9.11.2009

shut up and vote

During my first year or so in Canada, I was repeatedly mystified by hearing, over and over, how the populace did not want an election. We don't want a Christmas election, we're too busy with the holidays. We don't want a summer election, we're all at the cottage. We don't want a winter election, it's too cold to go out and vote. We don't want another election, we just had one 18 months ago.

For the life of me, I could not understand it. I once asked readers what this meant. Were people really so busy with Christmas plans that they couldn't spare a few minutes to vote?

Readers told me, no, that wasn't it. It's that their minds are elsewhere. They don't want their family celebrations interrupted. They are out of the country, in warmer climes. They will punish the party that calls an unnecessary election. (If only that had happened in 2008!) They cannot focus on the important issues at hand, can't study their ballots and decide who to vote for. (You can see the answers on this old post.)

The answers did nothing to clarify the issue for me.

You know where you stand on various issues, right? Which party comes the closest to your point of view? Vote for them. No?

It took me a while to realize that Canadians complain about elections. Period. It doesn't matter when they happen or why. Canadians and the media that purport to reflect their views whine about elections. I still don't know why, but I no longer attempt to figure it out.

A corollary to this are the Liberal partisans who defend their party's spinelessness and lack of principles by declaring that an election is unnecessary "at this time". Whenever I would cry out in frustration over Dion or Ignatieff playing coalition partner to the Harper Conservatives, inevitably, a Liberal blogger would stop by to deliver the familiar refrain: "There's no point in having an election just for the sake of an election. It's not the right time. When it's the right time, the Liberals will bring down the Government."

But three crucial words were always omitted. "When it's the right time for the Liberals."

I liked Rick Salutin's take, especially regarding the media's complicity and the transparent hypocrisy of "making Parliament work".

Come on, Canadians. Just shut up and vote.
Suck it up, Canada: What are we – shoppers or citizens? A portion of each, I suppose. But it's fatal to confuse the roles, as seems to be happening with all the whinging and whining over "another" election that "nobody" wants.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper was the first to moan in, right after Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff announced his intention to pull the plug on the Conservatives' minority government. Iggy had a list of plausible enough reasons that would more likely lead you to ask him Why did you wait so long? than What for? The PM's response was that he hasn't met "a single Canadian" who wants an election, which may only reveal the limited range of his contacts.

Yet many in the news media echoed it. I think at random of Suhana Meharchand on CBC Radio's phone-in last Sunday, chortling over the silliness of another election. I may have gone humourless, but I don't really get it.

In a vital democracy, like ancient Athens or the Iroquois confederacy, people were involved in politics continually. Under our system, politics more or less equals elections, so you could call frequent elections our form of participatory democracy. It keeps citizens engaged and parties on their toes. Under a stable majority, everyone goes to sleep for four years. Do you think we'd have had even the minimal action we've seen from Mr. Harper on the economy or on withdrawal from Afghanistan if he'd had a majority?

But everything turns upside down if you treat politics as a shopping trip – I don't waaant an election – rather than the ongoing duty of each citizen. It's like newscasters saying, "Thanks for watching," as if we tune in to do them a favour, rather than from our need as citizens to be informed. Citizenship isn't a consumer choice that you may or may not make. People can opt out of it, but then they lose the right to complain, and it's a mingy choice to make if you think of kids and others affected by actions taken in the name of us all.

Besides, if these whiners really don't want an election and prefer Parliament "to work," why did so many of them object to a coalition last winter? It was the very definition of making Parliament work in a minority situation. I don't think minority governments are inherently unstable; I'd call them inherently alert. The current one has indeed been unstable since it's so distant from the majority of members in the House and voters in the country. But, say, a Liberal minority could well find enough common ground with the Bloc and NDP to enact many things that most citizens would value.

It's the snickering and eye-rolling among media opiners that I find most offensive, as if their stance is so sophisticated. In fact, they function as dupes for a rotten status quo, helping to keep power in the hands of those who can afford to pay for it by getting others, like the party bosses, to fulfill their wishes. There is wreckage to be dealt with out there, lives are still being destroyed, although the recession is supposed to be all but over. My little strip of College Street in Toronto now has a solid row of abandoned small businesses such as we've not seen in previous crises. It's become a street of broken dreams. Add the fact that voting numbers are declining, which the pseudo-wit of the moaners tends to glamorize. The downward trend reduces the constituencies to which politicians must attend, and ratchets up the electoral clout of the resolute pressure groups, such as evangelicals and gun owners.

If there is a problem with another election, it's that voting is all we're ever offered to satisfy our political impulses, and it is a repetitive and intrinsically shallow exercise. But this implies that we should vote for those ready to expand the arena of democratic participation so that we need not shoehorn the entire human political drive into the narrowness of elections.

14 comments:

impudent strumpet said...

This is one of those things where I always wonder if people actually care, or if the media is just saying that it's a big deal and that causes people to start thinking it is.

L-girl said...

I know. I wonder that, too.

geek guy said...

I know
I am wth you on this!!

M@ said...

I read that Rick Salutin article today and would have sent it to you if you hadn't posted about it. He's right on the money.

I for one am loving the fact that I get to vote every year or two. It means I've got a small chance of my MP listening to me every year or two. (I talk to them a lot, but I don't know how much they listen...)

Jennie / Jae said...

I have sympathy for it when people who have to run campaigns (e.g. me and mine) say it. In fact, I have so much sympathy for people like that, that when people who don't run campaigns say it, I always think they should be taken out and shot.

