No one to vote for

Margaret Somerville
Originally published as: "No one to vote for"
The Ottawa Citizen, September 12, 2008
© Margaret Somerville
Reproduced with Permission

Values always matter in politics. In representative democracies such as Canada, we vote for people who we believe share our values. But what if, when the rubber hits the road, our MPs act contrary to our -- and what we thought were their -- values on an issue we think is of primary importance? And what if they do that in order to get an "embarrassing issue" off the political agenda and placate a vocal minority prior to an election call?

To name just two recent examples: the legalization of same-sex marriage prior to a federal election when a Liberal minority government was in power; and the "attempted murder" of Conservative MP Ken Epp's Unborn Victims of Crime bill (Bill C-484) by the minority Conservative government to get abortion off the agenda prior to the election call.

So, who do we vote for when no one represents our values? Should we just not vote? What do these situations tell us about the "democratic deficit?" What if a majority of Canadians can't find an MP who shares and will reliably uphold their values? First, we need to understand the changes in our societies and values that have caused these situations to arise.

One is the increasing political influence of identity-based social movements, which seem to have convinced politicians that to act contrary to their movements' values is certain to cause them to lose votes and possibly the election. It's important to understand the strategies these movements use to have their values prevail in the political public square.

In the case of same-sex marriage, gay rights advocates convinced politicians that there were only two choices: one was either for same-sex marriage and against discrimination against homosexuals; or one was against same-sex marriage and for discrimination against gay people. Given that choice, the majority of politicians chose same-sex marriage. The possibility of being against discrimination against gay people and against same-sex marriage was eliminated.

The same strategy has now been used by pro-choice advocates in relation to abortion and Bill C-484: They argued that one is either for respect for women and their rights and against Bill C-484; or one is for Bill C-484 and against respect for women and their rights. Even Conservative politicians -- such as justice minister Rob Nicholson, who torpedoed Bill C-484 by proposing alternative legislation approved by pro-choice advocates -- seem to have bought their argument. The possibility of being for respect for women and their rights and for Bill C-484 (which in fact would have enshrined the right of a woman who wanted to give birth to the baby she was carrying and would not have affected access to abortion) was eliminated.

Many scholars and public thinkers are speaking of movements which are affecting the political process, such as the pro-choice and gay lobbies, as "third spaces." They include the NGOs, and grass-roots advocacy and civil society groups, created outside established national and international institutions, that are emerging as a result of the changes wrought by an interconnected, interdependent world. As we are seeing in Canada, these will affect our values; who the "we" who share those values are; and what kinds of political processes we need.

We can no longer assume, as we could in the past when we lived in small, largely homogenous societies, that all our politicians, no matter to which political party they belonged, largely shared our most fundamental values. We now belong in different socio-ethical-values camps that create borders and manifest deep divides between us. These divides are sometimes referred to as "culture wars" -- battles as to which values will prevail as the societal norms.

Where possible, however, we must try to cross those divides. One strategy is to start from agreement and move to our disagreements. That sets a different tone to our debates than focusing only on our disagreements. It helps to emphasize what we have in common and allows us to have an experience of belonging to the same moral community. When we simply took that commonality for granted, we could afford the luxury of focusing just on our disagreements, but this is no longer our situation. The old divides and the dichotomies they reflected, between, for example, liberal and conservative political ideologies, no longer accurately reflect our values differences. For a start, fiscal (economic) conservatives can be social-values liberals, and social-values conservatives fiscal liberals. But our values differences are much more complex and varied than that. And much more complex and varied than in the past.

In the case of abortion, an either/or approach -- for instance, we are against any law at all on abortion or we are for the legal prohibition of all abortions -- fails to accommodate the complexity of Canadians' views on abortion: The prime minister was right when he said that "abortion is a complex issue," especially in the political public square. But neither our law nor most of our politicians' statements manifest that reality.

Importantly, to deal with complexity ethically means the media need to stop reducing values issues, such as abortion, to black and white stances, as they do when they require a simple "yes" or "no" answer to the question, "Are you for or against abortion?"

Who bonds with whom and how people bond to form a group with shared values -- a "we" -- is also fundamentally different from the past.

First, who the "we" are with respect to one values issue can differ radically from who the "we" are with respect to a different issue.

Take surrogate motherhood: Strong feminists and conservative Christians both agree it is unethical -- that is, they are a "we" on this issue on the basis that surrogate motherhood demeans women. As well, Christians believe it demeans human reproduction and contravenes the rights of the child. But these groups are diametrically opposed on abortion: Feminists give priority to women's right to control their bodies; conservative Christians to an unborn child's right to life.

Pollster Michael Adams, from Environics, speaks of "values tribes" forming around shared values. He notes that, unlike in the past, modern communications technology, education, travel and mobility mean people are as likely to have fellow tribe members anywhere in the world as they are in their immediate neighbourhoods. The 13 tribes he identifies differ from each other in regard to their attitudes to tradition (institutional authority) as compared with individuality, and the degree to which a person's decision making is inner-determined (autonomy), as compared with other-directed (pleasing others). Moreover, bonding is fluid for young adults whether they are "open cosmopolitans" or "continental conservatives."

Frank Graves of Ekos Research, an Ottawa polling firm, describes "open cosmopolitans" as "younger Canadians extremely receptive to diversity, immigration and the external world, who are relatively disconnected from government and politics and see themselves as post-nationalists." He found them overrepresented in Generation X (30 to 40 year olds). In contrast, "continental conservatives" are young people who are "strong supporters of the War on Terror and North American integration. They are very comfortable with the current national direction, particularly the mission in Afghanistan." They were overrepresented in Generation Y (20 to 30 year olds).

This fluidity in relation to values and bonding means it is no longer possible to group people into neat, clearly demarcated "values camps" or to label them on a permanent basis.

In a political context, one cause of this fluidity in bonding is that no one politician or political party offers a "values package" which each of us, as voters, can agree with in its entirety. That means we have to choose our most important value, hope we can find a candidate to vote for who will support that, and hold our nose about the values we disagree with. Voting for a person rather than a party, as in the past, can mean abandoning our traditional political loyalties.

All of which means, as pollsters have told us in relation to recent elections, that there are many undecided voters up until the last minute and that makes election outcomes very difficult to predict.

To conclude, there are no simple or easy answers to the changes and challenges I describe, except, from an ethics point of view, to say we need integrity, honesty, authenticity and ethics on the part of our politicians in being clear with us which values they support, even if that means losing votes. But, if that is not what we get, we must ask ourselves, "Who is responsible for politicians' responses?" and engage in some serious self-examination before answering.