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Recovering backpacker, Cornwallite at heart, political enthusiast, catalyst, writer, husband, father, community volunteer, unabashedly proud Canadian. Every hyperlink connects to something related directly or thematically to that which is highlighted.

Wednesday 7 March 2012

The Tragedy of the House of Commons

“The best theory we have says they are rationally right to be so ignorant.  Hence, although we have democracy, of a sort, it is wishful thinking to suppose that it is representative of people’s actual interests.”

Russell Hardin

 Outrunning the Bear

There is no question about it; Canada has a democratic deficit.  The government that leads us is making majority decisions on a mandate provided by a thin minority of Canadians.  Debate is being polarized and stifled at each and every level.  The independent bodies that are meant to provide impartial public service, provide data and speak truth to power are being handicapped in severe ways.  Politics has trumped policy; we have Federal Cabinet Members suggesting their Party “go over the heads of the Members of Parliament” to avoid debate and compromise.  In Ontario, we have a Leader of the Opposition advocating for the provincial government to overrule the municipal government regarding municipal issues; in that municipality, Toronto, we have gridlock in Council due to an intransigent Mayor unwilling to work with his colleagues.  Investigations are being conducted into illegal voter suppression; political operatives are bragging about their success at candidate suppression.

Canadians, rightfully, are becoming frustrated with the trend; that frustration is manifesting itself through a steady decrease in voter turnout at the provincial and federal levels.  Russell Hardin argues there is a rational justification for this; the first-past the post system leaves far too many voter intentions behind.  When your vote doesn’t count, when Government is “going over the heads of” elected officials anyway and when you don’t see your views reflected in policy directions time and time again, what’s the point?  Now, with electoral fraud, you have to contend with the fear of your vote being actively suppressed.  Add to this all the non-voters that are benefiting from our social system and the bitterness only mounts.  Clearly the benefit to the individual in voting is far outweighed by the negatives.

Put all this another way – voters, acting independently and rationally with the pros and cons of their participation in our democratic system in mind are determining that the costs outweigh the benefits; that being the case, what’s the point of doing the work

When The Watering Hole Shrinks…

Another certainty creeping into our collective consciousness; Canadian politics is becoming increasingly polarized.  All Political Parties are defining the options for Canadians as “us vs. those who want to destroy our country” and employing increasingly militant tactics.  Even positive visions are being touted as chances to "piss off the other Parties."  Every political event, every policy position is being filtered through a partisan lens.  Platforms are being built on a foundation of emotion, with actual policy coming somewhere down the decision tree.  MPs are being encouraged to focus on protecting the Party rather than supporting their constituents.  Even the term “evidence-based” is being fractured for political use.

Our politics is becoming increasingly narrow in its focus, too.  Through the advent of micro targeting technologies and strategies, Political Parties are now able to identify the voting patterns, issues-of-concern, demographic realities and trends of specific voters down to the street-level.  This depth of knowledge does a couple of things; it allows Parties to target their voter-persuasion tactics and messaging to the stated (or vested) interests of individual voters.  It allows political operatives and candidates to avoid the doors of defined non-voters, too,  avoiding time-consuming discussions that lead nowhere.  It allows Party planners to pepper debate and press appearances with only the speaking points that matter to their supporters and ignore everything else.   On the darker side, this level of specificity also allows for very targeted voter-suppression techniques, which though illegal, have already happened.

To sum up; if less people are voting and I can specifically target those voters who might actually vote for me, what sense does it make for me to make the effort to engage non-partisans?  That’s a use of resources and time that’s hard to defend.  Individual campaigns justify this exclusionary approach by saying that it’s up to the Party’s central campaign machine to use persuasion techniques on swing voters, but as we’ve just seen, a good deal of the general messaging is about polarizing the options, not engaging the masses. 

Reaping What We Sow

What does all of this political chicanery have to do with land tenure in medieval Europe?  A frightening lot.

