Democracy is not a universal remedy. It doesn’t solve everything. It can even go seriously adrift when, for example, a large group of people who has decision-making power does not have all of the information required to effectively understand the stakes involved and make an enlightened choice. Besides, we also need to recognize that human beings being how they are, even a well informed majority may commit to a completely unfair or unreasonable decision. This is why, in the words of the inimitable Winston Churchill “democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried?”
Nonetheless. During the recent Québec election in December 2008, several people spoke out against the pervading attitude of indifference regarding one’s duty to vote. “A catastrophe!”, proclaimed the chief electoral officer. Absolutely, with the rate of participation at a lowly 57.3%, there was nothing to be proud about. If this is an indication of the health of democracy, we’ve become incredibly blasé! And so it goes, almost half of all Québeckers old enough to vote stayed home instead of exercising their democratic right; a right for which thousands of people from countries all over the world still fight for everyday.
Apart from the bad weather, a change in the political culture could explain this lack of participation in the democratic process. In the old days, voting was perceived as one’s civic duty. In fact, that’s exactly what they taught us in school. But that was when almost everything was perceived as an ‘obligation’: homework, religious obligations, civic duty and let’s not forget conjugal duties! Nowadays, duty and obligation are no longer fashionable. What interests us today is our ‘rights’. This slippery slide has reduced voting to only one of many ways available to us or, in other words, as another right of recourse to be used as needed.
Another theory set forth to explain the low voter turnout is: people no longer believe that their vote can make a difference. We criticize, sometimes even quite cynically, the average citizen’s helplessness in the face of the huge political machine. In fact, I recently read the following in an Internet discussion forum: “Dictatorship is: Shut up. Democracy is: Talk, talk, talk!”
The reason I am talking about this is that February, for our network, is a time to focus on the democratic process, a time filled with a multitude of general meetings taking place all over the province. Still, our meetings are far from being overcrowded. From one year to the next we can expect a participation rate anywhere from 12% to 20%. Are we just as blasé? Have we lost our sense of duty and replaced it with a sense of inherent ‘rights’? It’s a well-known fact that our general meetings attract a lot of people… when business is bad. Members then feel a pressing need to exercise their rights and have their say.
Rights and duties. Privilege and responsibility. Two sides of one medal. But doesn’t one come before the other? Duty and responsibility, do they not bestow a purpose to our actions ahead of any rights or privilege enjoyed from their outcome? Can we truly rejoice in an accomplishment for which we are not responsible? Can we criticize a failure when we did nothing to prevent it? The working world has long been aware that assigning responsibilities to employees provides them with a significant source of motivation; it also provides them with an opportunity to be fulfilled. Similarly, could it not be said that to relinquish our duty to take part in the democratic process is to miss an opportunity to feed our sense of personal fulfillment?
Consider this an invitation to attend your annual meeting. Take the time to find out what’s going on in your world. See what’s becoming of your cooperative. Come and meet your neighbours who are getting farther and farther away. Not interested in voting? That’s okay! We enjoy hearing from you and listening to what you have to say. Come… we’ll talk, simply!