Bargain Basement Citizenship and the Decline of Democracy

We ought to be outraged. Just about every day our media provides a new account of the decline of our democracy:  the inadequacies of our electoral system and allegations of electoral fraud; the high-handed treatment of our Parliament through inappropriate prorogations and overuse of omnibus legislation; a government ever more authoritarian and opaque, resistant to evidence and reason, and prepared to stifle dissent.  Adding weight to the urgency of these issues is that they are being raised across the political spectrum, left, right and centre, and among critics with very different models of democracy    Even given these significant stirrings of outrage, why do so many still seem not to care? Has democracy lost some of its lustre?

Part of the answer lies in the preeminence of markets and market thinking over the last three decades.  We are not simply talking about our market economy, but more our conversion to a market society in which money can buy almost anything, we are more consumer than citizen, and inequalities and their corrosiveness grow, undermining solidarity and any sense of a common good.   With the market society comes a thinned out  “bargain basement citizenship” – Canadians expect less from their government, give less, and get less.  In this world, citizen takes a backseat to consumer/taxpayer, and democracy takes a back seat to the market. While few would be comfortable with American economist and libertarian Bryan Caplan’s statement that what we need is more market and less democracy, he captures well the bleeding of market thinking into our social and political relationships.  How did we get here?

The fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union ushered in what philosopher Michael Sandel calls “market triumphalism”.  The genius of market mechanisms for organizing the economy and generating prosperity held the key to the good life. The common good was no longer a matter of citizens contesting ideas or governments shaping the future; common citizenship, civic virtue, collective engagement were the old way.  The new way was to pursue our individual interests in “free and voluntary” market exchanges.

Nothing captures better the imperialism of this view than former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher’s pronouncement that there is no such thing as society.  Only individuals and their interests and fears are real.  To the extent that one is looking for more – meaning, purpose, solidarity – that can be found in church and the communities into which we are born and which give us structure and comfort.  Government, in this view, is part of the problem unless it restricts its role to protecting the market and, inevitably, those who benefit most from it.  Caplan worries that our woeful understanding of the laws of economics – as if there were laws – makes democracy a dangerous thing.  This is just a bolder version of the worries of market fundamentalists that when we interfere with the market we jeopardize its efficiency and thereby its capacity to deliver the good life.  Those less sanguine about markets are warned about the economic imperatives in a globalized economy which, the argument goes,  severely limit the scope for government action. Less government, less taxes, more market.  Lost is the understanding that the job of democracy is to define the good life and harness market forces to shape a better future. That this market preeminence persists even after the recent financial meltdown and current meltings is testament to its powerful hold over us.

At the same time as we have taken the common good out of politics and transfered it to the market, the growing inequality of our society makes it almost impossible to imagine ever formulating a shared sense of the good life.  The very idea of the common good becomes a stretch given the profoundly different ways in which the super rich, the poor and the majority experience life.  They breathe different air and especially as social mobility dries up they lose touch with each other.  In an increasingly privatised world, they do not meet as fellow citizens.  Their kids go to different schools.  They live increasingly in different neighbourhoods.  In Canada the last place that is meant to accommodate all of us in shared experience is our public health system – and no wonder the pressure to privatize is relentless. Money always matters but in an increasingly privatised world where everything has a price, it has never mattered more.

At the top, the extraordinary gains of a small global elite have given them an outsized capacity to shape the agenda while at the same time allowing them to secede from much of society.  They need the state far less than ever before.  And even as extreme inequality undermines equality of opportunity, the myth of meritocracy emboldens many to believe that they are entitled to all they have and that their interests are best served by keeping it. Down the economic scale, just as the very rich want to see taxes cut to hold on to what they have, so too do the majority want to withhold their money from a state they no longer trust.  Even if the financial meltdown and its aftermath have shaken confidence in the promise of markets, they have not restored confidence in governments – and why should they given lost manufacturing jobs, tainted meat, deteriorating institutions, and an inability or unwillingness to tackle the big issues.  And, in a perfect self-fulfilling prophecy, taxes are cut, the state shrinks and  becomes less trustworthy, the services it provides less relevant and increasingly shoddy, and the distrust grows and curdles into cynicism about the idea of progress.

