An exploration of the democratic process from a faith-based and United Church of Canada context.
Politics … some people love the process, others not so much. In some instances, the experience – especially during elections – can be creative times in which new ideas are borne out of rich conversations in which respect is mutually afforded. Other times, however, it can feel oppressive as argumentation gives way to judgement and a tendency toward confrontation. Words – regardless of what some say – I believe, do have power and they are just as, if not more, dangerous than the weapons we too often use to violently silence one another.
In our North America context, we are in a constant process of (hopefully) nurturing democracy as the way we organise and govern ourselves. And though there are certainly differences and areas that beckon for refinement, change and improvement in Mexico, Canada and the United States, there remains one consistent item that must be addressed: voter turnout.
Addressing that reality also leads to spaces for people of faith to reflect:
How do we organise ourselves?
To whom/what do we align ourselves?
How do we engage in political processes that may not quite fit with our faith?
In both Mexico and Canada, turnout is currently at about 2/3 of the population, though a little more in Mexico. In the last federal US election, that number is closer to 50%. So, in essence, from 30-50% of all eligible voters in North America do not exercise that right and responsibility.
There are many causes that are attributed to this worrying reality, which is quite different than northern European and Asian examples where engagement is significantly higher. Sean Kheraj, an associate professor in the Department of History at York University, offers the following overview of the Canadian context:
“The historical persistence of “everyday life reasons” of work, health, and travel in studies of non-voting behaviour in Canada should drive future policy changes in the electoral process. Rather than resorting solely to public pleas and marketing campaigns to encourage Canadians to vote, we should continue to develop policy reforms to address such “everyday life reasons” and eliminate any aspects of “administrative disenfranchisement.” Electoral reforms should make voting easier, if we want to see higher voter turnout in future elections.”
A further compounding reality is that when campaigns go negative, less people turnout. And – if that correlation is taken seriously – it feels important to recognise that just as many, if not more, people are not voting as are those who do. To frame this more explicitly, in the Canadian context the last Federal election saw the following breakdown:
68.3% of eligible voters did so and – as such – based on the percentage of the popular vote each party received the following based on turnout:
Liberals: 39.5% of the popular vote = 26.98%
Conservatives: 31.9% of the popular vote = 21.79%
NDP: 19.7% of the popular vote = 13.46%
PQ: 4.7% of the popular vote = 3.21%
Green: 3.5% of the popular vote = 2.39%
In other words, more people did not vote than those who did for the Liberal party. They, who won most of the seats: 29.98% vs 31.7%. I know there are lots of ways to frame this. In this instance, what if we pause to reflect on a reality that, if we were to consider the non-voting block as, in fact, a voting block, in Canada alone, those who govern do not in fact have a mandate!
It seems that we find ourselves at a juncture in which sober reflection should occur. This reflection carries import to communities of faith. If we recognise that the way we nationally organise is not representative of the whole, how do we respond to that corporate role the church has held in past? This is particularly important in The United Church of Canada’s previous aspiration to be the national church of Canada: the UCC is the only Canadian denomination to be established by an act of the Canadian parliament. Furthermore, is this external and secular reality mirrored within the ways we also govern ourselves? In church-ese, it seems to me that the implications of a lack of engagement in political processes carry implications that range from justice to the pastoral.
For many, the most recent results in the US election, regardless of left or right leaning, have been dramatic. That drama is only exacerbated by the cultural polarisation of our southern neighbours. Yet the discourse that I hear, as a north of the 49th-er, focuses less on this aspect, if at all, and more on perpetuating a tendency toward hyperbole and negativity, distrust and rancour. I certainly do not mean to judge, as I think the US example simply mirrors what our Canadian ‘civility’ would like to contend does not occur here. I think that narrative is – in itself – is another blog topic!
At the end of this musing, I have no answers and neat way to tie up a blog in less than 1000 words. I hope, however, even as the current discussion for electoral reform unfolds in Canada, that this musing enlivens a conversation that would fully embrace the implications for the democratic enterprise. Apathetic engagement ultimately serves not the people for whom the system is intended to govern …
As Kheraj suggests, if we want this process to be robust and fully inclusive, it may very well be that we need creative solutions to expand engagement in the franchise. Democracy – at its best – is grounded in the potential that is modelled when the diversity of multiple-voices invite collective and collaborative dialogue. And that aspiration certainly seems to complement many of the values held dear by faith communities across Canada!
If those values do connect, which I believe they do, then hopefully next week’s musing will allow us to explore further democracy from a faith perspective from the context of the United Church of Canada …