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Why don't we want to vote?

There has been a great deal written and even more spoken over the past months about why we don't vote, yet the answers are less likely to be found in current behaviours than they are in the subtleties of post-modern thinking.

We live in a consumer society; one in which the dominant although not exclusive trend is to assess the value the products we purchase and the activities we engage in by the benefits they bring to us as individuals.

This articulates itself in the reasons for low voter turnout that I hear in the course of my studies and travels across the country. The most frequent is that "I don't know if I'll vote because I don't agree with everything any of the candidates has to say" or, in other words, there is no single party or candidate that affirms us individually - at least not at the level required to inspire us to return the favour by going to the polls. When we don't see ourselves fully represented in the choices placed before us as consumers, we fail to see sufficient value in the exchange of goods or services and choose not to buy into or participate in the process.

Further degrading the value of this exchange is that the nature of our parliamentary democracy dictates that most of us will be dissatisfied with the outcome of any given election. With four or more candidates in each of our ridings or wards, the majority of us will typically not vote for the person, or party, who wins.

In fact, if current polls are any indication federally, at least 6 out of 10 Canadians will vote for a party or candidate other than the one that forms government Oct. 14. The vast majority of us are therefore asked to participate in a process in which we will - so long as we only value it in terms of the satisfaction we gain from it - feel as if we have "lost." Hence the popularity of reforms that would attribute seats in the House of Commons based on a percentage of popular vote, a process that would allow more of us to see "ourselves" reflected in the parliamentary pot pouris.

To a great extent, there is nothing particularly new about this. Canadian society has, however, always defined itself in terms of the balance of the tension between collective and individual rights, - the right of the majority to define the sort of community we will share versus the rights of each us individually to determine the course of our own lives.

There is little doubt that the baby boom's powerful cultural influence and desire to lead lives of self-affirmation has shifted the balance in favour of individualism. Rightly or wrongly, that was a driving force behind the installation and interpretation of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms that has made many changes in our society. All of this has consequently combined to reinforce the tendency to assess political and other behaviours in terms of the satisfaction it offers to us as individuals. Not only do we have a right to vote, growing numbers of us are inclined to feel entitled to see our individualism affirmed by the process.

This tendency to take a consumer approach to life is also reflected in other ways. The most common cause cited for irregular chuch attendance, for instance, is not lack of faith in God, it is the churches' inability to meet our individual needs. So, while we once went to church in order to serve and praise God, we are now more inclined to assess the value of church attendance based on the service it provides us.

We shouldn't be surprised that we would take the same approach to politics. It's not as if we don't believe in it anymore, it's just that we are more interested in what it can do for us than what we can do for it.

Having established a reputation for excellence in promoting the value of individual rights and freedoms, our leaders, media and educators may, if they value high levels of political engagement, consider also promoting the idea that with each right comes an obligation and with each freedom comes a responsibility.

That won't solve the entire issue of low voter turnout, but it's as good a place as any to begin.

Linked to Cardus' research project.

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