I admit to being purposely provocative here, but the question arises from a place of sincerity. It’s simply this: in an age when democracies are struggling everywhere for legitimacy, do elections still make sense? Writer David Van Raybrouck ruminated on this a number of years ago and wrestled with the answer.
Doubts have been driven by radical democratic moments in Europe, Brexit, the great chaos that is the American political system today, and now the troubling turbulence of an Ontario campaign due to be settled(?) this week. The campaigns of this modern era result in more confusion, not less, once concluded. Buyer’s remorse emerges the moment a campaign has concluded, the ballots have been counted, and organized chaos ensues.
These days almost everyone talks about politics and yet increasingly distrusts it. This regularly results in anger, rank partisanship, verbal and personal attacks. The citizenry is more easily riled or, more likely, turned off altogether. Decades ago people were less excited by politics, leaving the democratic state more stable. Now, everyone has some kind of response and democracy itself is in trouble.
Just how complex this has become was revealed a few years ago when a World Values Survey interviewed 73,000 people from almost 60 countries, and 92% concluded that democracy was still the best way to manage a country. Sounds good, until we read that a good many of the respondents desired some kind of “strong leader” who could just lead without worrying about parliaments, elections, or process. In other words, it’s about leadership and not elections as the best way to get the people what they want. This describes the present experience of many democratic nations today, most notably America. As disillusionment grows, we are increasingly seeing situations where leaders get elected while still losing the popular vote. This wasn’t the way we perceived democracy even just a few short years ago.
Three centuries earlier, political philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau was already questioning the validity of elections for getting the average people what they wanted:
“The people of England deceive themselves when they fancy they are free: they are so, in fact, only during the election of members of parliament: for as soon as a new one is elected, they are again in chains, and are nothing.”
This is indeed a troubling outlook, when many looking back regard Rousseau’s era as the beginnings of modern democracy. But looking at recent elections in the West, is this not what the public has come to? They believe their vote makes little difference, that it will result in the same-old, same-old, and that nobody really cares about the average person. They look for the “strong man” or “strong woman” to break up such a system of elite mismanagement and, for wants of a better term, “drain the swamp.”
If the process of voting doesn’t get us what we want, and if half the electorate opts not to vote anyway, then just how effective are the elections that crop up every few years? When someone responds that it’s the only method of legitimacy that we have, then what does it say about the system itself that it seems incapable of overcoming our greatest challenges? If racism, bigotry, gender debasement, and outright hatred are making a comeback in our world, someone could be forgiven for asking just what all those elections were for if this is what we get.
Perhaps we were fooled too easily into believing that our highest civic duty was to vote. Any action that occurs only once every few years doesn’t hold much of a chance of keeping the individual engaged in the process once they marked their ballot. Maybe new ways have to be found at engaging citizens themselves in the democratic process in a fashion that isn’t just about tweeting anger or blind partisanship. They can remain this way because little is expected of them following their vote. Perhaps elections themselves are on the lower end of the spectrum, not the highest, if they only result in a lack of involvement once concluded.
Are elections worth it when parties can say one thing while on the hustings and something else altogether when in power? Do they really count when half of citizens don’t participate, and much of the rest don’t understand the issues? If elections increasingly become about what people are against as opposed to what they are for, where will our political stability come from?
These are questions asked during one of the most confounding elections in Ontario’s recent memory. Other than the party loyalists, those who vote are more likely to be fed up and confused than they are informed and purposeful. Have elections themselves, like marriage proposals or business partnerships, any credibility left if too few are willing to keep the relationships going after they sign the paper? We are in the process of learning that elections can’t work in a democratic system where the people themselves no longer care to do the work necessary to find compromise and a collective way forward. The way ahead isn’t to get rid of elections but to make them more accountable once more.