Voter turnout in 2019 federal election
North St. James Town
Cabbagetown-South St. James Town
These two developments together bode badly for what’s to come. They suggest that U.S. reactionary right-wing movements may be characterized by a very particular form of rising nativist and ethnonationalist cruelty at exactly the time when increasingly pressing global challenges will require a diametrically different approach.
A new book helps us make sense of this. Called “The End of the End of History,” it projects the future of global politics at a moment when Western liberal democracy’s future no longer seems assured, as the allusion to Francis Fukuyama’s famous (and misrepresented) thesis suggests.
This sort of increasingly virulent reactionary politics forms one of the “ideologies of the future,” imagined by co-authors Alex Hochuli, George Hoare and Philip Cunliffe. They posit a future authoritarian populism fusing a longing for “strongman” leaders with a “Malthusian narrative.”
This narrative sees pressing global challenges as an opening to build up a zero-sum ideology that emphasizes “limited resources” and a “need to reduce surplus populations” by “removing outsiders and other elements” that corrupt the “indigenous” population, as the Real Answer to those challenges.
What’s relevant for us here is the book’s argument that covid has provided this form of politics with a new reason for being, a moment it will seize by telling a “nationalist” story of the global pandemic:
A nationalist interpretation would see a forceful rejection of globalization and cosmopolitanism: the organic body of the indigenous nation is threatened by deleterious outside influences, and limits on resources necessitate their exclusion.
I think something like this may be developing in the U.S. right now. There’s a peculiarly ominous signal in the way GOP governors such as Greg Abbott of Texas and Ron DeSantis of Florida are fusing their rejection of collective public health solutions with demagoguery about migrants.
It’s the fomenting of hysterical opposition to local officials enabling communities to collectively protect themselves, combined with the aggressive redirecting of blame toward migrants instead, that makes this mix so combustible. Why take sensible collective action for the public good when calling for higher walls to keep out the joint infestation carries so much more force?
Something similar is happening with Afghanistan refugees. Here our direct responsibility for their plight, and our reliance on them during the war, is absolutely undeniable. Indeed, as the Times reports, this is why some Republicans support resettling them here.
But this has only been met with an even more vehement denial of the very idea that this places a peculiar obligation on us. Indeed, as former Trump official Olivia Troye has revealed, Stephen Miller, the chief architect of Trump’s ethnonationalist agenda, expressly worked to undermine our programs for resettling Afghan refugees even as we were relying on them in real time.
This, too, bodes very badly, particularly when you factor in climate change and the looming climate refugee problem. Climate is another area where our outsize contribution is undeniable. But this future reactionary right may well see this as an occasion to double down on that exclusionary “Malthusian” narrative.
Nils Gilman has coined the term “avocado politics” to describe this: green on the outside and brown (as in brown-shirted) on the inside. As Gilman suggests, this reactionary right-wing response will acknowledge the “climate emergency,” but primarily as a way to justify even higher “border walls to hold back the flood of those fleeing the consequences.”
It’s not a fun exercise to imagine what this might mean — in the right-wing imagination, anyway — for future militarization of our already hyper-militarized border. Unfortunately, this ugly convergence of covid and refugee politics should prompt us to start preparing for that future right now.
The first and only time Charmaine Weir voted in an election, a single conversation spurred her to the polls. A candidate was canvassing in her neighbourhood, and took time to hear out the issues Weir faced on a day-to-day basis, including the challenges she experienced living in public housing. But the vote came and went — and Weir’s world felt just the same.
She found herself disenchanted, feeling her vote hadn’t made a difference. “You see (political parties), they come around and solicit at the door to try to get your vote, and then you never see them again. Nothing has ever changed in this neighbourhood,” she said. This fall, she’s tuned out of federal election talk. “I didn’t listen because honestly, you get really let down.”
Come Monday, she told the Star she doesn’t intend to cast a vote.
Weir’s situation illustrates a broad issue in Toronto. In an election cycle, candidates look to charge up the masses — promising policy changes and funding injections. But faith in the democratic process, or simply the ability to get to the polls, is unevenly distributed across the city.
