Couch potatoes for democracy


The anybody-but-(fill in the blank) voting strategy is a time-honoured tradition in western democracies. In fact, the late, great American comic, Richard Pryor, squeezed a whole movie out of the construct in the 1980s.

In “None of the above”, the actor played a hapless candidate running on a simple platform: No one is good enough, wise enough or strong enough to represent the public, whose interests he or she purports to cherish. So, the message went, vote for “no one”, not even the guy urging the boycott.

As political commentary, the piece was mildly affecting. As movie-making, it was merely ho-hum. As a blueprint for democratic change, it was naïve, at best, and, at worst, oddly seditious to the underpinnings of a society that still embraces the conviction that individuals – no matter how poor – can still make a difference to their various lots in life as long as they exercise the power of their plebiscite honestly.

This species of strategic voting has raised its head in Moncton in recent weeks, as roadside signs urging people to “nullify” their ballots have cropped up overnight.

Elsewhere in New Brunswick, certain social activists have inveighed against what they characterize as a crooked and fossilized system that allows political candidates with a simple plurality to, in effect, hijack entire constituencies in which the majority vote goes against them. The activists ask people to protest with their hindquarters on October 19 and stay home – a sort of “couch potatoes for democracy” gambit.

It’s tempting to fall in line behind this thinking. After all, no form of proportional representation – which would immediately inject more, better and diverse voices into the system – has ever gained traction in a province where political elites of the two major parties (Liberals and Progressive Conservatives) jealously guard their territories. It hardly matters that the New Democrats are gaining ground (at least, until recently), for, as they do, the “machine” transforms them, leveling them, remaking them as “mainstream-light”.

Still, it’s important to understand what we lose by voting against a thing (either by staying home or deliberately scratching a ballot), as opposed to what we gain by voting for a thing (as odious as this may seem to be).

We lose when our disaffection trumps our determination to effect change. Fewer votes automatically concentrate power in the hands of (guess who?) the powerful. The greater concentration of power, the better likelihood there is of abuse of such power.

Imagine a New Brunswick where only wealthy business owners and propertied money-managers have seats at the table where decisions are made. You think you’ve got it bad now; boys and girls, I’m here to tell you ain’t seen nothing yet!

You can forget about “public consultation”. Banish all thoughts of making a positive difference in your lives. No one is listening, precisely because you chose not to be heard.

Politics, like nature, abhors a vacuum. It will fill up the void with the good, the bad and the ugly; it all depends on who’s doing the pouring.

On the other hand, we win when we engage – not because we are voting for a particular candidate or party, but because the weight of our democratic participation cannot be easily dismissed by interests who would rather see us watch political pot-boilers on Netflix than witness our lineups at the ballot box.

Personally, I may not always agree with the “great unwashed” – a company in which I gladly include myself – but I am not prepared to have my mind sanitized by the alternative.

I will vote, looking for the best in a bad crop.

Will you?

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