“Who are you with?” – A citizen grows cynical

The public’s cynicism about and disengagement from the political process has reached “crisis proportions,” according to a report from the Public Policy Forum.  When citizens feel alienated from their government, we should all be concerned, especially those of us who know that democracy isn’t a birthright, but a frail human construction requiring perpetual maintenance:  education and debate, large measures of goodwill, and widespread participation.

Democracy thrives on participation.  When citizens tune out, governance is neither responsive nor responsible; and then we see the worst in citizen and politician alike.  Accused of venality and arrogance, politicians lash out – as any human would, it seems to me – accusing people of apathy, of not getting involved.  And with every election, we hear more about the “cranky” mood of voters.

But in much of our publis discourse, we hear too much about voters, not enough about citizens.  It doesn’t matter what mood voters are in when they go to the polls, but when citizens turn cranky, democracy is in trouble.  I feel a little cranky myself these days.  As a citizen, I find myself increasinly cynical.

I grew up in a political and idealistic family.  At the age of sixteen, I skipped a few days of school to go to Ottawa to observe the 1968 Liberal leadership convention.  I’ve written, helped to write, and presented a number of briefs to government commissions and to ministers of government.  I’ve voted for at least four political parties (though I tend later to regret my vote).  I’m interested in all levels of government, but think provincial affairs especially important.

When I was younger, I argued with friends who said that politicians are liars, who believed that it was pointless to get involved in the political process.  I still don’t accept such blanket statements, but I no longer argue my case.  I used to say if you really feel things are that bad, you should get involved in some fashion:  try to improve the process, make your views known, and perhaps discover for yourself that many politicians are hardworking and honest.  But I don’t say this any more.

In the last ten years, I’ve grown cynical about the motives, the competence and the decency of many politicians, and this growing cynicism is having a corrosive effect on my sense of citizenship and on how I raise my children.  I’m beginning to think that politicians – not apathetic citizens – are largely to blame for the widening gulf between citizens and their governments. 

I’ll sketch one example of why I’ve become so alienated from politics.  I’ve long been interested in public policy related to alcohol, particularly beer.  I’ve spent a good deal of time lobbying for a fairer, more competitive beer retailing system than the one we have.

Public policy decisions require public discussion and public access to relevant facts.  For over a year, I’ve been trying to get key information on the policies and operations of Brewers Retail, Ontario’s beer-retailing monopoly, from the relevant provincial Ministry, the Ministry of Consumer and Commercial Relations.

To get this information, I’ve written more than a dozen letters and made more than twenty follow-up phone calls.  I've been told many times, by the Minister, by her staff and by the Premier, that I will get the information “shortly,” but so far I've received nothing.

I have come to realize that if I ever do get the information I've been seeking, it will be after new beer retailing policies have been decided.  And I’ve become so cynical that I now understand this to be deliberate – the government has chosen to exclude citizens from the decision-making process, even as it closely consults the most powerful players the industry, the two largest brewers.  “At the end of the day, who do you think they listen to?” a provincial government employee asked me on the phone.  “You, or the guys who own the SkyDome?”

I should make it clear that it’s not just one ministry, it’s not just the present government, and it’s not just provincial politics.  I could outline equally alienating experiences I’ve had with other political parties, other governments.  Letters not responded to.  Commitments made and then broken. 

When I phone a civil servant or a political employee, I’m often asked a question that I used to find strange:  "Who are you with?"  I didn’t even understand the question, with that funny stress on the last word, the first time I heard it.  Now I realize that few people in positions of power are in the habit of actually dealing with individual citizens (even in a Ministry purporting to represent consumer interests).

Many of our politicians and bureaucrats are so used to dealing with professional lobbyists and interest groups that they are actually flummoxed when faced with a citizen.  Citizens are unpredictable.  They aren’t “with” any collective, they represent no one, and they speak only for themselves.  Their voices are the clamour of democracy.

Two years ago I asked to have my MPP return a telephone call.  His secretary seemed to think that such a request indicated naivety or gall on my part (again, “who are you with?”), and I was told that the MPP didn’t return calls from “individual constituents.”  I've learned my lesson:  I haven’t contacted the MPP since.

I’m forty-one years old and I have two children who are old enough to develop an interest in politics.  What political values will I try to pass on to them? 

I try to give my kids some sense of how government works, but I’m not encouraging the same kind of idealism I grew up with.  And I think my children are bright enough to pick up on the cynicism they see in me and other adults.

Yet I dread the possibility that my kids won’t ever get involved, that they’ll discover early in life that political apathy is, in fact, an effective way to get on with life.  At the same time, I’m fearful that they will get involved, only to go through the same hurtful process of disillusionment.  I’d hate to see my children work hard at researching an issue and take the time to write a brief or a letter, only to have it ignored.  Better not to make the effort in the first place.

I suspect other parents, other children, face the same realities.  If this is true, then the “crisis” of political alienation will only get worse.  We’ll have a whole generation of citizens who have never known political idealism, who have never felt the urge to get involved.

I think all Canadians would welcome a new style of politics, a politics of inclusion.  I’m sure we would all like to see more honesty in political discourse, fewer expedient lies.  And I think we’d all like to feel more like citizens, owners of our governments.  But at this stage of my life, I’m not very hopeful. 

Jamie MacKinnon