October 4, 2011

Ballot Box Blues

By Jane Hilderman

My prediction: Representative democracy is not going anywhere soon.

However, Nicholas Kulish, writing in the New York Times last week about the surging protests around the world (England, Greece, Spain, India, Israel and most recently, New York’s Wall Street), is not so sure. He suggests that such protests reflect a shared crisis of legitimacy for both politician and the democratic political system. These citizens – in particular the large swaths of youth amidst the crowds – have “little faith in the ballot box”. Does this really herald a shift away from representative institutions?

After all, political representatives, according to democratic theory, live or die by the ballot box – thus, the electorate holds the ultimate means of accountability. Not happy with your politician? Vote them out of office! However, democracy in practice is imperfect – and certainly the story in Canada is no different.

Over the summer, Samara conducted a series of focus groups with citizens prone to political disengagement. We wanted to better understand what those traditionally less likely to participate think about politics and democracy. While by no means representative of the Canadian population, these groups offered insight into not only how they feel about politics, but also why they chose not to participate.

Less educated youth who are less likely to participate expressed a strong sentiment of estrangement from politics bordering on a suspicion or animosity towards any establishment actors – not only government, but police and corporations, too. Driving this view in part is a belief that their voice is irrelevant: “I think the government knows what they want to tell us, they know what they want us to think,” said one young woman, “they may show a little percentage of our voice, but I really don’t think that matters.”  As a result they feel that, “politicians have their plans – they don’t care about us,” said another.

Younger participants were not the only ones who felt this way - preliminary results indicate that there is a real disillusionment towards democratic participation across all our focus groups; less educated youth, lower income Canadians, urban First Nations, a language minority, and new Canadians. The participants, in Kulish’s words, “lack a belief that the political system represent[s] their interests”. Should we be worried? This is the first key ingredient that has led other citizens to bypass their representative institutions and take to the streets in other democratic countries. Yet I don’t believe this means representative institutions will be cast off. Why?

As we are learning from our focus groups, more important to Canadians, who are less likely to participate, is a government that listens when a problem arises, works to fix it, and keeps promises it made. On this they were resoundingly clear: improve the legitimacy of our existing institutions (and by extension politicians, too) through better responsiveness and accountability. The rest will take care of itself.

Look for the full report on Samara's focus group research at the end of November 2011. In the meantime, share with us here your perceptions of politics and democracy, and what criteria you care most about when evaluating the quality of our democracy in Canada.


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