A Star analysis of poll data from the 2019 election, in several central Toronto ridings, shows that while some areas turn out to vote in droves — like Runnymede-Bloor West Village, where 78.3 per cent of eligible voters cast ballots — other areas, like Weir’s North St. James Town, had far lower rates.
North St. James Town
Cabbagetown-South St. James Town
The high-density, lower-income piece of Toronto Centre, where several other residents recently told the Star their faith in federal leaders ran low, saw a voter turnout of 52.1 per cent in the fall of 2019. In nearby Regent Park, another lower-income area, turnout for that federal vote was 58.5 per cent. By comparison, the neighbouring Cabbagetown-South St. James Town area saw turnout of 68.5 per cent. Across the country, voter turnout for the last federal election was 67 per cent.
And while North St. James Town had more eligible voters — 11,989 versus 9,831 — the polling stations set up in Cabbagetown-South St. James Town saw more ballots cast than its neighbour.
“It’s always the rich people and the rich neighbourhoods that are being taken care of,” Weir told the Star. “You really want (a politician) here who’s going to follow through, and support this neighbourhood, but they tend to just move a little bit south from here and you’re left there, like, ‘what about us?’”
The reasons why someone doesn’t vote can vary widely, but a Statistics Canada survey found the top reason that Canadians gave for skipping the 2019 federal vote was disinterest in national politics — which experts say can stem from a feeling of being left out of political discussions and policies.
“They don’t perceive that the stakes are very high — that it doesn’t matter who wins, so why bother?” said Richard Johnston, a University of British Columbia professor emeritus who, until his retirement last year, held the position of Canada Research Chair in public opinions, elections and representation.
“To some extent, the squeaky wheel gets the grease,” said Daniel Rubenson, a principal investigator for the Canadian Election Study, cautioning that the problem could become cyclical. If politicians saw a neighbourhood as plagued by voter apathy, they might pay less attention to its needs, leading to fewer policies aimed at addressing its local problems. That, in turn, could compound the apathy issue.
“If that’s how you feel, then it’s perfectly reasonable that you don’t participate in that process.”
When the Star spoke with numerous North St. James Town residents midway through this fall’s federal campaign, many lamented the focus placed on home ownership in numerous parties’ election platforms, as a neighbourhood where 90 per cent of residents rented their homes according to the 2016 federal census.
Beyond the disenchanted, some prospective voters simply didn’t have the time to invest in political issues, Rubenson added.
He, Johnston and Elisabeth Gidengil, a professor with McGill University’s Centre for the Study of Democratic Citizenship, all noted that residents of lower income communities were statistically less likely to participate in the democratic process.
Voters’ age and level of education were also determining factors, the experts said. Nationally, 18-to-24 year olds had the lowest voter turnout among age groups through the 2011, 2015 and 2019 election races, Statistics Canada found. Voter turnout increased continually with age, until it dipped down slightly after the age of 75.
“It’s partly to do with resources, like just having time and the luxury of being able to inform yourself better about politics,” Rubenson said, noting that “socialization and mobilization” also played a role. While it was “somewhat difficult” to say precisely how low turnout affected vote outcomes, he said, he believes the onus is on politicians to “pay more attention to these people who aren’t voting.”
“It’s certainly not a good outcome if there are groups in society, or areas in society, where people aren’t being listened to and policies aren’t being developed to take their concerns into account,” he said.
While political disinterest was found by Statistics Canada to be the most common reason for skipping the polls in 2019 for most age groups — having been cited by 35 per cent of non-voters — that shifts for people over 75, at which point the most common reason reported was an illness or disability.
Across all age groups, illness or disability were cited by 13 per cent of responding non-voters. Another 22 per cent said they were too busy to vote, and 11 per cent said they were out of town. Just five per cent reported having problems with the voting process itself, like being unable to prove their identity.
Asked about the turnout data, Elections Canada spokesperson Nathalie de Montigny said turnout wasn’t part of its mandate — which focused on making the vote accessible to eligible electors. That job included outreach to different communities to make sure they had information about voting, like delivering it in different languages.
To combat voter apathy, both Johnston and Gidengil said candidates going door-to-door can make a difference. But Johnston cautioned that effort could be complicated in lower-income neighbourhoods, where many residents may work long hours or do shift work and not be home to answer the door, and where that means traversing an apartment versus ground-level homes.
