Friday, April 08, 2011

Elections

Personally, I can't generate much excitement about it, nor does it seem can a lot of other Canadians. Why not? And, what does this tell us. We have some standard answers: I hear people mentioning this all the time: elections cost too much, we just had one, etc. My own take on this line of thinking is that it is wrong. First, what price is one willing to put on democracy? Democracy costs something, to be sure. How much is it worth? If it is not worth much to you ... well ... you probably don't believe in democracy.

What about this: We have too many elections ... hmm .... In a democracy what else is one supposed to do? How many is too many? If the alternative to an election is to let a minority group (I'm not slagging the Conservatives, but making a philosophical point), run the country the way they and potentially in opposition to what the majority of people do want ... well, I'm in favour of an election. Because, let's be clear, this does seem to be the alternatives with which we were faced: an election or turning the country over to a party that did not secure 40% of the vote in the last federal election.

These points seem pretty self-evident to me. I think most Canadians support democracy and, I hazzard a guess, most support it rather strongly. Nor, do I feel they think minorities should run the country. So ... why aren't people excited?

They are not excited for two reasons. First, public discourse and, second, powerlessness (or, alienation).  Let's look at public discourse first. There is simply a lot of confusion about elections, cost, issues, etc., "out there" and unfortunately single issue reporting by under-educated journalists or Ottawa focused "he said/she said" (as if an election were Canadian Idol) does nothing to alleviate this. An example: I'm at a party last weekend. One person, someone who is not a friend but who I've known for years and always gotten along, says "elections cost too much." I asked: "how much?" She said "I heard $32 million dollars." I said "So, this election cost you a dollar." Now, I was not meaning to make fun of this person. I was making a point. Her out of pocket expenses seem to be worth the price for democracy. I'm not holier than thou. I have my price and if I was being seriously pinched by this election I'd raise concerns about it. But, what was clear to this person and those chatting with us -- and this is my point -- is that she was repeating a line she had heard and not paused to consider it. If she had, as a reasonably intelligent person (like the rest of us), I doubt she would have made her comments.

Powerless: they are all the same. This was the next comment made by the next person at the party. This one is more difficult to address because: (1) they are not all the same. Voting makes a difference and we have different political parties for precisely this reason: there are important policy differences between them. However, (2) these differences do not always translate into public policy. In some ways, the person making this comment was right in a twofold sense. Voting for person X does not directly translate into policy changes and those changes are the product of a bunch of different factors. Electing a particular person does not mean that that person will be able to make the changes that they have promised to make. In other words, powerlessness is very real.

I can argue that it should be real. I can argue that in a democracy one vote should not be a trump. I've made this point before: one of the drags about living in a democracy is that one can end up on the losing side. But, I think the sense of powerlessness goes deeper then this. I think a sense of powerlessness is the reason people complain about the cost of elections. They are being forced to buy a product -- democracy -- that will not make the changes in their lives they want to see. I think this is the reason people feel they have wasted their votes.

All of these points are debatable and all of them have explanations. For instance, if one votes, one never wastes one's vote. There is no such thing as a wasted vote. There can be winning votes and losing votes but never wasted votes. If people knew more about the character and nature of democracy, they might not say such things. The upshot, then, is that we need a better public education on elections, their costs, and importance.

Beyond this, however, a sense of powerless (of alienation) is based on other things too, including real powerlessness. And, as long as there are serious inequalities in power -- and their are -- we should not be surprised that people feel this way. As long as the system is unresponsive to democracy ... why would people not be alienated from democracy.

Perhaps, I'm making all this up to excuse my own lack of excitement or even at times interest. However, I don't think so (and I do plan to vote). The lack of excitement, then, is symptomatic of wider and deeper problems with the way Canadian public life functions. We need to grapple with those problems or our democracy will be in trouble ... perhaps it already is.
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