By Dr Elizabeth Monaghan
As the OWL reflected last week, the Presidential election in the US demonstrated that stark divisions exist within the American electorate. Donald Trump’s electoral success, particularly in some regions of the US, has been widely seen to reflect an estrangement, even an alienation from mainstream politics on the part of voters. It also demonstrated that the electorate was further divided between those who voted and those who did not. Much is being made of the fact that, according to recent figures, Trump won 26.4% of the popular vote and Clinton won 26.5% (though final figures are to be confirmed as absentee ballots are still being counted). But both figures are dwarfed by the 42% of the electorate who did not vote. There are, of course, many stories behind the headline figures: they only tell us who voted, or did not vote, and do not answer the more interesting question of why. Already though, one conclusion is that the large number of non-voters reflects a disengagement of large parts of the populations from formal politics.
In the UK, Brexit is viewed in similar terms: the Leave vote was a rejection of the status quo, and as the OWL discussed, twenty-eight percent of the electorate did not vote in the referendum.
The consequences of this apparent disengagement from mainstream politics are by now impossible to ignore, but is it really anything new? For thirteen years, the Hansard Society have been running their Audit of Political Engagement, a report which takes the ‘political pulse’ of the UK and provides a unique insight into public opinion on politics and the political process. Each audit analyses the findings of a public opinion poll on people’s knowledge and interest in politics, their political action, and their satisfaction with politics. By repeating questions over successive years it allows for a longer term view on public attitudes to politics and brings much-needed perspective to the peculiar events of the last few months. The 2016 report, based on data collected in December 2015, challenges the notion of a widespread and comprehensive disengagement from politics. The proportion of people claiming to be knowledgeable about politics has grown from 42% in the first 2004 report to 55%. The proportions who report themselves to be ‘interested in politics’and ‘certain to vote’ have also increased (from 50% to 57% and 51% to 59% respectively). Perhaps more intriguingly, and consistent with the suggestion that the events of 2016 reflect a specific challenge for mainstream politics and the political process, the proportions of people who are ‘satisfied with the system of governing’ and who feel that ‘getting involved is effective’ have declined very slightly since 2004 (from 36% to 33% and 37% to 25% respectively).
We will have to wait until Spring 2017, when the next Audit is published, to see if the indicators over the past 12 months have shifted significantly.