Tuesday, December 6, 2011

What's To Vote About

In the wake of Phase I of the Occupy Movements – and I, for one, am confident that there are phases II through VI to come - there's been much discussion about whether or not the movement should participate in electoral politics, with lots of occupiers expressing vehement opposition  to the suggestion.

As a fringe Occupier – but a lifelong voter – I want to weigh in on the debate.

First of all, I implore both Occupiers and those that disparage the movement to consider a basic reality. The time will never come when 51%, or 40, or 10, or even .01 percent of the population is going to pack up a tent and occupy anyplace but their own home. Which is pretty obvious. But it also underscores the point, that needs to be underscored, particularly for the on-lookers and nay-sayers, that though the numbers of body's at Occupy sites and in the streets, and the growing number of Occupy sites in itself, is both impressive and meaningful, it wasn't ever the point. Those numbers are a dramatically elegant and powerful  expression of a wide array of points, most having to do with dissatisfaction of one kind or another with our financial, political and social systems. Dissatisfaction with the way things are, with the status quo, with business as usual.

When one is railing against What Is, how natural it is to recoil at the idea of channeling that transformative energy into something so ordinary, so conformist and, on its surface, so counter-revolutionary as voting. When one votes, and when one supports a minority view, it is difficult to escape the oppressive sense that one is acting alone. All it takes is one unenlightened neighbour to nullify whatever you've effected by stepping into the voting booth, and that neighbor's brother starts the tide in the other direction. WHY BOTHER!!?!

Well, I have a couple of reasons why to BOTHER!

And they have to do with transcending the limited notions of what an election is in the first place. We cannot overcome the basic, defining characteristic of elections, that they determine a choice – among candidates and parties, among platforms and issues. Nor should we want to. But elections and votes are more than just that. And they tell a much more complex story.

So – what the hell is an election, anyway?

First of all, it isn't a race, a prize fight, a coronation, a rubber stamp, a mandate, or any of those things we've been told repeatedly that it is. If an election were a sporting event, it would be okay to say, when candidate A secures 51% of the vote against the 49% secured by candidate B, that it’s a decisive victory. But elections takes place in real life, and they affect the world that we inhabit. And in real life, such an outcome would be called a TIE. It tells us is that there's a huge divide, that the population is split on an issue, and a split population is a sign of serious dissatisfaction. In the real world, such a split would signal the need for a community to come together and seek common values, and solutions that stem from those values. That’s what at 51-49 split communicates. But our warped politics - and a duplicitous media - deceives us into accepting such splits as though the public has spoken with a clear voice. And if we ever have an election in which the split is 60-40 or 70-30, it’s as though the winner is granted carte blanche to completely ignore any voice in opposition.

The big problem with elections is that they work by simplification. They are designed to reduce complexities to simple one-or-the-other propositions. And they accomplish this by rounding off. In two way elections, anything above 50 percent becomes 100 percent. Anything below 50 percent becomes zero. Winner take all. All or nothing.

This may be good enough when it comes to determining the occupant of a single seat in Parliament or Congress. But surely it isn`t good enough for coming to terms with a complex issue, let alone the entire body of issues dealt with by political bodies. Nor is it good enough to register citizen concerns and values.

For elections to have the impact on issues that they ought to, they need to be seen as instruments of measurement and communication.

Elections need to be looked at with fresh eyes, for their potential to be potent tools of transformation, not just rubber stamps to the status quo. After all, up until 3 months ago, no one would have pointed to public parks as effective instruments of social change.

Of course, another part of the reality is that, if only 50 or 60 percent of eligible voters participate in an election, then even a 70% result represents only one in three of the voting pool. And if we count those who never register, or who are disenfranchised for various reasons, the winning candidate or position is even less representative.

My point is that, if, as we do in the real world, we viewed levels of participation and ballot results as measurements of and communication from the citizenry, the numbers would tell us a much richer story than simply that candidate A defeated candidate B.

And this, I believe, could play a huge role in the broader Occupy / 99% movement, toward building an economy and a politics that serves ALL of us. Such an approach to elections would make it suddenly significant when a small party wins 15 or 20 percent of the vote. One in five or six citizens is a very substantial number, from any perspective except that of business-as-usual politics.

What’s needed then, is to separate the tool – elections and voting – from the sorry art of politics with which it is associated. One very positive and powerful campaign to refit this tool to better serve the population is the Proportional Voting Proposal. It was defeated in Ontario some years ago, but has been adopted in many places in the world, and will surely get another go in Ontario before much longer.

Even simple voter registration drives can become a tool for transformation that isn’t instantly embedded in the current scheme of party politics. On the most basic level, an election is a roll-call of everyone we live and work with, to agree on what’s for dinner, where to build the school, how we will take care of one another, what we want our city, province or state, our nation to stand for. If we don’t like the stale choices that we’re presented with in the voting booth, or the unmindful way the results are used and manipulated, let’s not blame that on elections.

The problem with elections is that they’ve been co-opted by a stingy, dishonest and self-serving politics. The solution is between the collective ears of the electorate. Where it comes to elections and voting, we have to begin to think outside the box. That worked out pretty well for parks, didn’t it?

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