Henry Ford is infamously quoted as saying: “Any customer can have a car painted any color he wants, so long as it is black.”
Thankfully, since that time, customer service has grown immeasurably. In most aspects of our lives as consumers we are presented a multitude of options tailored to our means, pragmatic concerns and aesthetic preferences. And those presenting us with the options are often tripping over themselves to try to make us ‘happy’.
Politics is different. And, scores of citizens have chosen to disengage. As Samara’s research has suggested, many of those who have chosen to stand on the side lines feel politics and politicians are not meeting either their needs or desires, whether reasonable or not. Samara’s new research project – ‘By Invitation Only’ – goes even further highlighting an important disjuncture: more than half of Canadians surveyed said political parties’ top priority should be “reaching out to Canadians,” but then gave parties a failing grade for their actual performance in this regard. Further, even 61 per cent of party members agreed “candidates and political parties are interested only in people’s votes, not their opinions.”
On the face of it, these results are quite disconcerting. Citizens are clearly deeply disaffected when it comes to parties, which play a central role in our democratic system. But more fundamentally, the dissatisfaction that Samara’s most recent report likely exposes is a flawed understanding on the part of citizens: parties don’t exist to do our bidding.
Political parties don’t exist to serve the public interest, per se. They are better thought of as a special kind of interest group: private legal entities that bring together like-minded – or at least partially like-minded – individuals into an organization united by a shared ideology to seek political power in order to advance their common interests. In doing so parties, at least in theory, offer voters sharp divides that highlight their divergent perspectives on issues and possible approaches to them for their consideration.
Yes, there is, of course, a balance to be struck by parties between focusing squarely on advancing their agendas and keeping an ‘ear to the ground’ to make sure they remain relevant and are able to secure enough support to gain power. But, citizens should not expect the same kind of enthusiastic efforts to seek out, and respond to, all their preferences that they are used to receiving as consumers. If parties made it their work to do this, they would be nearly indistinguishable from one another, reduced to staking out bland, ambiguous positions as they try to harmonize a range of divergent beliefs. This would diminish the essential dynamic of public accountability in our democratic system – the institutionalized adversarialism of partisan politics that the entire parliamentary process is predicated on.
The reality is that political parties aren’t just campaigning to win votes; they are trying to win votes that reflect an often narrow range of particular preferences. There is a growing understanding of how the techniques of marketing are being applied to electoral politics. Paul Wells’ Right Side Up provided a digestible, yet detailed account of how the Conservative Party of Canada cleverly micro-targeted niche groups of voters, and marketed elements of their platforms to these groups in the 2006 election campaign. Susan Delacourt’s Shopping for Votes sets these marketing techniques in a broader context, looking at how they’ve evolved how their use has expanded. She examines in detail how these approaches have transformed democracy into a much more transactional endeavor, where parties play to likely voters based on preferences rather than engaging them in more high-minded policy debates that actually address the paradoxes and conundrums of the day. Both books are essential reading for those who want to understand contemporary Canadian politics.
Citizens need a reawakening of sorts. Voter turnout is consistently abysmal, even when not setting records for all-time lows. Only 11 per cent of Canadians have ever been members of a federal party in the last ten years; further, only about 2 per cent of Canadians are currently party members. There is often little consequence for parties not following through and delivering on the marketed messages that they use to gain support. This tangibly adds to the sense that citizens have few choices, which many of them cite in justifying their decision not to vote, join political parties or otherwise participate in democratic process.
But this has it wrong. Citizens have been complacent long enough. They need to realize not only that they hold power, but that they must be thoughtful ‘consumers’ in choosing to undertake the hard work necessary to exercise this power and actively shape the choices available to them. It’s time they live up to the responsibilities democracy bestows upon them. Joining a political party is likely the most radical political act a citizen can undertake today. Otherwise, the line-up for your black car starts over there.
Mark D. Jarvis is a doctoral candidate at the University of Victoria. His book, Democratizing the Constitution: Reforming Responsible Government, co-authored with Lori Turnbull and the late Peter Aucoin, was awarded both the Donner and Smiley book prizes.