Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Democracy from the Bottom-Up

People get motivated to get involved in politics for a multitude of different reasons. However the scope and scale of the issues that attract some to engage in the democratic process may shape how those citizens feel about the effectiveness of their participation. Perhaps the “big issues” which garner so much attention, and federal politics more generally, is really the worst way to engage citizens.

Back in school I remember being taught about S.M.A.R.T. goals – goals that are Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Reasonable and Timely. The acronym varies slightly, but the point is the same. Are the goals that you set for yourself actually achievable or overly ambitious, or amorphous? Getting involved in politics is a similar process, especially when attracted by an issue. Countless politicians become engaged because they took part in some issue and this helped them to become a community leader. Normally these issues are concrete and locally-oriented. So many national and international issues of importance are not. An activist motivated to do something about Russian intervention in the Ukraine or poverty is unlikely to create real change. The problem is too big, or not specific, realistic or timely.

It’s easy to imagine how idealistic people with a hunger to tackle the “big” problems feel so disempowered and disengaged from the world of government, policy and politics. Media naturally focuses on broad issues of a federal nature and overlooks more local problems, but the truth is citizens have far more power to change local issues than international or national ones.

Dave Meslin, a Toronto-based activist, highlights this issue quite concretely. He has run many campaigns that have had a tangible impact on the life of local people with immediate results. Neighbourhood improvement through guerrilla gardening or tearing down fences has immediate improvements that campaigning for an abstract solution simply does not. But Meslin’s success has been translated into larger political successes, like the push for ranked-ballots in Toronto, which is currently before the provincial legislature. If it succeeds it will be the most important victory for electoral reform in decades in Canada. Change was much easier by focusing on the small-scale democracy of the city rather than contending with a national political system.

Sometimes it is about winning small victories in a big cause. The various issues confronting Aboriginal communities in Canada can feel overwhelming. By addressing smaller aspects of the problem activists may be more likely to get results instead of tackling the overall issue. Gary Meratsy (LPC – Desneth√©-Missinippi-Churchill River, SK) wanted to serve his First Nation constituents. He focused on the issue of residential schools and according to Tragedy in the Commons was instrumental in getting the federal government to apologize. Meratsy did not solve the crisis facing Aboriginal communities but he did a great deal of good.


Perhaps the greatest crime of our politics is that it makes people feel powerless. We are governed, we are not governing. Citizens may find greater comfort in confronting smaller, more local and concrete issues in their lives rather than the abstract ones that dominate headlines. Democracy at its core needs to be centred on the community; with reengagement on that level I hope that a trickle-up effect may improve our civic life elsewhere.  

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