Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Democratic Participation Is Not A Grey Area - Protect The Elderly's Right To Vote

One of the laziest and most objectionable ways to go about securing political victory is simply outright disenfranchising those who may happen to disagree with you. Those who vote for the "wrong" outcome or principle. Those whom your own force of rhetoric and campaign mobilization just can't seem to "properly" motivate to go the right way.

In American politics, this has become something of a high art form. Voter disenfranchisement via ever more complex and byzantine schemes is almost de rigeur in many polities and political contests over there. Black voters and the less economically well off are the customary targets - Republican campaign strategists rightly perceive these demographics as being vastly less likely to support their right-wing facemen, and so act to make it more difficult if not outright impossible for these people to vote, accordingly.

When this happens, and elections are stolen - outcomes perverted - through the frank and outright denial of democracy in such a manner ... we rightfully and righteously decry it.

The marginalization of the subaltern from the political process serves only to weaken faith in political institutions and considerably empower the wealthy, the white and the already-entrenched-and-ensconced elite.

And yet, even - and perhaps especially - in this area, not all are treated the same.

There is apparently one demographic which, above all others, it is possible or even ajudged prudent and positive to speak openly of ruling out from electoral participation in our democracy.

The Elderly.

The most recent outburst of such reprehensible and repugnant sentiment has been spurred once again into the limelight by the seismic shock of last month's #Brexit vote in the UK; but as my piece from almost exactly a year ago castigating errant rogue economist Gareth Morgan for advocating pretty much exactly the same thing demonstrates ... this is a sad idea that is regrettably not new to our public discourse.

The core arguments are always the same.

Namely, that the elderly vote more often and more consistently than other, younger demographics and ought thus be 'excluded' in order to prevent more youthful voices from being 'drowned out' by their own inaction on polling day. That the modern world is a confusing, frightening place for which older voters are allegedly ill-equipped to electorally navigate. That they support policies or principles seemingly inimical to whichever bobble-headed young commentator's chosen to pick up the cudgel of curmudeonly argument this time ... and perhaps most perniciously of all, that some of them might even ... *gasp* ... vote for Winston Peters.

Each of these is a pretty abhorrent justification for deliberately short-circuiting democracy. Taken together, and at the flood, they're outright abominable.

The effective picture we are confronted with by pachyglossal pundits pen-pushing in pursuit of a patronizing paleo-purge of our present political process is that if we allow them the vote, then our nation's democracy will be overrun by a wild, flailing, irrational 'silver horde' of ill-qualified electors only barely and dimly capable of perceiving - in political terms, if not outright literally - anything more remote than a few inches in front of their own faces, or above their own hazily perceived 'self-interest'.

If that rhetoric sounds familiar ... it's because it is. Exactly the same stereotyping and prejudice has been deployed on previous occasions in order to notionally "justify" excluding other groups in society from being able to vote.

First, it was the workers (i.e. those males above a certain age who weren't already landed or property-owning); and then, women.

Somewhat ironically, given the alleged utility of denying the elderly the vote in the name of bolstering 'youth participation' in our politics, it was also the same language employed in order to oppose reducing the voting age to 18.

Funny how times have changed, isn't it.

But because the manifest ridicularity of each and every one of the 'arguments' in favour of stripping the vote from the elderly is evidently not entirely and obviously self-apparent to columnists such as the Herald's Matt Heath ... we'll have to go through and respond to each one directly.

First, there's Heath's initial by-line premise: "Why should the elderly decide a future they won't be here to see?"

A wise man once said that a society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they will never sit in. That's exactly the inverse logic to what's outlined above in Heath's article - and apart from being a far more preferable vision for how society might work, also in my experience lines up far more closely with how the older generation actually *does* think. Namely, that even if they themselves aren't going to be directly and personally around to experience the better society they might help build with their vote ... they can jolly well do their level best to attempt to bequeath a greater future to their grandchildren.

The Green Party's evidently cottoned on to exactly this form of thinking. It helps to explain why they were so vocal and vociferous with the whole "vote for me" element to their 2011 election campaign - replete with aspirational child-figure whose interests older, greyer electors could act to defend and advance via their choice at the ballot-box. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it's also a principle much of NZ First's policy turns on. I still remember at my first-ever NZF Convention in 2010 getting up and selling the room on a universal student allowance and I think from memory a zero fees policy for tertiary education. Even though literally only a handful of the people in that room (who were, perhaps unsurprisingly, predominantly elderly) had ever actually been to university ... they first-up wanted to ensure greater opportunities and outcomes for those who'd come after them than they'd had - and second, they were also aware that once upon a time both of these policies were just accepted facts with how we'd done things in New Zealand, so already implicitly knew these ideas were 'possible' rather than merely 'pie in the sky'. The same logic applies to environmental policy, in that you're probably more inclined to support clean and swimable rivers for your grandkids to enjoy if you were, yourself, able to remember when they used to be exactly that some sixty years before.

And in fact, that's another key and salient point which flies flat in the face of Heath's 'reasoning'. The votes and values of the elderly don't axiomatically represent wild and irrational electoral flailing in a "terrifyingly confusing" modern world (Heath's words, not mine). Instead, quite often they represent the rational and compassionate actions of venerable storehouses of knowledge and living history. They don't just remember when the rivers used to be cleaner - they also remember such present-day myths as affordable housing, full employment, and fair, livable wages being prior and accepted realities worth fighting to maintain.

