In democratic politics it is common to talk about “the people.” Populists in particular use the term to justify their policies, but they are not the only ones to make use in the concept in political discourse. Media will often speak of “the people” with reference to the mandates that different governments have. When governments win majorities “the people” are said to have trusted the government to implement its platform. When governments win minorities, “the people” are said to have wanted the opposition to moderate the government or they are said to be giving the government a test run before deciding whether to give it a majority. These conceptions of voters speaking with a single voice through elections are highly problematic. They paint a picture of “the people” as a monolithic body giving a clear verdict on how they want to be governed. In reality popular opinion is far messier. It is made up of people with a wide range of contradictory views and priorities. These contradictions make it impossible to discern a single message from an election.
One of the most problematic tropes in a great deal of election coverage is the assumption that the outcome indicates a uniform desire on the part of Canadians for a particular government. Election outcomes are, rather, a complicated mess of differently expressed preferences. To the extent that votes are an expression of who individuals want to govern (which is likely true for most voters, but there are some that vote to express a protest or for a preferred local candidate), they almost always disagree over who ought to form government. This is not just because government’s never win 100% of the vote, they very rarely win over 50%. There almost never is a consensus, even amongst a majority of Canadians, over who ought to govern.
When majority governments are formed, it is usually a result of the electoral system producing a majority from a minority of seats. This not necessarily a bad thing. One can make a trade-off between the efficiency and the clear lines of accountability that majority governments produce and proportional representation. It is important though not to interpret majority governments as an expression of a majority will to have a particular platform implemented by a particular party. Most often, a majority Canadians voted for a different party and likely wanted a different party to implement a different platform (though those Canadians could not agree on which alternative they preferred). This should not detract at all from the right of a majority government to govern. But, they should not be treated as if they have a broad popular mandate derived from their unique ability to discern what Canadians want. Rather their position in power is a result of the way our electoral system creates opportunities to govern out of divided public opinion.
Even more care should be taken in interpreting the extent to which minority governments have popular mandates. Despite the analysis provided in much of the media coverage, it is highly unlikely that minority governments come about because Canadians want to temper a particular party’s power or want to test a party in government before granting a majority. It is more likely that minority governments result from too much disagreement over which party ought to have a majority.
The extent to which governments can be seen as speaking for “the people” is even further complicated when one considers the vast array of motivations that different individuals have when casting votes. Elections are very rarely fought over a single issue. Some individuals’ will vote based on the state of the economy or economic policy. Others will be most concerned with healthcare, the environment, social policy, foreign policy, or a plethora of other issues. To add to that, there are plenty of voters who vote for reasons unrelated to a party’s platform. These reasons vary from trust in the leader, to support for a local candidate, to partisan loyalty. To extrapolate majority (or even large minority) support for a particular policy or set of policies from these range of views and motivations is highly problematic. It is a mistake to believe that “the people” support everything or even the majority of what is in a party’s platform just because the party won an election. This is not to say that most people oppose said policies either, it is impossible to be sure either way.
None of this is to say that elected governments have no legitimacy or that they do not have the right to implement the policies that they ran on. Rather, it is to say that that governments should been seen as the product of messy compromises between large numbers of people with wide-ranging viewpoints and priorities. Winning an election conveys upon a party a right to govern because of the way that the rules that govern Canadian democracy work and because they have found a compromise that builds a reasonably large coalition of voters.
This has consequences for the way that democracy should be approached. If governments are the product of messy compromises between wide ranging and contradictory viewpoints, opposition parties are essential. They provide a way to test the value of the compromise the government has cobbled together by subjecting that compromise to criticism. They also provide a venue for those that are left out of the compromise to articulate their viewpoints. Similarly, distributing power widely within parties and parliament is important. The less of an ability individual MPs have to challenge governments and their party’s leadership, the fewer viewpoints are expressed and the less well parliament represents the wide range of views and priorities that exist within the public.
The lack of a clear consensus amongst the should further change the way leaders’ statements are evaluated. Any leader that claims to speak for “the people,” as Doug Ford does, should be treated as someone who is potentially dangerous to democracy. Such claims suggest a leader with an inadequate respect for the diversity views in the public and can suggest a lack of willingness to provide space for such views to be expressed. This kind of leader can become a danger if they use what they interpret as a right the speak for “the people” as a way to undermine opposition parties or MPs that break with their party. This danger does not just exist on the right. Parties of all ideologies have been using party discipline to limit MPs’ ability to represent views that differ from their party for much of Canadian history. Claims by left wing politicians such as British Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn to speak “for the many not the few” should be treated with skepticism should they be imported to Canada. Any politician that makes a claim that Canadians (or Albertans, British Columbians, or Ontarians) want a particular policy in their platform should be treated as if they have an inadequate understanding of how public opinion works.
The views of a population of a country are complicated, contradictory, and messy. Sorting through such views requires careful compromise. Elections should be treated as part of a process where voters and politicians try to find a compromise between wide ranging views that allows a government to govern effectively. They should not be treated as events where voters grant a government the right to implement a particular policy platform in the name of “the people” or of some conception of a universal popular will.