Courageous Conscience: Engaging in Politics with a Capital “P”

When I began thinking about a topic for this blog last fall, Canada was in the middle of a federal election and the upcoming U.S. presidential election was already making the news daily. I thought about the changes that have occurred in both our countries and globally since neoliberal ideas privileged “the market” over elected governments in the 1980s. Increasingly, policies reflect the interest of big business and the dictates of “the markets” rather than the electorate. And although both countries are arguably now plutocracies/oligarchies, both maintain a semblance of democracy through democratic structures and processes, such as elections. So what does this have to do with nurses and nursing?

The Nursing Manifesto itself answers that question. It is a call to action and one avenue for that action is engagement with political processes. I am reminded of an address Patricia Moccia gave at a conference in the late 1990s in which she used the term “citizen nurse” to remind us of the importance of bringing a nursing voice to the political table. With the percentage of eligible voters who actually vote near record lows – 54.87% in the 2012 presidential election and 61.1% in the 2011 Canadian federal election – one group could significantly shift results. In fact, in the recent 2015 Canadian federal election, the Liberal party made a concerted effort to get out the “youth vote.” The result was not only a change in governments, from Conservative to Liberal, but an increase in voter turnout to 68.3%. Imagine the possibilities if nurses mobilized to vote!

I’m not suggesting that all nurses will vote alike, any more than “the youth” in Canada did! But I am suggesting that increasing the number of nurses who vote has the potential to influence the outcome of an election. What we have in common is commitment to care for people, for promoting health, for social justice. Our work, then, as citizen nurses is to discover which party or candidate most closely aligns with our own values and become as involved as is right for each of us in supporting that party or candidate. It may involve running for office, contributing money, volunteering to work for a particular candidate, or simply but equally importantly, making an informed vote.

Voters, to my mind, are followers in the democratic process. Robert E. Kelley, who has studied followership for more than 30 years, initially characterized followers on 2 dimensions: active engagement and critical thinking. His 5 categories of followers included sheep and yes-people, neither of whom are critically engaged. As voters, sheep would wait for direction on how to vote, perhaps relying on family or community tradition (my family has always voted this way). A yes-person might be more actively involved with a candidate or party but simply accepts the “party-line” without question. Alienated followers, Kelley asserted, think critically but bring much negative energy with them. Voters in this category might spend that energy criticizing the candidates, parties, the system and either spoiling their ballot or loudly proclaiming their refusal to vote. Pragmatics, Kelley’s 4th category, align themselves with whoever is winning. As voters, they might watch the polls and vote with whoever is leading.

Kelley’s final category is that of effective or “star” followers who are actively engaged critical thinkers with a “courageous conscience” to stand up against illegality and injustice. I think this category of followership exemplifies what being a citizen nurse is about.