Thoughts on Democracy, Part 1.
With civil society under attack on multiple fronts these days, I thought I’d ramble on for a few columns about the importance of democracy—a concept that really shouldn’t need defending.
Some years back, a former B.C. politician suggested that if I wanted to understand how politics really works at the legislative level, I should track down the old BBC comedy series Yes Minister. It featured a well-meaning but bumbling politician whose trial balloons were constantly popped by his sly, serpentine adviser.
“They give you about six months,” the former cabinet minister said, generalizing from his sitcom-like experiences in office. “Six months for what?” I asked. “Until they decide whether you’re going to succeed or not.” He meant unelected bureaucrats, who choose to either cooperate with government initiatives or set up career-threatening roadblocks.
In Washington, D.C., some power-broking bureaucrats refer to themselves as “Weebies,” meaning, “we be here when you get in, and we be in when you go.” Whether they hail from the State Department, Pentagon or the alphabet agencies, or lobby for corporations and foreign interests, they outlive political campaigns and contenders. They are well beyond electoral oversight. In effect, they are the Mandarin class protecting the interests of the nation’s .01 per cent.
In both Canada and the U.S., every election cycle (from federal to local), the message from pundits to couch potatoes is “get thee to the ballot box.” Failure to do so is flunking the easiest skill-testing question of freedom. After all, don’t voters choose their future with their little wooden pencils, the same way couch potatoes select their evening TV schedule with a remote?
Not quite. Even at a mundane level, there are all sorts of roadblocks, detours and potholes between the voters and the vote winners. Once in office, even honest, hardworking Members of Parliament discover they have little or no influence on federal decisions unless they are lucky enough to get into cabinet.
Even before Stephen Harper’s agenda-revealing majority, plenty of people have confessed to me their belief we don’t live in a true democracy. For one, they insist Canada’s first-past-post voting system fails spectacularly to accurately reflect the nation’s voting profile—and on that point they’re absolutely right. That said, even non-voting cynics are ready to admit Canada still offers more democratic options than many other spots on the globe, although the gap appears to be shrinking, thanks to the current incumbent.
The word “democracy” has been affixed to governments that have only passing acquaintance with the ballot box—the “Democratic People’s Republic of Korea” is one jarring example. In other words, the word “democracy” has become something of a brand, like Starbucks or BMW.
The brand has selling power for a reason, in part for its embrace of messiness and complexity. As author John Ralston Saul noted in his 1994 book A Doubter’s Companion, “democracy is not intended to be efficient, linear, logical, cheap, the source of absolute truth, manned by angels, saints or virgins, the justification for any particular economic system, a simple matter of majority rule or for that matter a simple matter of majorities. Nor is it an administrative procedure, a reflection of tribalism, a passive servant of law or regulation, elegant or particularly charming.”
He added, “Democracy is the only system capable of reflecting the humanist premise of equilibrium or balance. The key to its secret is the involvement of the citizen.”
Quebec’s kitchenware-banging students, Spain’s indignatos, Athens’ placard-waving marchers and the cross-generational crowd in the global Occupy movement all are examples of democratic uprisings, from citizens reminding inaccessible, unaccountable leaders of their loud, street-level presence.
Representative democracy is about delegated power. When governments decide their authority to govern comes strictly from the ballot box, they forget their power is provisional, notes University of Montreal philosopher Christian Nadeau. “It’s never a blank cheque. Delegating power to a third party, to a government, is an act of confidence. They must work to maintain it or they lose their moral authority,” Nadeau observes in a recent Globe and Mail report on Quebec’s widespread protests.
Across the world, citizens are demanding accountability and transparency from their leaders. From Santiago to Seoul, the cries in the streets echo the New England colonists demand to King George III, with a slight alteration: no neoliberalization without representation.
More thoughts on democracy next week.