Personal Choice, Public Consequence: Accounting for Ballot Box Decisions

I grew up in a political household.

Not that I realized it at the time. I only knew that our dinner table conversations were not about math tests and birthday parties. Well, at least not for more than five minutes. After that, we could see my dad’s irritation grow as precious moments that could have been spent discussing current events were lost to grade school and high school minutae.

Once he started deliberately clearing his throat we knew we had let things go for too long.

I won’t pretend it didn’t drive me nuts; I was pretty sure my friends didn’t have their dinnertime routinely hijacked by the political process.

But now that I’m a parent, once again (as I did with the CBC and porridge) I find myself coming full circle.

My daughter turns six this year, and has already been through three federal elections, all of which were the topic of much household discussion. She accompanied us to the polling stations (this year for the first time with her baby brother), and helped to make sure our lawn sign was securely fixed to the ground. And she asked questions–which we did our best to answer age-appropriately.

At first it was about “teams” and their colours, then it was about who “won” and if she got the most votes would she be “the best”. But this year when she asked “who is Stephen Harper and what has he done?” we decided we could get more nuanced.

So we talked about choices. And what makes a good leader. And how important it is to listen, and to think about how someone’s decisions affect not just you, but other people. And how a good leader must be prepared to talk to all sorts of people to try and understand what different people in different neighbourhoods need. We asked her to think about the important things in her life—her family and friends, her school, her daycare, her teachers, the parks we play in, the libraries and bike lanes we use, the food we eat, the house we live in, her grandparents, what happened when I broke my leg and how I got better, or when she or her brother had to go to the hospital.

We told her that people can have similar priorities but make very different choices about how to get there—choices that might not be good for everyone, choices that might be bad for people who need a lot of help. And then we explained how we had decided to vote, and why we thought we had made a good choice—not just for us and people we know, but for people we don’t know.

But we also told her that not everyone would agree with our choice, and that we might not agree with their choice either. And that it’s good to talk about why you might not agree. But you must always respect people’s right to make their choice, even if you don’t like it.

Then things got sticky.

So, I can decide when I grow up who I want to vote for?

Yes.

I can vote for anyone I want?

Yes—as long as you live in their riding. (Insert brief conversation about how ridings work.)

I could even vote for Stephen Harper and you wouldn’t be mad at me?

(Deep breath.)

Honey, you can vote for whoever you want and we wouldn’t be mad at you.

(And then I continued….)

But I would be disappointed if you voted for someone and didn’t think about what your decision meant for other people, not just for you.

That, she understood—after all, she goes to a cooperative daycare, where empathy is as present as epi-pens and permission forms, and where  “consequences”, “choices”, “consideration” and “taking responsibility” are not just abstract concepts.

Because of her familiarity with the concept of collective responsibility at daycare, she understands that the decisions we make at the ballot box go far beyond our household. Though the decision at the ballot box is made individually, the act of democratic and electoral participation is radically communal.

Or so I thought.

I spent a lot of time on social media this election (the one where a minority of Canadians gifted the rest of us a Harper Government 3), interacting with a number of people from all political stripes about their hopes and priorities for the country, and how they thought we would get there. It wasn’t always easy—hell, it wasn’t always respectful—and the post-election discourse brought with it a heightened sense of despair on the one hand and gleefulness on the other that degenerated into some fairly mean exchanges.

But one thing I found fascinating was the number of Conservative supporters on facebook and various discussion boards who trumpeted their pre-and post-election satisfaction that “Stephen Harper will put more money in my pocket.”

That claim always grated on me, but I was never sure why until I revisited that conversation with my daughter, and realized something: it never occurred to me to decide how to vote based on what I would personally gain.

I had never used “more money in my pocket” as the basis for choosing my elected representatives; maybe choosing an accountant…but certainly not a government.

I always thought that, especially for those in more privileged positions, our real responsibility was to consider how decisions made by politicians affect everyone—particularly those living precarious lives—not just the individual. But that act of collective democratic participation has been reconfigured as an expression of heightened individualism. It’s no longer about national direction and social progress. It’s about personal pocket change.

In this world, the election is the promise, and the “payment” is not in greater equality or well-funded hospitals or daycares or food and water and environmental standards or accessible and responsive government institutions or affordable education or justice for Indigenous people.  It’s in the write-offs and credits and cuts we see on April 30 when we file our taxes.

