2016 has been an unsettling year. It feels, in some ways, like the first act in a Shakespearean tragedy—the part where the quiet lives of peasants are about to be turned over by an invading horde. We sense that trouble is brewing, yet we are helpless to do anything but wait for the storm to arrive. We know, because we’ve read Shakespeare, that by act three there will be a resolution of sorts. But by then there is certain to be a lot of needless pain and pointless suffering along the way. We know, too, the moral of the story is that we are, at least in part, complicit with the harm inflicted because we were too apathetic or preoccupied to alter the chain of events when it was still in our power to do so.
Forty-one per cent of eligible voters didn’t vote in the U.S. presidential election in November. That’s 90 million eligible American voters who did not cast a vote. By comparison, just 61 million voters made Donald Trump their president for the next four years. The world must now grapple with the apathy of a nation.
Before taking office, Trump is already sparring recklessly with China—a nation prone to taking offence and retaliating with the ferocity of a scorned suitor, a nation used to viewing its own manifest destiny in majestic struggles and sacrifice and measured in centuries.
Furthermore, Trump is choosing, for the moment, not to notice Russia’s increasing role in destabilizing Europe. He may believe an unravelling of the continent is good for the U.S.— good for American jobs and business. It isn’t, but facts and reasoned arguments haven’t been defining characteristics of the presidentelect’s decision-making so far.
Perhaps we humans are wired to do this— to unearth conflict, to dwell on grievances, to cause pain for its own sake. Or to wallow in existential angst—to worry about the state of the Blue Jays bullpen, the kid’s grades or whether the roof will endure another winter.
Perhaps it is inevitable that we feel motivated to participate in government only when we feel threatened by externalities like invading hordes.
In Canada, we are scarcely better participants in democracy. Sixty-eight per cent voted in the federal election in 2015. That was up significantly from the previous five elections in which an average of just 61 per cent of the electorate voted. It is surely the case, however, that the spike in participation was aimed at removing an unpopular Prime Minister rather than installing a fresh set of ideas or policies.
Provincially, only about half of eligible voters cast a vote in 2014—just 48 per cent did the election before. Premiers Kathleen Wynne and Dalton McGuinty have presided over a government that has driven Ontario’s debt to more than $300 billion. It was less than half this size—$130 billion—when the Liberals came to power in 2003. Wynne says she mourns the growing economic divide between rural and urban Ontario—while at the same time her government closes 600 schools in communities where the school is the community. While building out useless industrial wind turbine projects and saddling rural consumers and businesses with unmanageable electricity bills.
Who do we blame when we don’t participate?
The malaise is worse still at the municipal level. In 2010, Prince Edward County voters were asked, by way of a question on the municipal election ballot, if they wanted to review the size of council. Though widely spun before and since, the question was generally seen as a referendum on the status quo. Eighty-one per cent voted to review the size of council. But alas, just 41 percent of eligible electors came out to vote in that election, so council was permitted to ignore the will of the people. And it did. For as long as it could.
Eventually it haggled a while before deciding the size was just fine. But when it was pointed out council would likely lose an Ontario Municipal Board (OMB) appeal, it hastily cobbled together a compromise—dropping two council members, one from Bloomfield another from Sophiasburgh. In doing so, Council skipped hurriedly over its own evaluation process and criteria.
As a consequence, the County is in even greater jeopardy of losing an OMB appeal in March. council has prepared itself by setting aside $125,000 of taxpayer funds to fight—what many view as—the will of voters.
Had just 1,000 more eligible voters cast a ballot in 2010, we might have avoided the tiresome wrangling and divisiveness that has defined this issue since then—and seems destined to do for years to come. Should the OMB rule against the council this spring, it will most likely send the matter back to Shire Hall with instructions to fix it once and for all, using the criteria and method it had already established. It seems a good bet council will take this direction, confound itself again and punt the issue to the next term of council— to begin all over again.
Whatever comes next, we have only ourselves to blame. As Joseph de Maistre observed more than two centuries ago, “every nation gets the government it deserves.”
We have always had the power to change the course of history—we just had better things to do that day. Let us resolve to do better in 2017.