Understanding young people and politics in a digital context

Ariadne Vromen, The University of Sydney

Aaron Martin Young People and Politics: Political Engagement in the Anglo-American Democracies, Abingdon, Routledge, 2012 (184 pp). ISBN 9-78041569-691-3 (hard cover) RRP $127.99.

In the last ten years or so comparative scholarship on young people’s changing political attitudes and behaviour has had a renaissance. There are two main competing analyses: those expressing despair at young people’s lack of dutiful engagement with formal, electoral politics on one hand; and those heralding the emergence of new, individualised forms of political engagement on the other. What is at stake in this new scholarship is a contested definition of what it now means to act politically, and how we can best understand and evaluate young people’s actions. Equally important is debate about what policies might (re)engage today’s young people in politics. One analysis is pessimistic; typically associated with the work on declining social capital of Robert Putnam and his followers (see, for example, see Putnam 2000; Leigh 2010; Milner 2010); the other is optimistic; arguing for the emergence of generationally-led social and political change, and associated with the World Values research project of Ronald Inglehart and Pippa Norris (see, for example, Inglehart 1997; Norris 2002; Dalton 2008). I have tended to fall into the second camp, choosing to focus on new ways of seeing young people’s politics and giving sometimes short shrift to demonstrating the extent of change in behaviour and/or persistence and volatility of traditional forms of engagement.

Young People and Politics: Political Engagement in the Anglo-American Democracies is a new book by Aaron Martin, which tries to move beyond this simple pessimistic versus optimistic binary, to focus on how we can understand and quantify young people’s attitudes and behaviours. He uses detailed comparative analysis of young people’s political engagement in the four Anglophone countries of Australia, Britain, Canada and the United States to demonstrate the limitations of locally developed stereotypes, and to redress the lack of systematic, comparative evidence used in existing research.

Impressively, this book does not study political engagement in the form of voter turnout only, as is common in many other studies. Martin also analyses political trust, political interest, non-electoral participation and internet use. Location matters, and it is no coincidence that because voting is compulsory in Australia, scholars here tend to broaden the study of engagement beyond predicting electoral turnout. I would also like to note here that this is a mainstream approach to understanding young people’s political participation. There is virtually no acknowledgement within this field that defining ‘politics’, and thus engagement with it, is hotly contested (see, for example, Bennett 1998; Bang 2005), nor is there reference to prolific qualitative researchers who focus more on the meaning of politics to participants (see, for example, Marsh, O’Toole & Jones 2007; Harris, Wyn & Younes 2010; Collin 2008). This is about Politics, purposefully with a capital P. That is OK with me—electoral engagement matters for democracy. But it is an explicitly normative position to focus only on the formal political arena and electoral-based conceptions of political participation (for a more strident critique of Martin’s research, see McCaffrie and Marsh (2013)). It makes it nearly impossible to value or see, let alone systematically quantify, new forms of engagement, especially those emerging in the digital context. Further, this research only recognises participation as individual citizen actions such as voting, and neglects collective action and group-based participation. Focusing on individual actions alone makes it more difficult to judge whether collective activities that facilitate engagement—from protest to charitable community involvements to online social networking—are also changing or in decline.


Theories of lifecycle effects predict that young people will mature and grow into electoral engagement as they encounter adult responsibilities (see, for example, Franklin 2004). Theories of generational effects predict that young people’s present and future political engagements are shaped by the circumstances of the times in which they live (for example, Inglehart 1997). Martin’s analysis is underpinned by the adage he quotes on page 22: ‘if, as is often said, democracy is inconceivable without political parties, then democracy is impossible without voting’. For Martin voting is a crucial learned behaviour or habit, and if not engaged with early on may always be avoided by disengaged citizens. Using national level election surveys from the last 40 years or so, he suggests that generational change does matter, but that turnout is not now uniformly low, rather it is less predictable and more volatile, depending on the electoral circumstances. The most recent national elections in Britain, Canada and the United States, for example, have seen an increase in turnout amongst young people, even though they are proportionately less likely than older people to vote in elections.

This book does not study political engagement in the form of voter turnout only.

It is the examination of generalised feelings citizens have towards their political systems—trust, interest, duty and so on—that makes many political scientists despair for an increasingly generationally specific disaffection from politics (see, for example, Milner 2010). However, the picture of what is occurring is far from uniform. Overall, as Martin shows us, in all four countries there is little difference among age groups in their levels of trust in the political system. While only a minority of citizens in all countries now trust their governments, and even less their political parties, this does decrease and increase over time, responsive to the political context.

