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Why we're frustrated by elections

'Can't we just hug it out?' suggests Philip Maher in this edition of Mercy Traveller
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As you might expect, I’ve been having a number of political discussions around town lately.

Elections are like visiting the dentist – they’re good for us, but we don’t like going. They seem to come around too often and they’re all too painful. I believe in the idea of democracy but the process seems to be getting more hurtful and frustrating.

Your response may be, “Hey grow-up, grasp democracy, lean in and double down.” Fair enough, but as a guy who has literally seen dead bodies floating down rivers or lying in the streets after political strife, I am mindful of how politics can go wrong. Hatred and discord can quickly turn into disruption or even violence. People are passionate about their beliefs. That’s understandable, but the spitefulness that so often follows turns into ideological shoot-outs. Social media is weaponized. We assassinate the character of good people and become overly cynical. We declare “All politicians are liars,” or “You can’t trust politicians.” I’ve sure felt that way on occasion myself. Sadly, it all feeds into a global, cynical narrative, that you just can’t trust anybody.

According to Elections Canada, voter turn out hovered around 70 per cent since confederation. That is until recently. The last five elections we’ve bounced between 58 and 68 per cent. That means during the most recent period, some 8 million Canadians of voting age did not vote. That is a decrease in participation as compared to the past 100 years. What is going on here?

Lately it seems we are less interested, too busy or just plain confused by elections. I can understand that. Those who celebrate democracy by voting seem increasingly frustrated with the process as well.

We are exasperated that each party has its own view of reality – most, only modestly synchronize with my own. The party in power always thinks they are doing a bang-up job, while the opposition tends to believe that another round will usher in the zombie apocalypse. The opposition screams, “Can we stand another four years of this guy?” while those in power are scaring us with, “Do you really want four years of this guy?”

We all have our political views and no doubt, a different government would approach things differently. I think it’s the meanness and fear-mongering I’m most uncomfortable with. I have known a few politicians before they where politicians. Frankly, they are nice folks with no hidden agenda to destroy the country. Yet without saying it, each party seems to portray the other as though they are lying in wait to destroy us all.

Campaigning has become a weekly promise of goodies. But, it seems a kind of vote buying or pork-barrel politics that reduces us to choosing the party that fills our pockets with the most candy. One party offers lemon drops, so another has to offer lemon-lime to remain competitive. We are addicted to these sweets. They feel like one-offs, created mid-campaign on-the-fly. Although we are in the middle of the campaign, each party is still unveiling its platform and in some cases with scant description of how the promise will be funded and even lacking details about said promise. Shouldn’t these critical details be exhaustively calculated before the election and available to us from the start? Is this the way to run a successful company? It feels like management by good idea.

There is a simple strategy—win! The details seem like an afterthought, avoided in order to get into power.

Furthermore, the winner assumes we agree with all of their policies. A few maybe, but most of us tend to vote for the party or leader we dislike the least. We actually may not like all of their policies.

I find many parts of the process to be very un-Canadian. Television debates are probably a necessary part of a modern democracy, but am I the only one who cannot bear to watch them? They feel like a family fight at the dinner table – I just want to leave the table and go hide until it is over. The political bullying is just too mean-spirited for me. Maybe I'd feel better if the moderator ended the debate with “Ok, hug it out everybody.” I’m sure after a raucous debate they could all use a good hug.

So yes, I am frustrated with the process too. However, in my opinion – and I may be in the minority here – I believe most politicians are good or at least they start out that way. That does not mean they don’t get caught in politics, which compels them to cajole, misdirect or even lie. It is not right, but it happens. It’s a contact sport. Yes, they drive me very, very, crazy. But my experience globally leads me to believe that we need to aim at having civil discourse during elections.

So let’s get out there and have some fact-based civilized arguments.