de Kiesmannen (the Electors) encourages political participation through theatre shows and workshops: “Our democracies lack legitimacy because voter turnouts are decreasing”

Jochem Jordaan (28) is one of the co-founders of the Dutch social enterprise de Kiesmannen. Over the last five years, de Kiesmannen have been informing young voters across the country about party programmes, parties’ voting behaviour and the most important election themes through theatre shows. “In some elections only 20% of young people go out to vote”, Jochem tells us.

How did your concern about the electoral turnout rate inspire the creation of de Kiesmannen?

In early 2017, the Dutch elections were coming up. Historically, we noted that a lot of young people didn’t go out and vote in the Netherlands. This was also an issue in the United States and the United Kingdom, which had great implications for the political world: the election of Donald Trump and Brexit. Together with two friends of mine, we decided to organise election shows to inform young people in the Netherlands in a non-subjective manner about all the different parties they can vote for.

We’ve been developing this concept throughout the years. During our hour-and-a-half theatre shows, people who were generally not all that interested in politics would get a lot of information about the upcoming election. We also give workshops related to elections and civic engagement in the Netherlands.

Are Dutch youths politically inactive, then?

There are two forms of political participation: formal and non-formal political participation. What we’re seeing among people under 30 is that in non-formal political participation, we’re actually doing very well. More of us are going out on the streets, signing petitions and are politically active on social media.

However, at the same time, we know that our democracies actually lack legitimacy because voter turnouts are decreasing, especially among young people. Which, in my opinion, is very problematic because it means we’re not represented. But it’s also a problem for democracy itself because it means it cannot function optimally.

In Belgium, you have mandatory voting, but it doesn’t prove that you have a more vibrant society. There needs to be an intrinsic motivation to participate in your society rather than it being enforced.

And there are so many challenges ahead for our generation that we struggle to influence politically, such as climate change, inclusion, Black Lives Matter, and so on. It is the elderly who decide policy for our generation. We are worried about this and try to do our part to solve it.

How can theatre stimulate political participation?

I think it’s really important we look at the complete picture of political participation. It’s not just about voting. Voting is important, but it’s not just about that. It’s about going to protests, reading about elections, knowing what politicians vote for in parliament and whether they actually do what they have promised to do.

A well-informed electorate is one of the main things we try to achieve. A clear majority of our audience already wants to go out and vote, but simply doesn’t understand what the options are. Those theatre shows are to increasingly inform young voters on what different parties actually stand for, because if you’re well informed it’s easier to find out whether or not politicians are properly representing you.

Have you seen real-life results of your efforts?

I’m convinced that we’re making a difference with the theatre shows. For example, whenever we put a post online asking for volunteers to join our campaigns, we get 50 to 100 young people. They say they’re willing to commit two days a week for the next four months to help us out.

A lot of young people tell us that they find it important to inform their friends about the importance of voting. This shows that what we’re doing has an impact, it’s something that seems to trigger a lot of people. And we’re the biggest political non-party event in the Netherlands. Whenever we organise shows, we manage to get around 1,500 young people attending in one evening.

Are you reaching diverse audiences equally?

Theatre, in a sense, is very elitist. And therefore, especially during election times, we now host workshops in vocational secondary schools with programmes focusing on practical skills. We visit students rather than expecting them to come to the theatre. This allows us to reach many more people who would probably not be inclined to attend our theatre shows.

When we visit these schools, we notice that there’s a lot of scepticism towards politicians and authority in general. That’s a really worrying trend—there’s a lot of interest in misinformation or theories that are not based on facts. So our focus there is on trying to regain trust in politics and having an open discussion with them to talk about their concerns. Then, we look at how politics can solve those concerns rather than immediately explaining the party programmes. So we do take a much more interactive approach with lower educated people and we really try to sympathise instead of simply telling them what to do and what not to do, because that clearly doesn’t work.

In general, I think the different municipalities and provinces we’re working with are very happy that young people are being educated by other young people. It’s not as formal, it’s laid back, and there’s humour. We are not politicians ourselves, so we don’t take things too seriously either. At the same time, a lot of people—even after visiting our shows—are still not convinced or interested in politics, and for that I think we need many structural programmes. The National Education Ministry needs to fund such initiatives, in order to invest in civic participation and civic engagement. I think our schools teach much too little about democracy and having your voice heard.

Besides diversity in educational background, how diverse is your audience in terms of ethnicity and gender? 

We have a lot of high-educated, white voters coming to our shows. This is a problem. At the moment we are trying to solve that by hosting shows and workshops at vocational schools, and these schools are very diverse.

In terms of diversity, we started with three men presenting, and since last year we started presenting with women, to have a better gender balance in our shows. We try to actively do the same about presenting with people of colour because we think that once people see themselves represented on stage, they will also be more inclined to visit. The audience will get more diverse if the stage is more diverse as well.

Do the themes you choose for the show influence the diversity in your audience? 

We focus a lot on ‘Europe’ which is a very white theme, to put it boldly. We find that white men in particular are interested in European integration, European identity and the European Union. It’s an elitist topic and it’s something we cover a lot. So, we also face difficulties in reaching people of colour or from other diverse backgrounds that are interested in this topic.

What should be our collective main focus going forward?

The biggest challenge—especially in the Netherlands, but all over Europe as well—is to get people on board with democracy. In the end, we need everybody if we want democracy to survive. It sounds a bit dramatic, but it’s true.

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