Gosh, perhaps in some ways the world really WAS a better place when older voters were our age.

Meanwhile, if you want to see 'selfish' politics which runs a serious risk of wrecking up the place ... I hear there's a nice young man by the name of David Seymour presently running ACT.

And while we're on the subject of neoliberalism, it is simply untrue to state as Heath does that everything which has gone wrong economically since 1984 is the fault of elderly voters.

Voters - elderly or otherwise - did not vote for Rogernomics in that abominable Year Zero. Nor did they vote for Ruthanasia two cycles later. In actual fact, when largely older voters motioned to support National in 1990, it was overwhelmingly because Bolger campaigned upon rolling back Rogernomics. The fact that National then proved entirely perfidious and rolled out a further round of ruinous neoliberal "reform" due to an economic conspiracy headed up by Ruth Richardson is not the fault of elderly voters - particularly given they voted for the *exact opposite* to take place.

Further, and perhaps more importantly, the generations we're talking about are overwhelmingly the ones who fought so bitterly for us to have a referendum upon our electoral system in 1993. The same one which gave us MMP.

It's questionable as to the extent to which MMP has ever been truly embraced by an older generation frankly accustomed to having elected representatives who directly represent a certain defined constituency (and almost invariably a smaller one than today's electoral seats, at that) ... but the fact remains that we almost certainly wouldn't have secured the transition to proportional representation (Which, incidentally, gives young people far more of a say through the List Vote than FPP ever did by virtue of not letting our voices be drowned out by mere geography) as and when we did without exactly the same group of people Heath pillories for allegedly being responsible for "the way things turned out" economically during the 80s and early 90s.

And this misaligned finger-pointing also puts paid to Heath's next assertion: that older New Zealanders insisting they paid taxes to fund their future pensions all their working lives should apparently be denied a state-funded retirement because the elderly have somehow misappropriated all the money set aside to provide them.

Nobody voted for the National Party to stop making contributions to the Cullen Fund in order to fund a flag referendum (widely unpopular with the elderly). And, perhaps more importantly, the Party which put compulsory national savings back on the agenda was New Zealand First (otherwise known as the stereotypical preferential party of the elderly) in the late 1990s - we even secured a referendum on the subject to bring it about.

So all things considered, apart from it seeming churlish at best to attempt to blame the elderly for the failings of the politicians they continually voted AGAINST ... it's also flat-up wrong. My experience with many, MANY politically active older New Zealanders is that they tend to be far more altruistic, considerate, and forward-thinking with their votes than the average, stereotypical young person.

This is at least partially because the average stereotypical young person has probably only got a fifty percent or smaller chance of actually bothering to vote.

And while it might seem like I"m somewhat exaggerating that statistic for rhetorical impactuous effect, I've also seen data which suggests that only about 40% of "Millenials" (i.e. people about my age) voted in the recent #Brexit referendum. The complaints that the strong and concerted vote of the elderly (who were something like 80% likely to vote in the same referendum) thus "stole" the result by "drowning out" the voices of the young in an illegitimate manner are thus nonsense. A small number of young people cared vigorously enough to vote, many of them for "Remain" - and then when it turned out they'd lost, attempted to cry 'foul' on grounds that it was somehow unfair that the people they needed to turn out to swing the result simply didn't bother.

Which, if you look not at all that closely, appears to be exactly Heath's argument all the way through.

It has been said that one of the main issues with democracy is that it makes "my ignorance worth just as much as your knowledge". But regardless of whether this is desirable or not or even particularly true, that's an entirely different maxim to "my lack of participation is worth just as much as your active engagement".

We start to enter into very curious and very vexing territory when non-votes (not abstentions - straight up absences of votes caused by somebody not even bothering to enter a polling booth) are treated with exactly as much if not vastly more weight than actual votes.

And yet that is apparently exactly what is being advocated here.

Empowering the voice of youth in politics by systemically disempowering people who actually vote in the vague and most likely vain hopes that a few twentysomethings more will actually take an interest on polling day.


And worse still - patronizing madness.

My grandparents' generation straight-up BUILT many of the noble social and economic institutions which gave New Zealand its much-vaunted status as number two in the world for living standards. The visionary Labour government of the 1930s which allowed John A. Lee almost free reign to construct tens of thousands of affordable houses for New Zealand Families is not just in living memory - but contains abject living lessons for the politicians and politics of today.

To insist that our elderly citizens should be steadfastly deprived of their right to vote purely because of some ineluctable combination of a referendum result on the literal other side of the world and spiraling youth apathy about politics is heinous.

And also, in terms of the magical utopia of sudden unselfish rationalism it will supposedly usher into our nation's politics, flagrantly disingenuous.

Nobody seriously disputes that flagging youth engagement with politics is a serious problem.

But the only 'solution' presented with Matt Heath's column is presumably the 180-proof paintstripper substitute Ouzo bottle which I'd have to imbibe the level entirety of in order to take a single one of his proposed panaceas  seriously.

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