From Swords To Votes: Let Us Hope We Never Go Back Again.

Posted on March 27, 2011


In a fit of academic thoroughness, a couple of years ago, I resolved to read all of Shakespeare’s works in the order he is thought to have written them. If memory serves correctly, I got as far as 1599 but skipped the poems to do so. I can’t say I discovered a whole lot about Shakespeare’s work that I didn’t already know, other than the fact that I love the histories, but I was left with the distinct impression, in large part because of those histories, that politics today is not all that different to the politics of Shakespeare’s day. The main difference, however is fundamental.

If Shakespeare’s portrayal of the politics of his day is to believed, it seems it was primarily driven by the power games of bickering elites, who would — from time to time — resort to war to settle a grievance or a dispute about the appropriate distribution of power and prestige. Most of the time, the common folk were ignored unless their unrest became too great to ignore or if they were needed for the armies that would eventually settle the dispute. From my perspective, this is a fairly accurate description of contemporary Canadian politics, with the very important difference that the armies raised to settle the disputes are now armed with votes rather than swords.

I don’t like the rhetoric of war that permeates election campaigns but I’ve come to accept that there is a measure of truth to it. The only task of an election is to figure out who supports you and mobilize them to vote — rather than fight — on your behalf. If a politician thinks he has the support of a sufficient number of the political elites and if he thinks they can together raise an army of voters bigger than the other guy’s army, an election is called (or forced to be called) and the mustering of the troops begins!

Warfare has evolved considerably over the years because of dramatic technological innovation, however, I don’t think technological innovation will ever dramatically change how election campaigns are run and won. At most, technology might make it easier to mobilize the vote (harder, too!) or make it easier for people to vote (say, from the comfort of their own homes). The underlying mechanism will, I think, remain the same: whomever can mobilize the most people to vote in a particular riding will win the riding and go on to parliament; whomever can win the support of the most Members of Parliament will form the government.

As simple as this mechanism may be, the shift from the clash of swords to the clash of votes, as a way to settle the disputes of our political elites, is an incredible innovation and is largely responsible for much that is well and good in our lives. Not a lot of good can happen when wars are regularly employed to settled political disputes. So, whether you are annoyed, excited, or indifferent by yet another election, please take comfort in the fact that the partisans who come knocking at your door are doing so to rally your vote and not your sword and that our lives are inconvenienced at most by a long line at a polling booth and not by a long siege of our Lord’s castle.