Wednesday, September 02, 2009

On voter alienation.

So, it looks like we may go to a federal election in October. I say "may" because I'm still not entirely persuaded that the Liberals won't try to back off for some reason or another, and I'm also not persuaded that Harper won't sell out his hatred of the seperatists by cutting a deal with the Bloc. But, let's operate on the assumption that the election will happen. I'm not particularly interested here in discussing who will or won't win. Instead, I want to talk about two election-related motivational phenomena, one that has captured popular interest for some time, and one that is just starting to emerge: decreasing voter turnout and disinterest -- even disgust -- with the prospect and process of an election. These can both, I think, be classified as "voter alienation".

The first is certainly well-known. Voter turnout is dropping all over the developed world, to the point that even marginally increased voter turnout -- such as in the 2008 US Presidential election, and the recent Japanese parliamentary election -- is considered worthy of note. "Why" is a more complicated question, as voting itself is a complicated action. There are many motivations for voting at all, and many other motivations for casting a ballot one way or another. Short of a more sophisticated system of voting, there is no way to tell what motivates someone to cast the ballot that they cast, and why they bothered to vote at all. Cases make the point. I may come out to vote because I care about casting my ballot, because I've been paid to, because I'm bored and have nothing better to do, or because my wife is making me. I may vote NDP because I support their environmental policies, their economic policies, or some other policies, because I happen to like Jack Layton and believe he would be a good Prime Minister, or because I happen to know my local NDP candidate and believe he/she would be a good MP. Or, of course, some combination thereof.

It's a simple point, but it gets overlooked: humans very rarely do anything for one motivating reason; it's almost always a combination of different factors which get us to do something, usually after overwhelming a combination of still more factors which pointed towards doing something else. Extremely single-minded people, I suppose, might only have one motivation in mind whenever they do something, but this I take as a rare and highly exceptional case. Voting is no different. So, the simplistic analyses that are trotted out by the mass media and all manner of commentators simply aren't worth taking seriously. The explanation that accounts for why one person doesn't vote may not work for why another, not obviously different, person doesn't vote. And, of course, I'm ignoring the complicating cases of people such as myself who will vote federally, have never voted municipally, and only sporadically vote provincially. Oh, and I've never voted for any student council, either. No single explanation will work for me, clearly.

That said, I think we can group many of the various motivations together into one category. I say "many" because I concede that there are some people who genuinely object to the institution of government and won't participate on that basis. So, put them aside. Who is left? Those who won't vote because they don't care. Those who don't vote because they're disgusted with all parties or candidates. Those who won't vote because they believe the process is stacked against their favoured party or policy. So, we have apathy, disgust, and despair. These motivations all seem to rely on a belief that something isn't working the way it's supposed to. If things are going the way they are supposed to, you don't feel apathy, digust, despair, or any of that host of emotions; instead, you feel content or happy or fulfilled. So, what's driving low voter turnout, I think, is a sense, in other words, that things just aren't right.

Turning to the second phenomenon. It's not as common, but seems to be growing in frequency, especially as we are faced with our fourth federal election in five years. Even that phrase seems to encapsulate the phenomenon: that there is something objectionable about having "too many" elections in "too few" years. It's very unclear on the face of it what might drive this problem. Elections happen whenever a government cannot be legally sustained. Unless we want to live in an autocratic state, there is no choice here. Elections have to happen at certain points in time, and these may be quite regular. Yet, in comments on various news websites, I've even seen calls for outlawing minority governments. Put aside questions of how on earth that would be managed (I can't really fathom it myself), and consider why someone would say something like that. It speaks to a desire for stability, I think, but also and more deeply to a desire to not be bothered. That is, a worldview which sees government as a peripheral annoyance, rather than as a significant social force. This is distinct, you'll note, from the more hardcore forms of libertarianism or anarchism, which would see government as dangerous and/or deeply immoral. And it is, I think, an instance of the belief that things are not going as they should. In this case, that government is somehow failing to do what we charge it to do: instead of running the country, governments are collapsing into election again and again and again.

I'm using "voter alienation" for both these phenomena. I say "voter" because they both clearly affect voters -- voter turnout and voter disgust or disdain for the electoral process itself. I say "alienation" because I think that, at bottom, these both express a belief that government is somehow not part of ordinary society. There's always been an element of this in public attitudes towards government, of course; spitting out "Washington" or "Ottawa" or "London" with disdain is a longstanding shorthand for a myriad of objections to the government of the day. But it seems to have moved on from that to an objection to government itself. Again, not the sort of libertarian/anarchist critique of government, but to an objection to government's bothering us. To government not knowing its proper place and role. To things not being right, and government being the problem rather than the solution.

