Every now and then, several events coincide to renew interest in public affairs. For a fleeting moment, politics can appear sexy, invigorating, even meaningful. This is one such time.
The Republican primaries are firmly underway, and once again, four cretinous white men with varying degrees of dementia and fervour are creakily jostling to secure the Presidential nomination.
Meanwhile, the ruling Democrats recently rejected the construction of the Keystone XL Pipeline, much to the chagrin of anyone with stocks in cowboy hats, and much to the delight of anyone whose IQ hovers at or above 70, or understands the concept of “risk.”
And just last week, the Stop Online Piracy Act and Protect IP Act were similarly prevented from any further legislative deliberation, after Wikipedia and every impassioned Facebook user with the meagrest appreciation for torrents banded together to call attention to the absurdity of the proposed laws.
Closer to home, the delightfully vapid and ideologically misguided omnibus crime bill is set to slither its way through Parliament, promising more prisons, higher incarceration rates and a $717 million tab over the next five years.
Each of these examples has garnered a considerable amount of controversy in its own right. Be it on CNN, CBC or the front page of CNET, most will have heard and maybe even formed an opinion about at least one of these recent, salient political affairs.
Could it be that this surge in public interest marks a genuine societal shift toward an altogether more politically active and engaged form of citizenship? Unfortunately, no.
A modern North American democracy is not about contributing toward impactful societal change through the use of public forums, nor about celebrating the agency each of us is granted over our respective futures. Ours is a democracy that functions to provide the right to exclude oneself from political participation. It is less a platform for civil deliberation than it is a tool for the guilt-free diffusion of responsibility, where a disinterested public is given permission to limit its political contribution to an hour or two’s inconvenience of standing in line at a gymnasium polling station and circling a name on a piece of paper, once every four years or so.
Having flexed their sagging muscles of accountability, the less than two in three eligible Canadian voters who bother to turn up are then free to return to the more pressing matters in their life, like microwaving a burrito and updating their Twitter feed.
In the current state of affairs, the onus for providing a government attuned to the needs of Canadians falls squarely and exclusively on the shoulders of elected officials. This is the hallmark of our representative democracy: individual decision making is off-loaded to someone else who we hope gives a touch more of a shit than we do. It’s a convenient arrangement, because it saves the public from having to stay informed, while providing legitimate ammunition for complaint when — inevitably — the odd piece of violently misinformed legislation floats to the surface of the porcelain.
But ours is also a dangerous and precarious arrangement, and one that causes more harm than it does good. In the last federal election, 39.6 per cent of Canadians voted for the Conservative Party. Put differently, 60.4 per cent of Canadians did not vote for the Conservative Party. Evidently, we’ve got things a bit back-to-front when it comes to the matter of “public input.”
What would happen if the paradigm were reversed — if the electing public was held accountable for the actions of its leaders? If this were the case, we the people would be forced to answer for our own political misgivings and miscalculations.
Consider that the aforementioned omnibus crime bill will, according to one estimate, cost $717 million over the next five years; now consider that casting a ballot is meant to represent an endorsement beyond charisma and hairstyle, to a declaration in the most official of capacities of confidence in a party’s ability to make informed and broadly-benefiting decisions.
All facetiousness aside (only briefly, I promise), imagine if an index had been kept of each ballot cast by each citizen. Having expressed their full confidence in the social and economic stances of the Conservative Party, those 5,832,401 Canadians who cast ballots in the party’s favour could be contacted and fairly asked to cover their share of the cost of a bill which, as per their collective wishes, has begun the long and wintry trek toward legal institution. Split evenly, that would work out to a piddly $122.90 per supporter over five years. By golly, that’s less than half the cost of a new hunting crossbow!
But alas, this will never happen. To frame political participation in anything but a hierarchical model would imply the abandonment of our right to let someone else deal with it. And for that, for once, we have no one to blame but ourselves.
Graphic: Brianna Whitmore/The Sheaf