On polling day leave your cynicism at home
Imagine a future where politics is not a term of derision, but something everyone participates in as they actively use their power for the greater good.
Every election day of my children’s lives I have taken them with me to the polling booth. Every time they have experienced the joy of my little talk about how lucky we are to be able to vote, how precious our democracy is, and how we have to keep fighting to protect it. They have watched me number every square and they know who I put first and who I put last. I’ll be honest, I get pretty emotional about it. It’s the moment where I contribute my tiny part to the whole. I am free to choose. I vote in the spirit of hope that the world will be better.
In Australia as a citizen we each have this power. So why the cynicism? Why are we not more grateful? Why does the mere mention of politics bring forth a collective eye roll and spray of sarcastic invective? We have the power of our vote and yet we feel powerless. Trust in politicians has tanked again after a brief improvement during the initial response to the covid outbreak.
Is it just possible that voting for a representative is an act that disempowers us? Are we handing our power to someone else, someone we don’t know and perhaps not even trust, to let them make decisions on our behalf?
Representative democracy is a classic adult-child relationship. It was born in a world where the preacher in the pulpit was the holder of all knowledge for the village. Now more than 4.5 billion people use the internet, and there are tens of thousands of searches conducted every second. Most people can find out whatever they want and learn whatever they want on a single device they hold in their hand. We no longer work in a world where the manager always knows more than the workers, or even where the teacher always knows more than the students.
With all this power and knowledge at our fingertips, why is it enough to set and forget; to vote every three or four years and leave it up to them? Well, it’s not enough anymore.
We are cynical because we feel powerless. We feel stuck inside systems that are too broken and too big to fix. It’s easy to slide into blame: it’s ‘their’ fault, ‘they’ should fix it. But the truth is we’re not stuck in the system, we are the system. Systems like our economy, education, health, government - are constructs that are built from towers of many, many decisions that are made by individual human beings.
And now the ground underneath the towers is shifting. The people in charge are waking up to the notion that it’s not enough to tell people what’s good for them, and to make decisions without asking. The people who are impacted by the decisions are demanding not only to be heard, but to have the power to act.
This is exactly what is happening across the country as solutions are co-designed in communities. Local people are brought in as experts of their own experience to shape public policy, products, programs and services. Citizen’s juries and panels are used to find solutions for complex issues where positions have become entrenched. Local governments are opening up their budgets for review by citizens and decision-making powers are being handed over. There are many, many examples of participatory democracy models around the world.
All these changes add up to a quiet revolution in politics. It’s a revolution you won’t see on the manicured lawns of the election campaign, it’s happening in conversations in workplaces and in communities. What’s taking place is a shift in power – from power that is hoarded by the people in charge to power that is shared among the people who matter.
The next step in the journey of our imperfect democracy is to cultivate a generation of empowered citizens. Imagine a future where politics is not a term of derision, but something everyone participates in as they actively use their power to get an outcome for the greater good. Imagine a future where our kids’ trip to the ballot box is just one of many actions they take to shape their world.
Yes our democracy isn’t perfect, and you may feel let down, disillusioned and cynical, but voting is your act of power, and it’s precious. So on election day participate. And then between elections participate some more. And then demand even more participation – at work, at school, at the doctor’s surgery, in every place that power needs to be shared.