Taking Back Our Democracy: Welcome to Leadnow.ca
This post has been published in The Mark News as “The Democracy We Deserve”
As we watch events unfold in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya, as the media chronicle acts of extraordinary courage in the face of grotesque brutality, I expect many of us – inspired, hopeful, uncertain — are led to reflect on things here at home. For me, at least, this has meant a recognition of our own very good fortune accompanied, at the same time, by worry about our increasingly enfeebled democracy and perhaps too some shame that we don’t seem able to muster the will to do anything about it.
A consensus is indeed emerging in much of the developed world that both our democracy and civil society are weaker today than, say, a decade ago. Politics and public service are no longer honoured vocations – though they must be. Citizens are less inclined to vote or to join political parties or to pay taxes. Young people in particular have turned away from our conventional political institutions. Parties are in disarray trying to find ways to reconnect to voters. The bonds of trust between citizen and government have come undone and the trust between us as citizens seems to be fraying as politics increasingly polarize and divide.
U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron, heading a Conservative-Liberal Coalition, has pronounced his society “broken”: too many people are excluded entirely from economic opportunity and political participation and a gaping chasm now exists between the government and the people. Scholars and pundits worry increasingly about the depletion of social capital and the loss of “mutuality”.
While we may quibble about details and degree, thinkers across the political spectrum are writing and talking more and more about the risks of this deterioration and the possible remedies to it. But while we might find convergence on the diagnosis, there is nothing close to consensus on the causes and remedies.
Some find the source of decay in the expansion of government into every aspect of our lives and the increasing centralization and bureaucratization that make government more and more remote from and inaccessible to us. Even neoliberalism failed to deliver a smaller more accessible state; protecting the market, it turns out, is pretty expensive and quite intrusive. So Australian John Keane has pronounced the death of representative democracy and the difficult birth of a new “monitory democracy” whose shape and capacity to deliver results is yet to be determined.
Some find the source in creeping authoritarianism, especially in the context of the “war on terrorism” and the expanding security state seeking to become omniscient and omnipresent. Have a look at the recent piece by Linda McQuaig here and an older piece by Chris Selley here.
Others see the source in the unconstrained rise of individualism and consumerism, fed particularly by a neoliberal ideology that defines us – and treats us – entirely in terms of our self-interest, and views mutuality and interdependence as constraints to freedom. In this frame, we become consumers and workers – not citizens. Whatever one thinks of Cameron’s “Big Society” initiative, his concern that society is broken seems so much healthier than Margaret Thatcher’s pronouncement that there is no such thing as society, reflecting the dangerously atomised view of humanity that has prevailed ever since. So republican theorists such as Michael Sandel now wonder, in the face of the hollowing out of civil society, how we might begin to rebuild a sense of the common good and the civic virtue necessary for its pursuit.
Yet others see the real problem as the intolerable growth of inequality over the last decades that has no equal since the twenties and thirties, before the great depression. Then, as now, social trust and democracy were undermined as inevitably too was the capacity to develop a shared sense of the public good. So we now have thinkers as diverse as Francis Fukuyama and Bill Moyers worrying about plutocracy, and we are confronted every day by new evidence of how money shapes politics.
My own bias is that all these explanations have merit, that the task of revitalising our democracy is formidable and will involve, at least, electoral and institutional reform, reinventing and opening up government, putting the brakes on the rise of the security state, and tackling the unsupportable growth in inequality. But I fear that we are in something of a catch 22. These changes won’t happen from the inside and it is not clear that we have the civic will or energy to drive them from the outside.
Aaron Wherry is running a terrific series on whether our Parliament matters and what we might do to make it matter more. The short answer, I would propose, is that it matters only as much as our Parliamentarians actually want to achieve anything and only to the extent that they are willing to openly debate the big issues on our behalf. It is fascinating and sort of horrifying to hear the complaints of some departing members of Parliament about how powerless and alienated they felt, unable to represent their constituents or to escape the narrow confines of party discipline. It seems that Parliament cannot find the courage to be relevant on its own. While political parties may be losing their hold on Canadians, they continue to shape our democratic institutions. And the gap between the government and the people simply continues to grow.
