Elections should be celebrations.
I was in Spain in 1989, and incumbent Prime Minister Felipe Gonzalez kept exclaiming that. He continually encouraged everyone to get out and vote, and kept using romantic Español to adoringly describe the election process as a celebration of freedom, as the crowning achievement of democracy, as a wondrous expression of a caring, responsible, civilized people.
I eventually learned Gonzalez was due for a landslide win. His party’s biggest worry was that droves of their supporters might consider the election a forgone conclusion and not bother voting.
So, what seemed to the naïve tourist to be inspiring passion for egalitarianism was to most locals just selfish manipulativeness.
Unfortunately, that wouldn’t surprise most Canadians. But it leaves the question: Why aren’t our elections celebrations? They really are supposed to be the crowning expression of democracy, right? And many deeply believe in these democratic ideals. Canadians frequently praise our freedoms proudly. We’re sending our children to kill or die in efforts to uphold those ideals in Afghanistan, and mounting an early election there was regarded by many as vital.
Yet even before our own was announced, most discussions centred around possible negative backlash to an early federal election call. Albeit humorously, in our local daily Adrian Raeside compared an election to a “quadruple root canal” and Jack Knox offered the Prime Minister $50 “to forget the whole thing”.
Federal elections are costly, yes. It’s also often claimed elections don’t change anything, but ample evidence from Bush-Cheney to the BC Liberals shows some parties can enact unusually fanatic agendas.
The real problem, I believe, is that our election processes have become not the peak expression of everything good about our democracy, but the epitome of everything going wrong with it. Elections shine intense light into democracy’s shadow regions.
In the spotlight of round-the-clock coverage, for instance, most of our politicians show themselves to be like Gonzalez, making up grandiose narratives about their goals, even as the slightest investigation reveals them to be petty and self-centred. Meanwhile, their bona fide political rivalry highlights the ugly animosity lingering inside otherwise decent, ordinary Canadians. Further, we all feel dark foreboding as we starkly behold how flimsy and underdeveloped our leaders’ responses are to our time’s truly challenging issues, like climate change, pollution, resource depletion, poverty, and international economic shifts.
Through it all, we see our mainstream media being far too influential for anyone’s good, even as they act underhandedly partisan, operate with intellectual anemia, obsess over minor scandals, and dispose of complex issues in absurdist soundbites. Behind the scenes, we catch unnerving glimpses of the rich, powerful, or well-organized pulling strings.
Basically, our elections don’t inspire celebration of our freedoms, because instead they vividly remind us of how degenerate and undemocratic so many underlying bastions of our society have become.
Nevertheless, elections do present opportunities to change all that. So why be overwhelmed by the negative?
Coincidentally, Spain’s Gonzalez had another revealing gimmick. Even though his Socialist Workers’ Party was the most leftist major party, Gonzalez kept spinning himself as being “in the middle”. It was slightly humorous, yet surprisingly effective. Imagine Jack Layton constantly saying, “If you want to vote for a moderate party in the middle, vote NDP. If not, then you can vote for far-left parties like the Communists or Marxist-Leninists, or vote for their counterparts on the extreme right, like the Conservatives, Liberals and Western Block.”
Though they do it differently, staking out this “middle” is equally crucial for our major political parties. The Conservatives try to dispel portrayals of them as crusaders from the moralistic periphery. Both Liberals and Conservatives fight against the NDP portraying them as merely parties of big business, while they describe the NDP as the party of fringe unionists. All three try to ignore the Greens as ipso facto fringe.
It’s all an ideological sleight of hand; nobody has any idea where the authentic political “middle” is, and undoubtedly it would differ for every issue, in every county and city, in reaction to questions asked differently. But our politicians still work to get themselves associated with the mythical middle, because obviously any party widely regarded as “fringe” doesn’t win elections.
This strategy also works, I believe, because most voters find parties “in the middle” emotionally comforting. Isn’t it unsettling to think a fringe party with no respect for the middle nor desire to ever find middle ground might seize power? Especially in the absence of in-depth political knowledge, then, we demand constant reassurances about respect for “the middle”, like people who crave proclamations of “love” even in the absence of clarity on what the word means.
This suggests why our elections really bother us: They become like an overly ingratiating waiter serving us and, in overdose, it’s positively sickening. It becomes stomach churning to watch our politicians constantly pandering to the middle, forever responding like putty to polls and giving speeches so generic they’re like parodies of political orations, pandering TO US. It’s like being hit on by every drunk, drooling guy in the bar. And during elections, it goes on for weeks. We’re disgusted to come face to face in our bland, twin-tongued leaders with our own desperation for frequent middle-of-the-road reassurances.
All of that is why I’d guess most of us wouldn’t be surprised to hear, even though the Spaniards saw through his hypocrisy, Gonzalez still landslided to victory.
But how many celebrate it?