In Toronto’s waterfront and island neighbourhood, where the median household income is higher than the citywide rate but the resident population also skews younger than other neighbourhoods, around 20,000 eligible voters didn’t cast ballots in the 2019 race. The area — which is divided between two federal ridings — had a 64.1 per cent turnout rate. In nearby South Parkdale, the rate was nearly as low as North St. James Town, at 56.4 per cent.
Cole Webber, a housing advocate who works for a South Parkdale-based legal clinic, cautioned that residents of the area were still actively involved, with local groups forming to push back against things like rent increases, or to organize community food programs.
But casting a vote didn’t always garner the same vigour or faith.
“For many working-class people in Parkdale, sustained, independent organizing is a more substantial and meaningful form of activity than voting in elections,” Webber said.
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On Saturday, a rally by supporters of former President Donald Trump came and went peacefully, with a heavy police and media presence and only a handful of arrests. Before the event, officials in DC were focused on preventing a repeat of January 6 — but more than eight months after the insurrection, far-right groups have shifted their focus to more local causes that could nonetheless have a major impact on national politics.
According to Jared Holt, who researches domestic extremism for the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab, right-wing extremists like those who stormed the Capitol building were “scared shitless” of creating another event like January 6 on Saturday — to the point that several conservative leaders, including Trump, warned their followers to stay away from the rally, claiming it was a trap.
Ultimately, only about 100 people showed up, according to an estimate by the Washingtonian’s Andrew Beaujon — far fewer than some pre-rally predictions — and the protesters were at times outnumbered by members of the media.
Good morning from *that* rally at the Capitol everyone’s been talking about. We’re about an hour away from official start time, and unsurprisingly we’re working with a ratio of approx 10 media per attendee. A classic rock mash-up is playing over the sound system @VICENews pic.twitter.com/EywP6XidJe
— Tess Owen (@misstessowen) September 18, 2021
But anemic participation at Saturday’s event doesn’t reflect fading right-wing enthusiasm for Trump’s election lies — his supporters are just changing tactics, pushing to elect like-minded politicians and change state legislation to fit a false narrative of election fraud.
“Many are instead … applying that political energy into local and regional scenes,” Holt told Vox’s Aaron Rupar last week.
Specifically, that energy has manifested itself in a far-right push to intimidate current state and local election officials, many of whom played a major role in pushing back on Trump’s election fraud conspiracies in 2020, and to install a new wave of pro-Trump election officials.
It’s a tactic that could have major implications for future US elections, and one that extremism experts have been raising the alarm about.
“Going local, [far-right movement figures] suggest to each other, might also help solidify power and influence their movements gained during the Trump years,” Holt wrote in his Substack newsletter last week. “After all, few people are truly engaged in local politics. That’s a lot of influence up for grabs to a dedicated movement.”
The local impact of Trump’s election lie has been most visible in some of the battleground states that swung to President Joe Biden in the 2020 election.
In Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, for example, election officials from both parties have been deluged with harassment from Trump supporters, including explicit death threats. And it’s not a small-scale problem: Reuters has identified hundreds of similar threats all across the US, though the victims have found little recourse with law enforcement.
The harassment has been so severe that about a third of all election workers now feel unsafe in their jobs, according to a poll conducted by the Benenson Strategy Group for the Brennan Center for Justice earlier this year.
And as the New York Times reported on Saturday, there’s now a legal defense committee, the Election Official Legal Defense Network, specifically to support election officials facing harassment and intimidation.
In many of the same states where officials have faced relentless harassment, far-right figures are also looking to put them out of a job. In Georgia, for example, Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, who repeatedly defied Trump to confirm that Biden won both Georgia’s electoral votes and the 2020 election, will face a Trump-endorsed primary challenger, Rep. Jody Hice (R-GA).
According to Politico, Hice voted against certifying the 2020 electoral college results in January, and he has continued to promote voter fraud lies since then. Just after Hice announced his bid in March, Trump issued a statement lauding Hice as “one of our most outstanding congressmen.”
“Unlike the current Georgia Secretary of State, Jody leads out front with integrity,” Trump said in the statement. “Jody will stop the Fraud and get honesty into our Elections!”
