Wednesday, November 10, 2010

The Construct of Democracy

I've been thinking about this topic for awhile, and for the moment, it will serve as the first launching pad away from 'topical issue' posting on the blog. I've toyed with the idea of taking the blog from a retrospective on current events and turning it into a pure reflection of political thought instead...

Granted, at 23 years old, I have a lot left to learn in the school of political thought; so perhaps, I have resisted as I was worried that such an undertaking would be an act of hubris on my part. Despite that concern, I think I will indeed give a shot to the exploration of deeper political thought. If I think it is a format that works, I shall keep it.

If it doesn't work, then at least I can say that I tried. Effectively, what will likely happen, is an amalgamation of the blog as it currently exists and the addition of these occasional 'op-ed' pieces that do not focus on political news, but rather reflections of political thought and philosophy. Hopefully, these little segments actually make sense.

I would like to start this little adventure, with a reflection on the notion of democracy. It was Winston Churchill who famously opined that "Democracy is the worst form of government, except all those other forms which have been tried from time to time." This is a quote that has stuck with me all my life, and in a sense, haunts me to this day.

As such, I have struggled to understand what Churchill meant in this quote. After the fall of Berlin, the people of Britain began to feel the need for change in governance. Churchill had served well as a war-time Prime Minister, but there were some doubts about his ability to rebuild the country after the damage done to Britain during the war; chief amongst those doubts were his resistance to social program spending and taking Britain towards establishing a 'welfare state'.

As such, the British people turned to the Labour Government under Clement Attlee to form the next government in Britain; a move Churchill also opined when he refused the Order of the Garter by saying '..the British people have given me the Order of the Boot."

It was during his time in opposition that Churchill made his remark about democracy. To some, this could be seen as a lamentation of a bitter politician. A man with an inflated ego, who saw himself as the Saviour of Britain, who now considered himself betrayed by the people he protected. To others, the remark could also be seen as just way in which Churchill was being Churchill.

After all, Churchill didn't stop at saying democracy was the worst form of government. He stopped by saying that compared to everything else that was tried, democracy won out. But Churchill, ever so subtly, was touching on a very important issue. Democracy is a system that is not without flaws, but the question we must all ask is do the flaws of democracy outweigh the benefits?

This is the question I wish to focus on in this posting, an examination of the flaws of the democratic system and the benefits that come with it. I do not know whether or not I will be able to present a final thought, on whether democracy is worth the flaws, but we shall see when we get to that point.

The first thing that we have to ask is what constitutes a flaw? For the purposes of this political reflection, we shall consider a flaw to be anything which diminishes the overall effectiveness of a political system. To break that down into simpler terms, a flaw is anything which overcomplicates, restricts, or inhibits the ability of a political system to be effective.

In order to identify flaws, we must first identify the systems of democracy. After all, like any political ideal, there are numerous ways to implement democracy. In no particular order, you have systems of Direct Democracy, Representative Democracy, and Consensus Democracy.

We'll examine Direct Democracy first, then move onto Consensus Democracy, and wrap things up with Representative Democracy.

Direct Democracy, is arguably, the oldest form of democracy. The idea behind Direct Democracy is that there are no politicians, just citizens. Under this system, which could be seen in Ancient Greece, voting was restricted to male citizens of a specific city; as such, slaves and non-citizens and women, were not able to have a voice in this system.

Democracy grew over time within the Greek city states, first under Solon around 584 B.C.E. in which citizen rules were expanded and power was taken away from the Areopagus (effectively a council which contained only Noble families) to be shared with a Council of Four Hundred and a popular assembly.

Despite a tyrant taking power in Athens and reversing the changes made by Solon, the tyranny in Athens was overthrown in 510 B.C.E and more reforms were spearheaded by Clisthenes. Clisthenes established the idea of 'deme', which are reflective of modern day ridings or constituencies, and made these the basis of citizenship, which expanded citizenship to those outside of wealthy families and tradespeople.

Clisthenes' major change however, was giving authority over issues to a public assembly which consisted of all male citizens in Athens. As such, all male Athenians could introduce ideas to be debated and could debate proposed legislation. Despite these changes, Clisthenes furthered the Council of Four Hundred to Five Hundred sitting members, which were chosen by lottery and debated issues of foreign policy and finance. The assembly was given further power by Pericles, who allowed them final authority over all issues.

