This being the October, 2015 edition of the Word you know this month’s column is going to be about the federal election.
However I am not going to review the litany of misdeeds and outright crimes that Stephen Harper and his Conservative government have perpetrated over the past ten years. Others, including Helen Austin in her brilliant ‘Bye Bye Mr. Harper’ video, have delivered a thorough indictment already. If you are not convinced by now of the need to remove this regime, I can only conclude your personal bank account and comfortable lifestyle matter more to you than drowned Syrian babies, veterans with PTSD, 1200 missing and murdered aboriginal women, or a dying planet.
Even if we are successful in electing a new and progressive government, we need to have a conversation about the state of our democracy, our system of governance. To put it bluntly we are in big trouble. I am not just talking about the Harper Conservatives, though the ease with which they were able to undermine “Canadian values”, is a symptom of the problem. No, it goes way beyond antiquated “first past the post” elections.
It is an international crisis in which people have lost faith in politicians and in our form of representative democracy. The gap between what people need and want and what our governments can or are able to deliver has widened considerably over the past 20 or so years. Ivan Krastev, a Bulgarian political scientist, in a recent talk called “Can democracy exist without trust?” stated that “People can still change who is in power but they cannot change policies”.
Greece is the most recent example. In the September election, despite mandatory voting, nearly half of the electorate stayed home. Only nine months ago Syriza was elected on a platform to restore Greek sovereignty and stop the austerity measures imposed by the EU. That hand was further strengthened with a plurality of 61% in a referendum to reject specific austerity measures. Yet his government capitulated when pushed. It’s not hard to understand why Greek citizens, especially enthusiastic young voters, would lose faith in the electoral process’s ability to change things.
In the US, despite its self-proclaimed slogan “land of the free” and an inspiring election of the first black President back in 2008, it is fast becoming not “one person one vote” but “one dollar one vote”. Running for election in the US was always expensive, especially for higher offices like the Senate or President, but now only very wealthy individuals with the support of other wealthy individuals can even think of running. Estimates for the 2012 election showed almost $1,000,000,000 was spent in total by both candidates. Throw in all Congressional and state elections and probably more money is spent on campaigns than on public health and social assistance combined.
It has become worse with recent US Supreme Court rulings, specifically Citizens United vs the Federal Elections Commission. In that ruling the court removed any meaningful restrictions on corporate funding during federal elections. This is based on a perverted view that Corporations are, in the eyes of the law, persons and therefore have individual rights such as free speech. Justice Stevens stated in his written dissent: “A democracy cannot function effectively when its constituent members believe laws are being bought and sold “
Another aspect is the curtailing or co-opting of the activities of civil society of which trade unions are a part. Democracy does not just consist of elections every four years and Question Period in Parliament. It depends on vibrant citizens and informed activists raising issues and putting forward solutions in their communities or workplaces. The neo-conservatives have a special place in their hearts for anti-union animus and Harper is no exception. Besides outlawing almost every public sector strike and some in the private sector, his Government has worked to make it more difficult to form a union and much easier to decertify, and has applied discriminatory financial regulations to unions. The goal is to silence workers’ voices and power in the public arena. One of the first acts of most dictatorships is to eliminate an independent labour movement.
There are many aspects to this crisis, including media concentrated in a handful of conglomerates, but what is actually causing the crisis?
In an article in Global Policy, Dr Ewa Atanassan points out that “Individual independence is the quintessential modern liberty. The desire to shape one’s life drives the struggle for equality. This strife for individual independence, while a central feature of democratic life, is also its foremost danger. Encouraging fixation on private goals and treating society as a means to the pursuit of self-interest hides from view each person’s reliance on –and duty toward- fellow citizens and the social world.”
Wolfgang Merkel adds another part of the answer in a paper titled “Is there a crisis of democracy?” “The crisis of confidence in the democratic decision making structure is not caused by the crisis in capitalism but by its triumph…..politics was deprived of its capacity to steer or influence the economy by the deregulated markets, banks, hedge funds and large investors. Politics has become increasingly impotent in the eyes of the citizens.”
It is more complex than the sum of these two paragraphs but basically the power of the individual citizen has been sapped, and at the same time the power of undemocratic entities such as corporations has grown massively.
I am not arguing that there was a golden age of democracy in the world that we have to get back to. The system of representative democracy has always been flawed, with money having undue influence, many people marginalized from the process, and others not having the right to vote at all. However progress was made over the past seventy years and there was even hope for a peaceful democratic revolution. After all, we outnumbered them and, if united, could vote in governments that would act in the nation’s best interest.
The question is: “Has that hope been extinguished and are there simply too many obstacles and forces in play for the democratic will to bloom?” We will have part of the answer on Oct 19th. Stay tuned.