Let’s talk about…Issue-specific voting

It’s fine if you’re angry, but it’s best not to go to the ‘booth’ angry!

Per the latest Sunday Independent/Ireland Thinks opinion poll, as it stands, one in four voters are planning to vote for independent candidates or smaller political parties this Friday. The support for this category jumped four points in the last month, now outranking Sinn Féin and Fine Gael by a point, and Fianna Fáil by six. Needless to say, it’s a finding unaligned with the notion of a slightly older Ireland, one associated with the practice of party loyalty, and the dominating popularity of established parties.

Indeed, what’s become more and more evident as we approach election day, is the shift that’s occurred towards more issue-specific voting, reflected in not just this increased support for independents and smaller political parties – who more often ‘hone in’ on specific or bubbling issues… anything from economics to environmentalism, rural dissatisfaction to anti-refugee sentiment – but in the sheer increase in the emergence of them itself. We’re at such a capacity of independents and small focused parties, we have a small focused party of independents in the newly-formed Independent Ireland. And there’s enough barely-variating variations (in both name and policy) on ‘National Parties’, ‘Ireland Firsts’, and ‘Irish Parties’ to make you feel you might be seeing double on the ballot sheet.

It could be assumed this increased support for independents and smaller parties is directly linked to voters’ increased prioritisation of a select number of the current hot-button issues. You will know the key ones already; the housing crisis, cost of living, neutrality, immigration. And independents/smaller parties have an edge here in the way mentioned earlier – that by and large, they tend to build campaigns by focusing on very specific issues – but also in the fact that they don’t appear to carry the same baggage as the bigger parties. They don’t have the same laundry list of failings from time in power (granted, not applicable to Sinn Féin), and feel more symbolic of a long-awaited change to the status quo.

And the Irish public are undoubtedly in the mood for such a change; disillusionment with government is evident in criticism of how they have (mis)handled the aforementioned pressing issues, in the sentiments that were stirred up by the referenda earlier this year, in discourse about Taoiseach Harris’s appointment following Leo Varadkar’s resignation a few months ago… you name it.

And issue-specific voting can be a great political catalyst, something that can drive more responsive, adaptive, and tailored policy-making. But before we head into the polling booths this Friday, it is worth evaluating where our prioritisation of, and indeed opinions about, such issues have come from.

The most obvious is that, particularly in terms of housing and the cost of living, these are often crisis-level concerns that the public has been facing directly, day to day, for quite some time. But more generally, the sway of outside influences plays a part worth acknowledging too.

Because when a population does have genuine grievances, it makes for the perfect breeding ground for populist bad players to come into the fore, professing legitimate concern over real issues to garner support, while weaponising them for their own agendas. Time and again we’ve seen the housing crisis used to sow racism and trepidation around refugee accommodation. We saw it as well with the Dublin riots; concerns over safety and policing being tackled with destruction and (not-so) veiled racism.

In terms of outside influence, we also often talk about social media, and the effect it can have on the voter; capable of letting them access a wealth of information to make informed decisions, or of feeding them enough misinformation or misplaced outrage to unjustly sway their vote. But usually we talk about this in terms of direct effects… how it might be influencing the kids, how it represents extremisms, etc.

We should also think about the additional, more general way social media use influences the voter. Whether it’s a net good or a net bad, social media has grown to occupy an entirely mammoth space in daily life. As a result, it has the power to influence not just people’s opinions on the big issues, but in deciding which we prioritise in the first place.

There is the fact that social media platforms the most controversial topics the most, in order to boost engagement, and how this adds to more and more polarisation. But there is also the fact that the internet has much broader borders than any of our other, more traditional, methods of information-sharing and social communication. If you didn’t have social media at your fingertips to suss out the latest opinions on any given issue, to hear how the folks in America or the UK or anywhere else in world are thinking, you would likely spend a great deal more time seeing how such issues are actually manifesting here at home, seeking out the opinions of those around you, and ultimately – without the influence of other countries’ extremisms on certain issues or the misinforming by bad faith players – end up with different opinions and prioritisations, ones founded more in your own day-to-day experiences than the dubiously-intentioned influence of outside players online.

In many great ways, social media has opened the doors for us to become more globally-minded citizens; educated us on the goings-on elsewhere in the world and exposed us to a wider variety of opinions, to under-represented voices we may never had had the chance to hear otherwise. But in becoming such a massive tap on our attention, it also opens us up to becoming distracted from what’s actually most important to worry about as a modern, Irish electorate.

The trend towards more issue-specific voting is, if nothing else, indicative of an invested electorate, one which is emboldened to seek change. That is a good thing – but only if the national mood is one being fed by valid, well informed priorities, not one manipulated by external influences, other countries’ controversies, or sensationalism.

The rise of support for independents and smaller parties reflects a desire for change and a dissatisfaction with the status quo, but it also underscores the need for a more responsive and accountable political system, one that serves us better. In the same fashion, we would be better served to hold ourselves accountable too; to take the time to evaluate the priorities and blind spots we’ve developed and where they come from, to ensure we’ve listened to a wide array of opinions and arrived at our fairest reasonings before we vote for what we want.

People are angry, and it’s turning them away from the bigger parties, the established routes, but the alternatives some turn to may be just as adept at not coming through on meaningful action. The desire to ‘angry-vote’ is understandable, but fruitless at best and dangerous at worst if done uncritically; look at the UK and Brexit, the US and Trump.

So if being angry is spurring you on to be more invested in who your political representatives are, in enacting the change you want – be angry, sure. Let it motivate you. But don’t go into the booth on that anger alone; take the time to reflect on where your anger is, and should be, directed at and why – and then, vote accordingly.