Thoughts on Democracy: Part 3
Sometimes we get things right legislatively in Canada. Universal health care resulted from the vote-seeking jostling of three men with completely different political philosophies: NDP leader Tommy Douglas, Progressive Conservative prime minister John Diefenbaker and Liberal prime minister Lester B. Pearson.
The voters' effect on Canadian domestic and foreign policy has declined since the 1960s, in large part because the Whigs and Tories became less distinct at the policy level. (Brian Mulroney once congratulated Jean Chretien for "going further with our policies than we ever did.") For its part, the NDP bowed out of the Free Trade debate in the '90s, believing it was a fight they could not win. In 2011, the party proposed to remove the phrase, "democratic socialism" from the preamble of the NDP's constitution, in an attempt to reach that sweet, centrist spot in the voter's heart.
With the implosion of the federal Liberals under Michael Ignatieff and the NDP taking its place in opposition, Canadian politics has strayed that much further toward an American-style duopoly. But at least we're not in some propagandistic hellhole like North Korea, right?
Certainly not, but then again, totalitarian societies don't require much in the way of subtle propaganda. Unhindered by a free press, free elections, or an independent judiciary, tyrants can dispense force to keep people in line. Disappear a few intellectuals or trade union leaders, and everyone else quickly gets the message.
In his 1989 Massey lecture series, "Necessary Illusions: Thought Control in Democratic Societies," MIT media critic Noam Chomsky argued that democratic nations actually traffic in more domestic propaganda than totalitarian states. Public relations firms, foundations, think tanks, universities and the media engage in what he calls the "manufacture of consent." Chomsky insists that the citizenry of the industrialized west are propagandized constantly with sophisticated tools of persuasion from the crib to the coffin. We are inculcated with beliefs that we eventually regard as wholly our own.
This social programming was somewhat more effective when Chomsky delivered his Massey lectures than it is today. After decades of relentless spin, a combination of cynicism, apathy and disgust reigns over the electorate. Hence the slow rise of Banana Republic law enforcement methods in the U.S. and Canada, to counter the restless doubts of a growing underclass.
These mass doubts are problematic for the managerial tier that acts as a buffer between the two solitudes of the hyper-wealthy and the working poor. If enough citizens refuse to believe they live in a true democracy, that means the gatekeepers are manufacturing contempt rather than consent. The health of the status quo depends on Larry and Louise Lunchbucket's belief that we live in a meritocracy, if not a democracy. They don't necessarily have to believe that leaders hold their vote in sacred trust; they just have to believe there's still something left for them in a battered, broken system.
"Socialism never took root in America because the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat, but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires," said author John Steinbeck in 1962. In Canada, many of us fantasize we are just one winning lottery ticket away from a McMansion and suburban assault vehicle. Freedom has been conflated with winning, if not in the Charlie Sheen sense, then at least in the quaint belief that the odds are not fixed in favour of the house.
In other words, democracy functions somewhat like a placebo, those sugar pills given to test subjects in clinical drug trials. Its success depends in part on our expectations. You could say Harper's majority government has either abused a naive faith in Canadian democracy or liberated us from it. Serial proroguing, the contempt of Parliament charge and the F-35 scandal were never hinted at in the run-up to the last election. And with Bill C-38, the agenda is no longer hidden; it's right out in the open, ready to devour everything on the commons like a B-movie werewolf.
Elections are always a bitter pill to follow, but is there any real medicine left in Canada's first-past-thepost electoral process? Or is it all sugary PR and expertly managed deceit, from leaders we can hardly trust with the office supplies, let alone an entire nation?
Final thoughts next week.