Keeping faith in democracy

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What’s the point in voting? The system is broken!

The people who need a voice cannot find it when our democracy only favours those already rich and powerful.

If such nonsense has crossed your mind in the past, you can hardly be blamed.

Democracy is a frustrating thing. It lumbers and limps at an impossibly slow pace, leaving problems of dubious import unsolved until the last second, if then.

Turns out your new hero may well be Russell Brand, a comedian and actor whose interview, conducted by the BBC’s Jeremy Paxman, is going viral.

By choice

In it, Brand claims he has never voted, and not because he is apathetic but because he is indifferent (he may want to interview a dictionary next).

Brand believes that the system does not allow for change because it already benefits those who hold all the power.

The seriously disenfranchised are unable to implement policies that benefit them because no one in power wants those policies implemented.

No one who thinks differently from the power brokers can gain a foothold. Thus, the system perpetuates itself.

So he does not vote.

But not voting, surely, is an expression of apathy for democracy itself, not just one’s particular electoral system.

I, for one, am not happy with the first-past-the-post-system (Google it), and I would vote in a democratic election for the first serious candidate who vowed to change it.

Brand is embarrassingly confused.

Democracy has successes

But what’s really galling is that Brand is saying this merely five years after the election (and subsequent re-election) of Barack Obama, the least electable mainstream politician in recent U.S. history; who the country turned to when it saw that what it had been doing so far was not working; who subsequently introduced universal healthcare; who supports gay marriage; and whose attorney general has just pledged to end mandatory minimum sentencing, a policy which inarguably targets the politically disenfranchised.

And his fundraising left him beholden to no massive corporations; conducted at the grassroots level, Obama raised funds from millions of citizen donors.

All these things would have been unthinkable in the American political system prior to 2008.

And even all that may not be enough for some progressives, but say what you will about Obama’s actual presidency thus far; no one had any reason to doubt that he would implement many serious changes once elected. And yet, he won.

Brand’s ignorance of such recent history can only be because he is living in his own little counter-culture bubble.

In that bubble, all democratic systems boil down simplistically to corporate interests, compromising lobbyists and greedy white men.

The actual situation, as with most things, is more complicated than that and it takes more thinking than he has done to grapple with it, then finally to use it to the advantage of everyone.

Keith Hannaford writes from St. John’s.

Organizations: BBC, Google

Geographic location: U.S.

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  • Cashin Delaney
    November 04, 2013 - 15:22

    "The secret vote prevents an elected official from punishing individuals for voting for the other guy." I will never be afraid of being punished then, if I don't vote? If I voted, I'd worry about the secret being found out. Maybe I'd get drunk, and, hiccup, tell all! Secret vote has a short history in democracy. Yes, corruption made it necessary. I am glad those days are over. Ahem. Yes. My point on coke and pepsi was twofold. That the tastes of the three leading parties are all the same to me. I can't tell Mulclair, from Trudeau from Harper. I'll support either of these necktie bandits who want a job I can't/won't/don't recognise and therefore can not perform. I will adjust strategy as required, and survive on my own terms. They entertain me, and I respect their role, and pity them. We could be voting for Benedict Mulrooney or Donald Cherry. It is entertainment, and as far as municipal, provincial, I follow the same path of least resistance. These governments are not directly founded on the democratic processes of old Athens, or the brilliant examples of goverance observed by Ben Franklin in native american societies. It is not mob rule, either. I'll give you that point for sure, I think I exaggerated. Mobs have energy and passion. It is more like mope rule. You tell me to forget about one important point, that's awesome. Who invented Satan then? I will make one final point. If you are afraid of your member, church, your boss, your leader, whoever, of actually punishing you for voting wrong, does this mean you go out in the community in secret as well, to appease them? That is not freedom, and it saps the response ability from your bones. Acting a certain way because of your vote, instead of non-voting to preserve freedom.Suggesting that I hang my head in shame is not fostering your valued right to dissent. {that is how you, or Russells 'greedy white men' do business} I go out and vote with my daily actions, and stimulate conversation, not shame people for lack of knowledge, or strong opinion. To each his own, accept the feedback as food for though, not a dissent of your dissent of a Bacchanalian Fool-of-a movie star's political and economical philosophy. "greedy white men"?, I'm sure this is not meant to be ethnic, or raceiriffic, just a reference to whitewashed ethics? Did Russell Brand say really say this? You. Bertrand Russell? Your dead ancestors in France? Why does it have to come back to the dead? I can introduce you to a few vets who can set you straight on trotting out that old hobby horse. Dissent builds democracy, anarchy keeps it from imploding. Why are we talking about Obama, when Brand is from Essex? Everyone participates in a different way. The non-voters should be accepted for what they are, just as every liberal is not the same. Basic respect Keith, not hammering your ideals on people. Thanks for entertaining us, and stimulating conversation. I'd watch the video but I don't have speakers. I just read the piece, and the comments. http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/toula-foscolos/russell-brand-revolution-video_b_4191441.html "With gerrymandering, lobbyists and first-past-the-post limitations... not to mention all the barriers to entry around participation costs... I do think it is worth having a conversation around whether or not we have watered-down democracy - so much - that we can longer call it so; and this what I think Russell was really getting at"

    • david
      November 07, 2013 - 22:16

      Yikes.

  • Steve
    November 04, 2013 - 14:24

    Good job Keith - some excellent points.

  • david
    November 04, 2013 - 11:43

    "Democracy" is not what you get when you have just 4 out of every 10 voters mark an 'X' on a piece of paper, and then sit back and watch public officials steal for the next 4 years. That system doesn't have a name yet --- I suggest "Canuck-munism".

