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Friday, December 16, 2011

Is Democracy dead...and how will we know?


Joe Cunningham

Joe Cunningham, Columnist, Pincher Creek Voice

     Democracy. Pretty important concept. But what does it mean? Where did it come from? Is it inherently good? Is it all good? Where is it going?

     On a simplistic level we all know what it is. It’s the concept of everyone having a say in how we run our collective affairs. It’s each having one vote for the person or group who will “govern” us. Or, it’s been often said: ”It’s not perfect but it’s the best we’ve got.” Of course one could say: But there are, theoretically, many different ways of structuring a democracy. Are some bad, while others are good? I’ll grapple with that later on. For now I’d simply like to deal with the basic concept.


     In western “liberal democracies”, like ours, the concept has often been treated as sacred - synonymous with freedom, justice, equality and progress; it’s easy to imagine this sentiment’s most infantile expression in the image of a Charlton Heston-like character pronouncing: “You can have my democracy when you can pry it from my cold, dead hands!” But that’s not necessarily how its originators thought of it. Although some aspects of communal decision-making have always existed it’s generally agreed that the modern practice was invented by the Greeks and elaborated upon by the Romans. However, the most esteemed Greek thinkers - Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, were all not crazy about it. A reading of their basic ideas on this subject can be very illuminating.

     From the time of ancient Greece forward a number of distinct forms of democracy can be described. I will try to concisely distill them here down to their essence. If you leave out for now the myriad of adjectives modifying the subtler structures, such as liberal, parliamentary, republican, socialist, presidential, Islamic, constitutional, totalitarian etc.  you are primarily left with three overarching types of democracies: Consensual.  Representative. Direct.  { (A fourth form could be added here as a caveat, that of non-binding democratic decision-making, which is a sub-category of anarchistic democracy, but I’m going to ignore it here because it seems to be only an idealistic form, of philosophical interest but of little practical application outside of perhaps a very small group of highly ethical individuals.) }

     The consensual form of democracy is considered by most philosophers and idealists to be the highest form. The concept, just as the word implies, requires decision-making by consensus. It has been most extensively practiced and studied in the forms common amongst some aboriginal societies and other small groups and communities. In practice it involves more than mere agreement and consent in that reaching decisions requires reasonableness, knowledge and wisdom in interactions amongst participants in order to reach a point of massive support for a direction chosen as the wisest course. In practice it can be seen to become more cumbersome as numbers grow and is rarely seen in western liberal democracies like Canada these days as we have evolved towards more and more adversarial practices. Attempts to approximate this ideal can be understood in ideas to abolish the party system and schemes to replace current large systems like  the “first past the post” constituency system of our national and provincial governments with proportional representation.

     Representative democracy is a sort of compromised form of of consensual democracy. In theory it was designed to avoid the the rancorous craziness, cross-purposedness, conflict, and minority stomping which were seen to result from too much of that which we will examine shortly, direct democracy. The essence of our representative type is shockingly misunderstood. In this system, in which all western presidential, parliamentary, constitutional, socialist and republican democracies participate, citizens have a direct vote for representatives who are then assigned the task of deliberating with other representatives on decisions in the best interests of the whole. The rough idea comprising representative democracy is that the community of citizens cannot possibly possess all the knowledge necessary to weigh all the factors in reaching the best decision for all. In lieu of this, citizens are given a more basic decision to make - that of choosing the decision-makers. In its pure form, which we do not have on a large scale anywhere that I know of, it is often unfairly (I believe) maligned as somewhat elitist. Why, “unfairly”? Well that brings us to the third form - direct democracy.

     Direct democracy is simple: got a problem?... take a vote. Sounds logical enough. Now, there is a reason I’ve been using the term “consensual” throughout this text in place of the more accepted “consensus” (just in case any of the word police are starting to get irritated). ‘Consensual’ conjures up imagery of a sexual nature which implies the absence of coercion. Direct democracy...consensual it is not. Majority rules, regardless of any inherent ignorance on its part. Just in case this criticism  seems to run counter to some basic notions of the inherent sacredness of the vote, the majority, and western democracy’s sanctimonious moral claims and evangelic satisfaction, it’s worth pointing out that direct democracy was that employed by the communist parties at the grassroots level during the early days of the Soviet system and during the Maoist cultural revolution in China in the 50s and 60s. Moral imperatives and direct democracy are, in fact, foundational pillars of theoretical Marxism. Direct democracy’s dysfunctional dynamic, with which we are all too familiar in the west as well, seems to be that which particularly rankled the ancient philosophers who first grappled with such issues.