In 1968, ecologist Garrett Hardin (no relation to Russell, so far as I know) described a scenario in which multiple actors, acting independently and rationally consulting their own self-interest, will ultimately deplete a shared limited resource, even when it is clear that it is not in anyone’s long-term interest for this to happen.  He called this dilemma “The Tragedy of the Commons.”  Commons referred to a common plot of land communally owned by a group of farmers; it could just as well refer to Canadian democracy, best represented by the House of Commons.

With all of this in mind, here’s what I think is happening in Canadian politics.

Scorched Earth

Direct marketing strategies and personalized communication tools are encouraging Canadians (and people of other jurisdictions as well) to focus on personal interests.  The sales methodology preferred by marketing gurus fits within the meme of “it’s all about you” and “you’re worth it” (ironically the position the elite in our society have always staked out for themselves).  The more individualized social activity (an example of the trend: movie theatre/tv/iPods) gets, the more disengaged from civil society individuals are becoming.  The trend inwards and our increased disenfranchisement mirrors the rise and fall of Capitalism pretty closely.

That’s the terrain that politics has to work with.  Political operatives will plant the seeds of ideas, attempt to nourish them with communications strategies, etc, but they always keep an eye out for weeds creeping on to their plot.  One of their most effective fertilizers comes in the form of attack ads.

Attack ads have always been a part of politics. Although many people find them distasteful, they work – particularly at motivating a Party’s standard base of support.  For people already leaning towards disengagement, though, attack ads offer a decent addition to the suite of justifications for staying home; voting takes time, I don’t know what’s going on, all politicians are the same anyway.  And the watering hole starts to shrink.

As the pool of viable voters dwindles, the political Parties look at each other funny.  Their tactics change – the focus shifts from enticing the mushy middle to solidifying the base.  The hyper-targeting of identified partisan voters reduces the broader, national policy conversation to covering the issues of the engaged almost exclusively.  This gives more cause for the average voter to tune out, evaporating a bit more of the available vote.   It also causes the Political Parties vying for power to target issues that resonate with viable voters more than those that don’t.  Then, there's the fact that a visibly deteriorating voter turnout lends itself to the idea that maybe voter suppression isn't a bad tactic to get ahead - it's the politics of outrunning the (polar) bear.

A lack of movement on the issues of the disengaged (poverty, for example, or the conditions of First Nation reserves or the plight of those with mental illness) doesn't help.  These concerns might get periodic lip service but don’t rest high on the policy agenda.  Frustration and disengagement increase; meanwhile as the Political Parties circle in, they find themselves nose to nose over scarce resources.  Maybe one Party decides to go for broke and wrest control of the whole thing.  As emotions grow stronger on both sides, the Parties involved take bigger risks.  They also rely more heavily on negative emotions to fuel their messages and engage their base.

Partisans come with built-in predispositions.  Party loyalties have an almost tribal quality to them.  This has always proven a challenge for Parties of the centre; a balanced policy approach produces superior results, but because it's practical, not emotional, evidence-based policy makes for a harder sell.  For those on the edges of the spectrum, though, polarization plays to their strengths.  The more worked up a Party’s base gets, the more they will donate, participate and vote.  The problem is, all that emotion lends itself to inflexibility, too.

So – the easier it is for some folk to justify not voting, the greater the chance of Political Parties narrowing their campaigns and policy focus towards those most likely to support them (their base).  The more directly the base is engaged, the more partisan they become – therefore, more likely to tout speaking points and standard perspectives.  What gets lost as the democratic watering hole shrinks?  Democracy, that’s what – along with all the diversity, innovation and collective problem-solving that comes with it.

We are currently living through a multi-level tragedy of the commons.  Our dilemma is being exacerbated by the "all's fair in love and war" approach of certain (but not all) political operatives; internally-focused Canadians are allowing our political system to erode; internally-focused Political Parties are allowing our system of Parliament to erode; a hyper-partisan government is eroding our democracy.

The lesson to be learned from this alarming chain of events (also playing out in many other nations) is simple – our very society and with it, our individual, long-term well-being are  at risk unless we start putting our collective well-being first. 

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