Thursday, November 18, 2010

It's Ridiculous to Define Canadian Democracy as Rule by the People

Democracy comes from the Greek language and refers to a set of political relations in Athens some 2500 years ago. It existed then and has appeared rarely within small groupings but has never taken hold in modern state.

We can say that a nation is democratic if the majority of its citizens hold and exercise power. This is certainly not the case in any modern state so why do we get our shit into a knot when we discover another instance of a government acting in an undemocratic fashion?

On one hand, we can speak of it as an ideal, something to be strived for, and when we fall short of the ideal in practice, it could bring about a response. On the other, it should be recognized that when most people, especially politicians, refer to democracy they are not referring to government of, by, and for the people, but a process of authorization in which by holding popular elections (in our case, far from being democratic) an electorate transfers its political power to an oligarchy headed by professional politicians. The subsequent use of that power is then deemed to be legitimate by those who have obtained power and their supporters since it results from holding a popular election. Importantly, the traditional conception of democracy as rule by the majority is reduced to simply the sporadic authorization of hopefully a majority of citizens participating in the electoral process.

As could be expected, the so called democratic legitimacy gained by the authorization process varies considerably relative to the quality of the electoral process in use. Those countries using a proportional voting method come closer to a form of representative democracy in which political power is at least held and exercised by the elected officials that represent the majority of voters.

This is not the case in countries such as our own where the government rarely has the support of the majority of voters. For example, today in Canada and in Quebec the ruling party wields the power of a majority with the support of less than 25% of the electorate.

As a result, people should be extremely wary when politicians or political pundits start making appeals to democratic principles in advancing their positions. In reality, our system of governance is a form of contested authoritarian rule where two or more political parties compete to win a popular election that legitimizes the domination and control of the political party that gains the most electoral districts during a general election. This process is much closer by nature to medieval feudalism than to Athenian democracy.

Hence, I find it ridiculous when the supporters of the Climate Change Accountability Act (legislation that I strongly support) bemoan the fact that the Bill was killed by an unelected Senate and that Stephen Harper was making a mockery of democracy.

Hello there, wake up and smell the coffee!

Since when did Canada become a democratic state? The Conservatives like the Liberals before them use the political power that is afforded to them by the political institutions that are in place. Private Member Bills from opposition parties that don't have the balls to defeat the government, force an election, and then go on to form a governing coalition that would empower them to both adopt the legislation in the House of Commons and to control the nomination of Senators are completely useless. Such actions sidestep the much more important issue of the distribution of power. Until we have a semblance of democracy in Canada, effective climate change legislation remains something to be wished for, and frankly I don't have the time to engage in magical thinking.

In a similar vein, it is even more ridiculous when Jean Charest tries to normalize his rapidly growing unpopularity in Quebec as a result of his refusal to hold a public inquiry into the ever growing scandals in the construction industry by saying that we live in a democracy and it's normal for people to disagree.

In fact, Jean, you couldn't be more wrong. In this instance, the vast majority of Quebecers are extremely pissed off that you are not giving the people what they want. We want a public inquiry and you insist on a police investigation. So, the real point of contention is that the majority of Quebecers realize that their desires trump your authorization process. Somewhere in the collective memory that has become part of the national character there is a sufficient belief in a future that carries with it the hope of living in a democracy and the people are not fooled by what you are trying to pass off as the real thing.

Hopefully, this collective realization that we need not bow to a form of authoritarian control will not be fleeting and that real substantive change will come about so that we no longer deal with the symptoms of the problem but get to the root cause, the undemocratic nature of our political institutions.

Let's not replace one elected dictator with another.

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