The result: a ?marketized” politics of propaganda and pandering and an impoverished democracy that treats us as consumers and taxpayers, not citizens, and prefers to obscure the issues rather than engage us in defining the kind of society we want. Interesting that our government eliminated the direct public subsidy to parties, a subsidy that made every vote count for something,  yet another demonstration that politics is a private affair.  Increasingly those who want more, who want to take their future back, are looking outside of conventional politics for expressions of the democratic spirit: to their communities, or global causes, or to the streets.  It was striking how many of the participants in the Occupy movement and the Quebec student protests found a new solidarity in their activism.  Through action together these young people are taking a shot at rebuilding civil society and rediscovering the common good.  Perhaps it is only ever from the outside that we can hope to find the answers of what kind of country and what kind of democracy we want.

So, perhaps the answer is that many Canadians  do care about democracy but many, especially young Canadians, have given up on Canadian politics and the impoverished version of democracy on offer.  That is both understandable and dangerous. The new activism and rebuilding of an independent civil society are essential but not enough.

Student leaders from Quebec have recently launched a cross-Canada tour to promote political activism, to help Canadians learn how to build social movements that offer a richer kind of democratic experience than provided by contemporary politics, but also to explain to those who feel disenfranchised why voting and political participation still matter. They understand the dangers of leaving any government to its own devices, unconstrained by a vigilant citizenry. These young Canadians seem to be looking for a new politics tuned into the voices in the community and on the streets and one that at least begins to offer some real engagement on the issues that matter – inequality and poverty, jobs and youth unemployment, climate change and environmental degradation.  And they continue to express the hope that a renewed democracy will allow us to take back our future.  It is now up to our political leadership to take up the challenge.

A shorter version of this article was first published in the Toronto Star.

Comments
45 Responses to “Bargain Basement Citizenship and the Decline of Democracy”
  1. michalhasek says:

    “It is now up to our political leadership to take up the challenge.”
    What political leadership?

  2. Rob says:

    Thanks for this article. If I may add something, the Internet is making coming generations more conservative personally but more social communally. No one can predicct what this recipe will cook up a decade or two down the road. The question I have is, do we have the fundamentals in place to get through transitions that will happen? I regret that the current gov’t is obviously willing to replace respect and democracy with enforced ideologies.

    • himelfarb says:

      Thank you Rob. You are absolutely right that this conversation needs to address the impact of the Internet and the possibilities presented by social media. And I think you ask an important question. These are questions for future posts. There’s some interesting data on generational differences and the question of managing transitions, ideological, institutional and generational, is key.

  3. Brad says:

    I agree with everything you say Alex, but I think there’s more. Rob’s point is one; the social impact of the internet and all that entails is not understood.

    As well, we have become tremendously fearful. The internet and mass media are, in my view, largely responsible for that. But regardless of the source, the fact remains that if there’s one thing we want government to do, it’s that we want it to protect us from all those harms – real and imagined. And we’ll spend whatever we need to spend to enable government to do that.

    Recognizing that we’re a community and if we acted like a community that would not be necessary is antithetical to the market version of reality – and antithetical to the mass media version of reality.

    This is not, by the way, original thought from me; Dan Gardner in Canada and Bruce Schneier in the U.S. have been writing about this for years. And have all kinds of science to back up what they’re saying.

    Voices (like yours Alex, and their’s, and many others) are crying in the wilderness.

    But you are right (at least if my kids are any indication of the next generation – which you do talk about), there is hope. They (or at least some of hem) do see through the fallacies presented to them by the mass media. And that is or only hope.

    What I see tells me that our generation has lost it’s way.

    • himelfarb says:

      Thanks for this Brad. Yes I think that the rise of the security state or the penal state is an important issue, and yes fear does undermine the kinds of values we are talking about. There is some evidence that this fear is not what causes government to focus on the war on crime, foe example, but that it is government’s war on crime that creates or at least feeds the fear. I discuss theses issues a bit in previous posts eg War on Crime and A Meaner Canada.