Martin presents a complex picture of generational change. He finds that more than two thirds of today’s young people in Australia and Britain state they are at least somewhat interested in politics. This is substantively more than young people a generation or two ago. In Canada and the United States, a minority of young people are interested in politics, but this is increasingly volatile and context specific, driven by political events. Martin has an optimistic message of the potential to increase turnout over young people’s lifecycle by increasing interest in the habit of voting. This may need to be tempered by his analysis of whether young people currently believe voting is an important civic duty (p. 33): here it is only in the United States where a majority of young people (55 per cent) believe it is ‘very important’ to vote, around 40 per cent in Canada and Australia, and a startlingly low 14 per cent in Britain. These investigations into attitudes or feelings citizens have about their electoral systems reveal an ongoing engagement with Politics, but less trust in its component parts: voting, elections, political parties and politicians.


While young people’s engagement with electoral and formal Politics are the core of this book, Martin also compares the four countries on non-electoral engagement, specifically demonstration attendance, petitioning and boycotting. In all four countries the rate of annual involvement in demonstrations is low: less than 10 per cent, but young people are generally more likely to have engaged in these activities than older people. Rates of both petitioning and boycotting are high in Canada and Australia, with people over 60 half as likely as young people to have undertaken these actions. Yet Martin is less taken with Ronald Inglehart’s (1997) and Russell Dalton’s (2008) emphasis on these kinds of activities as a positive indicator of young people’s engagement, and as a result of rising education levels. As Martin argues: ‘participatory inequalities could become quite severe in the future and … celebrating new forms of participation as an expansion of democracy, underplays the importance of electoral politics, and voting in particular’ (p. 97). This reflects his overt argument throughout the book—what matters most is voting and parties are the only institutions that really link governments with society. Other forms of participation or collective action are, by inference, trivial in comparison. The neglect of the capacity of any other collectively acting groups in society either to create or question political change, or to advocate on behalf of the less politically vocal, is disappointing. As I suggested earlier, the individualisation of engagement that is made visible in this kind of research on political behaviour also needs to be questioned. It is change in collective—not just aggregated—political action we should also try to understand.


Martin presents a complex picture of generational change.

Martin is sceptical that the Internet is mobilising young people who are not already engaged in politics and argues that ‘at present it seems that the internet is having a negligible effect on young people’s overall level of political participation’ (p. 105). Due to data limitations, he compares only the United States and Australia. Martin does not critically engage with the emergence of social media (which are not included in the data he uses), nor the narrow electoral-based definitions of ‘politics’ that the surveys are tapping into as indicators of internet-mediated participation: ‘Likelihood of having joined a political forum’, ‘Forwarded a message with political content’, or ‘Visited a political organization or candidate’s website’. All of these actions are regarded as ‘low cost’ to the participant. Later he suggests we cannot really judge the quality of internet-based discussion, and that based on low use in 2004, the digital context is not providing a deliberative space for young people (p. 107). When he finds that, in 2011, 40 per cent of young Australians had visited the website of a political organisation in the last year, he concedes that it is possible that the scope of young people’s political knowledge base is changing. What is important to note here is that he argues that some forms of political engagement are more important than others, but are also held to a different democratic standard. That is, young people’s engagement directly with formal politics online is diminished, as there is insufficient evidence that there is rational, engaged debate among people from different political outlooks—also known as deliberation. Yet other forms of participation, notably voting, are not required to involve deliberation to count as an indicator for meaningful engagement.

After analysing individuals’ online involvements, Martin moves to analysis of the Internet as a tool for new kinds of mobilisation. This is one of the most developed areas of current research and debate in the vibrant ‘Internet and Politics’ field. Unfortunately, Martin neglects much here, relying instead on old sources such Pippa Norris’ 2001, albeit agenda-setting, book Digital Divide?, and Andrew Chadwick’s 2006 book Internet Politics. Martin acknowledges that current surveys do not understand or even measure popular ‘amorphous and anonymous organizations’, and that new measures need to be devised that can ‘better capture more ephemeral forms of participation’ (p. 113). This could start by including engagement with new kinds of organisations such as GetUp! and the increasing use of online petitioning through a variety of civil society organisations. Later he discusses further how acting politically on the Internet ‘is likely to differ by respondent’ (p. 116).

My primary criticism here is that Martin does not seem to recognise how existing, replicable survey items reflect normative evaluations of acting politically in the contemporary era. That is, there is an unstated commitment in the book to what are the preferred, stable and dutiful forms of engagement that citizens ought to do. Surveys have always been deficient in tapping into the meaning of political engagement for the respondents themselves. It is unclear why Martin recognises instability and different, personal interpretations of politics when discussing online engagement—but not when discussing other forms of political engagement.

I have a ‘horse in this race’, as my current research is on young people’s online political engagement, especially through social media use. It is no surprise that I find this chapter underestimates the importance of the Internet to all citizen-based political engagement. In all the countries Martin studies, online technologies, that are increasingly mobile through the use of smartphones, are a normal part of young people’s everyday lives. Engagement with peers and expression of political viewpoints have been found to be an extension of young people’s everyday internet and social media use (see Schlozman, Verba & Brady 2010; Smith 2013), and when young people choose to engage politically, their everyday digital context is usually their first reference point (see, for example Buckingham 2007; Bennett 2008).

