“You don’t need to reinvent the wheel, just to realign yourself”. According to the newly elected chairwoman of the Federal Austrian Student Union (“ÖH”), appealing to a predominantly young target audience in their early to mid-twenties does not necessarily require expensive campaigns, but merely intuition and an open mind.
In 2020, a time of crisis, waves of bad news kept crawling ashore and our political leaders tried to keep the economy and public health systems afloat. Understandably, less vulnerable groups – as University students – and their needs were put on hold, Sabine Hanger remembers. It was a time when students were in desperate need of real representation (as is legally established in Austria by federal election every two years). The Federal Student Union at that point, however, was run by a coalition of left-wing student organizations that cracked under the pressure. After being an opposition fraction for over a decade, AG (“AktionsGemeinschaft”) and its chairwoman became responsible for the well-being of Austria’s 300,000 students practically overnight.
This makes Sabine the direct link between the Ministry of Higher Education and her primarily young voters. With its long history and perception as a more traditional student organization, do you feel like you can still connect to the ‘typical’ University student?
Politics needs to come from within the group that you are representing. In order to define political positions that are appealing to the youth, all you need to do is open your eyes and ears, take their concerns seriously and make sure that you really understand and relate. Setting positions in a small elite group of “experts” and then trying to sell them to a broader public in a “fresh” way, as is still done by many political parties across the EU, is the wrong approach. In my experience, the younger audience is not receptive to mimicking their behavior and language, if that is merely a charade. Most importantly, in order to be well received by the youth, spokespeople of political parties need to stay true to themselves (even if their true self is not as “hip” as they themselves might think it should be) and just be authentic.
Does it follow that only young people are in a position to make politics for the younger generation?
You do not need to be a member of a group in order to feel strongly about their wellbeing. In fact, in order for any party to successfully reach the youth, it is essential that every member of that party – also the more established generation – feels strongly about that topic and is an advocate for the youth. However, in order to reach the youth they also need to let the youth speak.
Does this approach also translate to political positions? Should traditional parties revise some standpoints to stay appealing for generations to come?
In my opinion, parties that have more traditional values are defined by the people. If society undergoes a natural change in value and opinion that should be reflected by politicians. That does not mean that parties should alienate their core values whenever they yearn for more popularity. However, they need to always be close enough to the people in order to sense when time has come for certain views to be discussed and maybe dismissed or revised. Traditional values can and should be interpreted in a timely manner.
How does that relate to historically more left-wing positions?
It is important to let the youth dream. The older we get the more serious life’s issues become and the more realistic we must be. The younger generation, however, deserves to be idealistic. They can and should make high demands.
That does not mean that parties should simply take on demands that have proven to be successful with the youth. Instead, they should evaluate current issues and apply their own set of values and make them “their own”. You can also always find a new twist in an already established political demand. In order to appeal to the youth, parties need to be visionaries, but within their own set of values.
What is the most valuable lesson that you have learned in terms of communication with your target group since you have taken over the position as chairwoman of the Federal Student Union?
We live in complicated times. Even though many students and young people in general do not show it, most have been hit hard by the current crisis. While in fact most of the questions we face every day are actually highly complex; the art of reaching the younger audience lies within simplicity.
What are your team’s biggest assets in your daily work, representing Austria’s students?
I think one of our biggest assets is diversity. We are a group from a broad range of different backgrounds, belief systems and (non-)political views, I see the Federal Student Union as representative body for every single student in Austria and therefore I think it is important to reflect this diversity within our team. I believe that approach applies to every sector, whether it is a representative body, a corporation or a political party/institution; the key for a successful future is diversity.