It’s Election Day across communities in Ontario and one gets the sense that, as democracy is facing growing difficulty around the world, the validity of such contests continues to come into question, as citizens wonder if they truly make much difference. The repeated calls across the globe for some “strong leader” to overcome the weakness of the system tells us that trust in our politics is reaching an historic low. Everywhere in the west, political parties, politicians and trust in elections is fading and no amount of political promises seems sufficient to reverse the trend.
Ironically, while all this is going on, interest in politics itself is growing almost exponentially. What’s that about? It might very well be that what is truly in question today is process and not so much the players. It makes for an odd situation – why this resurgent interest in politics as decline in democracy dwindles.
Perhaps democracy is far healthier than we realize but that our ways of determining its strength are dated and misplaced. The alternative that is troubling to consider is that our democracy and politics are just modern arenas of entertainment, with protagonists, antagonists, and an ability to rouse the passions of millions of viewers and listeners to a fever pitch. The phenomenon that is Donald Trump simply can’t be measured without acknowledging this troubling reality. Such things become ratings bonanzas, leaving modern media monopolies with the overriding penchant to push the pedal to the metal on such coverage and crowding out other vital issues of public policy in the process. Beneath it all, perhaps unknowingly, they are aiding the rise of an unmanageable populism.
In early-1970s Canada, citizens trusted politics more yet showed a heightened apathy towards democracy in general. Today, our politics is mesmerizing people at the same time as it erodes trust in political institutions – likely a recipe of for future democratic disruption.
Which brings us back to elections and their effectiveness. In an era when public trust in politicians was high and when elected representatives of differing views nevertheless worked out compromise positions for the benefit of citizens, elections were perhaps enough to guide democracy along a path of effectiveness. Today, however, with such dysfunction and low expectations, elections feel like a blunt instrument for providing citizens a clear say and politicians with an obvious mandate.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau spotted the problem as far back as the 18th century:
“The people of England deceive themselves when they fancy they are free; they are so, in fact, only during the election of members of parliament: for, as soon as a new one is elected, they are again in chains, and are nothing.”
To date, the bulk of attention on democracy’s malaise has been focused on the process of voting – elections, whether first-past-the-post, proportional representation, or other options. With the world becoming more fast paced, technologically driven and sophisticated, the time has come for a more complex response to meet the challenge. Perhaps it was naïve of us to believe that showing up every four years, making a mark on a piece of paper in a private setting, and then living with the outcome would be sufficient to carry us into the new century. It isn’t and we have to adapt.
The most vital requirement is not so much that the political class up its game (as welcome as that would be), but that citizens understand that more is now required of them than making an occasional showing at the ballot box. If they wish a voice, then it must be informed and reasoned, and to achieve that level requires more citizenship involvement in democracy to meet the challenge. They require the best information to make the best choices, the most reasoned perspectives to land on the most sensible solutions. In other words, those currently in possession of that information – politicians and bureaucrats – should effectively dispense it to citizens, who then must put their best minds to working for the best outcomes for everyone and not just their own particular interests.
It’s complicated, but that just what the world itself has become. We must begin working our way to where the ballot box becomes one part of the process of engagement and not its end. As Paul Collier put it in his, The Bottom Billion: “Elections determine who is in power, but they do not determine how power is used.” The first part is for the politicians; the second portion is for us to bring about.