The recent elections may not have yielded a neat result and a clear answer to the challenging problems facing us. What they did achieve, however, was a shift in how citizens view the democratic process and how they talk about politics.
This, at any rate, is what we found in our study of voters on election day. My Cardiff University colleague Inaki Garcia-Blanco and I interviewed more than 200 voters in 8 polling stations in London and Cardiff. Our study took in the marginal seat of Hampstead, as well as a range of safe seats in both cities, and included voters of all ages and ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds. We asked interviewees about why they vote in elections, whether they’re generally interested in politics, what they thought about the campaign, and what the most significant issues were. Our simple questions were designed to tap into what we have called “citizenspeak,” or the language that citizens have available to them for talking about politics.
What we found surprised us. Conventional wisdom holds that citizens are increasingly disengaged from and disenchanted with the democratic process. Ever since the 1970s, scholars have documented a steady decline invoter turnout, as well as in other measures of civic participation, such as membership in political parties and civic organisations, and newspaper readership. It led Jay Blumler and Michael Gurevitch to posit a “crisis of public communications” caused by an increasing disconnect between citizens and politics. US sociologist Nina Eliasoph concluded that American citizens “avoid politics”: On the basis of extensive ethnographic research, Eliasoph suggested that we live in a culture so suffused with anti-political sentiment that any form of political engagement is viewed with suspicion. This means that most people believe political talk is best avoided and that, as a result, there is precious little space in the public sphere for citizens to speak constructively or positively about their political views.
Our study repeated work we’ve done in the 2001 General Election and the 2009 European Parliament Election. On these occasions, we found ample evidence to back up the idea that citizens have learned to speak about politics in the language of cynicism, disgust and alienation. In 2001, we found a preponderance of what we called “immobilising discourses”, or language focused on citizen disempowerment in the political process (Wahl-Jorgensen, 2002). This included voters complaining about the meaninglessness of politics, viewing it as an insider game, and believing that politicians constantly lie and break their promises. For example, one female voter said that she pays little attention to politics because politicians “always promise things, and they never deliver. At the end of the day, the majority don’t care at all, from what I can gather. And they all seem to be the same, every single party.”
In 2009, the European Parliament elections took place amidst outcries over the MPs’ expenses scandal and a resulting widespread disgust with the excesses of politicians, and many voters picked up on these issues to express their anger and alienation. One elderly woman in a low-income Cardiff neighbourhood captured the tone of much of this discussion when she commented that “half of them you can’t trust, they’re lying, they’re corrupt, and a lot of them are a complete and utter waste of space.”
These ways of discussing politics came up again this year. But more than anything, these elections were characterised by the emergence of a new and more positive political language. Voters on the streets of London and Cardiff were “excited” about the election, they felt “galvanised” by the campaign and believed it signalled that politics can change the world. As one male voter in the marginal constituency Hampstead said:
“It’s very exciting, just having one predictable winner is not good for the nation, but this time around you can see they’re really fighting for something, and they have a real interest in the country.”
Why was this election different? Voters suggested that big issues were at stake: There was a sense that the outcome mattered, and that political decisions have a tangible impact on the lives of ordinary people in the face of the financial crisis. And finally, the televised debates sparked people’s interest.” “It’s the first election I’ve been very very interested in, simply because of the way it’s been presented,” said one young male voter in Cardiff.Some complained about how the debates represented “personality politics” and “Americanisation” but even these interviewees enjoyed them. This excitement translated into electoral participation: turnout was up to 65.1%, from 61.4% in 2005.
Ultimately, the elections made politics relevant again, embodying the possibility for change that democracy should be all about – and the idea that citizens have a role to play within it. In doing so, they provided voters with a new vocabulary that enabled them to talk about politics as if it matters.
Karin Wahl-Jorgensen teaches in Cardiff University’s School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies. She is Director of the school’s MA in Journalism Studies and MA in Political Communications and conducts research on citizenship and journalism.