Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Welcome To The New Dark Ages

My problem with democracy is 50 million Elvis fans can be wrong. They can be wrong about all kinds of shit.  But it is much more than the oversimplified idea that electing leaders based on popularity, soundbites and tie choice is a dodgy way to go about things.

My problem with democracy is most people are, through no fault of their own, not in a great position to make informed choice--whether they are smart or stupid, greedy or community oriented.  Even if inclined towards good decisions, does the average citizen have the time, energy and accurate information to become knowledgeable about economics, environment, climate, social costs and benefits?  I'm not saying the average voter is a simpleton (though it seems that way at times) but that s/he is very busy with mundane immediate concerns (like paying the rent or feeding the kids) and the world is a very big and very complex set of systems.

Add to the recipe a media that confuses people about important issues so intensely that people will often become hostile at even being asked to think about something. Sometimes this media is incompetent in exactly the same way as the poor voter, but often the Media, concentrated as it is in the hands of a wealthy few, has a strong agenda not at all in line with the best interests of the average voter.

Now you have a voter, commuting several hours a day, working at a job that is perhaps underpaid, struggling to keep a roof over his two kid’s heads and he has at best 20 minutes a day for information gathering.  This, he usually gleans from The Sun.  His peers are pretty much identical.  None of them want to appear ignorant.  All of them are biologically wired, and socially conditioned to look for group identity and fear the consequences of standing out.  Now you have a group with very little real information, a great deal of misinformation and slant, and a strong desire to take the shortest route to a comfortable unconflicted solidarity.  

If you think I am painting an unrealistic portrait of Joe Six-Pack, chances are you are an idealist who spends little time among the working class.  It’s not so different among the white-collared except they have a bigger mortgage and receive their propaganda dose from The Globe and Mail.  Then these people are expected to vote, not on an issue, but for a fairly concentrated executive group who will make decisions and laws for four years.  When the government screws them over, they are told tough titty, you got what you voted for. But did they understand what they were voting for?

The vast majority of people, including those with higher education—which face it, isn’t what it used to be, and at its strongest tends to be highly specialized--are not well informed about virtually any of the issues that should concern them most when it comes to civic activity, politics or voting.

The average citizen doesn't even understand that smaller government (a constant Conservative rallying cry) means less social goods and protections.  They do not understand that the majority of tax money is recycled right into society via jobs, social programs, culture, healthcare, infrastructure, safety regulations, etc, etc.  They vote for the party promising smaller government because they have been bamboozled into thinking that the government is their enemy.  

Ironically, by fulfilling the promise of leaner government through gutting social spending, deregulation, closing down oversight departments, cutting science spending, and fighting public unions, the resulting social problems confirm for the voter his suspicion that government is the enemy.  As a bonus: that same government still manages to overspend, just not in ways that benefit the people, further aggravating the voter. The sad thing is this cycle often does not translate into a shift in alliances to parties that actually would look after the voter better.  Absurdly, the voter often takes out his anger on the party that would be his best ally.  This does not happen in a vacuum, it happens in a heavily mediated environment.

Take for example, recent talks to privatize Canada Post.  CP is not an essential service, but the way privatization is framed perfectly illustrates the smaller government fallacy.  The spin in the media is that this will create competition and efficiency and benefit you.  Now, Canada Post is not only fiscally responsible, but generates a profit, nearly 300 million dollars annually, the article I read stated.  So talks of privatization are, from the get go, about fixing things that ain’t broke.  The article went on to state that 2/3 of CP’s expenses are the incomes of its 71 000 employees and that that money is costing you too much.  The article warns that in coming years a stamp could rise to 61 cents.  Given the size of Canada, this still strikes me as a steal. 
What made me angry is this angle I see all the time that you should feel vindictive because people are employed at a living wage, that wages are a frivolous unacceptable use of money.  These wages, posed as a negative are wages that get spent on houses and washing machines and cars, on restaurant meals, on clothes, on charitable donations, on taxes that keep parks, sewers and roads in good shape.  These wages aren’t stolen from you; they are part of the social compact of interdependence and mutual benefit.  These wages contribute to a healthy economy and a functioning community.  

With privatization, some significant portion of those jobs disappears altogether; many become rehires at substandard wages with benefits and protections removed.  The newly unemployed are added into job competition (which pushes wages down), the reduced wage employees have less money to spend in the community and contribute less tax to the government leaving it less able to provide for the community.  The collective economic and political clout of the people is reduced as well.  Lastly, the price of postage does not go down because private executives make much bigger salaries and with those fussy government regulations out the window perhaps the mail is less reliable too.

