Sunday, January 17, 2010

The Sovereignty of Privilege versus the Democratic Rights of the People

The evolution of democracy in the Anglo-American realm has not yet reached its end state. Here in Canada, as well in the US and the UK, the rule of the majority has not been attained.

In fact, Canadians elect a government where the leader of the political party that has won the greatest number of electoral fiefdoms assumes the privileges and prerogatives of the sovereign. The prorogation of Parliament is part of the prerogatives bestowed by Canada’s Sovereign Monarch, Queen Elizabeth, to the Prime Minister through the Queen’s representative in Canada, the Governor General. As a result, the Prime Minister can shut down Parliament as he sees fit, and this all well within the rule of law, even if the Prime Minister reigns with only a minority government.

Sounds like we are still stuck in our feudal past to me.

Historically, the evolution of democracy in the English-speaking world has been a gradual transition from the power of privilege towards the democratic rights of the people, and this has largely played itself out through the evolution of the electoral system.

Essentially, the right to vote was extended to the white, Christian, landowners as a counterbalance to the hereditary privileges of the sovereign monarch, but throughout its evolution the right to vote has been used first as means to protect the privileges of a group of landlords against the powers of royalty and then later against the claims of the masses, the demos.

At the heart of this political struggle is the preservation and slow modification of the dominant social paradigm and the privileges of those who profit the most from the political system. Within the realm of human rights, it is hard to imagine today the legitimacy of a political system that did not grant the franchise to women, men without property, or members of ethnic and religious minorities. However, such were the conditions to be found in Canada at the time of confederation.

Over time, the franchise was extended to include the entire adult population, and this evolution saw with it a greater redistribution of the nation’s wealth in the way of transfers of revenue to fund social programs targeting the less fortunate. Yet, if we look elsewhere in the developed world, one cannot help but notice the those countries that continue to use the electoral systems using the Britannic method of first-past-the-post are those countries (Canada, US, England, Australia) that continue to have greater levels of inequality within their respective societies.

The reason for this glaring anomaly is the territorial bias built into the electoral system that allows a privileged class to usurp political power from the majority in order to maintain the privileged position of not only their financial status but also the manner the political economy is organized.

Since feudal practice has given way to democratic principles in theory, in practice the struggle for power shifted to the control of the rules of the electoral game. Essentially, in the Anglo-American realm, there exists a bias toward the landlord, the lords of the land, which is maintained by not aggregating all of the votes when they are cast regardless of where they are cast and by drawing up the electoral map to maximise the number of favourable fiefdoms that can be extracted from the territory. In other words, representation is skewed towards those who have the greater means to wage an electoral campaign and the values that they hold at the expense of those of more limited means and their corresponding values – private interest trumps the common good.

No where is this more evident than in the inability of either Canada or the United States to adopt effective legislation to combat climate change. In both countries, the majority of citizens desire effective legislation to be enacted. However, the territorial bias of the political systems will not allow the private interest of those who desire to amass as much wealth as they can at the expense of the environment to be overturned.

In Canada, the parliamentary system allows for a minority to usurp the power of the majority by transferring political power to the party that wins the greatest of electoral districts. In practice, neither of the two principal parties can expect to win this contest if it promises action to fight climate change since private interest will devote its considerable resources to counter any serious attempt to enact environmental legislation that would somehow limit economic growth. What makes this situation completely at odds with democratic principles is that the will of the majority can be overturned by even a minority government.

In the US, the will of the majority is thwarted by the disproportional power given to the smaller states, each state has two senators regardless of its population, and the supra majority (60%) required to adopt legislation. For example, it takes 60 votes in the Senate to break a filibuster on controversial legislation, and 41 votes is in effect a blocking minority. In fact, states that together hold about 12 percent of the US population can provide that many Senate votes. So, if you are thinking that we can expect to see effective climate change legislation to be adopted in the US this year, think again.

In summary, the territorial bias that grants representation to those who control a territory at the expense of its inhabitants renders both systems profoundly undemocratic.

Yet, representation should not be qualified by whether one’s vote belongs to the winning side. Each and every vote should be given relative equal weight regardless of where it is cast. However, the first-past-the-post voting method does not allow this to occur. It was conceived to transfer to transfer the sovereignty from the masses to the most powerful. If the demos wants to assert its legitimate claim to political power, it must force the political class to change the electoral laws. Otherwise, a privileged few will continue to rule.

1 comment:

  1. Our system definitely needs an overhaul. It's broken. The Green Party earned almost as many votes as the Bloc, yet they have no seats, while the Bloc have 50. That doesn't sound very democratic to me.

    Great article. Glad I found your blog.


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