Mash's Musings

Politician or platform?

Published Sep. 11, 2021

With the Canadian federal elections coming up, I found myself having to change my generally apolitical posture to fill the role of engaged citizen. As someone with no particular fondness for any one political party, this usually involves going through some of the platforms and reflecting on my current values. After some high-level research, I will usually check out something like Vote Compass to assist in the final decision making. Having done this bare minimum of work, I go back to political hibernation until the next election, satisfied that I have done my part in the democratic process. Asking others about their decision process usually returns one of two answers: vote for the same party as always, or choose the prime ministerial candidate they like the most. While I've snubbed my nose at both of these approaches, I have gained some appreciation for the latter.

I've held the view that voting for your favorite politician, as so many do, to be a wrongheaded cop out. When thinking of the complexities that go behind running an effective government—economic policy, foreign affairs, and now even pandemic response—it seems crazy to think that one's competencies in all these disciplines is in any way correlated with one's ability to win a popularity contest. Focusing solely on the politician leads to cults of personality and adopting the views of the leaders instead of adopting leaders whose views align with yours. However, I realized it is not so simple and is perhaps the high price to pay for convenience.

To really vote based on platform means educating yourself about a wide variety of issues and carefully comparing which party's values align most closely with yours. This requires some baseline level of knowledge on any topic researched, an understanding of the players involved in those decisions, and a picture of which policies could be the most effective at some point in the future. Assuming you have the prerequisite level of multidisciplinary education, this is no easy task. On the conservative end, this would require dozens of hours of reading to get anything close to a holistic view. A noble goal for sure, and the hallmark of a truly engaged citizen but certainly not realistic or even possible for everyone voting for an election. Going through Vote Compass this year I realized I had no clue what the Canadian government was doing in terms of policing or Indigenous reconciliation which makes it hard to have an opinion on whether they ought to do more or less; and I would bet the majority of citizens have similar knowledge gaps (although this rarely prevents strong opinions). Enter: voting for the politician.

Imagine having a close friend who had purportedly had done his homework. You've heard his takes and trust that he is sincere in his views. Having heard this friend speak many times, you are confident that you two are mostly aligned on values, at least moreso than anyone else you've speak on politics. Would it not be reasonable in this case to proxy your vote through your friend? On some level, I think this is how 99% of us actually operate when it comes to forming opinions on anything. We hear something that resonates with us from a high integrity individual, probe a bit into the rationale, and then accept or reject the argument presented. Representational democracy is really just an extension of the same idea. Replace your friend with your local MP and you have the current system in place today.

Voting for the politician is a vote of trust more than it is a vote on policy. It is a vote that the politician's values are aligned with yours and that you trust their ability to execute on them. Not to say that they know everything or will always make the best choice, but rather that they'll act in accordance to the values they have stated.

I think as I grow older and perhaps a little more jaded when it comes to politics, I can see the justification for voting for the politican. The noble idea that every citizen becomes a bastion of his own individual political worldview seems naive. I think where I've landed personally is somewhere in between the two approaches. Do the homework to get a broad sense of platforms; this serves to make your values at least somewhat explicit. Find the party that most closely aligns with your values and run a quick trustworthiness check: does the federal candidate seem trustworthy to you? Does the candidate in your local riding seem trustworthy to you? This probably requires some digging. If not, then repeat this exercise with the next party in power. If you get to the bottom of the list and you still find no good candidates, perhaps it's time to start your own party. The only question is: do you trust yourself?