Sunday, April 10, 2011

Vox Populi - an essay

I don’t often get political, so I’ll try to be brief. I probably won't succeed. When I actually have something political to say, I take care to say exactly what I mean, in as many words as it requires.

Here in Canada, it’s election season, and we are surrounded by an age old drama: a farce and a lottery wrapped up in the flags of democracy. I see the same political polka in most of the “democratic” states.

The genetic make-up of each “democracy” varies somewhat from country to country, but here (as I see it), to win a seat in the House of Commons, two or more people advertise their names, faces and virtues in order to win the popular vote and work in the government for a few years. They shake hands, they make some promises and they debate over topics that seem important to the people in that riding. To maximize their popularity, they slander their opponents with an astonishing and hypocritical eye for detail. After several weeks of posturing and hopeful grins, the candidates sit back, biting their nails, and wait for the results to come in. Then, some people to come out to the voting booth to make a simple X in the right circle on the right slip of paper. The candidate who has the most X’s wins a seat in the House. This is the defining attribute of “democracy” as we know it, and that’s where the “democratic” part of the process ends.

Now, the political party that has the most electoral winners gains nominal control of the country, and the leader of that party becomes the Prime Minister - the chief executive of the country, under the authority of the Monarch of the United Kingdom. I say nominal here, because in some cases “party with the most seats” does not infer “party with the majority of seats in the House.” A minority government is that state wherein the winning party has more seats than any other party, but all the other parties, if they could actually get along, could band together and outvote the ruling party.

Post-election, when the government actually sits down to do some work, bills are introduced for debate with the hopes that they become law. The political parties bicker over the details and call each other idiots; then, they all sit down and vote according to party policy (and if they don't, look out). Sometimes, bills are passed and handed over to the Senate for a final sanity check before being handed to the Governor General for the official seal that turns idea into law. (And yes, “sanity check” is written tongue in cheek – but my diatribe about the Senate should be reserved for a much later date).

Sometimes we even get good laws – don’t get me wrong. Every once in a while, something is passed through Parliament that actually makes sense. If you took the time to read and understand some legislation, you’d see that yes, these laws were proposed by rational people, refined by rational people, and passed into law for a good reason. Most law, after all, is crafted after somebody has already done something stupid, and this process helps the institutions of law and order to prevent future occurrences – or at least to backhand those people who follow a bad example.

Yes, I’m oversimplifying an enormous and complex social organism. Am I criticizing our “democratic” government? No. Things could be a lot worse. In fact, my own free sarcasm is a key indication of good government – anywhere else, and I could be ostracized, denied access to certain institutions, or punished up to and including being put to death. That’s why I love this country. I don’t have to burn any flags to acknowledge my freedoms; I can say thank you, instead.

What I am criticizing is the word we use to describe this government.

In a true democracy, representatives are elected from among the people, by the people, to represent the people. This is the simplest definition of democracy.

Democracy does not exist in North America. It existed briefly, while George Washington was in office. In his farewell address, he begged his peers not to follow the European example of bipartisan politics.

“They serve to organize faction; to give it an artificial and extraordinary force; to put in the place of the delegated will of the nation the will of a party, often a small but artful and enterprising minority of the community, and, according to the alternate triumphs of different parties, to make the public administration the mirror of the ill-concerted and incongruous projects of faction rather than the organ of consistent and wholesome plans, digested by common counsels and modified by mutual interests.

However combinations or associations of the above description may now and then answer popular ends, they are likely in the course of time and things to become potent engines by which cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people, and to usurp for themselves the reins of government, destroying afterwards the very engines which have lifted them to unjust dominion." – George Washington.

As the Democrats and Republicans have since shown us, he didn’t get his wish.

What we have here and now is an oligarchical lottery, and I say this for three very good reasons.

First, when we get a job we’ve applied for, we don’t say we “won” a new job. So why do parties “win” elections, except if it’s some kind of a game? And, the more tickets (votes) you have, the better your chances of winning the pot – therefore, lottery.

Second, we do not vote for a representative of ourselves (with the exception of independents, but more on that in a moment). We vote for a member of a political party. We subscribe to the values and promises of a political party that seem best aligned with our own political views. When you vote for a party of people who represent the aims of that party, that is “rule by the many”, not “government by representation.” That is an oligarchy.

