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Canadian Politics


How citizens became democratic consumers

by Reg Whitaker

In recent years, a number of journalists have published books on Canadian politics. Some are forgettable, some quite good, but one stands out from all the others. Susan Delacourt’s Shopping for Votes: How Politicians Choose Us and We Choose Them1 goes beyond the usual journalistic staple of anecdotes, personalities and prognostications to offer an intriguing explanation of a tectonic shift that has taken place in recent decades in how both politicians and voters see the political process. What she finds is not good news, but she does help us understand why things have taken the turn they have.

1_NDP campaignDelacourt begins where Stephen Harper, John Baird et al. love to be seen hanging out: Tim Hortons, where doughnuts, double-doubles and the famous “Tim Hortons voters” are to be found. She wants to tell us how we arrived at a place where the interface between democratic citizens and their political representatives is defined by and reduced to identification with a particular brand of fast food.

Aristotle wrote that “what effectively distinguishes the citizen proper from all others is his participation in giving judgement and in holding office.” As the Greek city-state grew into today’s nation-state, the proportion of citizens who actually hold office has necessarily become tiny indeed. At the same time, the opportunity for participation in giving judgement (defined broadly not only in relation to the law but to public policy) has shrunk, not out of necessity but out of choice. This is a great paradox of liberal democratic capitalism.

It is the proud boast of the capitalist economy that its producers have vastly expanded the range of choice for its consumers, just as it was one of the great failures of the communist model that it could not put consumer choices on its shelves. This is a triumph of production but it is crucially the triumph of marketing, the clever ways in which producers bring their goods and services to the attention of consumers and into their hands. Shopping for Votes, as its title implies, is a description of the process whereby capitalist marketing techniques have been applied to how we choose our political representatives and how we think about politics and the public realm. Ironically, the application of the economy of consumer choice to the political sphere has meant the impoverishment of the democratic political imagination.

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About the Author

Reg Whitaker
Political scientist Reg Whitaker writes a political column for Inroads and is a member of its editorial board.


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