Dear Western Democracy – I think you misled me.
I was under the impression that my vote mattered, that my vote was my own, that my vote was my choice: voluntarily given, free from compulsion or coercion. But I was misled.
You’ve taken the world and divided it into two, gave each side a color, and turned the one against the other. To vote places me with “us” or with “them.” I’m either blue or red. Left or right. The world and all its complexity has been reduced to two options, and even the third and the fourth and the fifth options are, eventually, located on this side or that.
Still, my experience suggests that there are never two sides to any issue nor simply two types of people, but multiple views, approximations of truth, degrees of precision, and compromises made for the sake of agreement. In the final analysis of any problem a decision must be made, but made free from the divisiveness of partisanship because all should benefit from progress, not just half.
Yet you’ve forced us, and our thoughts, onto two platforms; you’ve dichotomized our values and positioned us against each other for no other reason, it seems, other than to avoid the deeply challenging work of civic agency: involving the capacities of citizens to work collaboratively across differences to address common challenges, solve problems, and create common ground.
I want my vote to be cast for persons on their merits, their qualities as leaders, their virtue, depth of intelligence, and dedication to principled action; I want my ballot to be private and my thoughts free from coercion.
Oh, but coercion is ubiquitous in your corporatized system. From billboards, to ads on radio and TV; to early polls and voting results; to social movements convinced by the whole damn spectacle, defending it with zeal; to family traditions and “this is how we’ve always voted”; to disingenuous campaigns where supposed ‘representatives’ shake my hand, look into my eyes, and seduce my loyalty.
So I’ve been manipulated to believe that there are two sides to an issue, forced to take one side, and then absorbed by the only available candidate who can represent that view. How is this democratic? What choice do I have?
Like a new inmate thrown into the prison yard, I stand at the ballot box expected to declare my allegiance: Red, Blue, Green, Orange, and now, Black. Colours, taglines, party dues, campaign teams, inner city barbecues, wining and dining the powerful, aggressive hits on the opposition: it all seems like gang-life to me.
And I see the Blue in my riding, and he seems like a stand up kind of guy who cares about his community. We don’t agree on some of the details, but he listens well and seems to genuinely care – but a vote for him means a vote for the provincial blue and they’re pretty lousy, I think. And I don’t mind the provincial reds, but my local red is pure politician – incapable of seeing beyond the party platform. My friend tells me that if I vote blue, i’m supporting hatred. I didn’t know my local blue was hateful. I guess he must be.
Where is the choice? Where is the agency?
These platforms are a mystery to me. We all know that politicians can hardly deliver on their campaign promises. Being “for” or “against” something never translates well into good policy. Ask any analyst or researcher: social, economic, legal, and environmental issues are never one way or another. A compromise is always made, unintended impacts are unavoidable – that’s why they’re “unintended.” But good policy is careful, thoughtful, well-examined and, perhaps, enlightened. In contrast, campaign promises are rushed, shallow, and vague: enough to win the vote, barely sufficient to inspire confidence.
Once in power, however, the voter might imagine that the impartial public service would step up to ensure that the government’s laws, policies, and programs are developed through careful analysis; that policy advice is given courageously; that multiple views are considered to ensure impartiality, while upholding the highest standards of humanity.
Unfortunately, in practice – or so it seems to me from my brief experience working in a federal department – such advice fails to make inroads. The public service works for the Ministers, whose mandate letters (a laundry list of campaign promises made by the federal leader of the day) dictate where we go and how we measure our success. The analysis and research in government departments is ultimately driven by partisan agendas (of course, I’m sure this varies in degree from department to department, and between federal and provincial/territorial jurisdictions).
So I stand at the ballot box convinced that my choice doesn’t matter because, in the end, I don’t see much of a choice. I’ll vote, but I don’t regard my vote as an expression of civic agency, enabled by a healthy democracy. No. I vote because I know which gang I’d rather tussle with over the next term.
Western democracy, you’ve misled me into thinking I had a choice at the ballot box. Perhaps you thought this would be a clever way to make me feel important from one election to the next, while suppressing my voice in the interim. Whatever your intentions (if you even have any), I’m exercising my right to vote, but then I’m going back to developing and exercising my real civic agency.
A Frustrated Voter.