Russell Brand defends his decision not to vote

As we learned in class today, voting is the most conventional form of political activity. Although an ever-increasing number of citizens in advanced industrial economies refuses to vote, still a majority of citizens gets out and votes during national elections. But, for a majority of these voters, voting is the extent of their political activity.

What can we say about most non-voters and the reasons that they don’t vote? Well, fortunately, pollsters and academics have tried to answer this question. Let’s take a look at the Canadian federal election from 2011. In that election, only 61.1% of eligible voters bothered to vote. To determine why Canadians were not voting, Elections Canada, in conjunction with the monthly Labour Force Survey, asked those who didn’t vote their main reason for not doing so. Here are the results:

Canadian Federal Election 2011

What do you think about these results? Below is an excerpt from an interview of Russell Brand on BBC, in which the actor/comedian explains why it is that he refuses to vote in elections in Great Britain. [By the way, he has since changed his views on voting.]

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Generation Y Political Apathy

In advance of the Canadian federal election (for up-to-date poll-based projections, go here), Kensington TV has produced a compelling documentary, which aims to understand the current political apathy within the “millennial” generation, both in Canada and the United States. Hosted by Dylan Playfair, the documentary critically examines stereotypical assumptions that have been made about the reasons for youth political apathy.

The documentary will be showing at select universities around Canada in the run-up to the federal election, which is being held on October 19th. For more about the documentary and where it may be viewed, click here. The documentary will be available for television and Internet viewing in early October. Please watch the trailer below.

Functions of Constitutions

In a response to a story that I blogged about yesterday, New Yorker Magazine Senior Editor, Hendrik Hertzberg, takes issue with the claim that the US Constitution has become increasingly irrelevant as a model for constitution-builders worldwide. Hertzberg writes:

The problem is that the study focusses almost exclusively on rights—the individual and civil rights that are specified in written constitutions. But it almost totally ignores structures—the mundane mechanisms of governing, the nuts and bolts, which is mainly what constitutions, written and unwritten, are about, and which determine not only whether rights are truly guaranteed but also whether a government can truly function in accordance with democratic norms. Or function at all with any semblance of efficiency, effectiveness, and accountability.

In Chapter 6 of the Dyck text, we learn that there are five main functions of any constitution, the first one of which “to define the structure of major institutions of government.” Other major functions are:

  • To divide powers and responsibilities among the various institutions of government
  • To regulate relations between the citizen and the state (this is where rights–civil, legal, political, sometimes economic, social and cultural–are enumerated)
  • To serve as a political symbol
  • To specify a method for amending the constitution

What does the study in question say about whether the US Constitution is being used as a template in these other areas? You’ll have to wait until the study is published in June of this year to find out.

 

 

PM Harper’s Foreign Policy Shift Towards China

In the National Post, Peter Godspeed argues that Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s pending visit to China represents somewhat of a foreign policy pivot for the Conservative government.

Like the United States, Canada is in the midst of a foreign policy pivot in Asia…

…Tuesday, Stephen Harper, the Prime Minister, arrives in the Chinese capital for what almost amounts to a traditional “Team Canada” trade mission, seeking to strengthen economic ties with Canada’s second-largest trading partner.

With four cabinet ministers — John Baird, the Foreign Affairs Minister, Ed Fast, the International Trade Minister, Gerry Ritz, the Agriculture Minister, and Joe Oliver, the Natural Resources Minister — and seven MPs and 40 business executives and academics, he hopes to build on rapidly expanding ties that have pushed bilateral trade to US$57.7-billion a year in 2010.

“China’s growth as an emerging market is very significant for Canada’s business community, and it is an economic relationship that requires the attention of the highest political level,” said Peter Harder, president of the Canada-China Business Council.

From the perspective of foreign-policy decision-making in IR theory, the makeup of the Team Canada mission to China would indicate the importance of the pluralist and organizational/bureaucratic models. The pluralist model notes the impact of powerful interest groups, such as the Canada-China Business Council, and business executives and academics. Radicals, especially Marxists, would note the absence of any environmental or union groups amongst the mission’s members.

About the tone of the trip, NDTV reports that

The visit can be seen as a change in attitude for Canada, which has a record of taking a hard stance on the Chinese regime’s human rights abuses, as it looks as if economic ties between the two nations are warming.

Does Political Ideology Change as we Age?

It has long been accepted conventional wisdom that as we age we become more conservative in our political views. Remember the quote that has been (allegedly) wrongly attributed to Winston Churchill:

“If you’re not a liberal when you’re 25, you have no heart.  If you’re not a conservative by the time you’re 35, you have no brain.”

But as with many things, conventional wisdom doesn’t seem to be very wise. According to recent research, individuals do not become more conservative as they age. In fact, just the opposite may be true. From an article on the Discovery magazine website, we learn:

Ongoing research, however, fails to back up the stereotype [about age and conservatism]. While there is some evidence that today’s seniors may be more conservative than today’s youth, that’s not because older folks are more conservative than they use to be. Instead, our modern elders likely came of age at a time when the political situation favored more conservative views.

