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Flipping the Line: We all have a responsibility to vote
Sabrina Macpherson asks of Ken Boessenkool, if those among us who are most engaged in protecting the core values of liberal democracy don't vote, then who the hell do we expect to vote, exactly?
The Line welcomes angry rebuttals and responses to our work. The best will be featured in our ongoing series, Flipping the Line. Today, in reply to Ken Boessenkool’s latest, Sabina Macpherson makes the case for voting.
By: Sabrina Macpherson
In a recent post for The Line, Ken Boessenkool wrote that the sacrifices of generations at war sometimes make us feel as though we must vote: that we have to show up or else dishonour their sacrifices. But, he says, if we can remind ourselves that we are free to vote, not forced to, then it's fine if we choose not to vote because we're dissatisfied with our choices in a given election. We can put our faith in the people around us to make the choice based on their wants and needs, but if we don't like having to hold our nose and vote for the best of a bad lot, we don't have to vote at all.
Respectfully — because I truly do respect Boessenkool and the work he does to put better conservative options on the ballot in our country — I call bullshit.
I've grumbled through many an election where I didn't really like any of the options in front of me. But fundamentally, I don't believe that voting is an obligation to the past. Rather, it is an act of service for both the present and the future: to our communities, our families and our children. Voting is about reminding the elected whom they serve, and that regular reminder is ultimately what prevents both oligarchy and tyranny.
With more active participation in elections, it might even prevent mediocre members of oddball family dynasties acting like they're born to rule for years on end simply because they have a certain last name. (Trudeau, Ford, Windsor — pick your punchline.)
Like all true acts of service, voting is about shifting focus away from our own individual wants and participating in a practice that puts our community's needs first. Either the principle of individuals actively participating in democratic elections to inform the direction of their collective democracy is important, or it's not. If it is, then voting for the "least bad option" is better than shrugging it off. If we can't give the people around us the best, then we can protect them from the worst — and that is an important act of care for and engagement with our community.
Boessenkool also notes that we in Canada are not yet in the perilous place where Americans find themselves in a post-Trump world. We don't yet have cries of politicians denying results of a vote whenever they dislike them. So, as defenders of liberal democracy, we don't yet face the crisis that would force us to vote as an act to protect that system.
It's a classic Canadian move to compare ourselves to the worst American evidence we can find, and then declare ourselves good by comparison. That particular bar is so low that we're practically tripping over it.
More interesting to me here would be a comparison to the first election with Trump, in 2016. American media at the time was not yet filled with cries of election denial and "fake news!" Recordings of Trump making remarkably vulgar comments came out a couple of weeks before the election, and I remember thinking "well, now he's toast." We all know I was wrong, but do you remember having that feeling? That it was simply impossible that he would be elected, because voters surely would rebuke that kind of behaviour at the ballot box? Because that is what, historically, voters in North America have done: we show up and we reward or refuse candidates the privilege of leadership, based on a broad standard of mutually understood civil standards. But to do that, first we have to show up.
To me, the 2016 U.S. election is most notable in hindsight for how close the two candidates were, and how many people simply didn't vote. Almost half of America’s eligible voters didn’t vote for either of them — the number of Americans who didn’t vote for either candidate outnumbered those who voted Trump or Clinton.
Maybe they thought America was mostly fine. Maybe they trusted the others to make the choice for them, because they fundamentally respected and liked their fellow citizens. There were many who simply said, "This is a choice between bad and worse — and don't make me say which is which.”
And then America — and the world — got four years of Trump. With everything that did to American democracy and the general cultural discourse.
Clearly, Alberta in 2023 is not like the U.S. in 2016. Alberta is generally awesome, the people I know who live there are cool, and for the most part its conservatism is of a libertarian stripe that I can get along with just fine. Smith is also clearly not Trump, even if she's deeply problematic in her own unique ways. Still. She's not him, this isn't that, caveat made.
But Boessenkool's argument seems very similar to that of the non-voter in 2016 — and to that of the non-voters in Ontario, who I've written about before, too.
If those among us who are most engaged in protecting the core values of liberal democracy don't vote, then who the hell do we expect to vote, exactly? Why do we presume that it's enough to have other people preserve democracy on our behalf? What happens if, like in Ontario last fall, the majority of people don't vote?
We have the right, the freedom to vote, and we are not literally obligated in any way. But if we give a damn about our community and our culture, whether provincial or federal or local, then we must use our vote as an act of service. We must remind politicians early and often that they serve at our pleasure. We do this even when we hate our choices. Especially because, for those of us who don't work in political campaigns or in public service ourselves, this is the fundamental responsibility we have to our democracy. We have to show up and be heard, lest our silence and the slow decay of our presumed safety lead to the long list of things that we're sure could never happen here.
Sabrina Macpherson is a product manager in the financial services industry. She lives in Ontario with her family.
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