Voting is about more than picking a politician; it’s about choosing a vision of the world you want to live in.
Over the next while, as Canada’s federal election unfolds, I’m going to be writing about the meaning of elections. That’s a strange thing to write about. Elections are the processes by which we choose our representatives, right? Conventional wisdom is that we choose those who champion policies that we believe to be in our interests and those of the country.
We are probably hard-wired to think strategically in this way – self-preservation is a basic biological instinct – but this view of elections also derives powerful support from work in political science that focuses on the “rational voter.” One scholar has called the notion of a “rational voter” a “myth,” while others have highlighted the emotional aspects of voting, our identification with leaders, and so on. But in all cases, it’s either the leader or the policies that grip us.
Media coverage since the budget vote last week has sustained this impression as well, but I think that’s too simple. Elections aren’t just about choosing policies or personalities; they’re about choosing the world in which we want to live, a world that we play a part in making. These choices aren’t just strategic; they’re esthetic and existential. They are existential because they shape our basic conditions of existence. They are esthetic because the worlds we create can seem beautiful to some and ugly to others.
The story of an election is the story of how we choose between worlds, between possible futures. It’s got characters, settings, and a narrative arc. In a liberal democracy, we are the ultimate authors of our world, even if we can’t control how it evolves. The world we choose is our responsibility.
In 1968, the Liberals won a majority government led by Pierre Trudeau. Certainly, personalities and policies were on the table: Trudeau’s flamboyant, debonair persona contrasted with the Progressive Conservatives’ more staid Robert “Honest Bob” Stanfield. Trudeau’s policies were oriented around a “just society,” whereas Stanfield’s emphasized fiscal responsibility.
But there was a more fundamental difference between them: Trudeau and Stanfield offered rival worlds – in essence, two different Canadas. Trudeau’s Canada was one and indivisible, while Stanfield offered a vision of “deux nations.” This was about more than different attitudes toward Quebec. It was offering Canadians a choice between two comprehensive views of what Canada was – and so what Canadians were: a people united, or a people divided. A united Canada won the day, and Trudeau became prime minister.
Now, flash forward to 1988, the “free trade election.” Its defining issue was the possibility of a new trade agreement between Canada and the United States. Under Brian Mulroney, the Conservatives touted the economic and political benefits of trade liberalization, while the Liberals and the New Democrats warned of the erosion of Canadian sovereignty, raising the spectre of annexation by the U.S.
But this debate was about far more than trade policy. It was, again, about competing visions of Canada: open or closed. In pursuit of popular support, each side warned of the other’s dystopian vision. The Conservatives warned of a weakened Canada, left behind in global competition, while the Liberals and the NDP sowed fear with the image of a “51st state.” With the opposition eventually split, the open, competitive Canada won out and we got the Free Trade Agreement. For good and for ill, it has shaped the world in which we now live.
With the 2011 election, it’s not yet entirely clear what world vision our political leaders are presenting to us. Who are the potential architects – Stephen Harper, Michael Ignatieff, Jack Layton, even Gilles Duceppe (while he surely stands no chance of winning, Duceppe’s vision of Canada will still hover over the election as the Bloc’s always does)? What might their worlds look like? And so between what worlds are we choosing?
Most Canadians get the information to answer these questions from media coverage, and I am no exception. But media outlets, while they can be great informers, are also great simplifiers. Complexity is a casualty of form and of the necessity of ongoing coverage. While depicting the worlds between which Canadians are choosing, we can’t shy away from complexities – the tensions in those worlds and the contradictions of those who would lead them.
As this column delves into the world views weaved by the political parties over the coming weeks, I invite everyone to challenge the story that I tell. It is only by sharing our stories and challenging each other that we might find one that rings truest for our country.
Photo courtesy of Reuters.