     California has been experimenting again, this time with direct democracy. It’s great in some ways that someone else is willing to do these experiments so that we can learn without all the damage. As the California Democratic Party legislator,John Burton, intimated on American national TV: “California’s all f...ed up.” An amazing admission although we might have said we already knew that. In California, virtually anyone can introduce what is called a “ballot initiative”. Often complex and convoluted, legislation has become, under this “citizen legislature” contradictory and reactionary. The state teeters on bankruptcy, its infrastructure is falling apart and its credit rating is the worst in the country. The state legislature has become powerless as it has been denied revenue by its own citizens. The level of debate, interestingly, resembles that of modern semi-anonymous internet debates that, in turn, seem to have a pedigree somehow related to modern urban road rage.

    What direct democracy in California so dramatically demonstrates is how dysfunctional decision-making can be when those with the power to make decisions don’t know what they are doing. And in this example of democracy - it’s us. That’s the catch. Collectively, let’s be perfectly clear and frank, we do not have the knowledge and wisdom to NOT mess things up. That’s what Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle all knew. Apparently, for proving this point fairly convincingly Socrates was accused and convicted of corrupting the youth of Athens and summarily and willingly executed.

     Here’s another catch - we’re not actually learning from these lessons. According to  the Economist (Apr. 20, 2011) more and more direct democracy measures are cropping up in Europe. Recent history in Canada has seen the rise of populism in the guise of the Reform  movement, advocation of referendum initiatives and an elected senate, and even though, individually, virtually all parliamentarians profess a deep desire for intelligent and informed debate in the House of Commons, nothing changes. In fact, the last 25 years (maybe longer) have seen creeping negative campaigning and cynicism. One could also reasonably make the argument that the best and the brightest amongst us no longer have any desire for political office.

     So here is my third catch. The party system, long a means of stabilizing decision-making, has in recent times increasingly contributed to turning politics into a sort of bureaucratic career choice. In such an environment, populism, referenda, and marketing become good business. After all, if you can simply appeal to the baser emotional instincts of the “silent majority”, so to speak, it is possible to harness the power of direct democracy without actually having it institutionalized. Rupert Murdoch certainly knows that. Isn’t that also what “branding” is all about? Why on earth else would a government want to brand itself? Why on earth else would a caucus member blurt out in the House of Commons that it doesn’t base its decisions on scientifically collected facts. How else could it get away with that? For that matter why else would it even contemplate such a stupid decision? In turn, this contributes further to a misunderstanding of the essence of representative government and the reasons for its creative and deliberate invention in the first place; citizens start to believe that if their wishes are in the majority position they have an inalienable right to insist their representatives carry them out.

     It’s almost 2012.  We are in trouble.  To try to ignore this is like the guy who, jumping from an airplane, increasingly enthralled with the magnitude of the rush and now unable to give up the thrill exclaims: “So far, so good. Why stop now?” to his extremely pessimistic friend imploring him to pull the rip cord.
     Like the skydiver, our trip hasn’t really been all that long. The argument that things have always worked out just doesn’t cut it. In the natural world biologists know that different species follow different population patterns. Over long periods of time some ebb and flow, while others keep rising in spectacular evolutionary success only to crash just as spectacularly.

     We are not making the decisions that need to be made. We have allowed democracy to evolve into a debilitating deformity. No wonder it is spreading. So in trying to answer the question, “Is democracy dead and how will we know?” perhaps we have to see it as mortally wounded. Kind of a “death by a thousand cuts” scenario. Eventually, of course, the metaphor breaks down. Democracy is not actually a living organism. Maybe it doesn’t actually die from a thousand cuts, it just becomes another meaningless brand.

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