Democratic governance and that troublesome ‘deserve’ thing | #TOpoli #cdnpoli
In brief, his account suggests that Scarborough residents are feeling screwed. Again. They voted for Rob Ford because they thought, finally, that they’d get a mayor who would stop coddling the downtown elitists and start putting some of their tax dollars to work in their own neighbourhoods. We’ve all seen how well that’s worked out.
Nothing new there. But something one of the readers said has stuck with me. In the comment thread, Matthew Harper argues that Scarborough voters
I’m not singling Matthew out for criticism here, because God knows I’ve been pretty self-righteous about disengagement, laziness and shallow thinking. If Rob Ford merits our scorn and resistance for his ignorance, his vindictive immaturity, his simplistic thinking, and his uninformed, inchoate resentment, not to mention what he wants to do to our city, then so too do the people who voted for him. His campaign did a ruthlessly effective job of tapping into those toxic sentiments, but voters who bought into his bullshit and enabled him are just as blameworthy. So you think Rob Ford’s screwing up the city? Boo fucking hoo. Should have thought of that before voting for him.
That’s the argument, anyway. I don’t really enjoy making it, because it comes across as facile, smug, and condescending. Moreover, it’s not especially constructive, and it’s not going to help build bridges to the people we need to reach. It doesn’t do much good to call people names because they didn’t vote the way I think they should have.
Someone once said that in a democracy, people get the government they deserve. I don’t know whether it was H.L. Mencken, Alexis de Tocqueville, Thomas Jefferson, or someone else, but the whole question of “deserve” keeps nagging at me. It’s easy to wonder, rhetorically, whether progressive citizens who take the obligations of involved engagement seriously really deserve to have a civic administration like the current one foisted upon us. We didn’t vote for these clowns. Why should we have to sit and watch as they attack the bonds of our community with chainsaws and blowtorches? Did we buy into their bullshit? Did we fool ourselves into thinking we could get something for nothing? Did we walk around telling each other that we could have respectable public services, well-maintained public infrastructure, and a functioning civil society without having to pay for it?
The quick answer to that is, no, we didn’t, but guess what? You voted, and you lost. If you can’t live with it, then maybe you have a beef with democracy.
The rejoinder to that, of course, is that the game was rigged decades earlier when the Harris government smooshed the old City of Toronto into a soggy megacity mess, amalgamating it with Etobicoke, North York, East York, York, and Scarborough. We’ve been living with the consequences of that ever since. You can put five dogs and one cat in a room, let them vote, and call it democracy, but you can also more or less predict how things will turn out.
And this brings us back to that nagging “deserve” thing. We didn’t ask for amalgamation. We didn’t ask for provincial and federal governments that ignore urban realities and urban needs. We didn’t ask for municipal politicians who like to torque downtown/suburban divides for short-term political gain. Why, then, do we deserve to suffer as our city is dismantled, damaged, and neglected by these morons? Why are we saddled with the consequences of other people’s shortsightedness, stupidity, or failure to show up?
And it’s at this point that I run out of the easy answers, because in truth I just don’t know a way out of this that doesn’t involve major logical and ethical dissonance. On the one hand, citizenship’s obligations require that we abide by the decisions our community makes, as long as they’re made openly and democratically. (You can certainly argue about whether they’re truly open or democratic when half the voters don’t even bother to turn out, or the choices left to them are basically set by the 1 per cent, or a guy can win a majority government with less than 40 percent of the vote, but I’m talking about first principles here.) We get to have our say, but if the decision isn’t one we like, we don’t get to just withdraw and blow off the decisions of the community. We’re all in this together. Deserve’s got nothin’ to do with it.
On the other hand, the obligations of citizenship also require thoughtful reflection, careful consideration, and genuine engagement. When you make stupid, thoughtless and short-sighted choices, you’re not just hurting yourself — you’re damaging your community and hurting your fellow citizens. They don’t deserve that.
I still haven’t worked this out. Anyone?
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