Feeling ‘Meh’ About the Election? We’re Talking Political Apathy: Why We Feel It, Why We Should Fight It & How!

As the election looms, many of us are feeling a degree of political apathy. Sarah Lang looks at why we might be feeling this way, and how we might overcome this within the limits of our personal bandwidth.

Political apathy. There, I’ve said it. With the election looming, many of us feel that we really should be looking at, thinking about and talking about the different parties’ policies, but we just…. aren’t. Many of us are feeling apathetic about it all, even if we don’t want to feel that way. We aren’t as enthused or informed as we perhaps want to be. And, look, I’m one of these people. When I think about looking at climate-change mitigation policies, it makes me want to collapse onto the couch with a glass of wine and watch Big Little Lies (how did I not discover this show earlier?). 

Political apathy is kind of self-explanatory, but also worth defining. It’s characterised by a lack of interest in politics, which could manifest as a lack of interest in: national or local-body elections, policies, voting, political events and civic-engagement events. (It’s not as deep-seated as political alienation, which occurs when voters feel the political system doesn’t work for them and that any attempt to influence it will be a fruitless exercise.)

Political apathy is something that can come and go at different times for different people – and from what I can tell, it’s more ‘go’ than ‘come’ right now. Most people I’ve sounded out are feeling some degree of apathy – some a lot of it – about the coming election.

Why? Have Covid and the stressors of the pandemic left us feeling rundown or even given us Long Covid? Are we so bone-tired by living busy lives while navigating the rising cost of living that we lack the energy to care about politics right now? Are we disillusioned, feeling that issues like the cost of living, climate change and mental health haven’t been adequately addressed by the different governments when they held power? Are we worried that really engaging with issues like climate change and the recession will keep us awake at night? Is it that both major parties are pretty centrist now, so perhaps we feel that one is much the same as the other? Is there some knock-on effect from Trump where we feel disgusted by politics in general?

These are all reasons that people gave me. And in some cases, frustrating or upsetting personal experiences – for instance, not being able to access much-needed mental-health services – had bred cynicism about the efficacy of politics.

Despite all this, everyone I spoke to planned to vote. Many people plan to vote for the party they’ve voted for before, not because of its current policies (again, we’re tired) but because they feel that party is most ideologically aligned to them.

Cereal killer

Airini Beautrais, a 40-year-old poet, short-story writer and mother from Whanganui, hates election time. Why? “The choice between National and Labour, with a sprinkling of minor parties depending on who meets the threshold and who forms a coalition, feels like a choice between raisin bran and sultana bran.” (And breakfast is important, right?)

She’s also deeply frustrated that politicians often don’t keep pre-election promises. “For example, the current Labour government has promised to clean up rivers, but water quality continues to deteriorate. They promised to build 10,000 houses a year over a decade via Kiwibuild, but that yearly target wasn’t met. Greenhouse emissions continue to increase despite intentions to the contrary. And targets to lift children out of poverty, and improve mental-health outcomes, have also not been met.”

She’s by no means putting everything on Labour. “The previous National government also made a number of promises that weren’t kept. John Key was elected on a platform of reducing taxes, but promptly raised GST. Complaints about the Key government are similar to those levelled against the current Labour government: filthy rivers, poor mental health, rising income inequality.”

Airini says, yes, global economic factors play a part in government failings in making meaningful progress in key areas, but other factors are at play too. “There’s a real trend in New Zealand of the major parties campaigning on issues to a real or imagined middle-ground then, once elected, watering down policies to keep approval up and stay in power. While a centrist government certainly isn’t the worst state of affairs, it does mean it’s hard to feel like voting makes much of a difference, or to get passionate about elections.”

“I know a number of people who conscientiously abstain from voting. I do normally vote – 2008 was the one year I didn’t – and I will this year, but I don’t expect much to change as a result. I think it’s more important to put energy into community-level initiatives that I feel make a positive impact. Community initiatives that I’ve been involved in or adjacent to include community gardens, food-rescue-and-redistribution services, non-violence education programmes, adult education, and community arts events.”

Information overload?

Jaimie Monk, who has a PhD in Public Policy from Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington, is a Christchurch-based Fellow from Motu Research: an independent, public-good-focused economics and policy research institute.

“In my eyes,” Jaimie tells me, “a contributing factor [to political apathy] is what behavioural economists call ‘choice overload’. So, it’s not that people don’t care. It’s just that, because humans have limited mental energy, we can get overwhelmed with too many options or too much information, and then we might just not make a decision.”

And in New Zealand politics, we have more choices than we used to. “Historically, the option was just the National or Labour local candidate in our electorate – people we may well have met – and our information sources were just talking with friends and family, the 6pm TV news, and the daily newspaper. Now, under MMP, we have two votes to make, multiple parties to choose from, and an almost infinite access to information and opinions online from both experts and social media. Combine this with complex policy problems like the cost-of-living crisis and climate change – which even the experts struggle to get their heads around – and this all leads to people feeling a bit paralysed and like it’s easier not to engage.”

Is pandemic-era exhaustion a factor too? “I think the pandemic has exacerbated the problem in the sense that Covid’s added to everyone’s mental load and made most policy problems that bit more complicated to understand. I’m currently living with Long Covid, and when you have limited mental energy to spend, I can see why most people – who aren’t political junkies like me – wouldn’t choose to spend that [energy] in following politics. There are a lot of complex problems, not many clear solutions, and spending time learning about it all can leave you feeling quite down – and our brains are more quickly drawn to getting a dopamine hit from social media.”

A magic wand?

Some people feel embarrassed by their apathy about the election – and some feel the need to justify it (which they absolutely don’t need to do). One woman tells me: “I’m embarrassed about my political apathy because I care deeply about the world we live in, but with kids, a mortgage and not enough money, I don’t have the bandwidth to engage with all the policies”. To which I say that, if you’re currently too exhausted or overwhelmed by life to engage with politics, that’s totally fair enough. No explanation necessary.

However, other people hope their apathy will dissipate before the election swings by. But that’s not going to magically happen on its own. So how might we engage with the issues and policies in a time-efficient way without our brains exploding?

Jaimie’s usual suggestion to combat information overload is to follow the political parties on social media. “This gives you a steady stream of what each party thinks is important, which gives you a social-media dopamine hit, but also gives you the chance to engage in anything that interests you when it pops up.”

“Another idea is chatting with someone engaged with politics, whose views you respect, to see what they think. I remember a conversation with a ‘mum friend’ last election who asked me who I was voting for. She wanted to vote but was feeling overwhelmed with information. My initial response was to direct her to some policy summaries, but then I realised that when you’re sleep-deprived with a toddler and a newborn, having a chat with a friend with similar values, and an interest in politics, might be a smart way of deciding how to vote.”

We’re hoping we can help too. Over the next four weeks, we’ll be covering topics related to the election – primarily, outlining parties’ policies on issues including childcare, the cost of living and climate change. If you’d like a breakdown of party policies in another area, email us at [email protected]. Otherwise, stand by!

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