  4. Mark Hammer says:

    As always, fiercely reasoned, and eloquently stated.

    A couple of threads to weave into this. First, I don’t think we should ignore the role that “new public management” has played in this overall trend. I can recall John Ralston Saul expressing his contempt at the use of the word “client” to refer to citizens, at a talk I attended some years back. There is certainly something about the way that “client” encourages a sense of responsibility to *individuals* for front-line workers, but I sense that at the management level it creates more disconnect from the citizenry than it might add at the front-line level. I have a fiduciary AND collegial responsibility to “citizens” (because I *am* one), but “clients” are simply something that, in the aggregate, generates “traffic”, “business”, “cost recovery”. It’s a commercial relationship, not citizen-to-citizen, linked by a shared nation.

    You might say “It’s just a word”. I don’t know if you ever saw the 9hr Holocaust documentary Shoah, but the word “victim” never really appears until about 4hrs into the movie. Until then, terms like “cargo”, “load”, “delivery”, and such are used to refer to those shipped off to the death camps. And when the word “victim” finally comes up, it hits you like a ton of bricks. Words matter, and not just because Benjamin Whorf said so.

    Second, markets have a way of providing more, and *faster*, for those who have money, than they do of providing for those who don’t have very much. Markets make the wealthy instantly wealthier – increasing the fervour with which they come to believe in the awesome power of markets – but take much longer for any benefit to trickle down to the other end of the economic spectrum. Stated another way, the phenomenology and experience of “markets” is vastly different for the rich and the poor. This is, to my mind, a reality that needs grasping. The rich are not stupid or lying when they say they place confidence in markets, but the poor are not stupid or lying either when they place little faith in those same markets.

    Third, MP Pierre Poilievre has recently taken public sector unions to task for requiring dues of all members and supporting political causes (specifically, the PQ during this recent Quebec election) that individual members do not espouse. I’m not sure he realizes that declining to pay union dues for things you don’t like shares a 3-bedroom flat with not wanting to pay all your taxes because you don’t have children (why pay for educaton?), are devout vegan (why pay health care costs for cancer or heart and stroke for others?), or pacifist (please deduct my share of the F-35s and Afghanistan mission, thank you).

    “A la carte” citizenship is also undermining democracy. Not that the alternative ought to be the equally bone-headed “my country, right or wrong”. Rather, too many folks have stopped thinking about nationhood and what being a nation means, and have decomposed it all into services; those I want and those I don’t want. As goes my cable or phone plan, so should my country go. Equating a nation with “services” is pernicious. It falls into the same rut as public servants referring to citizens as “clients”. And if the relationship of citizens to government is a commercial transaction, then expect the electoral process to be like a trip to the mall with garish advertising, going out of business sales, and people foisting free samples on you of things you don’t really want.

    I’m fond of repeating that the single biggest sin of the Taliban, when they controlled Afghanistan, was that they had no sense of nationhood, and as such never really provided a public administration that *served* nationhood and the long term shared vision of citizens that nations comprise. They had a list of things they didn’t like or want, and that was pretty much it.

    So how DO we foster belief in nations and nationhood? I don’t mean jingoistic nonsense, but rather a group of people having common purpose, common vision, common burden, common commitment? That’s a tough one. But I think it can start by recatsing citizenship as a relationship, rather than merely a bargain.

    As an aside, I volunteered to be a facilitator for the orientation course for new public servants, and complete my training in a few weeks. I look forward to the opportunity to inspire new inductees “into the fold” to foster a sense of common citizenship in how they do their job, in their co-workers, in the members of the public they serve, and maybe once in a while (when called for) in the people that lead them. You start by believing in your nation and its purpose, and citizenship becomes the exquisite fruit of that tree. I thought you’d like hearing that.

