Political Engagement Requires Sacrifice

Political Engagement Requires Sacrifice

As published in the Victoria Standard: June 6, 2017

Like many Cape Bretoners, you may be considering the results of the recent provincial election or ignoring it entirely because of your understandable frustration with the political process. However, if you seek responsible, participatory government in Nova Scotia and elsewhere; please read on.

Our municipal, provincial and federal governments are merely a collection of elected, appointed and hired people of varying abilities and talents. Political parties and government agencies contain no saints or devils; just human beings whose virtues and flaws animate the systems they work within. Increasingly however; there is a public sense that government is a separate entity; somehow divorced from those who elect it, finance it and justify its existence for their own benefit. This view has been intensified by decades of anti-government propaganda arranged and financed by powerful interests who have largely succeeded in gutting publicly-funded social programs while encouraging individualism and the false efficiencies of corporate subsidies and public-private partnerships.

Aside from specialized areas like science and medicine, the activities of government are not terribly complicated; although that impression is enhanced by public relations consultants paid with public funds to manage the message. This trickery and the other unattractive aspects of government can only be changed if enough public pressure is exerted. Like any program of improvement; it is a matter of intention, time and persistent effort. Writing the odd letter to the editor or attending an occasional demonstration will not suffice.

You might be surprised to learn that current and past governments have spent considerable public funds researching the concerns of working people; which they promptly ignore in favor of the priorities of the wealthy and powerful. This is called political support as opposed to popular support, in other words; the majority of citizens. Again, reality can be changed, as it has been many times throughout history; though not without struggle and discord.

Positive social change has always encountered strong resistance from those powerful individuals and groups who hold working people in contempt and seek to limit their influence in public matters. Major advances like trade unions and women’s’ equality were achieved not by figureheads but by the determination of countless, anonymous people sacrificing their time, money, health and safety to accomplish these noble goals. Excessive public emphasis on leaders reduces individual initiative to organize creatively, and encourages people to wait passively for a savior.

Canadians now enjoy enviable access to information and communication tools in a nation where political activity is not a life-threatening enterprise as it is in many parts of the world. When a Canadian student once asked scholar Noam Chomsky for advice on political organizing, the veteran writer noted that activists in the developing world don’t ask such questions, but instead describe what they are currently doing under constant threat of arrest, torture and death. Political activism in Canada is still safe, although negative social pressures can be exerted by one’s community and law enforcement agencies often abuse the “security” excuse to scrutinize activists and hamper public organizing and demonstrations.

Well-informed citizen participation in the democratic process is the key to responsive government because the governing party answers to those who wield the greatest influence. Such informed participation requires self-education regarding the history, structure and functions of government. This is especially true for those who wish to achieve political office for the express purpose of reducing executive power and making legislators more accountable to voters. Of course, the newly-elected reformer will immediately feel enormous peer pressure to limit their ambitions to what may easily and safely be achieved.

The process of political engagement requires a willingness to sacrifice leisure activities in favor of research, organizing, fund-raising and travel to events. Family time, hobbies and even careers may suffer. It is worth remembering that those in power have dedicated themselves to the long process of achieving elected office to pursue their goals and eventually impose their beliefs on others. While the most ambitious and well-financed parties and candidates win elections and form governments, they are not necessarily the most-qualified. Rather than lament this fact, accept it and assist those candidates you support.

Unfortunately, low voter turnout provides a tremendous advantage to the tiny minority of wealthy citizens whose desires are generally at odds with those of working people and the poor, who vastly outnumber them. The wealthy are pleased with ever-lower voter turnout and secretly applaud this apathy as it ensures that their interests are served first and foremost.

Perhaps the easiest way to improve our democracy is voting in every election and encouraging others to do so. Voting rates in Nova Scotia now stand at 59 per cent of eligible citizens and the national average isn’t much better. However, there is hope for the future. Back in the 1930’s Franklin Delano Roosevelt best summarized the nature of democracy when he told a citizen’s group to “make me” enact legislation. In other words, FDR was advising the group to bring enough public pressure to bear that he could only ignore their wishes at his electoral peril. The same can be done in Victoria County and right across Canada.