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 BC politician suggested that if I wanted to understand how politics really works at the legislative level, I should track down an old BBC comedy series, Yes Minister. It featured a well-meaning but bumbling politician whose trial balloons were constantly popped by his sly, serpentine advisor.
“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, DC, 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 percent.
In both Canada and the US, 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 votewinners. 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.
“Democracy is the only system capable of reflecting the humanist premise of equilibrium or balance,” the author added. “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.
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 modeled after a wooly 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, like the robocalls in 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 neighbors south of the border, cursed with their cartoon-like duopoly. What thinking American still confuses their quarterly children’s matinee of Elephant vs. 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 US electorate have rarely been consulted in 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, Vice President Cheney’s inner circle leveraged Saddam’s fictitious WMD’s into a planetary threat, and US 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 1950’s, president Dwight D. Eisenhower initiated the US 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 moondust, few Americans regretted this sky-high triumph for the Stars and Stripes brand.
Even one of the greatest infrastructure projects of the twentieth century, the US 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 US 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.
The Vancouver Courier, June 8 and June 15th