Chronicle of a Montreal municipal election campaign in park-extension: the paths to the evaporation of politics.

Author:Patsias, Caroline


By observing a citizens' committee in the Park-Extension neighbourhood of Montreal, we look at how the 2013 municipal election campaign helped citizens to cultivate some concern for the wider world and induced them to hold discussions in public terms. We maintain that the processes of politicization or the avoidance of politics that are at play here testify to the tensions between different conceptions of municipal democracy on the part of elected officials and citizens.

Keywords: municipal democracy, municipal elections, politicization, political participation, Montreal, Park-Extension


A travers l'observation d'un comite de citoyens, situe dans le quartier Parc-Extension a Montreal, nous examinons la facon dont la campagne electorale municipale de 2013 a contribue a un elargissement des questionnements des citoyens et a des discussions menees en termes politiques. Nous soutenons que les processus de politisation ou d'evitement du politique a l'oeuvre, sont significatifs de tensions entre des conceptions differentes de la democratie municipale, parmi les elus et les citoyens.

Mots cles: democratie municipale, campagne electorale, politisation, participation politique, Montreal, Parc-Extension


Questions about the role that election campaigns play in politicizing citizens are hardly new in political science, but have so far mainly concerned citizens' participation in voting, and their political orientations. (1) Although our study is part of an investigation of politicization, it differs from earlier analyses. Here, it is more a matter of examining how the fall 2013 municipal election campaign was an opportunity for the development of contexts that encouraged the expression and circulation of political ideas and concerns. In this regard, the processes of politicization or, on the contrary, the avoidance of politics that are at play here testify to the tensions between different conceptions of municipal democracy on the part of elected officials and citizens. Our reflection is based on an observation of the Citizens' Committee of Park-Extension, in Montreal.

  1. Introduction: Politicization, conceptions of local democracy, and electoral momentum

    As feminist scholars (Fraser 1985; Young 1987) have pointed out, politics can be hidden in almost any topic, but almost any topic is not always approached in political terms. And here we are faced with a stumbling block: that is, either to accept the explicit definition of politics that citizens give, or, on the other hand, to apply our own definition of politics or limit the latter to its objective dimension: the political system and political institutions. The first option impedes any reflection on the transitions between citizens' everyday experiences and politics, and prevents us from understanding certain contemporary democratic transformations in this respect. The second does not allow us to examine the way that the citizens under observation develop their own understandings of politics, based on their experiences (Walsh 2012). To escape this dilemma, we are presuming that connections between citizens and the wider world exist, even when these citizens did not overtly acknowledge such attachments (Eliasoph 1998:14). It is a question of determining whether the citizens observed grasp the public implications of their topics of discussion and assume that what they say matters to someone other than themselves. This enables us to then focus on the processes that allow citizens to give voice to a wider circle of concern. We concentrate on two elements in order to assess this broadening of citizens' concerns. The first is associated with a public-spirited conversation, in Pitkin's sense (1981): that is, when citizens speak in terms of justice. Such a conversation involves a transformation from "I want" to "I am entitled to," a claim that becomes negotiable by referring to public standards. Citizens thus "learn to think about the standards themselves," and about their "stake in the existence of [these] standards." They question the foundations of their community and the arguments and interests of their "opponents and enemies in the community; so that afterwards [they] are changed" (Pitkin 1972: 347). The second element concerns the possibility of a conflictualization of the issues, with the construction or highlighting of divisions (Boltanski and Thevenot 1991; Gamson 1992; Duchesne and Haegel 2007). These divisions refer to one's definition of oneself in a group that is opposed to other groups in the demand for interests and resources, processes that are at the heart of the political regulation of societies. This delineation of politics (2) shows that it is not enough for a discourse to be given in a political or public institution for it to be characterized as "public-spirited" (Eliasoph and Lichterman 2003).

    Looking at the contexts that foster public-spirited discussion prompts us to think about the architecture and functioning of representative democracy. If, in their interactions, citizens can define such contexts, these contexts do not escape the influence of political systems and the organization of loci of power (Cmiel 1990; Lichterman 2005). The objective of the organization of political systems is indeed to authorize, in some places and in some circumstances, the transition from the everyday to politics. Representative democracy, as conceived by liberals, at the foundations of contemporary democratic practices, is based on a political division of labour between representatives and those represented. This division implies a distinction between places for politics and places for civil life, between public and private (Manent 2001). Citizens delegate their sovereignty, and thus even their possibility of participating in the formulation of the general interest, to elected officials that "represent" them. Representative democracy sets up a distance between the representative and the people represented, which also echoes the distinctive character of places for politics (Manent 2001). But this distance, immediately established during the voting, is reduced due to the ties between representatives and those represented: the elected official wants to be "close" to his or her fellow citizens, as the whole issue resides in the forms and degrees of this proximity (Mansbridge 2003; Le Bart and Lefebvre 2005). As Manin (1995) reminds us, citizen debate is not expected within parliamentary institutions. Citizens' contribution to the general interest is made through the mediation of various associations, interest groups, and political parties emanating from civil society (Calhoun 1993). In other words, it is through their ties with elected officials and their involvement in groups or political parties that citizens participate in the definition of the general interest and that they can carry on political conversations. The conflict between differing interests is supposed to be expressed by political parties, opposition within parliamentary institutions, and competition between pressure groups (Lowi 2009; Manin 1995). This architecture of politics and the place that it devotes to conflict underlie a vision of the "good citizen." The latter is involved in associations, political parties or pressure groups, and participates in elections. The categories that Almond and Verba (1963) link with democracy (public-spiritedness, cooperation, trust) and that have until recently largely nourished American quantitative studies reflect this normative vision of democracy (Putnam 2000 et 2002; Roux 2003). These studies find that conflict and mistrust are signs of unpublic-spirited or even antidemocratic behaviours or values. They concur with a vision of democracy where the antagonistic dimension is limited and circumscribed (Mouffe 2000). It is only relatively recently, around the 1960s, that demonstrations, strikes, etc.--that is, unconventional forms of political participation (and such a term is fitting here)--were accepted as completely legitimate forms of the exercise of democracy (Fillieule and Pechu 1993).

    If the liberal heritage predominates in the exercise of contemporary democracies, it is competing with participatory visions that emphasize citizen engagement outside the electoral momentum, and the need for political conversations within "strong democracies" (Barber 1984; Macedo 2005). Beyond the models, democratic practices are evolving. Political specialists and commentators point to a change in conceptions of the general interest and in citizens who are now calling for greater "transparency" and for more control over the authorities (Hibbing and Theiss-Morse 2002, 2005; Rosanvallon 2008). Studies are also showing a transformation of the boundaries between private and public, a trend that began in the 1960s with the rise of the feminist and environmental movements. (Crenson and Ginsborg 2002; Ginsborg 2005; Marie et al. 2002; Sargisson 2001.) Eliasoph (1998) notes that, in contrast to the functioning prescribed by the mechanisms of representative democracy, conversations in public terms happen more often when citizens move away from public or political institutions and organizations. A "privatization of the public" is said to be starting to occur, in a context marked by growing disaffection with the institutions that are supposed to allow citizens to express their opinions and to transmit them to elected officials (political parties, trade unions) (Perrineau 2003; Hudon et al. 2008). But one must also pay attention to differences in political levels and national traditions. The local level in Canada is characterized by an administrative vision that hampers citizen participation (Isin 1992; Tindal and Tindal 2008). This focus on good management has hindered the flowering of political debates on the municipal political scene, as shown by the recent appearance and still limited presence of political parties. This has led to a proximity between...

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