    All the best

    • himelfarb says:

      A bit embarrassing when the comments are better than the blogpost. Great thoughts, well expressed. I agree top to bottom and think it is just great that young public servants will be exposed to you. Thanks Mark.

    • Lynn Smith says:

      Thank you both for your thoughtful blog and comments!

      As another public servant ‘working in the trenches’ of National Security, I feel realistically optimistic that change for the better can be ours…

      Thanks again,
      Lynn

  5. Mike H says:

    Interesting post, but I want to engage with your idea that the Occupy and Québec student movements were “expressions of the democratic spirit”, and that these movements consisted in young people “taking a shot at rebuilding civil society and rediscovering the common good”.

    My skepticism that these movements might somehow form the nucleus around which the various pathologies of contemporary politics can be addressed is driven in large part by similar concerns about the privatization of politics that you express in this post.

    Although perhaps not market driven, it seems to me that they embodied a particularly extreme version of the privatization of politics. Extreme because I think the sort of privatization you are talking about, say of health care or public enterprises, involves the devolution or sale of publically owned or managed institutions to private groups following a decision-making process by our public political institutions, however flawed those institutions may be. The Occupy and student movements involved the outright appropriation of public streets and parks by private groups who, without any democratic or legal legitimacy, claimed the authority to impose their subjective ideas of the public good on everyone else.

    We all have a common right to use public spaces. The very idea of a “common” right inherently limits the use to which any individual or group can make of it. The right to use public parks and roads is conditional on using it in a manner that is consistent with the equal rights of everyone else to do the same.

    When an individual or group uses public space in a way that prevents others from using those spaces for their purposes, they are subordinating the common rights of others as a means of advancing their private purposes. It does not matter whether they sincerely believe that their cause or their actions advance the public good, because regardless of their goals, they are goals that they have themselves chosen. By claiming an entitlement to use public space to the detriment of others, they have effectively privatized it.

    The Occupy and student movements decided for themselves, without notice, without hearings, without consulting interested parties, and without any democratic mandate or accountability to the public, to use public spaces for the purpose of expressing their own subjectively held points of view, and to pressure governments to enact policies which aligned with their own subjectively determined political judgments. They did so without regard for the rights of others to use those same streets and parks to go to work, or to school, to walk their dog, to go shopping, or any of the countless other activities that are perfectly lawful and consistent with the rights of others.

    Moreover, their conduct was anti-democratic. For all of their flaws, parliaments and municipal governments have a much better claim to determine how best to reconcile competing uses of public space. When protesters claim, by their actions, the right to determine the uses to which public space will be put, they claim to have an authority greater than state officials who are accountable to both the law and to voters. From where could such an authority derive? The passion and sincerity of their convictions? But their passions and convictions are their own. They are, in other words, private interests, which by their actions they are seeking to impose upon others.

    Surely, in a democracy, the public good can only be determined by all of us together acting through public and legally and democratically accountable institutions. Private individuals and groups have a role to play, but I do not think that it includes assuming the functions of government (like determining the uses to which public land can be put) on their own initiative.

    For these and other reasons, it seems to me that these movements expressed a distinctly private and anti-democratic spirit, rather than a public and democratic one. I therefore cannot agree that either movement exemplified “young people…taking a shot a rebuilding civil society and rediscovering the common good”.

    Whatever the problems that dog our public institutions, it seems to me that the conception of political life implied by these two movements is much worse, and a poor place to be looking for ideas about how to better align our political institutions with our basic democratic values.

    I would be curious to hear your thoughts, and those of others, on this point.

    • himelfarb says:

      Thank you Mike. I too would be interested to hear others on this. Generally I believe that these two movements – and other expressions such as doctors fighting for refugees denied essential drugs or lawyers arguing for higher taxes to name two – are indeed an expression of the anomie people are experiencing right now (see previous post), throwing into question only our collective goals should be but also the traditional means for pursuing those goals. If I am right this “movement” will take different shapes at different times as people learn from one another about what works and what does not. Inevitably these expressions will raise values conflicts, no doubt mistakes will be made, and, to the extent that these attempts to rebuild society are public events, they will rub up against others. But I don’t see these events as private just because they are not government. If we agree that government is only effective with strong independent civil society then they are crucial for the advancement of our democracy. None of this says that families should be denied access to public spaces for any extended period but it also recognizes protest as a legitimate use of public space.

