The philosophy of the donkey vote

Giacomo Bianchino explains our responsibilities in a democracy

Photo:, Flickr

On the day of the election, a friend of mine said to me that she didn’t think her vote counted for anything. The consequences of such a view are damning for democracy. Business Spectator projected that Saturday would witness one of the highest incidences of “donkey voting” in Australian history. The results brought in The Motoring Enthusiast Party at 0.05% and The Sports Party at 0.02%. Each election, the amount of people willing to sacrifice their stake in democracy grows. What does this say about Australian politics? Is it so dull and polarising that people would rather have no voice at all?

The reality of the situation is a problem not with Australia’s political representatives, but those they seek to represent. Voting in Australia suffers in the same ways that our culture and thought do, and for the same reason. We have an entrenched fear of responsibility. The desire to let an election pass us by doesn’t stem from some paralysing sensation of indecision. We aren’t idle because of some reasoned conclusion we’ve come to about the state of affairs in elective democracy. Our idleness is born of a misconception. The majority of people who chose to vote for The Motoring Enthusiast Party or The Sports Party did so under the belief that their vote was being cast into the void. This was not the case. For instance, a vote for the Sex Party ended up as a vote for Pauline Hanson. Karma’s a bitch, and irony is a treat best served in Federal Parliament.

This isn’t the essence of the problem. The real issue at stake is Australian apathy. The German-Jewish philosopher Hannah Arendt wrote extensively on the role of every individual under dictatorship. For her, the worst criminals of a dictatorship are those who stand idly by. Every bystander who refuses to oppose chooses to support the regime implicitly. We face a similar problem, believing a non-contribution to democracy to be neutral. In the context of autocracy, this can be passed off as an outcome of fear and coercion. In a thriving mandatory democracy, however, forgiveness is more elusive. In a projected whitewash like Saturday, a non-vote is a very clear step in a certain direction. It’s an historical anomaly to have universal suffrage and compulsory voting. The reality of refusing to use it is a complete admonition of responsibility.

So where does it come from? Why do we intentionally avoid civil responsibility? It is true that bipartisanism can suffocate political identification. We’re brought up Labor or Liberal, and the grand majority would rather stick with their colours and refuse to examine their position. The very few policy-based voters that this country boasts are usually unable to find accurate representation. But political apathy isn’t simply a matter of staying comfortable. It goes deeper. Martin Heidegger, one of the leading proponents of modern phenomenology (the philosophy of being) talks about the problem of “ambiguity”. He understands it as a matter of believing ourselves to know in advance the nature of general problems. It’s the logic that motivates “idle chat”, the indifference at work when we say “the new Arcade Fire song is an example of James Murphy’s ineptitude.” Unfortunately, it also extends to politics. We “know” what we think about issues like refugee policy and the environment. But on second viewing, do these views really form a cohesive whole?

I know a lot of people who identify as “economic liberals” or “social leftists.” The sheer decision to base your loyalty to a party on one or the other is an indication of how apathetic political representation can truly become. If you would endorse a candidate whose social views repulse you, because they will support lower tariffs or endorse agriculture, then how authentic can your loyalty truly be? If you bring a party to power on your vote, your responsibility extends to all of their policy movements, not simply those you agree with.

The crisis in political faith that Australia is suffering from has no quick remedy. The solutions to problems of apathy consist in choosing to take greater responsibility. It was over 200 years ago that Immanuel Kant urged us to Sapere Aude; to “dare to know”. So don’t let parents, friends or tradition decide your beliefs for you. Read into the situation and come to your own conclusions before throwing your lot in with some dubious ruffians intent on tearing down the biz.

Filed under: