Another election year is upon us in Canada. To many, this brings out eyerolls and exhaustion. It means that we’re going to be inundated with political ads and rhetoric that will often leave our collective heads spinning. A famous quote about democracy attributed to British Prime Minister Winston Churchill states: “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.” It’s important to remember this as we head into this rather distasteful of civic seasons. The democratic process can be rather uncomfortable, but you should thank your lucky stars that you’re free to participate in it.
I’d like to break down some important aspects about democracy that I hope will provide you with a new attitude towards this civic responsibility. To begin, despite what you might think, your vote is valuable. Too often, people write off their political viewpoint as irrelevant because they aren’t fervent followers of all things related to politics, economics and foreign affairs. The truth is that if you cast your vote based on one single issue that concerns you, that ballot carries as much weight as any other.
So, let us now state for the sake of this argument, that the act of casting a vote is your highest democratic right. This is a fair standard to set. It is a common rallying cry in democratic nations where you see “get out the vote” campaigns. In 2015, Elections Canada reported an increase in voter turnout for eligible electors to 66.1 per cent from 58.5 per cent in 2011.1 A higher voter turnout is considered favourable for obvious reasons, especially if it is free and genuine. Despite the value and importance of voting, there is another side of the electoral process that is sadly lacking. This we can call “the follow-up.”
Out of those 66.1 per cent of eligible voters that voted in Canada’s 2015 federal election, how many of them have done any follow-up with their elected representative? This is the real crux of democracy. It’s following up with elected officials and holding them accountable for the reasons you voted for them. It’s important to remember that these people are public servants. They serve your interests as best they can and you have every right to share your thoughts, concerns and criticisms with them. They should listen to you because they want your vote, they want your family’s votes, and they want your friends’ votes. Don’t ever underestimate your power as a voting citizen in this country.
This is where the true power of democracy lies. Democracy originated in ancient Greece and the word literally means “rule by the people”. Politicians, despite their great attempts to show that they, and their respective political parties, are the answer to all things legislative in society, are simply individuals. They have limited understanding and perspectives. The true power of a democratic system is when the insights of society effectively flow through its elected representatives. When electors participate and fulfill their roles passing on their ideas, hopes, concerns, and criticism to their elected officials, that is democracy at work.
One of the important realities to accept about democracy is that it is slow. Painfully slow. Despite your first inclinations, you actually want this. You want a system that serves you on the basis of fairness. Name one dictatorship, one authoritarian regime, one king or queen that governs with true and fair stewardship. I will show you why they pale in comparison to a democratic state. The collective consciousness of a people will always know better than a single ruler or a ruling class. It’s difficult to argue this rationale but it is, on the other hand, very easy to argue the efficiencies of the two systems. Democracies are frustratingly slow, but this is needed to produce governance that is fair and just—something you have to come to appreciate.
There’s a great story that will help put your voting responsibilities in a positive frame of mind. I’d like to frame it in a way that will likely appeal to the entrepreneurs reading this article. Think of our democracy in the same way you think of your business. It’s not just a static thing that exists. Instead, it’s a project that is in need of constant development. It’s built on a foundation that needs to be reinforced from time to time. The reality is that the work will never end. As long as you have your business, you will work to keep it functioning. It’s important to think of our democracy in the same way.
When thinking about democracy and voting, also consider the Greek myth of Sisyphus.2 He was the king of Ephyra and he was punished by Zeus for deceiving the gods. His punishment was to roll an immense boulder up a hill. However, the boulder could never make it, and would roll back down as it neared the top. Sisyphus was doomed to repeat this action for all eternity. Greek myths are symbolic of life and the story of Sisyphus is an allegory for the human condition—being tasked with repeating futile tasks. In his essay, The Myth of Sisyphus, Albert Camus compared the punishment to humanity’s futile search for meaning and truth in a meaningless and indifferent universe. However, instead of despairing, Camus imaged Sisyphus not as a victim, but rather a defier. So, even when our struggles—whether they are at work or through civic engagement—seem repetitive and futile, they are ours and they hold value.
Our democracy has institutions, processes, norms and standards that have been developed over hundreds of years. There are also the shared experiences of democracies the world over. When you put them together, it’s amazing to think about. So much trial and error, competition, war and strife has gone into creating a society that serves the many and not the few. Even with that, the system remains delicate. Democracy has been developing and evolving now for over 2,500 years. In Canada, we are quite fortunate to have inherited one of the oldest and established democratic structures from Great Britain. Our power comes from the pencil we use to mark a ballot and the phone call we make to our elected representatives. Own this responsibility and make our democratic system more effective, producing a better society for all.
So, as we head into a federal election this fall and a provincial election next spring, vote. Make your voice heard, and continue to do so when you have concerns about how your Member of Parliament or Member of the Legislative Assembly is representing you. We should be grateful we have the power to choose, and the ability to speak truth to power. That is democracy.
1Estimation of Voter Turnout by Age Group and Gender at the 2015 General Election, Elections Canada. http://www.elections.ca/content.aspx?section=res&dir=rec/part/estim/42ge&document=p1&lang=e#a
2The Myth of Sisyphus – Alex Gendler, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q4pDUxth5fQ