A challenging but magnificent feature of democracy is the way it makes each citizen reliant upon the character and good judgment of all others. Democracy comes to an end if citizens and politicians act only in their narrow, short-term self-interest; but if we have an enlightened and long-term sense of our values and interests, and elect politicians with a vocation for serving the common good, democracy can produce the most just and decent societies in human history.
As we approach the halfway point in this campaign, and with tonight’s leaders’ debate looming, it is worth asking whether party leaders are seeking to buy our votes by cutting tolls and fees, and promising bridges in one place or another, or whether they are offering us a vision of the kind of society in which we wish to live.
Is it to our narrower self-interest that the leaders appeal, or to the common good of all? With all the private cash in politics we have reason to be alert to the inevitability that the parties will be particularly responsive to the interests of their donors. Money in politics undermines public trust because we the voters cannot afford but to ask how the promises parties make align with the interest of their donors.
Will the leaders transcend partisanship? Parties have a tendency to become oligarchies. This is because their raison d’être is winning elections. Competing militates against other functions parties serve: representing constituents, finding legislative compromises through deliberation, and encouraging internal democracy. While some degree of partisanship is desirable—disciplined parties are absolutely necessary in a parliamentary democracy—good government demands a spirit of compromise and a commitment to public service.
How well do the leaders speak for those who cannot speak for themselves, like those among us living in extreme poverty, the homeless, children, nature, or future generations? Many of our fellow citizens will not vote on May 9. They may be struggling to survive from one day to the next. They may lack the skills and knowledge to be active citizens. They may have given up on a system that ignores them. Low turnout is correlated with fewer goods and services. We can judge our leaders by their responsiveness to the voice of the voiceless.
Finally, we should consider whether we being gamed. Our first-past-the-post electoral system encourages the perpetuation of a two-party system in which polarized parties struggle to reach the threshold of majority government, often by narrowly parsing the vote and targeting swing ridings. Strategic voting is another unwelcome effect of the incentive structure of our electoral system. A more proportional system would foster more parties, and create incentives for them to work together between elections. We can’t change the system but we can control our response to it.
Let’s not get distracted or disillusioned by negativity and personal attacks. Let’s ask whether our leaders are encouraging us to think in terms of our long-term, enlightened self-interest—what is good for us and our community as a whole—or whether they are pandering to our narrow, short-term interests, and pursuing the agendas of party and money. The best corrective to the distortions inherent in our system is the wise judgment of an informed electorate.
The act of voting is more than a vanishingly small individual contribution to the outcome of an election. It is about each of us making the story of democracy our own. The heart of that story is the epic human struggle for freedom, justice, and equal citizenship. Our task is to be worthy of that struggle and to hold our leaders accountable to democracy’s robust demands.
A version of this commentary appeared on the CBC election blog.