Friday, July 15, 2005

Voter alienation and consumer sovereignty

Andrew Potter weighs in with an interesting perspective on voter alienation in a recent article in the Toronto Star.

Consider last summer's federal election. It was the most competitive in 15 years, but the substantial issues were overshadowed by the standard litany of grievances from the "alienated voter" corner of the room. This was the refrain: "there is no real difference between the political parties," "none of the parties speaks to me/reaches out to me/represents my views," "politicians always change their minds/never do what they say they will do," "my vote doesn't really matter anyway."

Yet one could argue that the disaffection of these supposedly "alienated" voters is a product of their having internalized the ideology of consumer sovereignty. They have confused the norms and expectations that govern the political arena with those that govern the marketplace. Fundamentally, what they dislike about politics is that it isn't more like shopping. When you go to the mall, obsequious salespeople will trip over themselves to find a product that is perfectly suited to your own particular needs and desires. We have become so accustomed to this sort of highly individualized service that some people, particularly the young, are tempted to wonder why their politicians can't be more like their favourite brands.

The problem is that in a democratic society, we seek to govern ourselves by consensus and agreement. This means political parties are necessarily charged with the task of creating platforms that reconcile, in some way, the opinions of millions of individual citizens. In a pluralistic and multicultural country, it is hardly surprising to find that there is very little overlap in these views. Thus, what political parties wind up presenting, in the way of a platform, cannot possibly be tailored to fit each individual's personal predilections. That's simply not how democratic politics works.

Potter is co-author of The Rebel Sell: Why the Culture Can't Be Jammed. The book just came out in paperback and is one of the first on my cottage reading list.

You can catch more of Potter's insights at the This Magazine Blog, where he is a regular contributor. Potter provides some welcome balance to the dominant leftish perspective of the other contributors to the blog.