I'll come back to that "proper place and role" idea, but let me take a brief detour to talk about "voter apathy". I know "voter apathy" is the more common term, and I'm not using it for good reasons. There are some serious problems with this term. For one, it's too limited. As noted above, non-voters may be motivated by anger, despair, or disgust, none of which qualifies as apathy. simply inaccurate. "Apathy" describes an emotional grey state, a lack of interest or feeling toward something. For example, I am apathetic towards cars. Except insofar as they are an instrument of transportation, I don't really care about them one way or the other. The deep passion any number of people feel for different makes, models, styles, and so on just doesn't move me. When it comes to voting, the phenomenon is not adequately characterized as apathy. Many who do not vote or who are disgusted by elections are not apathetic -- indeed, they're often angry, depressed, disappointed, revolted, states which cannot accurately be considered apathy.

For two, it's demeaning. Calling voters who object to the process of voting and the process of election "apathetic" is almost a way of infantalizing them. Apathetic voters, rather than alienated voters, are too juvenile to have the appropriate feelings and motivations of an adult citizen. Apathetic voters are almost like spoiled teenagers unable to deal with the unfairnesses of life. Alienated voters, by contrast, are excluded, sometimes forcefully. Alienated voters have been rejected by the choices of other people, and thus can demand that these other people justify and account for these choices. In short, apathetic voters have deficient characters, while alienated voters have been wronged. So, I understand why "voter apathy" is the preferred term, as it gets people off the hook for what they have done.

So, to recap. The problems are declining voter turnout and increasing disgust with elections. The motivation, I think, is a sense that things aren't right, that government isn't fulfilling its proper role. I call it "voter alienation" because "voter apathy" is an inappropriate term. I could spend some time discussing the proper role of government, and whether government has any proper role at all. But I think that would take some time, and I'm not sure of my own thinking on the issue. So, let me make two assumptions. I think these assumptions are certainly widely-shared views, although I concede that they are not universal. First, I assume that government has some proper role; that is, that the question of the legitimacy or justification of government power isn't answered with the claim that government is never legitimate. And, second, that this role somehow involves acting for the best interests of the citizenry. The issue of what counts as a "best interest" is difficult: are best interests what people want? what people say they want? what people should want? in what sense of "should"? Similarly difficult is the issue of how one might act for those interests: by passing laws? upholding the constitution? privatization? But I think most people, when they think of government, have some sense that this is what government is for.

What can we do to reverse the course of voter alienation? I'm not trying to assess what would be successful -- that's a matter for investigation, experiment and testing -- but what, in principle, seems like it might work. One thing that clearly won't work is chastising or deriding alienated voters. That clearly will only serve to deepen the sense of alienation, of being excluded, by setting up an opposition between the "parental" figure (the chastisers) and the "children" (the alienated). Another thing that clearly won't work is insisting on the social duty of voting. The issue is that alienated voters believe the other side of the social bargain has been betrayed, that government is not doing what it was set up to do. Given that government has failed to live up to its end of the deal, alienated voters believe that they would be foolish (at least!) to continue to live up to their end.

The basic idea has to be to create a more responsive government and electoral system. If the problem is that an increasing number of voters are being alienated by the system, then we need to give these voters reason to believe they are not alienated. That is, we need to convince alienated voters that the systems are working as they should, that government is working towards their best interests, and thus that they are obligated to live up to their end of the social bargain referred to above. I see two guiding principles here.

1. Responsiveness

Government needs to actively become involved in, and thus more relevant to, the lives of people. Not in the sense of passing laws or conducting an endless series of referenda -- the former is invasive, the latter abdicates their responsibilities. I mean that the people who are supposed to represent us in government need to realize that it is no longer acceptable for them to vanish into heavily-guarded buildings to negotiate largely in secret and occasionally engage in public performance in the House or the Senate. We need to see the negotiations. All of them. Unless it's a matter of national security, I see no justification for any of the process of government or Parliament to be behind closed doors.

We also need to be taken seriously by our alleged representatives. Far too few are interested in hearing what we, their constituents, think or want or need. Even fewer are interested in engaging with us outside of election campaigns. Even politicians with Twitter accounts or blogs rarely read and respond to them themselves. One of the few things I admired about Garth Turner was his willingness to have an open comments section on a frequently irascible blog. I realize that politicians are busy, especially as they become more senior. I suspect strongly that back-benchers have absolutely no excuse for not maintaining a blog, responding to their own email, and tweeting occasionally. Furthermore, it is not difficult to have a small staff that manages one's online presence and serves a similar function to the assistant(s) of a busy executive -- converting short notes into full prose, explaining positions, passing on sentiments and ideas, and so on. And even the most senior US politicians take time to conduct townhall meetings with constituents, where they can be challenged and argued with face-to-face.