Effectively, direct democracy refers to the idea that it is left to the citizens themselves to make decisions. While Athens had a council of 'elected' representatives that also debated issues, eventually it was left to the people themselves to make the final decision on an issue. As such, in ancient times, it was left to the people to gather when a call was made.

Today, there are areas that still use a form of direct democracy. Small towns in countries like Switzerland use direct democracy to determine municipal issues, as opposed to having an elected council and mayor. And of course, most of the restrictions on direct democracy have been removed; allowing women to vote.

We will return to direct democracy when we take a closer look at the flaws of democracy later on. So, that brings us to the idea of Consensus Democracy, which sadly I don't have a lot to say about, as it is rather straight forward.

Consensus Democracy is nothing new to Canada, after all, the territories use a consensus system in regards to territorial governance. In the territories, the consensus system is also non-partisan, which means that no political parties exist. Instead, people are elected as independents who then select among themselves as leader and cabinet to serve as the Executive in Government.

However, there are places that keep political parties in place yet operate on a consensus system. Switzerland, to cite them again, also use a form of consensus democracy on a Federal level.

Effectively, consensus democracy seeks to make the best decision possible by forcing elected officials to look at an issue in a variety of ways. This is done by setting quotas needed to pass legislation.

For example, in the Canadian House of Commons, a plurality of members is all that is needed to pass a piece of legislation. So, for example, a vote of 51 - 50, would be passed. Under a consensus model, however, this become a bit more complex.

Consensus democracy requires either a clear majority (50% + 1) of the voting members; super majorities (60 - 90% support); or complete support (100%). There are also systems that call for complete support for legislation, but allow for one or two dissenting votes.

Effectively, consensus democracy is still the rule of many, but actively commands that the many have the support of the few at the same time.

And that brings us to representative democracy, the form most of us are familiar with. Representative Democracy builds upon the idea of Direct Democracy, in that people should be given a voice to debate the issues that fall upon a country or city. But, it acknowledges that people at the same time are busy with other things.

As such, the people lay aside their own interest and entrust their voice to a representative, who is chosen through an election.

In most representative democracies, those elected often are identified under a certain political banner which is united in a political party. These parties are designed to guide similar principals and ideas towards fruition; and in a representative democracy, the party which garners the most seats in the legislative body often form government.

But, of course, there are different forms of representative democracy.

In Canada, we do not elect a Head of State; as our head of state is Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Second, who is represented in Canada by the Governor General who as of this writing is David Johnston. The Queen also has representatives in each province, in the form of Lieutenant Governors, all of which are non-elected positions.

By contrast, in America, the Head of State is the President, who is directly elected by the people. (Slightly.) I add that comment, because in reality the President of the United States is not directly elected by the people. Under the Electoral College, each state is given a certain number of 'electors' based on generalized population and some other random figures. That number is the number of people in that state who are allowed to vote for President.

For example, California has 55 Electoral Votes. That means 55 representatives for the State of California declare their intention to cast their vote for one of the candidates. Historically, and probably quite rightly, the electors always select the candidate that all American citizens of legal age voted for.

Effectively, after the main election, a smaller election is held with the electors where they all cast their ballots to determine the allocation of the state's electoral votes. It is these people who actually determine the President of the United States; although, as noted, they do (and in some states are legally required) to adhere to the popular vote.

Now that we have a bit of an understanding of the systems of democracy, we can explore whether or not there are problems with the system, and whether or not Churchill was correct.

The problems with direct democracy are fairly obvious.

On a small scale, civic-level, direct democracy could be a workable system. But on a national level, it would become impossible to coordinate a way for all citizens of a nation who are able to vote come together to do such. Add to that the growing levels of voter apathy across Canada, and in other democracies that do not require mandatory voting, and you would run into the problem of quorum.

Quorum, for those not aware, is the minimum amount of people present for a vote to occur. For example, if Canada operated on a system of direct democracy we would require a quorum of people to attend meetings for a vote to occur or to be considered valid. If areas existed, where quorum was not met, it would have a profound impact on whether or not the vote was valid on a national level.

Let's say that a vote was called under a direct democracy system in Canada. Canada's population is roughly about 34,600,000 people. Half of that would be 17,300,000 people, which effectively is usually the standard for quorum, that being half of the body being called to vote.

Already, that's a rather staggering number to consider. In the 2008 Federal Election, 13,929,093 people cast ballots nation wide. Already, that number is 3,370,907 people short of the half required to constitute quorum. Now, these numbers clearly will be off a bit since it hasn't separated out people who are not eligible to vote. But, these numbers are clearly just an aid to help us understand the problem, and should not be considered binding.

