Sunday, October 24, 2010

The Personal Is Political - Please Vote

We are well into the political season, gearing up to vote in a short number of days. By now, we are exhausted and probably disgusted by the negative ads and vacuous campaign rhetoric. No matter the collective cynicism we hold now for politics and politicians, please remember to vote. I can’t, and each election cycle that passes me by reminds me of how much I value the opportunity.

My first opportunity to vote was in the 1995 Quebec Referendum. I had just turned 18 that summer. Obviously, I was on the “No” side, the side that was not in favor of Quebec separating. I say obviously for a few reasons. The most important was that my mother’s family is from the same small Quebec town as the then-Prime Minister, Jean Chretien. My great-grandmother taught him English. My grandfather employed some of his younger sibling in his store. He was a hometown hero for our family, and thus there was never any question as to which way I would vote when the time came.

I was at the Unity Rally in downtown Montreal with tens of thousands of other Canadians who had come to show Quebec that they were loved. Three days later, on October 30, we voted. We watched all night as the numbers fluctuated between “Yes” and “No” being in the lead. In the end, Quebec remained a part of Canada by the slimmest of margins, a couple of thousand votes. Voter turnout was over 90%. Our votes, my vote, had clearly made a difference.

I was naïve then. The Unity Rally was a huge point of contention, with major corporations basically giving plane, train, and bus tickets away so people would attend. A large number of ballots in certain ridings were deemed spoiled, ridings where the “No” side was in the lead. Jean Chretien was implicated in what became known as the Sponsorship Scandal, directing huge amounts of Federal money to his supporters and inner-circle members, in the name of unity. Some in the rest of Canada were fed up with Quebec monopolizing federal politics and opposition parties from the Western provinces began to gain real strength; in 1997, the Reform Party became the Official Opposition in Parliament.

The real eye-opening experience for me, however, came a year later when I left to attend a French university in Quebec. Most of my classmates were “sovereignists,” or in favor of Quebec’s independence from Canada. Politics is as much about vilifying the opposing side, and while we were all burnt out from the previous year’s battle and avoided politics as much as possible, it was important that we met, became friends, and earned each other’s respect.  I’ll admit that I had never met and gotten to know a “real” separatist, while many of them told me that I was the first English person they had ever really known. Gradually, the certainty of my “No” vote wasn’t as easy as it had once been.

None of this shook my belief in democracy. Nor did living in California whose state government has lurched to a standstill, unable to pass a budget. I had the privilege of working at an HBCU when President Obama was elected and saw the same feeling of pride and wonder on these young students’ faces, many of whom had voted for the first time. I saw a little of myself in them. It broke my heart to hear so many of them discouraged and disillusioned less than a year after the historic event.

The cynicism and “dirty” politics we witness today is not a reason to give up on democracy and voting, but a reason to invest more fully in the process. I wish I had known more than the simple rhetoric of separatist politics, or been able to see the larger implications of the debate. As a professor, I believe it is part of my job to teach critical thinking, civility, and tolerance to my students, to try and inoculate them against a debilitating feeling of futility. My idealism was shattered; in its place, I rebuilt something much more meaningful and valuable.

I just can’t do anything about it.  Go out and vote.


  1. While you're calling on people to vote, it sounds more like you've made more of a difference from engaging in dialog with those with whom you disagree than from casting ballots. Both the American left and right could profit from that example, especially as each has something to teach the other.

    For example, the left is correct to be concerned about disparities of power among different populations, and the right is correct that the current trend of fiscal irresponsibility (from both major parties!) will cause far more harm than good in the long term.

    Maybe if there was more talking and less shouting, more Americans would come to see that?

  2. Ah, you got the other message of my post. It's so easy to get caught up in the rhetoric and other, ahem, crap. I always have my students read about propaganda and talk about the political propaganda that is out there. And I always remember my own experience with it, too.

    Thanks for noticing.

  3. About Quebec politics:
    Respect is key. And while the situation can get quite tense, here in Qc, and there's a lot of "exclusive respect" ("I'll only respect you if you agree with me"), the Quebec tendency to leave many things unsaid isn't about disrespect. Perhaps more than in the context of political lateralization in the United States, it's possible for us to truly respect someone on the other side of fence in terms of nationalisms (Canadian and Québécois).
    The price of it, though, is that we probably remain entangled in the same issues, after a few decades.
    (By the way, apart from the sponsorship scandal, the arrival of busloads of Canadians was perceived by some Québécois as «ingérence» and motivated at least some people to vote in favour of sovereignty.)

    Democratic duty:
    Voting is an interesting activity. In the most appropriate mindset, it "feels" right, regardless of outcome. Regardless of cynicism.
    In fact, with disenfranchisement, voter apathy, quirks of representative democracy, and even perceived similarities between candidates, voting could be considered overrated. Which doesn't mean that it shouldn't be done. Even someone who distrusts "checkbox democracy" can benefit from the good feeling from voting. Sounds absurd, but it works
    What might work better, though, is preparation for the transition toward participatory democracy. Not that it's necessarily a superior form of democracy. But it does sound like an intriguing alternative for those people who want to keep the "feel-good" dimension of voting despite growing cynicism.

    Get out to vote and, on the way back from the polling station, strike conversations with people with diverse opinions. After doing your democratic duty, you might as well have democratic pleasure.


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