The slow but steady shift from communal decision-making to personal betterment might explain the defensiveness from Conservative voters post-election when their euphoria (or maybe it was gloating) was interrupted by a reminder of what a Harper majority government would mean for so many of us. “I resent being called mean-spirited or selfish on one hand, or stupid and uneducated on the other, for my decision” more than one person threw at me.

This response effectively deflects the reminder that their ballot box decisions have ramifications for a whole lot of other people: don’t tell me I’m selfish for thinking about what’s best for me. And don’t tell me I’m stupid for ignoring the evidence about who gets hurt.

But the defensiveness is telling—it suggests that perhaps this individualistic approach to democracy is not quite as natural as they would have us believe. Somewhere between “I’m looking after myself” and “screw the rest of you” is a space for potential change. And it’s in this space that we have to start the dialogue about restoring the notion of collective responsibility to the democratic process.

It may not be much, but it’s a start. And we know a majority of the electorate agree with this communal approach. They understand that elections are about more than pocket change. After all, we’re electing a government.

Not an accountant.

Erika Shaker is Director of the CCPA’s Education Project.

8 comments

  1. With all due respect to your fervent belief in your moral uprightness, I must dispute your over-simplified characterization of your allegedly “selfish” opponents.

    To begin with, it should be pointed out that the argument in favour of private benefit is rather more nuanced than simply the desire for “more money in [one’s] pocket” as you have characterized it.

    Some citizens may doubt, for example, that many government-driven programs are optimally run, or directed towards the apropriate constituencies. One has only to look to the case of Quebec’s day-care system in order to see how government-delivered programs can disadvantage those they purport to serve. In Quebec, most parents with whom I am acquainted recognize that the shortage in daycare spots (a result of price-control) has resulted in a system where daycare spots are often reserved for those with the connections and clout. Thus, while prices may be affordable for those able to get spots, the available spots are far easy to get for the affluent and connected. This is hardly the only example of a government program that favours the rich while mouthing the mantra of social justice.

    A citizen without the connections to take advantage of skewed government programs could be forgiven for preferring to pay for daycare (even when slightly more expensive) over a system which prevents them from accessing services at all, whatever the cost. The argument is the same whether one looks to the difficulty in finding a GP, a rent-controlled apartment, or any of the other goods/services restricted by government fiat.

    At the same time, affluent citizens may well be disinclined to pay for services when they themselves are denied for services.

    To take one exaple, citizens in North York used to receive garbage pick-up twice a week, on par with the rest of the city. Today, they receive pickup only once in a given two-week period. At the same time, pickup is regular and often in the downtown core. When suburban families see their tax revenues being used to fund services for the high-density city core (which services they themselves do not receive), they can be forgiven for thinking that government does not need to provide every service under the sun.

    In a country where everything from day-care to garbage collection is run by or at the behest of government, citizens can be fogiven for thinking that a roll-back in the breadth of government spending might be appropriate – especially where government regulation prevents citizens from providing for their own needs on their own.

    It is simply absurd to equate patriotism or “public-spiritedness” with a desire for the expansion of state services. To do so is to confuse service-provision for culture and community.

    1. andrew, i appreciate you taking the time to comment, but I fear you’ve misconstrued what i was saying. It’s not about a fervent belief in my “moral uprightness”–it is, however, a belief in the power of collective action to accomplish great things for all of us, as represented by the decisions we make at the ballot box.

      i would be the last person to argue that social programs as they stand today are perfect, thanks to years of cuts and restructuring that ensure they serve the public less effectively and less well. underfunding public programs is a precondition to pro-privatization arguments in many sectors and in many jurisdictions. but for a range of key issues including equity, quality, cost, accountability and access, privatization is simply no solution.

      but, ironically, what you outline in your response is both the context and the extension of precisely what i was writing about–the more we defund and devalue our social programs and obscure the power of collective action and communal responsibility, the more our society reinforces the divides that exist, and the less some (when offered tax-based sweeteners, for example) are inclined to think of others when they make their personal decisions that have very public ramifications. As for suggesting that i was characterizing my “opponents” as “selfish”–on the contrary, what i was talking about was how conversations about the responsibility we have for each other get shut down by the very assertion you are making.

      thanks again for your thoughts.