So, if we consider that looking through past electoral results, that voter turnout has consistently been dropping since 1993, we can see the biggest problem with direct democracy. Some people are either just too busy, or sadly just don't care enough, to be bothered with helping determine how a nation should be run.

Now, we find ourselves asking what the problem is with consensus democracy. To be honest, the problems of consensus democracy rest solely with the quota needed to reach consensus. If the consensus level is too high, then you run the risk of not finding the support needed to pass legislation. For example, under the Martin Government, same-sex marriage had broad support from the NDP, Bloc, and Liberals. While it was strongly opposed by most Conservatives, and even a few Liberals and Bloc members.

Under a consensus system where a 60% voting bloc would be needed to pass the legislation, same-sex marriage would not have passed through the House of Commons. This would be even more true if the consensus quota was higher than 60%; such as requiring 70% or even unanimous support.

I will touch more on this in my reflection on representative democracy, but in a political system with political parties, consensus democracy would result in a grinding halt to most legislation. This is due primarily to the conflict between political parties, and to a degree the level of animosity that sometimes exists towards one party from another.

In a world where you're trying to stand out from the other political parties, working together to better the nation becomes less of an option. As such, in a system with political parties, consensus democracy becomes less and less appealing; this is because the only answer to this problem would be to elect an overwhelming majority of representatives from one party. A party which had by itself 50 - 55% of the seats in the House of Commons, could work issue to issue to form consensus with other parties, but at the same time still be able to mostly pass legislation on without fostering full cooperation.

And that brings us to representative democracy. I have touched slightly on the problem, which I consider to be the main problem in a representative democracy, above in the problem of political parties.

In a system where political parties exist, democracy becomes less about achieving a mass benefit for the people you represent, and more about winning. Not winning for the people, but winning for your party.

As such, representative democracy breeds a culture of competition and animosity. It creates an "us or them" mentality amongst politicians, and spreads that ideal to the voting public. Political debate and ideas become stagnant, if not die out all together, as parties become less and less interested in forming meaningful political thoughts and instead become more and more obsessed with painting the other parties in a bad light. Political discourse goes from furthering our nation and it's best interests, to simply trying to make the other parties sound like boogymen.

In the past, representative democracy worked. Despite election outcomes, government and opposition could come together to work on issues of great importance to the nation. I've mentioned the Pearson Government before on this blog; and how under Pearson we saw cooperation in government and opposition that we haven't seen since, and will likely never see again. Australia and Great Britain are good examples; their recent elections resulted in coalition governments. Whereas in Canada, despite no party reaching a majority, there is a natural assumption that the party with the most seats either way is entitled to form a government.

As such, that brings us back to Winston. Is democracy the worst form of government?

The short answer, is no. The long answer, is that until we find ways to reform our system and foster a degree of cooperation between political parties, then yes, democracy is indeed the worst form of government.

We have silently allowed a system to hijack our democracy; a system which does not award political thought and new ideas; a system which suggests that he who can cast the most stones during an election, is the better choice because of it; a system which forces politicians to radicalize and attack and demonize their fellow politicians of different political stripes, simply because it 'polls' better.

I say it's high time we break our silence and demand better. It's time for the people of Canada to wake up and challenge the system that we've allowed to become complacent. We need to buck the system and force change if we ever want to see a system which truly works towards the best interest of all Canadians.

We need to become involved. We need to become informed. We need to look into issues, and not just rely on those 'in the loop' to come back from Ottawa or Regina or Toronto and tell us what the issues are and why they're on the right side of it and the 'other' politicians are in the wrong. We have become complacent. I cannot stress that enough. We have become a nation that finds it easier to not look into the issues. A nation which finds it easier to just not go to the polls at all. A nation which feels we may as well keep elect incumbents over and over and over again, simply because they've been there once and they must know what they're doing...

I can assure you, not all incumbents know what they're doing, and not all of them deserve to be re-elected.

Canada deserves better. And the only way we can do this, is by coming together, reflecting on the system that has failed us, and demanding better of those we chose to represent us. The task may seem daunting, and to some it may seem impossible, but to borrow a phrase that has also stuck with me since my childhood, and was said by a politician who's like we're not apt to see again in the current system:

"Courage my friends; 'tis not too late to build a better world."
-Tommy Douglas

1 comment:

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