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Be an 'Intentional Citizen'

'Strategic voting?' It's all about outcomes.

Murray Dobbin 5 Jan

Murray Dobbin is an author, commentator and journalist. He is the author of five books and is a former columnist with Financial Post and Winnipeg Free Press. He is a board member of Canadians for Tax Fairness and on the advisory council of the Rideau Institute. He lives in Powell River, BC.

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Every vote is a strategic vote.

I say that, even though I have attacked the advocacy of strategic voting coming from the CAW's Buzz Hargrove. But my quibble isn't with strategic voting. It is really a matter of whether or not you are following a good strategy. The trouble with Hargrove's call for strategic voting was that it was just lousy strategy for those with a social democratic vision for the country. His early election call to vote Liberal, except in ridings where the NDP had a good chance of winning, ignored the fact that it simply played into the hands of the Liberals' use of scare tactics to scoop NDP voters. Last time around, it defeated at least five NDP candidates who, as MPs, would have given the party the real balance of power.

The main problem with this kind of too-clever-by-half strategic voting is that it assumes every voter has perfect knowledge of what is happening in the election, in general, and in their riding, in particular. That's a tall order. Most voters, unfortunately, simply don't or can't take the time to gain "perfect" knowledge. In my home province of Saskatchewan, for example, the Liberals successfully scared enough traditional NDP voters into voting for them so that three more Conservatives won seats. In Saskatchewan, the Liberals were not a factor except in one seat. People voted strategically (in response to the Liberals' scare campaign) to keep the Conservatives out -- and instead, helped elect more Conservatives.

The genuinely strategic voter is what I have called the intentional citizen: someone who actually strives to think and act as if citizenship mattered. That is does matter should be self-evident if you examine popular democracy for what it really is: a centuries-old effort to achieve some measure of equality in a world whose economic systems, left on their own, have been catastrophically unequal.

While Americans define democracy as freedom (mostly freedom to do with their money whatever they choose, that is, property rights) Canadians have defined their democracy more in terms of equality. That is why such an overwhelming majority of citizens consider Medicare -- a powerful example of equality in action -- as the defining characteristic of our nation. Canadians judge democracy not so much by process and institutions, but by outcomes: what does democracy, in the end, provide?

Not voting? Not cool

Rule number one guiding the intentional citizen is understanding power, and in this context that means appreciating that what happens in parliament actually matters. If you doubt this, ask the wealthy, who under Finance Minister Paul Martin, received 77 percent of the personal portion of $100 billion in tax cuts (over five years) he gave out in 2000.

Or the flip side: ask Bay Street if parliament mattered when the NDP forced the Liberals to postpone $4.6 billion in corporate tax cuts.

Or ask those who benefited from the $4.6 billion in progressive spending that resulted. These are just recent examples. We tend to forget that everything that makes this country one of the best places in the world to live from Medicare, to public parks, we got out of governments.

It's easy to forget. Because we are encouraged to forget it all the time. It has almost become cool not to vote, as if this is somehow a principled thing to do. The absenteeism among young people is particularly high, even amongst those who see themselves as anti-globalization and anti-corporate. How ironic. The only institution in the world with the power to challenge corporate dominance is government. It is government which makes the laws which define what corporations are and what they can do.

For the last 25 years, most governments in Canada (and all of them at the federal level) have been willing accomplices of corporations. But the point is to take government back, not abandon the only institution that has the potential to actually make a positive difference and enforce a measure of social and economic equality. The graveyards of history are littered with people who thought voting was worth dying for. Were they wrong?

Government bashers

Preston Manning was a master at demonizing government, implying again and again that politicians (other than him) were corrupt or self-serving, that government itself was suspect, that it had its hands in the pockets of "taxpayers'" (not citizens), that "You know better how to spend your money than government does" and that "A government job (nurse? teacher? cop? librarian?) isn't a real job." Supported by the corporate media, business think-tanks, and right-wing academics, this deliberate campaign to lower expectations of what government was and could be was extremely successful, so successful that our voter turnout is now almost as bad as it is in the US. The people most satisfied by this abandonment of democracy and the right to vote? That's easy: Bay Street CEOs, for whom democracy is a constant threat to their power and excess profits.

Another distraction is the protest vote, the "anti-establishment" vote. It is predicated on the notion that all the traditional parties are "the same." The problem is, they're demonstrably not the same. In the last election the progressive protest vote went to the Green Party. But the notion that a vote for Jim Harris's party is somehow a more principled vote is dangerously flawed. Even if you believe the party is strong on the environment and democracy (I argue it's not), if your principled vote actually gets you less -- in terms of tangible results -- than some other vote, then those considering voting Green where the NDP, which has strong green policies, might win, you may want to examine what they mean by principled.

If it doesn't mean actually voting to ensure that state power is used to make the world better and greener, then the principle is self-defeating.

The intentional citizen, whether fiscal conservative, environmentalist or social democrat, is deliberately strategic at election time and that means three things: being acutely aware of your values and the policies that reflect them, judging the trustworthiness of the various leaders and keeping foremost in your mind that parliament, and who actually gets to vote there, actually matters. It's not rocket science. But it does mean keeping your eye on the prize and not getting distracted by the chatter and noise designed to knock you off track.

Find lots more Tyee political coverage at Election Central.

Murray Dobbin writes his 'State of the Nation' column twice a month for The Tyee.  [Tyee]

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