Preston Manning recently wrote an insightful piece on the limits of political parties and the importance of an independent civil society. Political parties, Manning says, too easily become machines designed only for winning, more skilled at identifying and avoiding risk than at developing public policy. Parties increasingly treat us not as citizens but as consumers. It’s easier. Rather than engaging us in honest but risky debates, they market themselves, pandering to our preferences, feeding our prejudices, and smearing their opponents. Manning argues that grassroots social movements are key to getting unstuck. They are, he says, an essential element of our “democratic infrastructure” and have been at the heart of most important social and political change here and throughout the world. He has a point. Big change involves risk and difficult trade offs, exactly what governments prefer to avoid and political parties typically duck.
Put simply, we only get Parliament that matters if citizens force the issue. Absent an engaged and independent civil society, we get the politics of banality and brutality, pretending that we can balance the books without real sacrifice, that climate change will right itself, that crime policies that have never worked anywhere will make us safer, and that there’s just not much we can do about growing inequality so why talk about it. And here lies the Catch-22: Citizens become further disenchanted; elections and parties lose their hold. And we stay stuck, unable even to begin to address the big issues.
Of course, not all grassroots movements serve to strengthen democracy. The Tea Party, for example, seems less a movement than a crowd of isolated individuals held together, if at all, by fear and resentment and a sterile notion of freedom that denies their responsibilities to one another. Such movements inevitably divide the world into villains and victims, those in the light and those in the darkness, and, in so doing, stifle debate and contrary information and undermine both democracy and civil society.
We in Canada don’t really have any equivalent to the Tea Party, notwithstanding a few pretenders here and there. Our political culture – its traditions of pragmatism, civility, tolerance, peaceful resolution of conflict, and mutual aid – may inhibit the rise or at least spread of such anti-everything movements. But here too we see signs of decline in civil society, in voting certainly, but in joining and engaging too. Our voluntary sector seems weaker than in the past and more dependent on government. Certainly we have our share of dedicated people joining together for a healthier, more equal and sustainable future but there hasn’t been the take-up we saw in previous decades for such public issues. Public space has shrunk and many of us seem to have retreated into our private milieux.
So how do we break out? Surely, sooner or later, we will say “enough”. Surely, sooner or later, we will stop waiting for inspiration from a new political saviour. Sooner or later, we will say we cannot simply stand and watch. We are talking more these days about democracy. We seem increasingly to understand that however fortunate we may be, we cannot afford to be complacent. And, most important, some Canadians, often young Canadians, are getting involved, increasingly taking responsibility, not waiting for our political leaders or political parties, both locally and globally, independent of government, to do what they can to make things better.
But if we are to make our democracy stronger, we need new forms of association, new ways to engage citizens in defining the Canada they want and the options for getting there and for making our democracy work. Any such grassroots initiatives will have to meet particular challenges in Canada: our diversity means we won’t find our answers by trying to impose a singular notion of what it means to be Canadian; our geography requires that we harness new technologies to complement traditional forms of engagement; and what we ask of citizens must recognize that, for many, time is squeezed and opportunities to participate are limited. And if these new approaches are to elevate our democracy, they must lift us beyond our personal preferences, prejudices and resentments and engage us in addressing the real challenges we face together. And that means that they must be built on a foundation of democratic values and a belief in the possibility of progress. We will not find our path in nostalgia for the past, complacency about the present or cynicism about the future,
Leadnow.ca is a new initiative in democratic association designed to address precisely these concerns, drawing on the surprising energy of a few committed young Canadians, open to people from every region and sector, and offering a chance to chart the Canada they want, and to act in concert to pursue that agenda. It is creating opportunities across all regions and sectors to debate the moral choices, assess the evidence, and then work together to create change, to get the ideas that matter on the political agenda. Leadnow.ca continues to see government as a force for good so long as an engaged citizenry pushes it to focus on the needs of Canadians and the future of Canada.
Their message: now is the time for citizens to lead. Whether or not we find the will to get engaged, we will get the democracy we deserve.