The Ballot Box as the Ballot Question

The Hill Times/Sam Garcia

Lisa Van Dusen/For the Hill Times

Oct. 17, 2019

With elections being messed with in ways democracies are just beginning to fight, maybe protecting the process itself should be the ballot question.

The first election campaign I spent on a plane was the first one in which I was eligible to vote. It was 1984 and I was the very junior, third press aide to Brian Mulroney. As baptisms by fire go, it was a slightly bumpy ride at the back of the plane, but the guy on the other side of the bulkhead won the largest majority in Canadian history.

That campaign—as everyone who could recite the stump speech if shaken awake at 3 a.m. knew—was about “small towns and big dreams.” It was an applause line endlessly vulgarized by the boys and girls on the bus—and, by the fourth airport, arena, or barnyard of the day, the punchy staff—much to the offstage amusement of the candidate.

More prosaically, the campaign was about economic vision, a desire for change and a candidate who so efficiently channelled that aspiration that the surge of the wave was palpable on the ground. It was not about ideology. The fact that Canada’s two main parties in those days were closer on the spectrum than they’ve become being less a factor than, as economic adviser Charley McMillan famously told Mulroney biographer L. Ian MacDonald in a hotel-room interview, “Brian’s about as ideological as that coffee pot.” That I evolved from Red Tory aide to agnostic reporter and editor into a left-of-centre columnist wasn’t the metamorphosis it might be now.

Election campaigns on both sides of the border, one in Canada nearing its end and the other in the United States with a few chapters to go, still feel somehow undefined. The Canadian campaign has seen incumbent Prime Minister Justin Trudeau teed up to be on the receiving end of a throw-the-bums-out story, followed by the post-debate polling adjustments, late realignments and, per the recent epidemic in democracies, the too-close-to-call home stretch. With less than a week to go, there’s no consensus on the ballot question.

The U.S. campaign the rest of the world wishes were about nothing but throwing the bum out has also been about Joe Biden’s gaffes, Elizabeth Warren’s relationship with reality, and whether Bernie Sanders will make it to the finish line in a race against a president who has redefined gaffing as a lull between disasters and whose presence on the ballot in 2020 would be seen by much of the world as a triumph of lunacy over reason.

What neither campaign has been about, partly because bigger themes get obscured by our dopamine diet of perpetual social media hits, is the survival of the system that enables this process. As evident in the daily degradation of America’s leadership by its own president, the same of Britain by its own prime minister, the incarceration of Catalonia’s elected politicians—and that’s just the pre-filing Monday morning headlines—democracy is being undermined worldwide from without and within. But the future of the system that makes every other right and freedom—including free and fair elections—possible, hasn’t been a campaign issue, despite enormous stakes hinging on whether democracy will re-assert itself through the chaos in time to prevent an irreversible tilt into corrupt illiberalism.

As New York Times columnist Roger Cohen wrote in The Free World at 30 last weekend, “The struggle between humanity and the machine is not new. The human susceptibility to folly is not new. What is new, above all, is the means we now have, if only we would use them right, to build a connected world of dignity and decency.”

Which is really just another way of saying that this is, after all, about small towns and big dreams.

Lisa Van Dusen is associate editor of Policy Magazine and a columnist for The Hill Times. She was Washington bureau chief for Sun Media, international writer for Peter Jennings at ABC News, and an editor at AP in New York and UPI in Washington.