In fact, studies show that people may actually get more liberal over time when it comes to certain kinds of beliefs. That suggests that we are not pre-determined to get stodgy, set in our ways or otherwise more inflexible in our retirement years. [emphasis added]

The studies do reference data collected in the United States, but there’s no reason to think that the same phenomenon wouldn’t apply in other advanced capitalist democracies.

How do your political beliefs compare to those of your parents? What was the political climate like at the time your parents were becoming politically aware? In which country (if it wasn’t Canada) did your parents come of political age?

Are your Political Attitudes and Ideologies Biologically Determined?

Next week (January 31) in POLI 1100, we’ll be discussing political attitudes and political ideologies. The conclusion of Chapter 5 in Dyck summarizes political ideologies nicely:

Conflicting ideologies offer us a means of understanding our society, situating ourselves in the political world, and participating in actions intended to advance our interests and those of our communities.

What is the source of any individual’s political ideological leanings? A common answer is that we are politically socialized into our ideologies. Agents of political socialization such as families, churches, educational institutions, and the media play prominent roles in the process of an individual’s ideological development. But what if we were biologically pre-disposed to our ideological views. Is there a chance that some of us are more conservative, and others more liberal, from birth, and the role that agents of political socialization is negligible? According to recent research, the answer to that question may be ‘yes’. How much of the developmental process of political ideology is nature and how much is nurture?

As much as we stake our identity on such core beliefs, it’s unlikely we emerged from the womb as little liberals or libertarians. This raises a fundamental question: At what point in our development did such predispositions begin to form, to coalesce and to harden? What is it about our biology and/or psychology that propels us toward a liberal or conservative mindset?

The question has long intrigued social psychologists such as John Jost of New York University. In a 2003 meta-analysis of 50 years of research, he summarizes the overwhelming evidence that political ideologies, “like virtually all other belief systems, are adopted in part because they satisfy various psychological needs.” Jost quickly adds that this “is not to say they are unprincipled, unwarranted, or unresponsive to reason or evidence” — only that the underlying motivation to believe in them emerges from somewhere other than the rational, conscious mind.

According to Jost, political ideologies derive from our effort to “satisfy…psychological needs.” What, though, gives rise to these psychological needs? It could very well be our biology/physiology:

Researchers at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln showed people a series of photos — some endearing, some disgusting — and then measured their physiological and cognitive reactions. Conservatives, in keeping with past literature, reacted more strongly to the negative images, and liberals strongly to the positive ones…

…“I figured because conservatives reacted more strongly to negative things, they’d be more likely to avoid them,” said Mike Dodd, an assistant professor of psychology and the study’s lead author. “That ended up not being the case. They ended up locking onto them quicker and taking more time on them, which makes sense from a policy perspective. Oftentimes they end up confronting things that they think of as threats.” [emphasis added]

Are these findings consistent with your personal experience? Are they plausible explanations for the political ideological leanings of your friends and family?

Do you even know your political ideology? Here’s a relatively painless online test you can take that summarizes political ideologies in a two-dimensional (left-right; authoritarian-libertarian) scale.

What does an Intro to Comparative final exam at MIT look like?

Here are a couple of examples:

Final exam last semester

After three and a half years of occupation, U.S. attempts to build stable, democratic government in Iraq have utterly failed. Iraq is plagued by a weak state unable to guarantee public order, mounting ethnic conflict, pervasive corruption, anemic economic performance, and poor prospects for democracy. Drawing on the knowledge you have gained over the semester, think about the five issues mentioned above (state-building, ethnic conflict, corruption, economic growth, and democracy).

Then answer the following three questions:

1. What recommendations would you have made to Coalition authorities at the beginning of the occupation to maximize the odds of a successful outcome?
2. To the extent that they are different, what recommendations would you make now?
3. How effective or ineffective do you think these your recommendations would have been or would be?

At 1:30 p.m. on the day of the exam (Tuesday the 19th), we will ask you to address ONE of these topics only, and we will specify which one you should address. For instance, we might ask you to answer the three questions listed above as they apply to economic growth: (1) what policies should the Coalition have adopted to maximize economic growth, (2) what recommendations would you make now to increase economic growth, and (3) how effective or ineffective do you think these recommendations would have been or would be in stimulating economic growth? The exam topic will be emailed to the class and posted on the class website. You are encouraged to collaborate with your fellow students in working through possible responses between now and the 19th. However, you must write the exam entirely by yourself. We do NOT expect you to do additional reading for the exam beyond the materials covered in class and the papers on Iraq that is now posted on Rather, you should leverage the general knowledge you have obtained over the semester — and the rather limited information you have acquired on Iraq — to address the topic.

Submit your exams to me and Professor Lawson byemail as an MS Word attachment or hand in a hard copy to Professor Lawson’s office. The deadline is 7:30 p.m. December 19th. No extensions will be given, and you will be penalized for lateness in a draconian fashion. If you hand your exam in by email, you are responsible for ensuring that the attachment can be opened in MS Word.

Final exam topic two years ago
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