Third, if there was a democracy, representatives (i.e. someone representative of its constituency) would actively and continually seek out and represent the opinions of his/her riding. Granted, in a society as big as ours, this represents a logistical improbability. We can’t have a referendum on every single bill in the House of Commons. But when was the last time you received a phone call or a letter from your Member of Parliament, post-election, soliciting your advice or your opinion?

And yes, non-politicos (i.e. lobbyists) can sway the opinions of the party. But this is not democracy either. It’s ideology. It is the passionate plea on behalf of a cause or an idea – and not necessarily the representation of the will of the majority of the population.

Here, I had originally thought to make a point about wealth distribution and tax breaks, comparing the size of the lower and middle classes against those few who seem to hold all the power – but that’s an argument that’s been beaten to death. Outside of Michael Moore interviews or documentaries, this is one of the best summaries of the situation in the US, from Senator Bernie Sanders. Watch either of these two links, and I won’t need to make the point at all. It may not be as extreme here in Canada, but we’re enduring the same pressures and the same symptoms as our American allies. (And remember folks - just because I may like how he makes us stop and think about the What's and Why's of his commentary, doesn't mean I'm backing him. There are things he says I don't agree with, too. But he seems genuine in wanting to represent the majority of Americans - which is the whole subject of this essay.)

In short: when you compare the number of Haves against the Have-Nots, it’s hard to believe that the popular opinion has won the day, especially when it comes to issues like tax breaks for the tiny upper class, and budget cuts for social programs like education and daycare, used by the other 80+% of Canadians.

Originally, I’d thought we had mistaken capitalism for democracy. Not so! In capitalism, what sells is the best value product, made as economically as possible and sold for the lowest price possible. But, as with fashion consumerism, we tend to shop for name-brands and shy away from bargain independents, even when it costs more and provides less. In this day and age, we seem to be more swayed by charisma than by conviction or common sense. If that weren’t the case, we wouldn’t have shows like The Hills or Jersey Shore.

Need further proof that we live in an oligarchy?

Have you ever heard someone ask “why are you voting for that party?” when that party (i.e. the Green Party) is guaranteed a minority of seats in the House of Commons? Does it matter, if I’m voting for what I believe in? “If you vote for this small and wimpy party, the bigger and meaner party will win in the end! Vote for us (the lesser evil) instead!” Et cetera, ad nauseum.

Have you ever heard the term “throw-away vote” especially when someone expresses support for an independent candidate? It’s a grassroots question designed to sway you toward a more popular party. It’s like someone smacking the Tim Horton’s coffee from your hand and demanding you switch to Starbucks, regardless of your personal tastes or budget. We’re in this oligarchy because we enforce it ourselves, and I'm at a loss to understand why.

In a true democracy, each person has a right to vote for a person who best represents themselves; the majority of people, therefore, are represented by a candidate selected from among the people, by the people, to represent the needs and values of their community. In a democratic government, the elected officials continue to represent those who elected them. They debate on an issue-by-issue basis, on the merits of the arguments raised and not by party dogma.

I’m not saying that this government is the most dysfunctional in the world. I have no socialist delusions about an egalitarian utopia either. History has also shown us that mankind is no more prepared for socialism than it is for true democracy; and the panoply of opinions in this country require us to have leaders banding together to present a unified, managerial direction for everyone else.

Complaining? No. But I am relabeling the government system we already have, in order to express my doubt in how democratic our “democracy” is.

And the reality is, the vox populi is weak because we don’t vote, en masse, according to our collective conscience. If we actually cared about democracy, we the voters would eliminate party politics.

The point is, after being beaten senseless with “proof” that one party leader is dumber or more dangerous than another, I am challenging myself to actually meet, greet and question all of the candidates in my riding, then to make an informed – and wise – decision based on the candidate’s own merit. And then, I want to hold my representative accountable to the needs of my community, regardless of their party.

I challenge you to do likewise.

So we don’t have a true democracy yet. That doesn’t stop us from acting as if we do.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you, thank you, thank you, for putting down what I've thought for many a year. My comment about all of this is a much weaker, "If you don't vote, you don't have a right to bitch about the gov't." And I've gotta say, your point about when was the last time my representative called me post-election to get my opinion...brilliant. Hell, they don't even call me pre-election...instead it's an auto-dialer and a pre-recorded message.