Martin is sceptical that the Internet is mobilising young people not already engaged in politics.

The political use of social media, and social networking sites such as Facebook in particular, is led by young people. For example, in the United States, 33 per cent of internet users aged 18–24 make political use of social networking sites compared to only 3 per cent of those aged over 55. These numbers are nearly reversed when looking at online contact with government officials, which has been undertaken by 13 per cent of 18-24 year olds but 38 per cent of over 55s (Smith, Schlozman, Verba et al. 2009, p. 52, 45). Yet these figures only relate to narrow understandings of engagement with political institutions. Existing indicators likely underestimate young people’s increasing political use of social media because these indicators focus on electoral engagement, and do not measure young people’s everyday political experiences through their political expression, involvement in broader issue based campaigns, or their peer-to-peer political discussions (Chen & Vromen 2012). It is likely that a more expansive notion of political engagement will demonstrate the growing differences between younger and older people’s forms of political engagement, and identify any reduction in political inequality among young people. Similarly, many still examine young people’s use of social media as a predictor of their offline participation (mainly voting), rather than trying to understand how this online behaviour manifests and differentiates their political engagement.


Martin concludes the book by engaging with the perennial question of ‘what should be done?’ about young people’s political engagement. We are quickly told that ‘increasing turnout should be at the top of the list of priorities in terms of policy interventions’ (p. 121). Four mechanisms are discussed in the chapter: civics education, elite mobilisation, registration effects and electoral system reform. Only one of these is based on ‘fixing’ young people: civics education, yet it is also the one the author values the most. Drawing on the scholarship of Henry Milner (2010) and Peter Levine (2007), Martin argues that if civics education is to facilitate mobilisation, it needs to be based in an understanding of conflict, disagreement and partisanship, and to focus on current issues. This is an important shift away from models of civics education that focus on the learning of factual information about political institutions, and that are underpinned by a desire to mould young citizens into acquiescence and co-operation with the existing political system. The approach to civics education that Martin proffers acknowledges conflict, partisanship and debate on current rather than historical concerns, and is very much central to debate in the contemporary academic scholarship on civics education (see Hess 2009; Levine 2007).

The other three policy proposals include straightforward structural reforms based on increasing both on- and offline contact between politicians and young people, and making registering to vote easier; to more complex reforms such as implementing electoral systems that increase the perception of the benefits of voting: namely proportional representation and compulsory voting. Martin sees the likelihood of the implementation of these structural changes to be very slim. This is disappointing as the argument becomes circular: that is, we ought to return to instructing young people that they should dutifully engage with the existing political system to make a difference; rather than advocate for change in the political system to become more accommodating of young people’s everyday lived experience and the new knowledge gained from their digital engagement.

The political use of social media is led by young people.

However, there are examples of responsive change within the electoral system. The Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) has recently made it easier for young people to engage online. The AEC have been increasingly concerned about an estimated 25 per cent of 18-24 year olds who are not enrolled to vote. For the 2013 election, the commission has partnered with Facebook on a campaign called Youth Votes Matter that incorporates an app where, for the first time ever, young people can enrol online. This is a good example of an electoral institution understanding that it ought to engage with young people in their own context, rather than relying on calls for dutiful acts of citizenship alone. With 97 per cent of young people under 24 using Facebook, it has the potential to be a successful campaign enabled by everyday sociality (see Chen & Vromen 2012).

Martin does not return in the conclusion to systematic comparison of the four Anglophone study countries. Nor does he really look for diverse political experiences among young people. The conclusion makes some important claims about political inequality being predicated on social and economic inequality, but these are not substantiated by looking for systematic differences among young people in the four countries. Existing research already points to the exclusion from the political system and limited capacity for participatory ‘voice’ that some young people experience. That is, it is only the highly educated and class-advantaged young people who see both a mirror in existing politics, and opportunities for their political expression and engagement to be recognised (Marien, Hooghe & Quintelier 2010; Vromen & Collin 2010).

This is an important book that places comparative analysis of contemporary political engagement back at the centre of political science. Martin’s survey analysis is both careful and detailed throughout. I note that he has successfully negotiated unruly and often incompatible longitudinal datasets to tell this four country story of the complex nature of young people’s political engagement. The book is very accessibly written, and I must admit I was surprised, but not disappointed, by the reliance on mainly descriptive statistics and the absence of multivariate analysis. The optimists among us, who believe political engagement is more than voting and maintaining the status quo, clearly need to think more carefully—as Martin does in this book—about the complex interplay between comparative electoral contexts and the emergence of new forms of political engagement.


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Ariadne Vromen is an Associate Professor in the Department of Government and International Relations at The University of Sydney. She is a political sociologist with a long-term interest in young people and politics. Her current research projects include ‘The Civic Network’, a three country comparative study of young people’s political engagement and social media use, with colleagues at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the University of York and an ARC Discovery project on new forms of state-led citizen engagement with colleagues at ANZIG, University of Canberra.

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