      • Mike H says:

        I suppose that my biggest concern is with the assumption that political movements express concerns that are shared by liberal- or social-democrats, that those movements must also be liberal- or social-democratic movements, or movements that might be brought into the fold. My own assessment was that both movements were ideologically, and tactically, illiberal and anti-democratic.

        Second, while I agree that democracy requires a strong independent civil society, I must say that I am skeptical of the idea of a “third sector”, which can be distinguished from other forms of private associational activities (like the market, business) on a principled basis.

        My sense is that people tend to be sympathetic to forms of associational life that share their political goals or other interests, and tend to regard associations that don’t as a threat to democracy.

        By way of an overly simplified example, trade and public sector union activists regard the involvement of business in politics as a threat to democracy, whilst regarding the participation of unions and like-minded NGOs as making benign contributions to public life. Unsurprisingly (and as M. Poilievre’s activities make clear) the feeling appears to be mutual.

        I think it more prudent to recognize that all associations are out to advance the political and other interests of their members. There isn’t anything wrong with that, and to the extent they are able to articulate how those interests also align with the public good, associations make a valuable contribution to democratic discourse and the possibility progressive reform of out policies and institutions.

        But it doesn’t follow from the fact that a particular association (or its members) sincerely believes their aims align with the public good, or that we share their belief that they do, that they should be exempted from the standards that ordinarily govern democratic discourse. Whenever the activities of a particular group are called into question, I think it useful to ask if we would indulge the same sort of behaviour by those on the other side of an issue. My sense is that many of those sympathetic to the student movement would not have endorsed similar tactics undertaken by, say, anti-choice protesters.

    • John C says:

      I think the whole point of Occupy at least was that big money has been able to do an end run around democracy by habitually and over the long term, taking advantage of certain structural vulnerabilities in our democratic systems to promote it’s own interests.
      How else do you form a grassroots movement to counter that?

      • himelfarb says:

        Not sure I understand the question. Building a grassroots movement is key but ignoring what is happening in elections in the meantime is dangerous.

  6. I am not a political animal, and most of what you and your commentators have said here goes over my head with a whoosh that ruffles my hair. But what occurs to me is that I take my democracy for granted, and I am strangely and guiltily happy with that.

    Despite the conspiracy theories and the guilty feeling that I should care much more about what goes on, I feel strangely complacent with some justification that nothing bad will happen. I dont feel the need to march, protest, put my physical safety on the line.. at the age of 57 perhaps I should know better, but I feel that politics and all that angst is something for the young.

    I dont feel outraged, I dont see my democracy in danger… I dont read enough or feel curious enough to read more or delve into the supposed cess pits of modern parliamentary sleaze. I dont care enough, perhaps, or have the energy to step into that spotlight. I think that you might disapprove of me, and I find I dont really care about that either.

    I saw a quotation recently “There comes a day when time passing becomes time remaining.” I am in that day and beyond that day. Perhaps I am riding on the back of those, like you, who care more… at my time I am happy to take that ride… Good luck and thank you, I think…

    • himelfarb says:

      Thanks I guess. Our generation had it pretty lucky and have done pretty well. Our complacency is easy and weighs largely on the backs of the young.

    • Mark Hammer says:

      I don’t think you are terribly alone in those sentiments. And while it would be better if you didn’t feel that way, I don’t believe you need to make any excuses for it. “Democracy” is a pretty abstract concept, and for a lot of people it doesn’t feel like it touches their life in any discernible way, any more than a student might connect the structure or composition of the school board with their homework that night.

      Of course, at the other end are some people for whom the “battle for democracy” is their own little personal Quixotic narrative, like an ongoing World of Warcraft or D & D battle where reality and practicality seldom intrudes.

