a substantial force, something that could actually topple existing governments built on the small-c conservative mantra of greasing the well-known squeaky wheel of the entitled current voter.
But how do you mobilize a group when there’s no way to even reach them?
The missing 25 per cent?
They didn’t read this. And chances are, our sitting governments like that just fine.
Russell Wangersky is editorial page editor of the St. John’s Telegram. He can be reached by email at email@example.com.