Electoral Structures and Media Narratives

In an abstract academic sense, I’m fascinated by the election process in the US (in a human sense, I’m horrified and depressed by it, so I suspect that the academic distance aspect is a defense mechanism). Leading up to the Ontario election, I realized how the whole show seemed somewhat diminished to me. Part of that, I think, is simply the way we tend to think of “bigger” as “more important”, meaning that national elections manage to capture the imagination more than provincial ones, even though most of the issues that affect our lives most directly (health care, education, welfare) are within the provincial jurisdiction. I remember finding myself taken aback, however, to actually recognize that there was far more attention being paid–even considering the proportional populations–to the US presidential election, which is still over a year from taking place, than there was to a local election even weeks before the event.

A question an American friend asked recently about the workings of the British electoral system got me wondering about a couple of things. First, I’m not sure just how unfamiliar most Americans are with parliamentary structures and elections, so trying to explain the system often forces me to recognize just how different it actually is from the US version, because I try to really get at the basics, including the kinds of things I completely take for granted. And then in turn I question whether the system itself, not just our relatively small population and world relevance, makes it a hell of a lot more difficult to construct these sweeping narratives of heroism or falling from grace. There are certainly cultural elements at work, but I’m wondering about the chicken-or-egg aspects of those cultural ideals as well. It’s getting to be more and more the case that people vote because they believe in and trust certain parties (and by extension, party leaders) rather than individual candidates in local ridings, but the system is premised on a much more localized, bottom-up model. It’s tough to create mythologies of lone heroism, of individual leaders who single-handedly steer the country through major challenges, with that kind of political basis.

I’m not saying there’s no space for leadership, and we certainly have a couple of historical larger-than-life figures (Trudeau comes immediately to mind), but for the most part, we seem to see movements and events as almost autonomous cultural forces. Preston Manning was among the major driving forces behind the creation of the current political right-wing in Canada, and he actually was quite visionary about it, but the way we talk about it has a great deal more to do with “Western alienation” as a concept. I suspect if the US actually assumes any kind of universal health care model, the name of the president who pushes it through will be etched in the memories of the American public and, by extension, the world, ignoring the multitudes of politicians and activists who have been laying the foundation for decades. I couldn’t tell you how many people I’ve spoken to who don’t recognize the name “Tommy Douglas” even after he was selected as CBC’s “Greatest Canadian” (and, incidentally, after I’ve in the process discovered that he was Kiefer Sutherland’s grandfather).

We’ve had a female prime minister. For about twenty minutes, granted, but the process by which she became PM–getting the leadership of the Conservative party when Brian Mulroney retired while in office–is inherently way less dramatic than what’s happening with Hillary Clinton right now (whether she manages to win even the nomination or not). Maybe it would have been different if Campbell had been chosen in a situation in which it wasn’t already apparent that the party was going to be decimated in the election no matter how she ran her campaign, but I can’t imagine it would have been quite like this.

I’m kind of tossing a bunch of ideas together here, and I don’t really have a good way to wrap it up. Sometimes I forget I’m Canadian, so much does the American process consume me via the blogs I read/TV I watch, and sometimes that becomes incredibly disempowering, but having this basic outside-looking-in perspective is admittedly kind of fun at times.

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5 thoughts on “Electoral Structures and Media Narratives

  1. BetaCandy says:

    Oy. Well, I’d say we’re incredibly unfamiliar with the British system. I went to a decent public school, and I am just SO confused trying to follow it.

    Then again, in Election 2000, we found out that the vast majority of Americans had no idea you don’t directly vote for president. You cast a vote, and your district makes an attempt to count them somewhat accurately, and then supposedly your electorate person has to cast the vote your district went for. I’m not clear on whether there are any checks to make sure this happens.

    One of the most irritating memes we have in this country is, “Every vote counts.” They don’t. I’m not saying people should or shouldn’t vote – I’m just saying you should rethink how much your vote really matters, and realize the people who really win this country don’t vote – they steer the campaigns, and then buy favors from whoever ends up in that seat. It doesn’t matter – they’re almost all for sale.

  2. purtek says:

    I hope you don’t think I’m trying to knock anyone for not knowing the systems here/in other parliamentary countries. I certainly don’t fully understand the American system (or, say, the British one and how some more nuanced differences apply). I was more looking at it as a springboard for comparing the additional cultural differences and looking at why they happen.

    It’s interesting to consider the way the structures within which we cast our votes affect the way we think about voting and the electoral process. This idea of “every vote counts” was a hugely prominent part of the recent provincial election, because there was a referendum on the idea of changing the entire electoral structure in favour of one that is designed to make every vote count in much more substantive ways. It didn’t pass, partially because nobody knew what the hell the question was about when they saw it on their ballots. In the same way as happens in the US, however (from what I can tell), our sense is that we’re being misled and head-patted when we’re told that “every vote counts”, which leads to ridiculously low voter turnouts and jadedness.

    And so again, I become curious about the idea that few people really stop to consider many of the absolute *basics* of the voting structure/election process and how it affects the outcome (even long before getting at issues like the 2000 Supreme Court decision, or Diebold, or whatever else).

  3. BetaCandy says:

    I didn’t think you were knocking anyone – in fact, I have no idea why I left that comment! 😀

    I just finished watching a British mini-series about an ordinary woman who becomes Prime Minister. She kept talking about how politics is made out to be “above our heads”, something you need a degree to understand. And so voters feel shut out of the overall political process, and think all they can do is vote, and that not very well given how poorly the issues are explained and how untrustworthy all the candidates are.

    That definitely translated just fine to me as an American. Government should not be so incredibly complex that a reasonably intelligent person with common sense, dedication and organizational skills would be incapable of becoming a head of state.

  4. purtek says:

    Government should not be so incredibly complex that a reasonably intelligent person with common sense, dedication and organizational skills would be incapable of becoming a head of state.

    That’s crazy talk! 🙂

    Occasionally, this kind of idea strikes the fancy of whoever is writing the media scripts (or at least, some level of the “regular Joe” narrative does), but in general, the point is regular Joe is going to have to learn both the *actual* practical complexities and the inherited cultural complexities of politics, those that are de facto assumed to be immutable.

    Talking about politics with people who don’t actually participate in politics reveals an insane level of cynicism. And *I*, as a feminist, am the one who is far more likely to be dismissed as “angry”. Angry, but also silly and naive for being hopeful.

    Another happy rock right next to another cheerful hard place.

  5. […] day and hadn’t already scheduled in the time to go and check off a ballot. I’ve written about this Canadian political boredom before, but I’m still shocked at how deep it runs right […]

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