Engagement Beyond the Ballot Box

On October 21st, Canada will hold its 44th and perhaps its most important federal election. The same can be said for the United States and the 2020 election, for which campaigning is in full swing. The winds of class warfare are in the air and most of the same conditions are driving the protest activist movements in other countries. The world desperately needs a beacon for democracy. Both Canada and the U.S., through the election process have the opportunity to become that beacon. However, real change will occur primarily beyond the ballot box.

This message is not an appeal for any party, candidate or issue; nor is it a call for protests in the streets;  but rather, it is a call to action for all citizens to become meaningfully motivated and actively engaged in our political process, and return to having more civil and informed national debate  on the issues and opportunities we face as a nation. These kinds of discussions should be held around the dining table, at book clubs, social clubs and other groups. Debating issues clarifies issues. Informed voters will protect democracy.

Internationally, most of our institutions are broken. There is a great divide in every aspect of our lives – where we live; where we learn; where we work; where we worship; where we associate; and where we play – in all sectors, and across all geography.

This is largely due to societies where our institutions continue to be the bastions of white male privilege; where the wealthy elites wield a disproportionate amount of power, control and wealth; where relationships and interdependencies are not factored into the equations; where corruption, greed, harassment, abuse and coverups have become the norm; where “truth isn’t truth”; where access to justice is denied; where there is a gender and minority group imbalance; where special interest groups disproportionately have more influence than the ordinary citizens; where freedom of speech in our schools have been compromised; where hate and bigotry is on the rise; and where extreme polarization and partisanship is becoming entrenched.

What appears to be lost in the political discord is whether our economic, social and cultural rights are being protected and upheld – “the right to work in just and favorable conditions; to social protections; to an adequate standard of living and the highest standards of health; and the right to education and cultural and scientific benefits.” These are not, as may be argued by some, the socialists’ agenda; they are rights outlined in the ‘International Covenant of Rights’ that went into effect over half a century ago.

This is the fundamental question that needs to be addressed by the political parties as a prerequisite to formulating their platforms; and to address it, requires the meaningful active and motivated engagement by our citizens.

Employee engagement is a huge issue in the workplace. There is ample evidence that an engaged workplace is more productive; yet in the over two decades of polling, Gallup has reported that two thirds of North American workers are not engaged. Voter turnout records further suggest that there is a similar level of disengagement in the election process. Knowledgeable active and motivated engagement, however, goes beyond the ballot box. It requires that public sentiment be articulated and heard. Abraham Lincoln warned – “Public sentiment is everything. With public sentiment nothing will fail, without it, nothing can succeed.” This warning must be heeded by all.

To achieve meaningful active and motivated engagement, research is showing that seven conditions are essential:

  • First – a level of trust – where people trust leadership, and leaders trust the people they lead.
  • Second – a sense of security – where people feel their rights are protected and upheld.
  • Third – diversity and inclusion – where every person is counted and every person counts.
  • Fourth – a sense of purpose – where people feel they are working for a common good.
  • Fifth – a sense of efficacy – where people strive for efficiency and effectiveness.
  • Sixth – a sense of safety – where people feel comfortable and confident in speaking truth to power.
  • Seventh – a sense of awareness – where emotional intelligence is considered a core competency so that people have the skills to understand, influence and regulate their own emotions and the emotions of others.

To effectively mobilize people to become engaged, all institutions should create these conditions in their environments. Making people feel safe, comfortable and confident in contributing to where we live, learn, work, worship, associate and play will give us the comfort and confidence to be engaged in the political process to influence our economic, social and cultural agendas.

A sense of comfort and confidence will build through having substantive discussions and debates about this with others. If this discourse is open, honest and direct – with the intention of expressing our perspectives and listening to and hearing the perspectives of others – and shifting our attitude and positions because a different perspective is more compelling, a powerful public sentiment will emerge. Public sentiment formulated this way will be difficult for candidates and parties to ignore.

Most importantly, it is essential to engage our youth. They will inherit what we do, or what we do not do. They have become the “adults in the room” on driving the focus on climate and environmental protection and on gun control. Last week, a You Tube video in Germany, produced by a youth, upended “the familiar order of knowledge” by challenging the governing Christian Democratic Union on a number of issues using extensive references, citations and scientific literature. This video became an overnight phenomenon, viewed by over ten million on the eve of the EU elections, influencing its outcome.

Besides ensuring that our rights are protected and upheld and our economic, social and cultural systems work to the benefit of all, what is being proposed here will help fix our broken institutions, make our nation more productive, address the loneliness epidemic and mental health crisis, the most significant consequence of the current state of our nation.

(Andrew Faas is Chairman, Faas Foundation; Co-CEO of Accordant Advisors; a Public Voices Fellow at Yale University; contributing writer for The Hill and MoneyInc; author of ‘From Bully to Bull’s Eye – Move Your Organization Out of the Line of Fire’; former senior executive at Weston/Loblaw and Shoppers Drug Mart; and an active, motivated and engaged Canadian.)


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