Some Person said...

I'm planning on applying for PR at around the same time my wife starts her Master's degree in August 2010. Both processes should take about two years, I'm told.

Once we're landed, I plan on being active in the NDP even though I won't be able to vote for at least another three years. And yet Canadians put up so much of a fuss. That's puzzling and a bit disappointing to me.

L-girl said...

And yet Canadians put up so much of a fuss. That's puzzling and a bit disappointing to me.


It is puzzling, but before you get too disappointed, I'll try to explain more.

It's not that Canadians don't value the Parliamentary system, or democracy, or are apathetic overall. (There is apathy, of course, but that's a different story. It's not why they don't want elections.)

Cdns seem to dislike the idea of the government changing hands. They complain about "bickering" in Parliament - which I call debate, a vital sign of democracy - and appear to want the government to proceed by consensus.

They seem to dislike elections themselves.

I don't know if this makes any sense. It wouldn't have made sense to me before I moved here! Maybe a Canadian-born Canadian here can better explain.

geek guy said...

we love individualism
just as much as the community
we love stability as wall as debate but not screaming
its a contradiction but that's Canada for you!

Some Person said...

Actually it makes sense given the national "peace, order, good government" ethos.

Still, I asked myself the question and made the observation, "If Canada is a saner country with more protections for the marginalized and disadvantaged, then surely there had to have been an active democratic push for this system. These kinds of protections are never handed to people - they almost always have to fight the privileged for them."

Then I considered this comparison between the U.S. and Europe (the U.S. and Canada are rarely compared on major issues, but that's for another post):

Historically, Americans have not demonstrated en masse, especially over economic issues. Scholars offer a wide range of reasons for why the Europeans paint signs, erect barricades, go on strike and take to the streets at the drop of a hat and Americans do not.

For starters, when Americans have a problem, they take it out on their politicians through elections and not through mass demonstrations, said Robert Reich, former U.S. secretary of labor and now a professor of public policy at the University of California at Berkeley.

"We take our grievances out on our politicians. Europe's parliamentary systems are not terribly responsive to the public, and as a result, people take to the streets," Reich said.

"You're seeing so much outrage over AIG in Congress because they're getting deluged with letters and e-mails. Even the members in safe seats aren't that safe right now," he said.

Americans do not protest in the way Europeans do because our ideas of class are much less strict, said Melissa Weiner, a sociology professor at Quinnipiac University who studies protest movements.


From http://abcnews.go.com/Business/Story?id=7101389&page=4

So is it that parliamentary Canada followed Europe's example and has relied more on labor and working-class activism than the Americans? And that therefore while frequent changes in government are distasteful to Canadian sensibilities but change through other means is not? Or is much of Canada's progressivism simply a reaction to the bawdy selfishness of the Yanks' political economy?

L-girl said...

So is it that parliamentary Canada followed Europe's example and has relied more on labor and working-class activism than the Americans? And that therefore while frequent changes in government are distasteful to Canadian sensibilities but change through other means is not?

I don't think that describes Canada at all. One thing that surprised and pleased me about Canada is how major change actually came through government - public health care, same-sex marriage, for example. Not that there wasn't activism around those, but there was action within Parliament from the beginning. As opposed to in the US, where huge people's movements drive change, and elected officials are brought along kicking and screaming.

Some Person said...

Still, that begs the question of why Parliament would be inclined to pass the Canada Health Act, legalisation of same-sex marriage, a comparably favourable refugee acceptance scheme, and adopt multiculturalism in areas of official life. Surely the government that happened to be in power was not simply feeling generous one day during its tenure. There had to be pressure coming from somewhere, especially if (and do correct me if my assumptions are incorrect) Parliament is relatively unresponsive to direct public pressure.

L-girl said...

Parliament is relatively unresponsive to direct public pressure.

Actually, it's exactly the opposite.

MPs are very responsive to the public. As the cliche goes, in the US people are afraid of the government, in Canada the government is afraid of the people.

You are correct, of course, that power concedes nothing without struggle. But MPs are not so very high and powerful. They are much closer to the public than US senators and reps - more like your local assemblypeople. MPs are very responsive to their constituents.

Of course, they are bound by party platforms. You're not going to pressure a Conservative MP to support an NDP position. But the parties themselves are made up of ordinary people, who run for office without needing millions of dollars to do so. If they're not doing their job, it's a lot easier to turf them, and of course they know that.

Canadians know their MPs much more than USians know their representatives. It's easier to communicate with them, including in person.

impudent strumpet said...

I overheard some people talking about this today, and they thought that public opinion hadn't shifted significantly since the last election. So they figure a lot of public money would be spent, the business of government would be slowed down, the airwaves would be taken over by annoying political ads, and we'd come out with essentially the same result. Their problem wasn't the act of voting itself, it was just they didn't think it would result in any change in the balance of power.

L-girl said...

Their problem wasn't the act of voting itself, it was just they didn't think it would result in any change in the balance of power.

The problem with that is it bases the need for action (or lack thereof) on the probability of a given outcome. That's no way to run a democracy.

It also assumes that if the party in power forms another government, that the election is meaningless. In reality, as much as I don't want to see it, it reaffirms and strengthens the government's mandate.

(Or it would under a more democratic, pro-rep system. In a FPTP system, it strengthens the illusion of a mandate.)