      While neither disinterest in democracy, or unrealistic obsession with it, are desirable tendencies, I suppose the worst thing a disinterested person can do is vote without thinking, or not vote. Not quite as bad as vandalism, IMHO. Just know that it matters, and try to keep yourself ready to be interested in it, or at least not resistant to becoming interested.

      • himelfarb says:

        I don’t buy it Mark. We have benefitted mightily from the efforts and sacrifices of previous generations and with those benefits come some responsibilities. Climate change is abstract except to those already feeling its impacts most profoundly. Poverty is abstract except to the poor. Inequality is very abstract but corrodes society. And democratic decay is as you say also abstract. What is not abstract is our immediate fears and interests – and so, why bother with the rest so long as those interests are served? No I don’t think that’s ok. This is not just about voting but about protecting hard won human right and civil liberties and ensuring that our institutions allow for the deliberation, accountability and transparency that good government requires whatever the agenda. A government that knows that we care about what happens between elections will be a better government. Absent this those with the loudest voices – and money talks – will shape our future. This may not matter to us because we are doing just fine. Well….

      • Mark Hammer says:

        Trust me, I’m not *advocating* for complacency. I’m as disappointed by it as you are. I just recognize that, for the preponderance of people, there are a great many abstract concepts that touch them even MORE directly than “democracy” (e.g., the state of one’s marriage, or family, or career, or lifelong health) that they don’t take action on, or are even perturbed by. Cripes, if more folks took a moment to take the long view and think about abstract concepts in their lives, the prisons, hospitals, and family courts would have a lot less business than they normally do.

        So as much as I’d like to see people fired up about the state of democracy (and the democracy of the state), if they all too often don’t feel the need to take action about things that *directly* affect their lives, I have to begrudgingly accept that they will take the same stance as warriorboxmaker when it comes to things they view as even more removed. The community association I belong to has one helluva time fostering interest in within the very community it strives to serve. As goes the family, and the community, so goes the nation. For my part, I simply hold out hope that warriorboxmaker, and other similar people, haven’t completely burned that bridge,

        I’m just mystified as to how he/she came to this site to express that view. It’s not like this blog just shows up in one’s mailbox like a flyer from a lawncare service, or a dinner-time phone-call about furnace cleaning.

      • himelfarb says:

        As always, an interesting take. And you are right – I should not be surprised that everyday life often blots out these abstract issues. But I keep returning to GK Chesterton’s comments some years back that democracy requires that ordinary people – you and I – believe that it is our business, and do not simply leave it to the professionals or to the ideologues.

      • Mark Hammer says:

        Well there’s ONE good reason to like GK Chesterton!

        Over the years we’ve belonged to several small and small-ish congregations. One of the things you notice is that once they reach a certain critical mass, the per capita rate of volunteerism (for this committee or that) drops, as members adopt the stance that it is “somebody’s job to take care of that”. So long as the congregation is too strapped for funds to pay someone to uphold a role, everybody does their share.

        Nations are a little like congreagations, just very very big ones. Citizens come to believe that it is somebody’s job to take of things like democracy or justice or education. The rest of us can go on about our daily business because there are “watchdogs” (oh how I hate that phrase in the media). Of course, as XL foods recently illustrated in spades (or was that in steaks?), relying too heavily on watchdogs, without accepting any responsibility oneself is not without risk.

        All of which makes me so very curious about notions of democracy within First Nations, given that many bands are small enough that they sit at the cusp of having everyone feel a sense of social obligation, and having “people paid to take care of that stuff”. We hear talk from Bob Rae recently (and so many before him too) about overhauling the Indian Act. This discussion makes me wonder what the impact of the Indian Act, and the history of paying councils to “take care of stuff” has done, or might have done, or might have narrowly missed doing, to the sense of democracy on reserves and within First Nations. I’m curious about who is doing it right, who is doing it wrong, and what factors are at play in differentiating those two paths. It may well be a perfect laboratory for understanding how to “fix democracy” on a larger scale.

