Democracy has a critical weakness. Its success depends on active participation by its members. When apathy rules amongst the proletariat masses, democracy boils down to oligarchy. Tell that to the average Joe and he’ll shrug his shoulders, take another swig of beer, and ask, “So what?” As frustrating as that response can be for those of us that care about democratic process and social justice, it’s not all that surprising that most people just don’t give a hoot. In 2011, CBC reported that nearly 40% of Canadians didn’t bother to cast a vote in the federal election – an election that would determine the leadership of the country. Admittedly it is hard to pinpoint the cause of low voter turnout. Apathy might be to blame, but cynicism is almost certainly a contributing factor.
South of the border, the California Voter Foundation conducted a poll in an attempt to understand the phenomenon. They asked eligible voters why they had not cast a ballot. 24% of respondents cited being “too busy” as their reason for not voting. There are lots of other reasons people give for not voting. Not being sufficiently informed on the candidates’ policies, dislike of the choices, disbelief that their vote really counts: these are all reasons to stay home.
It may be unfair to say that people just don’t care. When asked about the importance of voting nearly 98% of people living in democracies will agree that voter participation is crucial. However, those sentiments dissipate like a fart in the wind when it comes time for voters to act on their convictions.
The problem of apathy goes well beyond the voting booths. Apathy exists in high levels on nearly every topic of social justice and policy. If you ask people about the environment, homelessness, health care or education, most will say they care about the issues. Unfortunately, the general public is woefully uninformed about existing governmental policies aiming to address these issues. Can we ever expect people to care about issues they know little or nothing about? We need only go ‘Jay Walking’ to see how little the general public knows about anything other than pop culture and consumerism. Canadians like to think of themselves informed and socially – if not politically – active, but the truth is Canadians are about as apathetic as many Americans. Again, so what?
Regrettably, the apathetic public unknowingly cedes control over its own destiny by abdicating its responsibilities to those who may not have their best interests at heart. The average Joe might be unconcerned about the political and social system in which he lives, but it would be foolish to assume the safety of letting others make decisions for him. Where the public cedes control, corporations and other special interest groups step in. No doubt, apathy is a known commodity – and a valuable one at that – for the parties interested in deciding the rules of the game.
The adage, ‘you get the government you deserve’, may be truer today than at any time before. At a time when lobbyists and powerful corporate concerns influence government like never before, it is vital for citizens to remember their responsibility to themselves and future generations. That responsibility includes active participation in society, not merely as a consumer, but as an active citizen. Living in a democracy comes with the duty of contribution and involvement. The power to impose policy cannot, and should not, be ceded to a select few. Lethargy is poison to democracy; it pollutes the lifeblood of self-determinacy. But you don’t care, right? No problem; there are a few that do. They’ll be deciding your future. Will you let them?