There isn’t a single good reason for an average person to want Canada Post privatized, but if all a person has to go on is the persuasive slanted media (that doesn’t feel the same strident need to portray “both sides of the story” as it does with climate change), that person will probably feel encouraged and supportive that another fat-cat public institution is getting its comeuppance.

More and more often, it’s the same story no matter the issue.  People are fooled into laws that harm them, deregulating safeguards that protect them, foisting costs into the public and profits into the private.  Is it really hard to see the harm in a Harper government?  Slash social spending; this grows poverty desperation, and social ills.  Create an omnibus crime bill with harsher sentencing and wider swathes of criminally deemed activities which eventually soar due to the aforementioned.  Build private super prisons for a slave waged “competitive” manufacturing industry for profit.  Is that what it has come to mean to be Canadian?
What is the end game in destroying civil rights and their institutions—for women, minorities, homosexuals, the poor, children, psychiatric patients and what motivates someone to vote for that?  What’s the end game in destroying environmental protection departments, closing down scientific bodies and denying the already actualizing consequences of climate change and what motivates someone to vote for that?  What motivates an average citizen to vote for a constrictive police state of disempowered citizens while creating a free for all for banks and corporations?

Why do farmers vote conservative, their worst enemy?  I know working poor and unemployed people who voted conservative.  I know rabid atheists who voted for Harper.  I know women who voted for Harper.  You would think in a world of record oil profits even the most ignorant voter would be wary of a party that endorses fat subsidies and tax breaks for the oil industry?

I get angry at voters even though voters are so poorly situated to vote well so it’s hard to blame them.  I do blame our voting system and voter apathy for awarding a majority government to the party that received approval from 24% of the electorate. 60% of the electorate voted, and nearly 40% of those chose Harper.

Harper doesn't even talk a good game about "the people" or "family values" or any other traditional political veil.  Whenever he refers to Canadians, he sounds like he is speaking of foreigners who he deems barely human, an irritating obstacle that needs to be humoured at times.  So, I just don't understand him winning an election, except that a lot of the non-voters are people who wouldn't have voted conservative had they voted.  They did not understand that refusing to vote was not a vote for none of the above, or an act of defiance, but a tacit endorsement of whoever did end up with the most votes.  If every person who earns less than 25 grand a year and didn't vote had added their vote to the NDP, we'd likely have Prime Minister Layton today.  

There were a lot more non-voters than Harper votes.  Think about that.  If every non-voter had voted rhinoceros party, they would be the government of Canada.

John Ralston Saul, in The Unconscious Civilization, discusses at length how helpful it is to conservatives to encourage the idea that "all parties are the same" and "what difference does my vote make" and "politics is all corruption and greed", because it never fools conservatives, only left leaning people and vulnerable people who feel powerless.  Every time a conservative rolls back the social good, it reinforces powerlessness to the vulnerable people in society and they feel further disenfranchised from the political process.  It’s a terrible ignorance fed feedback loop.

I keep hearing “the people have spoken”.  And I think, so what.  Even if it weren’t the case that a small minority has granted a great deal of power to a dangerous man, even if it was a real majority, even if it was unanimous, should I feel consoled that democracy has been served?


  1. Well your first mistake Ape, is assuming that the Canadian political landscape is a democratic isn't for a great number of reasons, one of which you pointed out being that a large chunk of the electorate doesn't vote. One of the biggest problems in 'modern democracies' is that people are not REQUIRED to vote.If one is required to vote, by law (with stiff penalties if you don't) one would be more likely to be informed and feel that they have a stake in what the outcome is.
    As for 'none of the above', this is not currently an option on the Canadian ballot, although it is in the Russian Federation, France and a number of other democracies.In Canada, if you pencil in or otherwise choose not to vote for the listed candidates, your ballot is considered 'destroyed'. Go to Elections Canada and look up the figures for destroyed ballots in the last several will make your head spin.
    And I could go on and on, but that would just be ranting in your comments and not very nice at all.

  2. I think most of your arguments can be successfully grafted onto the current US scene, and I am less kind to people in my society who vote against their best interests. This is even given all the stipulations you laid bare in this post--they all ring true. The media is heavily biased towards the status quo. People are very busy with their day-to-day lives. But, if a person can watch "American Idol" every week or a sports game, that same person can take ten minutes to read a little about politics and see which candidates are better.

    During the recent spate of protests across the Midwest in the US against Republican governors and their draconian measures to gut unions and social safety nets, many people who voted for said Republicans voiced remorse. But, they were perfectly fine when the same kind of draconian measures were enacted against people they considered less worthy.

    There are many complicated factors in why people vote against their best interest, but I have to put some of the responsibility on the people themselves, even if it's a bare minimum.