If you aren’t reading this, we’re talking about you

Russell Wangersky
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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 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.)

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 (of) 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 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 The Telegram’s

editorial page editor. He can be reached by email at rwanger@thetelegram.com.

Organizations: Toronto Star

Geographic location: Canada

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Recent comments

  • Winston Adams
    December 16, 2013 - 21:19

    Now I understand why no one was concerned about the 1 billion Efficiency solution to our so called energy crisis that will cost 10 billion with Muskrat Falls. Almost nobody read the stuff on Efficiency, and those that did make no comment to applaud or condemn it, or to research it further, or question the so called experts. So ignorance prevails, largely through the media ignoring the issue. And those in the black hole are right,I guess. If it's important that Efficient heating exists and can lower my energy bill, and is reliable, "my friends will tell me". So why do they need the media or news? In time they will hear it from a friend, and act on it. Meanwhile we will have wasted billions, and a spiral of lower energy use will escalate the losses by our government. And someone from the black hole may ask "why didn't the media report on that sooner? I read yesterday that even Danny Williams has gone to Efficient heating for his new house. Obviously he's not in the "black hole", but has he ever advised the public of the benefits of Efficient heating? You can't be promoting efficient heating and Muskrat Falls at the same time.

  • Cashin Delaney
    December 15, 2013 - 19:27

    From the same piece by Valpy: "They tend to dislike their work and do it only for the money." You mean to say that these strange, dense creatures from the black hole do not enjoy manual labour ecstasies or data input bliss reactions like normal conservative or liberal people? From the same: "British sociologist Michael Mann once wrote that social cohesion is not marked by a society of common values but by a society that can tolerate conflicting values." The tone in this Herle/Valpy vivisection of the non-voting mind seems intolerant toward us gentle dissenters of a certain tender age-range. Somehow, a young non-voting person who enjoys life, eschews facebook, violent games, dumb TV, ignores politics and the "alarmist News" is branded the pessimist (and not the little twitterati-chicken-hawks in media or politics), and moreover, voting is implicitly vanguarded as a solution in itself, not the lowest form of dumb secret opinion expression it is; multiple-choice trolling. Our version of the democratic secret ballot developed from repressive party practices in England. We should be equally as proud of a generation who have forgotten to vote in the English style, as of a generation committed to oral hygiene. And: "“In the case of the economically vulnerable,” continues Graves, “disengagement from the political world no doubt worsens their positions of relative privation." Having nothing is not poverty, and is much more than poverty when having anything involves engaging the old sweaty political party-favoured-phallus deeply and enthusiastically. The non-voting, black-hole-dwelling spectators will not likely read about it when liberal monarchists scapegoat the degrading sanctity of our political economy onto their shoulders. (You can find Ayn Rand at Chapters, but not Robert Anton Wilson.) Voting for any party is voting for status quo – a radical energy monopoly in our provincial case. Progress that likens to John Ruskin’s term illith, or Ivan Illich’s diseconomy, reinforced with hand-waving & noise-making, heralded as answers & information, is nothing for a self-respecting, infinitely massive spectator to believe or participate in. Liberals can’t wait to manage the fallout of Muskrat Falls. It will likely be spectators who finally understand concepts like power, and energy (mercury, carbon)that repair this liberally-glib fallout management. Finally it ends: "(They don’t believe in progress, either.) “The problem is we don’t know what to say to them.”" We don’t know what to say to them seems to be a euphemism for they do not seem to be subdued by doublespeak any longer. Joseph E. Atkinson, the namesake of the foundation, would believe in Muskrat Falls per se, as in that utilities should be operated for the weal of the public and not monopolized by businessmen whose principal concern was profit. He advocated public ownership of gas, electric light, electric power, mines, oil wells, timber, pulp and paper, telephone, telegraph, radio, television, railways, airlines and streetcars. The heavy-lifting of deregulating crown corporations is a job. A joyless job despised by those who do it, I am sure. I heard they do it for money. It was in a study.

  • SD Redgrave
    December 15, 2013 - 19:15

    I have found out the hard way , and purely by chance at other times, that everything I do or say makes a difference at some level. Too bad I never realized it until I was well into my forties. Also realizing a long time ago that you don't need to be a politician to mobilize people to a cause. Then again I'm not part of that 25%, I actually pay for my newspaper, and read it, then compare it with other (just to be fair). it's a loaded question, and I sense your frustrations.

  • Tom
    December 14, 2013 - 08:44

    Occupy helped while it lasted. A lot of people who got involved with Occupy were disaffected and didn't vote. But as you say, those in power prefer such people to stay out of politics.