IT WAS ONLY A WEEK AGO THAT PUNDITS were arguing if “change” was really a factor in the campaign. Things weren’t shaking up much and parties appeared to be in a kind of holding pattern. Not anymore. Movement is showing up in the polling numbers and a sense of new life is emerging in this long campaign season. Voter sentiment is getting aroused and now media coverage is talking about change in its stories.
Will it be enough to set us in a new direction as a country? If you asked someone like American activist Ralph Nader you might be encouraged by his answer. Honoured by Time magazine as one of the 100 most influential Americans of the 20th Century, Nader thinks that citizens really have to think this moment through.
“It all comes down to this question: Are enough people going to take the reins of a democratic society, move it right into the electoral arena, and then reflect sensible majority public opinion, which already exists, despite party propaganda.”
Nader figures that if just 1% of citizens who weren’t mere political robots but people interested in finding common ground would join forces and tell candidates and leaders what kind of country they wanted that the political momentum would swing in favour of a consensus. That seems impossible, yet he conducted a large study in 2012 that provided that 1% figure – “even less than 1% could do it,” he maintains.
He reasons that candidates themselves don’t know how to handle such a development. “They are very used to controlling the process, trivializing it, turning people off. They don’t care if they turn people off if it’s in the form of cynicism, because cynicism means withdrawal. In that sense, we then leave the control to the political power players and nothing changes.”
Nader believes that two key activities are required by those seeking to find commonalities across party lines: 1) if 1% of the people become very engaged in civic life; and 2) if this same group gathered together and publicly reflected on the areas of what he calls “public sentiment.”
To support that premise, he points out that at least 24 issues are supported by “heavy majorities” of people from the Left and the Right. They include challenges such as electoral reform, climate change, a higher minimum wage, even action on poverty that are supported by some 70-80% of citizens, not politicians. Why, then, can’t we put a civil coalition of something like that together that would effectively challenge the political class, moving it closer to compromise? It’s actually an action plan that could have some serious effect, but the reality is that citizens don’t know how to go about it.
Nader throws cold water on the sentiment that politics is no longer where the real action is. “But that is where the action’s at. Why are the lobbyists all over Congress if they believe politics is ineffective?” He’s right. If a lawful country can have its history altered by powerful interests that fight to alter legislation in their favour, then it makes sense that such forces would get as close to the place of lawmaking as possible.
And there’s the rub. Citizens don’t make laws; their elected representatives do. But if citizens and voters don’t remain in contact with the political process, it is inevitable that other powerful interests will fill in the vacuum left by their absence. If Nader is even close to right about the 1% number, we are far closer to renewing democracy than we realize and we could cast a long shadow. But it will take citizens who search for a place of compromise as opposed to a partisanship of contention. It’s there, right in front of us. Only 350,000 collaborative citizens (1% of our population, or the size of London, Ontario) could get it done.