      • himelfarb says:

        I may have recommended this before, but in case not, you might find Bo Rotstein (Swedish social scientist) interesting on this – that is on what works and what doesn’t and in particular the role of interpersonal trust.

      • Mark Hammer says:

        You did, and I got a chapter or so in to it before getting distracted by other things. Still interested in it, though.

      • himelfarb says:

        I fear that the ideas are more engaging than the style.

      • Mark Hammer says:

        Well, no sooner do I muse aloud about First Nations as “laboratories” for examining participative democracy, than I stumble across this paper: “The people are the police: Building trust with Aboriginal communities in contemporary Canadian society” Chrismas, Robert. Canadian Public Administration, September 2012, Vol. 55 Issue: Number 3 p451-470.

        Looks interesting, and right up your alley. Only a few pages into it at the moment, but it seems to do a nice job at exmining the interface between communities, the criminal justice system, the democratic nature of governance systems, and public attitudes.

      • himelfarb says:

        Will pursue. Thanks Mark.

    • Ian says:

      ‘I saw a quotation recently “There comes a day when time passing becomes time remaining.”’

      That sounds a bit defeatist. I prefer the Welsh poet: “Do not go gentle into that good night; rage, rage against the dying of the light”.

      • I truly dont mean to be defeatist.. I am just settling into a calmer state brought about by age and experience, slightly withdrawn from the hurly burly passions of the young, and content to watch the show. .

  7. Klaus Kaczor says:

    An interesting premise that you begin with and open to interpretation on many levels. My question is: How much real democracy have humans actually experienced. I am not counting the illusion/delusion of democracy about which many words have been spilled but when I looked at the most recent/modern history by researching the voting results in modern “democracies” in March of 2007 there was a dirth of it available. When you listen to Sam Harris (Free Will) and others, I believe that I am correct in at least the small enlightenment of our political predisposition being coupled via genetics through our individual experiences is a timely concept to consider. In fact today’s multi layered extensive marketing research reveals significant determining factors in our marketing choices to be able to accurately determine our voting preference. For my original attempt to answer the question google: “Do humans have a political gene? Al Jezeerah”

    • himelfarb says:

      I urge you to read John Keane’s opus on democracy that traces its history from early attempts at direct democracy through representative democracy to whatever it s we have now or are working towards. He would share yourquestions but somehow remains optimistic that we will find a version that suits the times. In any case, a reading of the book will lead you to the view that democracy is something we seek but never quite realize but when we stop seeking – or caring – everything is worse.

  8. ian says:

    Everyone talks about democracy, but I realise that I’ve no idea what it really means. On the internet, there is a democracy of packets. First packet in, first packet out. This type of technical democracy can only be corrupted if the packets are intercepted, and, in the interception, corrupted. Not in space, necessarily (but they could be), but usually in time. Or both.

    I really will have to read up on this democracy thing.

  9. Mark Hammer says:

    One probably has to distinguish between several forms of democracy.

    There is democracy-as-formal-process; that is something defined academically by those who think about governance.

    There is democracy-as-espoused; most cynically exemplified by the various “elections” we see in any of a variety of corrupt states with oligarchies or quasi-dictatorships.

    There is democracy-as-perceived; discrepancies can exist between the actual governance and the sense of personal control or voice. More about that in a moment.

    There is democracy-as-context. We exist within multiple layers or levels of governance, some of which are, or may be, seen as more responsive than others. BUt their sum total presents a sort of “truth value” to the citizen that “democracy is how we do things around here”.

    There is democracy-as-envisioned or imagined. This is nicely illustrated by the many voices who propose that first-past-the-post systems – despite having a very long and respected history, and treated as the epitome of what democracy and elections are supposed to consist of – are “incomplete” or merely a step on the way towards what democracy is supposed to be.

