The Steady Drip, Drip, Drip, of Voters Walking Away

Pundits have spent hours of air time, and litres of ink, to bemoan the falling participation of the Canadian people in politics. Once an election is (these days, “mostly” settled), the columns and airwaves are filled with worry as to why the people are not up in arms about this, that or the other. Our week just past is one such, as balloon after balloon has floated over the Hill, mostly in 140-character or less chirping between members of the Parliamentary Press Gallery and the more chatty members of the House.

(It’s not just us, of course – voter contributions to parties, turnout at elections, participation in riding associations, willingness to be polled, etc. has been falling in other countries, too.)

I wonder if either the “smart” advisors who are at the centre of party politics and campaigns, or the pundits and editorial decision-makers, have figured out yet that the fall-off is mostly their fault. (Certainly the Speaker of the House of Representatives in Australia seems to get it, as he upbraided the triumphant victor of internecine warfare within her party, Prime Minister Gillard, for failing to give a simple, factual answer to a question during Question Period. Compare that to the dreck, faux outrage and screeching non-answers we hear, in our provinces and in our national capital.)

The nice thing about a representative democracy, such as our own, is that, for the average citizen, politics does not need to be a day-by-day obsession. Unless motivated by a particular issue, or at election time, most citizens have other things they would like to concentrate on. For a long time, our political parties respected this wish. Their vigour went into debating issues, not into scoring points. Policy, in other words, was allowed a look-in.

I can recall, for instance, in the early 1970s making a high school trip to the Québec Winter Carnival. Québec, as we know, is different: in this case, some older practices had held up just a little longer than in other parts of the country.

I had the joyous surprise, one evening, to hear a debate between two opposing politicians. (This was in the period after the FLQ crisis, when the Parti Québécois was still “jelling” and the remnants of the old Union Nationale were still strongish, and I cannot now recall whether these were from the fringes, from the parties, or whatever.)

Both treated their audience as though they were responsible, thinking adults whose opinions could and would respond to a rational argument. They spoke in long, complete sentences, without hyperbole, citing facts and figures to support the case they built. Each talked for 30-45 minutes without interruption before engaging with each other, and with questions — and they would answer each other’s questions.

My French was not then, and is not now, particularly good, but the emotional index of the words used was low, and as far as I could tell no personal attacks were made, nor was the argument framed in clichés. In addition, the repetition level was extremely low – the listeners were expected to remember a previous point without having to hear it over and over again. It was a fascinating evening of Cartesian subtlety and rigour, and I thorough enjoyed it, especially in being treated as an equal who could understand an argument and draw a conclusion from it for myself.

Incidentally, the “separatist” that night made the stronger case, and this may explain my own long-standing willingness not to demonise the Parti Québécois when in government in Québec: when you do reach your own conclusion, it tends to stick with you!

Compare that to the practices of recent years, though.

Ad hominem (beat up the person, not the position) arguments galore, repetition of clichés and sound bites, playing to the cameras, personal attacks, a negative tone throughout, a demonstration of a complete lack of respect for one’s opponents, and no engagement with the audience beyond either the level of a 1950s housewife worried about which detergents might get her husband’s white shirts the cleanest, or that of a child which needs constant reminding of what to do and how to do it.

The charge applies to those on the left side (Government) of the chamber, and those on the right (Opposition). It applies to parties large and small. It applies to parties across the political spectrum.

If that’s not bad enough, it applies throughout the talking head punditocracy, the blogosphere, the formal press and broadcast media — not to mention the “air war machines” now kept in readiness to dominate the comment board, the call-in shows, and other means of public discussion. Meanwhile the professional politicians travel and speak only to the faithful, so much so that the former Liberal Party Leader, Michael Ignatieff, apparently thought he was making progress arguing his case in the country when he was always and only speaking to local Liberal Party operatives under sanitised and controlled circumstances.

Those the media come to love never have this pointed out in public: the “Jack!” triumphal march of Jack Layton in 2011 comes to mind. Those the media viscerally dislike — the Prime Minister comes to mind — constantly are pointed out as “controlling”. Yet both do it, those that are loved and those that are hated, and in equal measure, and watch the scorn heaped in public on social networks toward a member of the public who is anything but adoring to the media personalities tweeting or blogging away, or who points out that whatever they’re on about today isn’t of interest to the “poor peasant” who deigned to think replies and comments were an invitation to engage!

Add to this the increase in polls being taken: continuous polling by the major firms paid for by the media, polling by the parties, polling on issues, polling to guide policy — is it any wonder that we all feel so bothered by the process? Yes, the politicians gave us a “do not call” register, and began by exempting their own activities from it.

Is it any wonder so many of us — and I made the shift in early 2004 — are moving to VoIP phones, cell phones, anything but a listed land line phone, and are using call blocking and caller ID to avoid picking up when a “strange” number calls? (Heavens help you if you actually donate to a party — any party or any candidate — for you will be blasted with email, phoned day and night and badgered to turn out for riding association events, “come and meet the candidate” teas, “could you donate more” pleas, announcements on tape of initiatives, etc. As someone who has given support and money to many different parties, I get days where all sides of the issue berate me.)

Everyone who engages in the act of looking to govern — party central organizers, candidates, campaigns — has a moral responsibility to the system itself. If the price of potential power is to express your contempt of the electorate as rational agents, as people with more concerning them than your party, campaign or policies, or simply as fodder for the money and voting “machines”, then your actions are tearing away at the fabric of the system and those acts are not on an ethically sound footing — no matter how “sound” your policy positions may be. As people interested in politics, you ought to, instead, be looking for ways to broaden interest and engagement, not turn it away.

Of course, a more engaged and interested electorate would be more difficult to predict and control for. Still, for those who look to change some of the long-standing biases in Canadian public opinion, a little unpredictability but a larger potential base which acquires a commitment to your party would be preferable to a smaller and predictable base. It would also be the moral thing to do.

Party politics, in other words, ought not to be a managerial game but a conversation between equals, when due respect to the tradition of electoral representation is paid.

As for the media, similar comments apply. Not everything is a horse race waiting to be handicapped.

Most issues are not dramatic, and do not come with 20 secs of dramatic footage, and require that time be taken to explain. If our politicians are screaming idiots shouting past each other, you are responsible. You need not air it. You need not quote it. They’re desperate for visibility: withdraw their current means, and they will change.

If you can’t do that, then far better you not cover politics than that you do it the way it is done now. You are both enablers – in the sense of enabling a drunk to drink and not face up to the mess they’re making of themselves and others – of managerial politics and bottom feeders leeching off the noise that surrounds differences rather than being in any way concerned for the truth. This betrays not only the purpose of the tradition of a free press and free réportage, but also the country at large.

It is no wonder more and more people turn off. But then, it is no wonder why newspaper subscriptions are stagnant or falling, why audiences are fleeing from television and radio news, and why phone-in programmes now only attract an audience of callers who want to rant. As the audience continues to tune out, you will soon be left simply talking to each other while the rest of us go about our business.

What then, for our cities, our provinces and our country, when you have reduced a majority to no longer giving a damn? And … if you are not enjoying the fruits of power … who, in those circumstances, will come out to vote for you beyond the minority who are left?

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