Hice isn’t the only secretary of state candidate to have embraced Trump’s election fraud rhetoric, either. Candidates like Mark Finchem in Arizona and Kristina Karamo in Michigan, both of whom have been endorsed by Trump, could have substantial oversight of how elections in those states are run if they win office, though actual vote counting is done by counties and municipalities.
Finchem has parroted the claims of voter fraud and endorsed a spurious “audit” of the vote count in Arizona’s Maricopa County, the AP reports. Finchem, a current state representative, also admitted that he was at the Capitol on January 6, but claims to have stayed 500 yards away and that he didn’t know about the attack until later.
Like Finchem, Karamo has also endorsed false election fraud claims: According to the Detroit News, she pushed voter fraud claims during the 2020 election, telling Michigan state senators that she witnessed two cases of election workers misinterpreting ballots to the advantage of Democrats, and she appeared alongside MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell at a June rally, spreading further unsubstantiated claims of election fraud.
As Politico pointed out earlier this year, the actual power of secretaries of state varies by state, and is often more “ministerial” than anything — but the danger of pro-Trump election officials having a high-profile platform to espouse election conspiracies is very real.
“There’s a symbolic risk, and then there’s … functional risk,” former Kentucky Secretary of State Trey Grayson, a Republican, told Politico in May. “Any secretary of state who is a chief elections official is going to have a megaphone and a media platform during the election. A lot of the power is the perception of power, or that megaphone.”
Candidates like Hice, Finchem, and Karamo all still have to win primaries and general elections — by no means a sure thing — if they want to become the top election officials in their states. But even without election conspiracists in secretary of states’ offices, some states, like Arizona and Pennsylvania, have already started chipping away at the framework of their states’ election laws.
On Wednesday, the GOP-held Pennsylvania legislature’s Intergovernmental Operations Committee took another step toward a “forensic audit” of the 2020 election results like the one currently ongoing in Arizona when it voted to issue a subpoena for voter information — including information that’s typically not public, like the last four digits of voters’ Social Security Numbers.
And in Arizona, where a bizarre “audit” of the 2020 election has already been shambling along for months, Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey has also taken steps to limit the power of the Arizona’s Democratic secretary of state, Katie Hobbs. In June, Ducey signed a law stripping Hobbs of her power to defend the results of an election in court.
“This is a petty, partisan power grab that is absolutely retaliation towards my office,” Hobbs, who is running for governor, told NPR.
“It’s clear by the fact that it ends when my term ends,” she said. “It is at best legally questionable, but at worst, likely unconstitutional.”
Democrats, though, are making some attempts to push back against the right’s attempts to subvert future elections. In August, the House passed the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, which would help restore the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) recently introduced her own voting rights bill, the Freedom to Vote Act, which is aimed at preventing the very election subversions the Republicans are trying to enact in multiple key states.
That bill, however — like the Democrats’ previous voting rights legislation, the For the People Act — has essentially no chance of becoming law under current Senate rules, since the filibuster means it would require at least 10 Republican votes to pass.
Senate Democrats could end the filibuster, or create a carve-out for voting rights legislation, using their simple 50-vote majority, but that path also appears unlikely thanks to continued opposition from Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV).
And with efforts like these tied up in a deeply polarized Congress, Trump supporters peddling election fraud conspiracies can continue to make inroads in local races and legislation.
“I don’t think we’ve ever been at a point that’s been quite this tenuous for the democracy,” Christine Todd Whitman, the former Republican governor of New Jersey and co-chair of the States United Democracy Center, told CNN last week. “I think it’s a huge danger because it’s the first time that I’ve seen it being undermined — our democracy being undermined from within.”
When Brantly Womack, Professor Emeritus of Politics at the University of Virginia and Senior Faculty Fellow at the Miller Center, retired from his professorship at the University last May, there was a noticeable loss in the Politics department’s coverage of contemporary China and Chinese politics. No classes on Chinese politics are being offered this semester, and the Politics department has not yet instated a replacement for Womack as the department’s China expert. This was a catalyst for Womack’s decision to host a four-part lecture series entitled “China and the Recentering of East Asia” through the University’s own East Asia Center, beginning Thursday and with three more planned through Oct. 7.
