Over the last month, election platforms, promises, and pot-shots have filled Canadian airwaves in preparation for October 14. Behind all of the inanity, though, there is a common theme that seems to unite politicians, bureaucrats, and organizations of just about every ideological stripe: the importance of voting.
This goes beyond party allegiances and the debate over strategic ballot-casting. In a liberal democracy, voting is about much more than simply applying your pen to a small piece of paper. It is an act loaded with symbolism and meaning, embodying the rights and duties of citizenship in a supposedly enlightened and free society. Those who don’t vote, we are told, are either apathetic or incurably cynical. If we don’t fulfill our basic responsibilities, what right do we have to voice our dissent?
Let’s take a moment to think about this critically. First, it helps to dispel some of the mysticism surrounding the vote. Marking an “X” next to a name is definitely not the essence of democracy – here it might help to hit the mute button on the high school civics teacher inside your head – but nor is it, as many radical political thinkers have argued, tantamount to an active acquiescence to the “powers that be.” Especially for those of us opposed to inequality and exploitation, voting needs to be seen as just another political tactic, to be used or discarded as people see fit.
Even in cases where it seems a viable strategy for social change, we need to recognize that voting actually constitutes an extremely limited form of democratic citizenship. We are invited to make a choice of government from the two largely interchangeable dominant parties, the Liberals and the Conservatives (oh, unknot your knickers, Liberals. Anyone who remembers Paul Martin’s budget cuts or the invasion of Haiti isn’t fooled by your opposition to the admittedly scary Harper Tories; and Justin Trudeau needs a haircut), and then to line up an opposition to these behemoths from a mixture of vaguely progressive and definitely confused smaller parties. The Greens? Neoliberals with Al Gore powerpoints. The Bloc? One too many conservative xenophobes hiding in the wings. The NDP? Sorry folks. Keynes is dead, and Jack’s just annoying.
What is actually being promoted is not some stirring participation in a quasi-holy institution, but instead a political culture that fosters only sporadic engagement in a morally bankrupt system. When we teach our children about changing the world, we need to focus on long-term, grassroots involvement. Get involved in your local community centre, kids! Take to the streets! Demand change! Solve your own problems! In The Daily’s recent FAQ guide to the federal election, the first question – “should I vote?” – was answered with a resounding “YES!” The answer is actually much more complicated: vote, if you must, but voting is not a must.
Fred Burrill is a U3 History student. In the last election, he voted for the Canadian Action party as a joke. But then he felt guilty.