    • Keith Hannaford
      November 04, 2013 - 12:08

      Fair point; democracy's effectiveness is dependent upon the level of participation. Our first-past-the-post political system and our low levels of participation are worrisome indeed, but not voting solves neither problem. Voting and engagement, rather, solve both problems handily.

  • Ken Collis
    November 04, 2013 - 11:28

    I'm not sure what the election of the US President has to do with our form of democracy but chosing not to vote does get a message across just the same. Should I vote for all the crooked actions of our top politicians of all stripes? Do you suggest that we should always choose the crook who does the least damage to us personnally? Should I vote for the party that forces Muskrat Falls on us with all the benefits going to Nalcor? Do I get to vote for who heads Nalcor? Should I vote for the party that chooses to change the law to suit fish processors but refuses to treat fishers the same? Since when did companies get to vote? Never, then why do they get ALL the benefits but the actual voters have to pay the cost. Should I vote for the party that had half their elected members quit? Can they be trusted to make wise decisions after all that? What about voting for the party that is now deciding by convention if they want a Liberal or PC leader? Talk about a foolish crowd. No, I'll keep my feet on the coffee table, thank you very much. I would vote for massive changes but that will only happen after the revolt, whenever that is.

    • Keith Hannaford
      November 04, 2013 - 12:14

      If you show up to a ballot booth and see no one on the ballot worth your vote, you should spoil your ballot. (That way, at least you've registered as participating.) The next thing you do is get very angry, then very determined. You then have 4 or 5 years to write letters and e-mails, organize protests, author and circulate petitions, and meet representatives. All this in an effort to make sure someone's worth your vote next time around. Doing nothing is naked laziness. Whoever solved a problem by doing nothing about it? Shame.

    • Ken Collis
      November 04, 2013 - 15:25

      Keith, bu showing up at the ballot box and then spoiling the ballot would be very foolish. By not voting at all it can be shown what percentage of each demographic age group chose not to vote. Then a government that should care would approach that group and find out why. By spoiling my ballot there would be no one able to discover who did it or why. As well, you suggest that I should work harder than the elected officials who we are all paying. I have a job, thank you very much, and I'm not lazy. I'm just not fooled in the same way you are. Better to do nothing than to do something stupid. Shame.

    • Keith Hannaford
      November 11, 2013 - 13:27

      Two things: 1) you have to register before you're given a ballot, so the number of spoiled ballots vs. the number registered is recorded, which will be noticed if it's a big number. Not voting sends a message apathy, but going through the effort to show up only to spoil the ballot sends a message of displeasure. The two are very different. 2) You may not want to work as hard as the people we elect, but you are their boss. The boss may not work as hard, but when things are going wrong (s)he bears the brunt. It should keep you up at night.

  • Cashin Delaney
    November 04, 2013 - 10:16

    The closest thing to a strawman, is quoting Russel Brand, who I at first assumed must be some modern Bertrand Russell, until I googled him and found out he was on par with Will Ferrell! So, instead of a positive defense of democracy, you condemn a libertine jester for his views, reserve yours in abstraction. I don't vote, But I enjoy the anarchy of democracy as well as anyone else. I'm prepared to defend my vote, the non-vote, to receptive ears. The last politician to land on my doorstep was told this. When he asked me to come out and vote, I told him I could not, because I am not resolved to the responsibility for mob rule, but respect the freedom of those who do. I am happy, rather than apathic, to let chaos check order as time permits. This affords me great freedom. I can eat lays, or old dutch as I please, drink Pepsi or coke (can you still get orange crush, ha), labatts or quidi vidi, and so forth. Oil, or Uranium. I can endorse what I feel and think and know to be my own self-educated choices, without compromise to some secret vote I had to sneak away, on some hallowed eve, on my own dime, to cast. Cast a vote and put a spell on myself. No thanks. Democracy is active partication in a unified state, not secret Xs and factions clambering to conceal a host of related issues inside a quagmire of akward legalese and pantomime. If satanism can be considered a sect of Christianity, then our government can be equally indebted to democracy and defined by it.

    • Keith Hannaford
      November 04, 2013 - 11:25

      Taking your points in order (except the last two): 1) Whether Brand's comments are worth thinking about is debatable, but he is getting some attention and that compelled me to dissent. 2) Though I haven't composed a treatise-length defence of democracy, nor have I reserved my thoughts "in abstraction." An engaged reader can decipher the value of democracy from my writing. Suffice to say that voting is only the first step of democratic participation. You can read more spirited defences by better writers than I. 3) "...I am not resolved to the responsibility for mob rule..." This makes no sense. 4) I was unaware that the vote you cast decides the brand name of products you are permitted to enjoy. Thank you for alerting me to this. 5) The very fact that your vote is secret is what permits you to continue endorsing what you feel and think without compromise. The secret vote prevents an elected official from punishing individuals for voting for the other guy. 6) On your own dime? Is someone charging you to vote? You should probably report that. If you mean you have to pay for transportation to a poll, you are staggeringly self-centred. 7) Satanism cannot be considered a sect of Christianity, so you can forget about that point. 8) And finally, democracy is active participation in a unified state AND a secret X on a deservedly hallowed eve. Want to know the value of a vote? Mulcair is trouncing Harper in the house right now, but Harper is releasing attack ads against...Trudeau. Know why? Trudeau is tied or leading in the federal polls. Our leaders are VERY concerned about your vote. If enough of us, between elections, threaten a government with our vote, that government will become very concerned. That is a valuable asset. It is one enlightenment ancestors fought and died for, because they knew how impoverished one can be without it. You should be ashamed to take it for granted. Hang your head and, while you're at it, crack open a history book below it.