Photo Credit: Simon Greig

Free the Politicians

July 31, 2013

Politicians are often the target of our distrust and contempt. But before we spit at names like “Harper” or “Clark,” we should consider the matter more closely. Few politicians start out being maligned or hated. They typically want to create change for the better, or to serve their country, province or local community. So what happens along the political journey that sours our relationship with politicians?

The fact is politicians have a tough job. They are tasked with serving the public at large, but the nature of our democratic political system puts immense pressures on them to serve specific interests, or constituents. Under these pressures, politicians stop considering the “public good” and instead focus on the specific voices within the public that align with their power base. This presents an extremely difficult problem in the Canadian democratic system, where 60% of the seats in the federal House of Commons can be won with 40% of the popular vote. It is no surprise when this system results in decisions that clearly do not balance the considerations of the public as a whole.

So how can we move towards a system that takes a more balanced, sustainable and publicly-centered approach towards decision-making?  How can we, for example, include consideration of the cost of negative externalities such as pollution into decisions of economic development? How can we include arguments about preventative rather than reactionary measures to address public safety concerns? How can we incorporate the welfare of the next generation while still maintaining a certain standard of living for the current generation?

Some would argue for drastic shifts in our electoral system. An allocation of seats reflective of the popular vote could potentially bring more balanced decision-making. Yet multi-representative systems already exist at the municipal level, and problems of special interest dominated decision-making remain.  While a different electoral system could alleviate some of our democratic problems, I’m going to argue that the solution to achieving balanced, sustainable, and publicly-centered decision-making lies with voters.

Voters are the solution, because currently, they contribute to the problem. We are naturally interest-based individuals. We seldom take time to consider the concerns of others. We strive for what is best for us, as individuals, given our own perception of what the best life should be. It is our natural tendency to communicate these self-interests to those making decisions that will affect our lives; namely, Politicians.  As a result, politicians are bombarded with an array of self-interest. They respond in kind by serving those interests that supported their ascent to power. In this regard, voters are driving politicians’ interest-based decision-making through interest-based demands.

Yet individuals have the inspiring capacity to move beyond their own interests and consider the broader public good. This has been shown time and time again when groups reach a consensus decision. This, I would argue, is where deliberative theory and deliberative processes can play an important role in repairing our political system. Through engagement initiatives such as SFU Public Square, which aim to provide a space for dialogue around issues of public interest, citizens (voters) are exposed to alternative and opposing points of view. Citizens are presented with an opportunity to consider others’ interests. Most importantly, citizens may shift their perspective on an issue and begin to think beyond what is best for them, to what might be best for the community at large. This will require sacrifice, but by understanding the needs and concerns of others, individuals may be more willing to accept a sacrifice of their own interests. This movement towards consensus is the magic of dialogue.

If voters can consider a broader conception of the public good, their demands of politicians will change. Without polarized, interest-based demands, politicians will not be forced to pursue polarized, interest-based decisions. The discussions within our legislatures could potentially be more collaborative and less combative, as parties are more free to retreat from their lines of defense and be more accepting of compromise. This is possible if citizens actively participate in dialogue with open and curious minds.  At the very least, citizens should genuinely consider others’ perspectives before making political demands.

Perhaps I’m dreaming? Perhaps politics is always destined to be a battleground? But I believe if citizens are not happy with the current system, they have the power to change the system by first changing their own conception of interest. They can start by joining the conversation when the next opportunity for community dialogue presents itself. We can free politicians from the trap of political polarization. We can have more balanced decision-making. But first we must be bold enough to stop judging Harper and Clark and instead judge ourselves.

Author Connor Curson is a Community Outreach Assistant at SFU Public Square. He holds a Master’s degree in Public Policy from SFU’s School of Public Policy.

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