When it comes to parties, the point here is similar to that above. Parties are quasi-governmental entities, after all; party affiliation is at least as important as personal views, whether running for office or serving in office. Furthermore, we have a very large country, containing some very large ridings, wherein it is often difficult to get noticed by the media and by voters without the money and resources of a fair-sized party. Running parties in a top-down fashion is deeply alienating to voters, for the same reasons that running a distant and removed government is alienating. So, the same sort of solutions need to apply here. Open it up. Take the ideas of party members seriously. Listen to those who aren't members, and engage with their concerns. And so on.

Finally, when it comes to voting, voting is largely a passive action in the worst sense. It's an action which rarely has any serious impact. I'm not convinced that proportionality is the cure for what ails us, but certainly every vote needs to somehow count towards the outcome of all elections. If votes don't count, then why cast them? If voting isn't important, if it doesn't make a difference, then you'd have to be somewhat irrational to bother voting. So, there needs to be some kind of change here: multi-member ridings, transferrable votes, preferential balloting, etc. Many different systems have been tried, and there is much evidence available on their success in resolving the problems of voter alienation (as well as many other problems). This should be the easiest change to make.

2. Openness

It needs to be easier to get into government. Right now, the barriers that have been erected serve to convince many -- I include myself here -- that to run for office is simply not worth it. It's too much trouble, it's an invasive process, and so on. Obviously, this is a form of alienation. The same applies to forming parties, getting official party status in the house, and so on and so forth. Of course there have to be processes and procedures. But these do not have to be restrictive; indeed, they should only be organizational. It's the difference between having a limit on when you can drink alcohol (a restrictive process) and needing to drive on the right-hand side of the road (an organizational one). The former prevents certain citizens from doing something, by creating a limit. The latter dictates how something is to be done, if one chooses to do it. Right now, the barriers for entry in order to run for office, and so on, are all restrictive. They are intended to narrow the number of people and organizations that are contending for public office. The problem is, though, that these offices are ours. They exist in order to serve our interests. It's up to us to decide who fills them, not for those who hold them to determine that we are somehow not worthy.

Voting should be open as well. That is, it should be something that is similarly easy to do, and not something that bears a heavy burden of restrictions. Certainly one has to prove one's citizenship (or residency, or some such -- basically, that one has a stake in the outcome) and identity (that one is indeed the person one claims to be, and is thus entitled to the vote) in order to vote. That seems quite reasonable. But beyond that, why is voting as difficult as it is? Why line up to vote? Keep in mind that it's becoming easier to do most anything -- order food, organize utilities for one's home, buy a home, buy a car, get married, get divorced, plan a vacation, etc. Why isn't it getting easier to vote? As with changing voting systems, there are many different ways of organizing the process of voting, with much research discussing benefits and problems. What we're doing clearly isn't working, so why not change it?

I don't pretend this is any more than a sketch. But I want to conclude by suggesting what sorts of policies might enact these principles, and fill in some more detail. Some obvious ones first. A change in the electoral system, such as to STV, MMP or IRV. Reducing the requirements for voting, such as introducing online voting. Engagement with voters (for parliamentarians) and with party members (for party officials, candidates, etc.) through Twitter, blogs, Facebook, and other such services. Recording and broadcasting all government business in an easily-accessible way, so that citizens can see, track, discuss and affect what officials are doing.

We could also use some serious reform of the House, Senate, the federal courts, and the role currently filled by the Crown, which I've given in increasing order of detachment from voters and thus from all citizens. The office of the Prime Minister is not defined explicitly anywhere in Canadian law. And thus the Prime Minister's level of power is always in flux. There are no clear rules governing cabinet posts. There is no way of removing MPs from office if they fail to fulfill their obligations to constituents.

When it comes to the Senate, while its Constitutional role is fairly clear, it is very unresponsive to citizens and very much a closed boy's club. The courts are worse. Clearly both the Senate and the courts should be filled by people with relevant expertise. But there is no formal process for selecting such people from the populace at large. An election is not necessarily the solution, but why, at least, don't we have a public process for selecting Senators and judges?

Finally, the Crown is a hereditary office, yet has tremendous power under the Constitution. Many Commonwealth countries -- for example, Ireland, India, Pakistan -- have replaced the Crown with an elected President, with varying levels of importance and power. I don't see how having an important office that all Canadians could focus attention on, that would respond to the interests and ideas of Canadians, that all Canadians could contend for could do anything but reduce alienation.

Generally, alienated voters who despise the process of voting and the cycle of elections need to see that the government is playing its role, that it matters to their lives, and that they can actually affect it in a serious and meaningful way. Without that, alienation will continue to spread. And the reason to be concerned is, ultimately, that the end of that process is a rejection of the civil authority. We already have a majority of voters who find themselves at least somewhat alienated. If this number continues to increase, it is hard to see how the government could continue to claim to be anything other than an irrelevant relic.