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This Is Why Democratic Spirit Is So Low

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Jamie Grill via Getty Images
Jamie Grill via Getty Images

It came as a simple text message from my friend Adam, but in reality it formed something of a modern plea:

"What's a person to do when they've lost faith in all politicians and there's an election? I think a lot of people are looking desperately for that answer. We are torn by having the honour of a vote and being so dismayed that we don't vote at all. Like many of my friends, I was raised by politically active and aware parents and this is tearing us all up."

It's a timely observation, given that Ontario will be heading to the polls in a few weeks and municipal elections are scheduled for the fall. Though not a universal sentiment, disillusionment in modern politics is likely the lowest it has ever been.

It's not hard to comprehend why the democratic spirit is so low. There have been enough scandals at various levels of government that average Canadians can be forgiven for wondering what has become of the political order. It's increasingly apparent that the old partisan wars no longer create the kind of political energies that they used to. One tweet from a citizen from my home city of London pretty well summed it up: "Hey, if you're going to keep partisan bashing the other parties, don't count on my vote." Then there's the negative advertising that consistently drives down voter turnout. Or as the Toronto Star put it this week, "Negative ads destroys voter trust in all politicians." Rounding it all out is the repeated claim that it doesn't matter who gets elected, our problems never seem to get solved.

There is an element of truth in all these complaints, but should they be enough to keep us from participating in elections? The answer is no. There are many dedicated politicians out there, including new candidates, who have the best interests of their respective communities at heart. The trouble is that the political system itself is so atrophied and controlled that they are stymied in their desire to make an impact. Should they no longer be able to count on the support of citizens, then the political status quo will always win out.

The average citizen is confronting a host of enduring problems that require resolution -- unemployment, escalating poverty, lack of support for small and medium-sized businesses, mental health complexities, lack of community infrastructure, the high cost of post-secondary education, to name a few. These are what citizens call "the things that matter," and, interestingly, they are all political matters. So when average Canadians bail on the process, they inevitably bail on themselves.

People have reached the stage where they believe that citizens and groups actually working together should form the essence of the new politics. And it should. The old paradigms of people following their leaders is beginning to give way to communities demanding their politicians work together for the sake of strengthening neighbourhoods, building a future for the children, and building a quality of life that makes people proud to live where they live. That is what politics must become if it is to recapture any sense of growing credibility.

Put another way, our problems have arisen specifically because of a lack of community. For too long our fates have rested in the hands of politicians and business elites who have watched the declining democratic estate with a kind of mild alarm yet refused to reform either politics or finance in order to build the communities we want. In a politics that has little space for the public, it must be the public that claims it back.

My friend Adam was right: it's a discouraging time. But for democratic renewal to be valid, all of us must come to the awareness that the primary office holder in democracy itself was never the politician but the citizen. It is only as we fulfill that office faithfully that politics itself can be renewed. To opt out of that responsibility makes us no better than the politicians we criticize.

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