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Democracy

Posted on 16 May 2013

“Just a friendly reminder that democracy isn’t simply picking one side to be in charge every four years. It’s a process that happens every day in a variety of forums and ways.”

I wrote that on Facebook yesterday, and a shorter version on Twitter. As of now it has 20-odd likes and 4 shares (plus a number of retweets), which for me is a pretty high number for a status update. It seems to be resonating. At the risk of destroying that resonance, here is an attempt to expand on the thoughts going through my mind when I posted it, the day after British Columbia’s provincial election. I wrote it in that context, but I think it applies to any democratic society with free and fair elections, decent human rights, and relative freedom for the majority of its citizens.

* * *

First of all, if you are among the people who were threatening to leave if your choice of party didn’t form government, you might as well go ahead and do it now. I don’t care which side you’re on. Even if things went your way this time around, eventually your party will be turfed. Why put off the inevitable? Obviously you don’t have anything here you care that deeply about, because if you did you would stay and fight for it. There are legitimate reasons for leaving, but discovering that one political party is more popular than another is not among them.

Now that that’s out of the way, this is for the rest of you. It doesn’t really matter if your party won or your party lost or even if you voted or not. Your political power, your ability to control what happens in your city, province, and country, is not limited to your vote. There’s this misconception that democracy only happens every four years or so, and is simply the process of picking a group of politicians to be in charge until the next time democracy appears for us to use over a twelve-hour period, then it goes away. This is incorrect.

At its simplest, democracy is rule by the people. It implies a certain amount of equality, a certain amount of freedom, and a fairly stable civil society. There’s lots of other things that people say are and aren’t required for democracy but this isn’t a political science paper. Here in Canada we live in a democracy. It’s not a perfect one, and not everyone has as much of a say as they should, but it is a democracy nonetheless. So this notion of it being rule by the people holds.

There’s this misconception that democracy only happens every four years or so, and is simply the process of picking a group of politicians to be in charge until the next time democracy appears for us to use over a twelve-hour period, then it goes away. This is incorrect.

This means that even though we’ve elected some people to talk about laws and policies, they still aren’t “in charge.” If we all decided we didn’t like what they were doing, there’s legal, non-violent ways to fix that. In fact, we just saw an obvious example of that in B.C. The Liberals wanted the Harmonized Sales Tax. They were the government. And yet the HST was repealed because enough people made enough noise to force a referendum on the issue, and the people against HST won. Democracy in action when there isn’t an election.

There’s lots of ways to make your voice heard. There’s protests. There’s civil disobedience. There’s writing letters to your MLA. There’s writing letters to the editor. There’s municipal elections coming up. You can vote for a mayor who will express your feelings to the province and the country. You could even be that mayor.

I’m not saying any of this is easy. But heck, you think anything important is? At a certain level, the reason they’re “in charge” and you aren’t is because they worked for it. That’s why their name was on the ballot and yours wasn’t. If yours was and you aren’t currently an MLA then you understand how difficult it is.

Let’s talk about the people whose party of choice didn’t form government. I get that it hurts. You worked hard for an outcome that didn’t materialize. Take some time to mourn.

But resist the temptation to write off everyone who voted differently than you would have liked. The instant we stop seeing the other choices in a democracy as legitimate is the instant we stop having a democracy. That’s why the leaders of parties who don’t form government make concession speeches rather than call for open rebellion. They recognize the system is legitimate and that the outcome, though not what they wanted, is acceptable. It’s healthy for the rest of us to do the same until there’s a truly compelling reason not to.

The instant we stop seeing the other choices in a democracy as legitimate is the instant we stop having a democracy.

This doesn’t mean you just have to sit around and accept everything that happens between now and next time, though. If there’s an issue that matters to you, you’re going to have to keep working. This means sitting down in meetings, going door-to-door, talking to media, organizing rallies, and mounting petitions. We have multiple levels of government, a workable legal system, and a relatively free society. It is by no means easy to make things happen the instant you want them to happen, but that’s a feature, not a flaw. It’s tough for you? It’s tough for everyone else, too, including those whose interests seem to be opposite yours. There’s checks and balances in place. Use them.

To those of you whose party of choice is forming government: don’t gloat. It’s unbecoming. Do not think for a second that this outcome means the viewpoints of everyone who voted for someone else are illegitimate. As cheesy as it to say it, let’s go with the golden rule here: how would you like to be treated if your party lost? Try doing things that way. Because as I said before, it WILL happen. When it does you’ll be better off if you set a good example.

How would you like to be treated if your party lost? Try doing things that way.

OK, back to everyone. There’s a temptation to refer to elections in terms of “winners” and “losers”, “battles” and “wars.” I’ve done it and, so help me, I’ll do it again. But is that really the terminology we want to apply to our fellow citizens? On my street alone, I saw signs for both major parties. I don’t want to think of my neighbours as enemies. I wave to them. I’d much rather think that they are people with legitimate points of view that happen to differ, and that maybe with work and genuine openness, those differences can be smoothed over and some form of consensus can be built.

Put it this way: permanent change comes from changing the culture, not just from winning an election. Let’s use gay marriage as an example. Not so long ago, this easily could have been a party vs party issue in Canada. And if it worked that way, we could have a situation where every time power changed hands, so too did gay marriage rights. Party A is in power: gay marriage is allowed. Party B gets elected four years later, now it isn’t. That’s not workable long-term.

Pretty much anything that we think of as fundamentally “right”- at some point, someone had to do a whole lot of convincing to the people in charge.

Instead, proponents of gay marriage have mounted a long, long campaign of changing people’s attitudes to the extent that in many places, in the public sphere at least, it’s a non-issue. This campaign has included elections, to be sure, but it’s also included court battles, parades, television shows, and simply sitting down and talking with opponents. Same goes for the right of women and minorities to vote. Or intermarriage. Or pretty much anything that we think of as fundamentally “right”- at some point, someone had to do a whole lot of convincing to the people in charge. The battle for equality isn’t over, but (in Canada, at least), the changes that have been made can’t be unmade in a single election.

If you truly believe you’re in the right and the issue you believe in is important enough, you should be willing to win people over, not just win at the ballot box. Conversely, you should also be willing to entertain the notion that you’re wrong. Listen to the challenges to your point of view and truly consider them. If your only defence is to plug your ears and shout, you’re not doing anyone any favours.

What I’m trying to say is this isn’t over. Not for the people who got their way on Tuesday, and not for the people who didn’t. At the risk of repeating myself, democracy isn’t simply picking one side to be in charge every four years. It’s a process that happens every day in a variety of forums and ways. Get out there and use it.

(By the way, if you’re one of the people who feels like the democracy we have isn’t responsive enough to your needs and so have decided not to participate, I have a separate post for you).

Filed under: Best Of, British Columbia, Canada, politics

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