“This is my little effort to continue presenting something available to students about the big picture on China and Asia,” Womack said.
Womack’s speaker series has been set to run for four consecutive weekly lectures, covering a chronological scope of China’s history and positioning in the changing regional and global socio-political landscape. Each session will feature Womack’s own knowledge, an assortment of attendee questions organized by a chosen moderator and significant collaboration with a renowned Chinese expert.
“I could combine the presentation, not only with a webinar, but also top Asia experts to comment on the history of Asia or comment on my ideas on the history of Asia,” Womack said. “That adds a tremendous amount to the depth and to the richness of the ideas available.”
The first session of the series took place Thursday night and was moderated by Ambassador Stephen Mull, the University’s current vice provost for global affairs. To kick off his discussion on the topic of “China’s Premodern Centricity,” Womack welcomed Wang Gungwu, a professor at National University of Singapore and renowned Chinese historian, as his first guest collaborator.
In addition to Zoom, the event welcomed both in-person attendance and a livestreamed service on YouTube for those who did not register on time. 300 people alone were registered on Zoom, and this significant online turnout was complemented by the estimated 40 to 50 in-person student and faculty attendees who gathered in Nau Hall’s large lecture space. All attendees were masked in accordance with the University’s COVID-19 policy, and everyone sat fairly distanced from each other.
East Asia Center Director Dorothy Wong welcomed all of the event’s in-person and virtual attendees at 8:30 p.m. Thursday before passing the microphone to Mull. After a brief recognition of all of Womack’s accomplishments, Mull invited the series’ host to take the stage, and the main presentation began.
Womack’s first presentation emphasized three different kinds of continuities throughout Chinese history — situational factors, asymmetric perspectives and relational interactions. The now-retired professor expanded upon each continuity with carefully articulated detail before inviting his guest Gungwu to elaborate, emphasize and challenge his presentation.
“It was a really insightful discussion,” said first-year College student Juan Arratia. “There were a whole bunch of interesting perspectives… My favorite moment would probably be when [Wang] modified a bit of what the Professor said and added a new spin to it, I liked that a lot.”
This interest certainly didn’t end with Arratia — professors and students alike sat attentively in the crowd at Nau Hall.
Attendees took notes, listened and engaged with the professor’s intellectual and humorous insights. Although reasons for attendance varied, there seemed to be a unanimous interest in the chosen subjects being discussed.
“I heard about the event through my engagements class,” first-year College student Reese Whittaker said. “I would really like to attend the other parts of the lecture series … I think it’s important to know history everywhere in the world [because] I’m a firm believer that those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”
Brian Murphy, the East Asia Center’s administrative coordinator, furthered Whittaker’s take on the importance of understanding history from a more broad perspective.
“I mean, it’s not the type of thing that really is taught in the curriculum at any level,” Murphy said. “You know you can get a B.A. and have really no idea about the history of the East … It’s kind of amazing that that’s the case, that world history is always so Eurocentric.”
Both Murphy and Whittaker’s responses elucidate the importance of continuing to broaden our understanding of contemporary China despite the topic’s absence from the University’s curriculum this semester. In the wake of the Asian Student Union-led survey report of APIDA students released in February, opportunities like this lecture series hope to continue acting as avenues for awareness and contextualization.
“I think a lot of our students are interested,” Wong said. “I learned that among the U.Va. undergraduate population, 25 percent of students have Asian and Asian American backgrounds. I hope the University pays attention to addressing the needs of the students of Asian and Asian American background.”
In the coming weeks, Womack will return to the podium of Nau 101 and virtually welcome three more internationally esteemed guest speakers from China, Australia and Taiwan.
His selection of speakers is impressive to say the least, and might not have been possible without his ready acceptance of a hybrid format.
“They’re all friends of mine and I’m happy to say that they’re my number one choices and they all agreed immediately to do this,” Womack said. “And even though I think remote teaching has all sorts of problems, remote events — that’s something that Zoom has added a whole new dimension of possibility to that we’d never be able to pay for, let alone actually get the people who are going to be commenting over the next few weeks.”
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