To the Editors:
I’d like to offer some thoughts in response to the recently published op-ed “Prime Minister Justin Trudeau: From the perspective of a Canadian student in France.”
It is not the author’s purported premise that I refute, but instead the troubling cynicism deeply imbued in the resulting article. Change, the author concludes, is too difficult within the traditional apparatus. Better not to partake in partisan politics as only those who steer clear maintain capacity for change and, it would seem, integrity.
This is not an uncommon point of view for our generation. In Canada, for example, the 2008 and 2011 parliamentary elections saw youth turnouts of under 40% (with a welcome spike to 57% in 2015). Less than a third of Americans born in the 1980s agree with their pre-war compatriots that it is « essential » to live in a democratically governed country, a statistic which might help tell the story of low turnout. Apathy is a problem, and I suspect it is fed by the facile brand of cynicism that self-excludes from the political process.
But apathy is about more than voting. It’s about youth participating actively in partisan politics to shape the way politics is done. That change cannot come from the outside.
This is not to contest the role of non-partisan civic engagement. Politics is an ecosystem in which independent activism and institutional, mainstream, processes cohabitate to ultimately achieve some policy outcome. Where partisan politics may sometimes exclude, or fall short, independent activism can play a role crucial to facilitating participation. Non-partisan activism is a particularly useful vehicle to advocate for a specific issue or policy change. However, if partisan politics is the art of compromise, it is also the art of decision-making. Refusal to partake is refusal to make that decision and to prioritize the issues. It seems too easy to shirk that responsibility in favour of levelling criticism from the outside.
Refuting the validity of one part of the political ecosystem closes the door to a vehicle for action. Ella Wheeler Wilcox wrote that “to sin by silence, when we should protest/Makes cowards out of men.” It is my impression that cynicism pushes us towards the sin of silence; rather than endeavour for reform or for policy implementation, we choose to remain sidelined. By this virtue, it also becomes the sin of casting one’s seeds to the dessert. Where there is nothing sown, nothing may grow. I am reminded of the words that prompted my own engagement in politics: “If you want your voice to be heard, you need a seat at the table.” It seems self-defeating not to take one’s seat, but to expect spontaneous change.
Precisely because I believe in the ecosystem of politics, and the component parts that make it work, I found the gross mischaracterization of the partisan political process irksome. In a recent interview, former vice-president Joe Biden asserted that, for politics to be successful, you can question the content but not the motive. Questioning the content is a policy disagreement; questioning the motive discounts the other side from the get-go. It is because the author chose to question the motive, rather than to address the content, that I took issue with the piece published. To address this mischaracterization of partisan politics, I’ll end with a brief anecdote about the potential of engagement within the system.
In April, I landed in Halifax for my first national political convention, knowing essentially no one. I soon discovered that I could count myself among a record-breaking number of first-time convention-goers who, like myself, had made the trip alone, prompted by an interest in policy and a compulsion for active participation. I was one of several hundred youth members (members under 25) attending the most open convention yet. For this convention, the party had done away with antiquated barriers to participation by inviting anyone with a membership card.
I was called upon – encouraged, in fact – to debate policies presented, to vote on the party’s internal policy stances, and to promote the policies I most believed in. Entire sessions were devoted to debate on internal party procedure. Over the course of a weekend, I went from card-carrying member to platform-building citizen.
Readers, allow me to say: there is nothing superficial about the roar of applause when youth members stand as their policy priorities are voted through to a national platform.
Not bad for a party led by a politician who knows his lighting.
Fernand Le Fèvre is an alumnus of the Dual BA program between Sciences Po (Campus of Reims) and Columbia University. He graduated in 2017.
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