Thoughts on democracy, Part 2
Does the name "Aloysius Snuffleupagus" ring a bell? Mr. Snuffleupagus, or just Snuffy, is a Muppet on the children's television show Sesame Street. Initially, only Big Bird could see the lumbering beast, loosely modelled after a woolly mammoth. In later episodes, Snuffy became visible to other characters on the show.
At the provincial and federal level, representative democracy has an unnerving resemblance to this hairy Hensen/Oz construction. Are we investing our faith in a consensual hallucination based on something extinct? Or is democracy in a strange, in-between state, like Schrödinger's Cat, until we are certain that vote suppression hasn't compromised election results?
In theory, voting is the last line of defense between the restless many and the prosperous few, keeping both sides from ripping up the social contract. Attempts at electoral subterfuge, such as the robocalls in the last federal election, are proof positive that free, transparent elections are still considered a threat in some quarters.
In its idealized form, democracy works when an enlightened citizenry makes the informed decision to elect leaders of vision. Said leaders then make informed decisions on the voters' behalf. Unfortunately, their political vision-and ours-is sometimes less than 20/20, and the words "public interest" often appear at the very bottom of the legislative eye chart.
I like to think that Canadians are in better electoral shape than our neighbours south of the border, cursed with their cartoon-like duopoly. What thinking American still confuses their quarterly children's matinee of Elephant versus Donkey with meaningful political struggle? But before we congratulate ourselves on our greater number of functioning political parties, we should remember that both the Canadian and U.S. electorate have rarely been consulted on major policy decisions.
Canada's involvement in Afghanistan started in early December 2001, with the deployment of Joint Task Force 2 into southern Afghanistan, without public knowledge. Two years later, then-vice president Cheney's inner circle leveraged Saddam's fictitious weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) into a planetary threat, and the U.S. Congress signed on to the Iraq invasion in spite of the biggest antiwar demonstrations in world history.
When it comes to major domestic and foreign policies, this is how our leaders roll. In the late 1950s, president Dwight D. Eisenhower initiated the U.S. space program, and his successor, John F. Kennedy, presided over the decision to land a man on the moon. The American voter had nothing to do with this Olympian expenditure of public funds-though when Neil Armstrong put his boots in moon dust, few Americans regretted this sky-high triumph for the Stars and Stripes brand.
Even one of the greatest infrastructure projects of the 20th century, the U.S. highway system, went without public input. The Eisenhower administration sold it to the public as "The National Defence Highway System" to justify expenditures. (The proposed idea was to shuttle missiles and military equipment on superhighways in the event of a Cold War crisis.) This was not the main reason, of course; the program was really about oil consumption.
In an audio interview on the Postcarbon Energy Bulletin, MIT media critic Noam Chomsky reminded listeners that the U.S. highway system was part of a widespread program of undoing efficient, lower cost transportation-particularly railways.
"That actually followed on a literal conspiracy, a conspiracy judged so by the courts, between several major producers... actually it was General Motors, Standard Oil of California, Firestone Rubber, who got together to buy up the quite efficient electric rail system in Los Angeles and elsewhere in California and to replace it by buses, trucks, and roads and so on," Chomsky observed.
By the time road crews were at work on the National Defence Highway, half of all American homes had televisions. This phosphorescent piece of furniture offered a fantastic opportunity for auto advertisers to sell millions of couch potatoes on a new generation of tail-finned land yachts. In short order, asphalt became as patriotic a substance as apple pie or uranium 2-35, and the automobile became the vector of the free and freewheeling American.
Needless to say, Canada wasn't outside the reach of the American Autogeddon. Trolley tracks were torn up from Toronto to Vancouver, and passenger rail destinations went the way of bison migration routes. Like our neighbours, Canadian voters had absolutely no say in the matter.
Part 3 next week.