  2. I like the idea of the communal approach to voting. It’s about civic responsibility, as well as doing one’s part for the flourishing of society.
    the alternative view described in this piece reminds me of the selfish man’s prayer that my Pastor Uncle taught me year’s ago, as a Joke: “God bless me, my wife, my son John, his wife, us four, no more, Amen!”

  3. BRAVO Erika Shaker for so lucidly and compellingly speaking truth to power.

    I too have incredible difficulty comprehending the “Stephen Harper will put more money in my pocket.” AND “It’s no longer about national direction and social progress. It’s about personal pocket change”MindSets that have so clearly seemed to predominate the minds of Stephen Harper supporters … While apparently feeling little to NO appreciation for the potential impact of their respective decisions on others, within their greater communities.

    Thank You Gigantically.

  4. Erika,

    I likewise appreciate your thoughtful response. It is always nice to see someone willing to engage in a civil manner with those who might disagree on this or that point.

    I had a much longer response penned, but, having read it over, and being hesitant to wear out my welcome, I have scrubbed it in favour of the following proposition, on which I would like your thoughts:

    You believe that the role of government should be to right injustices ingrained in Canadian society (primarily, but presumably not exclusively, thos e associated with poverty and economic inequality). I believe that over the last hundred-odd years, the government has been sufficiently successful in that effort that it has justifiedly transformed itself into an organization whose primary mandate is service provision. That is to say that the job of government is to provide garbage collection and water delivery; you may (and likely do) disagree with this sentiment, but the simple fact is that the majority of the Canadian populace (whether they vote for the NDP or the Conservatives), tend to vote for their party of choice because of how well their respective parties’ policy proposals jive with their interestes and wants.

    For Canadians who see government as a service provider, it is not unreasonable to ask whether they could not better receive those services through collective effort outside of the government bureaucracy.

    I take it as a given that you will disagree with the desirability of this view of government, but the fact remains that, apart from a few general appeals to generalized obligations grounded in undefined theories of social justice, you have yet to put forward a convincing argument (moral or otherwise) to explain why North Yorkers should be subsidizing the garbage pick-up of city-core dwellers. Period. You take the moral obligation as a given; the majority of the population does not.

    Absent some clear and widely-circulated reassertion of the terms, causes and, most important, limits of the moral obligation of economic redistribution for non-obligatory services, you are doing little more than preaching to an quickly diminishing choir.
    Thoughts?

    1. Andrew, equitable provision of high quality, accountable public services (like clean water, health care, sanitation and education, for example) is intrinsically linked to social equality — which, like poverty elimination, has by no means been “dealt with.” In a country as wealthy as Canada, the extent of our inequality, not to mention the number of people living in poverty or close to the poverty line — is shameful. Further, to continue reinforcing the divide between government as “service deliverer” and government as “poverty eliminator” or “democracy provider” (for example) is to obscure the ways in which we are responsible for each other, as represented by the decisions we make at the ballot box. I appreciate your response and further explanation of your position, but again you’ve reproduced the very observations I discussed in my commentary — that through a variety of policies and pronouncements, certain governments have entrenched the ideology that the primary concern of the electorate should be about what incentives are being promised so that individuals can look after themselves without the help of any public services whatsoever (and we know how few people can actually afford this). And the more this is all we expect (or can expect) from governments — and ourselves — because we think this is all government — and the electorate — is for, the less caring, just, equitable, aware, politically active and healthy a society we will be left with. i think we can do more and expect more — and, in spite of your claims — there’s little evidence that’s a minority position.

      thanks again for your thoughts.

  5. Erika – EXCELLENT aritlce! Your point of view – and Armine’s series on the use of “fear” as an election tool by the Harper Cons – explains a lot of what is going on in Canada right now. I will work towards and support the collectivist approach.

  6. As a benficiary of Quebec’s daycare system, I resent the attack on it. The Quebec daycare system provides more daycare spots than are available in other provinces. It can be hard to get one right near where you live, but hardly anyone fails to find one. We found a brilliant daycare practically at the last minute, though we were disappointed to have to drive there (in 10 minutes). And it’s cheap. Could the system be better? Sure. Is it better than having to fight and read tea leaves in Toronto for 10 times the price? Hell yes.

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