THERE HAS BEEN A BREACH BETWEEN THE PRESENT AND THE FUTURE within our democracy. In the Ontario provincial election coming up later this week, some pundits are suggesting fewer citizens will vote than ever. In an innovative twist, many are suggesting simply showing up and declining the ballot as a way of showing interest in the election but revealing their disillusionment with the choices. It will no doubt have some effect, but leaves the issue of power itself unaddressed. Kind of like approaching the altar but refusing to say “I do,” or coming to a baseball game and opting not to play. The point will be made, but the great power the citizen possesses – the vote – won’t be utilized. It all says something about our low expectations in politics and maybe even in ourselves these days.
As all these democratic expectations continue their slide, it is important to keep in mind that we are inevitably giving away our own powers as citizens. Meant to be the great moderators of the excesses of power and partisanship, we are instead conceding the battle for our future to those for whom we have little respect or expectation. Democracy itself becomes the ultimate loser.
When the poignant French observer, Alexis de Tocqueville, visited America in its early years of democratic life, he developed great admiration for how citizens themselves associated with one another and how they used their collective will to keep the seedier side of power in check. Then, in his Democracy in America, he went on to worry about how it could eventually fade.
“I see an innumerable crowd of like and equal men who revolve on themselves without repose. Each of them, withdrawn and apart, is like a stranger to the destiny of all the others: his children and his particular friends form the whole human species for him. As for dwelling with his fellow citizens, he is beside them, but he does not see them; he touches them but does not feel them; he exists only in himself and for himself alone.
“Above these power is elevated, which alone takes charge of assuring their enjoyments and watching over their fate. It is absolute. It would resemble the power of parents if it only had for its object preparing people for maturity; but on the contrary, it seeks only to keep them fixed irrevocably in childhood . . . It works people as it likes; it covers society with a network of small, complicated, rules through which the most original minds and the most vigorous souls cannot clear a way to surpass power. It doesn’t destroy, but prevents things from being born; it does not tyrannize, it hinders . . . and reduces the nation to being nothing more than a herd of timid animals of which government is the shepherd.”
And so we have it. What should be the great energizing time for citizens to take part in their own future – an election – sees them leaving the field, disgusted with their choices and lethargic in themselves. The power is theirs to change their own society, but the choices before them are puny and they can’t pull together enough to change the paradigm.
There is no future in this, merely a kind of dull ache reminding us that we are not well. We are left with a democracy that it merely skeletal – the bones are there, but the sinews and muscles are gone.
Abraham Lincoln, coming along not too long after Tocqueville, said once, “Nearly all people can stand adversity, but if you want to test their character, give them power.” But what if they don’t want it? If their might comes with their collective willpower, what happens if they don’t want to come together? In such cases, the political power that remains isn’t even effective enough to get our own communities off the mat. We’ll have to do better, organize better, and think better, gather ourselves better, if we want choices suitable to our dreams. We need to put some meat back on the bones.