Would you believe me if I told you that there is a new political party on the scene that is revolutionizing the way citizens, particularly younger Canadians, connect with politics?
Given the sorry state of our national political parties, you might not. In the last survey, conducted about a decade ago, only two percent of Canadians were party members. Half of these members were seniors, while only six percent were under the age of thirty – less than 50,000 young members nationwide. Since then, personality-driven leaders such as Jack Layton and Justin Trudeau, and party leadership votes and efforts to modernize, have probably had some effect on membership. But little has changed in the way they do politics.
And yet, this new party, established in 2007, has already signed up nearly one million mostly younger members and is a potent force in agenda setting. It operates across the traditional jurisdictional boundaries of government, allowing members to plump for causes on a community, municipal, provincial or national level. Its activities are nearly all online, connecting with its membership via email and social media. It has also been revolutionary in the participatory way it sets its policy agenda: if a cause receives enough support from members, the party adds it to its platform.
So who is this upstart and how did it coax hundreds of thousands of young Canadians out of the political wilderness?
As you may have guessed, it is not a party at all. Avaaz is a global movement that has changed the face of activism and built a 25 million strong army of engaged citizens that lend their voices and money to causes big and small. They have taken on media magnate Rupert Murdoch, the international War on Drugs, and national leaders in India, Brazil, the US, the EU and Canada.
So what can be gleaned from the success of Avaaz and other similar operations like Change.org and Canadian-specific operations Lead Now and Open Media? One lesson is that it’s important to show the change they’re influencing. These groups prominently focus on their success stories, with lists of “wins” on their websites. Avaaz members who sign a petition or send a form email receive a follow-up congratulating them when the campaign leads to a positive result. This may be a blunt tactic (without even getting into the obvious difficulty of assessing the direct impact of advocacy), but it creates the sense of empowerment and impact that drives members' participation.
Another lesson can be found in the way they shape their agenda. Many of Avaaz’s campaigns are at the local or national levels, with objectives such as rooting out corruption or changing a government's policy priorities. Others, with wildly ambitious titles like “save our oceans” or “30 months to save the world,” are presented as international “movements.”
These international campaigns further the sense that one is participating in a global community and tap a rich vein of youthful progressive idealism. For a generation of young people more interested in broader issues such as the environment or human rights, a contempt of parliament ruling may seem like so much petty inside baseball.
These types of ‘movement campaigns’ have been used to great effect in traditional party politics as well. In 2008, when Barack Obama announced that his election would mark “the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal,” his campaign sparked a movement that engaged millions of young Americans who voted and volunteered for the first (and perhaps only) time. The trick, however, is keeping these young citizens engaged. Once in office, the process and partisanship of governing converted many of Obama's supporters back to observer status.
But even Avaaz has struggled to engage younger people around certain causes. In February of 2012, it launched an email campaign to convince Canadian members to join the the federal NDP and Liberal parties. It was a blatant attempt to increase support for leadership candidates in both parties that supported a merger to create a stronger centre-left political coalition. The promotional emails described the simple online process and negligible cost of registration.
Clearly, the campaign failed. But why? Was it because Avaaz is ultimately just shallow “clicktivism” rather than true engagement in the political process? Or was it that becoming card carrying party members – with the entrenched party hierarchies and constant partisan bickering – was something that ambitious, globally-minded young Avaaz members just couldn't click the mouse for?
Most likely some of both. But Avaaz and other online platforms are transforming the way citizens engage in activism and politics, and showing that an army of young Canadians will engage if the message and the medium are geared properly. Political parties take note.
Evan Herbert is a policy analyst currently working for the Ontario Public Service. He considers himself an extremely engaged, participatory citizen. And yet he has never seriously considered joining a major political party at any level.