By: Dr. Brett Salkeld
Like many other Canadians, I tried to impose my values on the rest of us on Monday, October 21 by voting. We are often told, of course, that we should not try to impose our values on others in a pluralist democracy. But that is nonsense. Voting simply is imposing your values on others. Anyone who chooses either not to vote or to not vote their own values simply lets others impose their values unopposed.
There does seem, however, to be one surefire way to prevent people from imposing their values when voting: make sure that no party actually represents those values!
That seems to me the situation for so many Canadians, and Catholics in particular. The national consensus – among everyone except the parties themselves, who promptly doubled-down on their respective ideologies during the most bizarre set of leader’s speeches in memory – seems to be that we didn’t want to vote for any of the above.
What to do?
The first thing to recognize is that a vote is a blunt instrument. Unless you are one of a small minority of Canadians who could enthusiastically back a given party and platform all the way (and, to be frank, I don’t see how any serious Catholic could count themselves in that minority) your vote did not communicate what it looks like to parties and pollsters. A vote seems to say, “I want this person and their party to govern and their platform to be implemented.” In a lot of cases what it actually says is, “I wish I had better options, but at least this vote will try to stop something even worse than what I feel cornered into voting for.”
Here’s the deal: your vote means something approaching zilch if you do not tell people, especially those people who want your vote next time around, what you meant by it. And you need to tell them in a way that lets them know your vote is up for grabs. If someone comes looking for your vote and you simply tell them you plan to vote for them or against them, most of the time you have just given that party permission to write you off or take you for granted. You have crippled your own influence.
If you want to make a difference, hold their feet to the fire. I have had several people come up to me and ask me who to vote for. I won’t tell others how to vote. But I do say, “Whoever you vote for, write them a letter and let them know why you voted for them, but also which policies or ideas or even behaviours of them or their party you do not approve of. Make them work to keep your vote. Push them to be better. And whoever would have been your second choice? Write them too, telling them why you didn’t vote for them and what they could have changed to get your vote.”
Think how Catholics could magnify the weight of their vote if everyone whose vote was a compromise (that should be all of us!) wrote those two letters. If you’re the type who is up for the stress of politics on social media, post them there and really magnify your influence.
This practice alone would go a long way towards generating better options the next time we go to the polls. But there are all kinds of other things we can do in between elections to improve the political climate and options in our country.
Perhaps the most obvious thing is to work through the political parties themselves. We need Catholics in all the major political parties working towards more Gospel centered policy on a whole range of issues. Certain issues, abortion probably foremost among them, will never be addressed adequately if they remain the purview of one party. If your response is, “But some parties won’t even allow pro-lifers in caucus,” that’s no excuse. That’s a starting point. That’s the first thing that needs to change. That’s where to put your resources.
But there is lots of important work that needs to be done outside party politics. In fact, one of the things our country clearly needs is to be able to work on key issues across party lines. This is immensely important. First of all, it humanizes those who disagree with you in a culture that too often works in the opposite direction. One clear result of the recent election is increased division. Find areas where you can work with those who come from very different points of view. Second, it actually builds the networks and connections, the social infrastructure, needed for a healthy society to achieve anything at all. If we can build that infrastructure up on areas of common concern, we have more social capital for dealing with more divisive questions. Third, it actively works against the public paralysis that an exclusive focus on party politics can engender.
I challenge you to think of where you can work across party lines with your neighbours. This is often most easily done at the local level. But I’ll suggest three national issues on which Catholics can easily make common cause with our neighbours no matter their other political commitments.
First, no one thinks human trafficking is a good thing. People may disagree about whether or not licensing sex work or banning it best achieves certain social goals, but no one thinks human trafficking is good. Let’s work with anyone and everyone to end this scourge. If enough vulnerable people who never wanted to work in the sex industry (i.e., virtually everyone working in the sex industry) were given a way out, the question of regulating or banning the industry itself becomes almost a moot point. No one wants to work there!
I am not saying that there are easy or simple solutions to complex problems. This will not be a quick fix. What I am saying is that there is no reason to let partisan politics or ideology slow us down on these questions. Let us be slowed down by the actual complexity of the situation, if necessary, but not by the need to disagree with those on the other side of the political spectrum or the partisan need to cripple their effectiveness or credibility. To do that is to make the vulnerable into tools for your own ideology.
Second, the living conditions on many of Canada’s reserves are a national shame. This is emblematized by, but not limited to, the question of clean drinking water. And, given how basic a need it is, water would be a great place to start. Catholics should, again, work with anyone and everyone on this question. This means, at minimum, pushing the government to act; but, especially with a minority government, it means pushing the opposition too. Canadians should be able to come together on this. And Catholic Canadians should be in the vanguard.
Third, let’s plant some trees. The debates about climate change and its relationship to the economy, especially the economy of the west, should not blind us to the fact that Canada is in a unique position to combat climate change. Debates over targets and taxes are not unimportant, but they have become quite hopelessly partisan. But is anyone against planting trees? Studies suggest that planting trees is the most efficient, most cost-effective way to reduce climate change and Canada is among a small handful of countries (along with places like China, Brazil, and Russia) with ample space for more trees. Planting trees sucks up carbon, creates jobs, increases natural habitat for many creatures, and produces a natural and renewable resource. It should be a no brainer.
So, write a couple of letters, work within your party, and work across party lines. And one more thing: attend to your formation as a Catholic. Our impact as Catholics is severely limited by the fact that we have allowed the political divisions in our secular political culture to replicate themselves in the Church. We spend more time and energy trying to convert our fellow Catholics to our political commitments than trying to imbue our political parties with Gospel values. This is in large part because our imaginations are formed by sources (secular and religious) that see the world through the distorting lenses of secular politics.
Do your best to see your politics through the eyes of the Gospel and not the other way around. This takes work. It means learning to recognize when our own political commitments are clouding our vision. We too often read, watch, and listen to material on the internet that just stokes the partisan fires. Do your best to find non-partisan, faithful Catholic sources to inform your conscience and your imagination and you will be increasing your capacity to impact our political culture. Spend all your time in our political culture, and you paradoxically lose your Catholic voice in it. To put it in biblical terms, don’t make politics an idol.
And pray. It is easy to be tempted to think that prayer is not particularly useful. It doesn’t seem to do anything. But prayer is actually the place where you can get enough perspective, by learning to see the situation as God sees it, to make anything you do worth doing. If you really want to be effective politically, step back from politics long enough to form your imagination in prayer and study. Only then will you be able to bring anything new to the table.
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