    Regarding democracy as perceived and discrepancies: Contemporary technology and society creates the sense that one *ought* to have some instrumental connection to what happens in one’s society and nation. This has been responded to, in part, by Government 2.0 initiatives. I’m not so sure they will end up reducing the perceived discrepancy for many, largely because it can foster unrealistic expectations. Heck, even when we have a Royal Commission that travels around the country listening to witnesses, only a small chunk of what gets presented ends up in final reports. Many who wished to be heard get shut out. If e-portals permit everyone with access to the net to voice an opinion, no matter how underinformed and unrealistic, that simply manifies the gap between the number who get listened to (and feel like they were because of what is reflected in policy afterwards), and the number who feel like they weren’t.

    In the situation I describe, the process may correspond perfectly to what we think democracy ought to be, but the result is that democracy is not perceived or felt. It pains me to say it, but in some respects democracy works best at lower local levels (“So where should we go for the family vacation this year?”) and only works well at much higher aggregate levels when there is a certain degree of detachment (“I voted. My job’s done.”). The desire to feel the sense of connection to outcome, the sense of instrumentality, is difficult to realize when the desires of so many have to be pooled into a focussed common outcome.

    This gives me pause to wonder about how citizens felt about democracy BEFORE the days of electronic media. If we go back before WWI, how did citizens in the north, or on the prairies, or anywhere out of the Windsor/Quebec City corridor feel about “democracy”? What were they content with? What did they think their role was, and the role of the elected person? Did they hunger for some other approach to representation?

    • himelfarb says:

      I take your point re the gap between the real, the experienced, the ideal and the rhetorical. But I do not think it would be that hard to build a democracy test that most people could agree on: does the electoral system yield reasonable representatives, make votes meaningful, contain the influence of money, and provide results we can trust; institutions that help to focus government on the common good, constrain its excesses, and ensure accountability and transparency; institutions that protect individual rights and freedoms; concretely that means a trusted and fair electoral system, strong democratic institutions, independent judiciary, free and excellent media, a strong and independent civil society, when we things are going well – as they have for so long for us – we tend to take Hesse things for granted and they erode. There’s always a gap between our idealized democracy and what we have t any given time but I think a strong case can be made that the gap is now huge and that if its true that we don’t care enough to do anything about it it will just get worse.

      • Mark Hammer says:

        I agree. Waiting for it to get better is not the same as doing something to *make* it better. There’s plenty of world-mending to be done.

        I do have some reservations about your “democracy test”, though. It’s a thorough checklist and all, but I suspect you’d find some dispute from some of the people living in Venezuela. A great many there would say their system meets the criteria you lay out, yet even if one harbours no particular antipathy towards more socialist governments, there is something a little unsettling about it. Perhaps “the influence of money” should include not only influences from outside government, but the influence OF government. After all, is not the promise of treats via the national treasury, whether they be tax cuts/shelters, or the archetypal chicken in every pot, or the redistribution of land, also “the influence of money”? Governments and nations are there to provide for the people, certainly, but the vision of the nation can be corrupted or budged off the rails by the dangling of money before citizens. It IS possible to meet your test yet have a great many onlookers remarking “Well that’s…not…really what I was thinking of at all”.

        In some respects – and I certainly do not mean this as a criticism – the test you propose is one where, if enough people agree that “Yeah, this is pretty much what I had in mind when I was thinking of democracy”, then that’s what democracy is. You could almost call it a first-past-the-post definition of democracy!

        The conundrum is that we will likely never have unanimity about the presence of democracy, but only sufficient consensus. Some within a nation will dispute the presence of “democracy” within their lives (again, the contrast between the perceived and other forms), and those in other nations will dispute the presence of democracy in other places. And those least predisposed to democracy will do what they always do: depict the desecration of democracy in other places as “an internal matter”.

        Even if the idealized notion of democracy, that leaves so many feeling unsatisfied with what they presently face, is unattainable, it’s still good that they imagine what might be, and think of it as what should be. You have to close your eyes to dream, and you have to keep them open to be realistic. Finding the sweet spot between those two is tricky, but I’m glad some people leave them shut for juuuuusssst a little bit longer sometimes.

        I hope at the end of all this robocall nonsense, the fallout from the 2011 federal election, and all of the various mayoral and corruption scandals across the country, it will have given enough people pause to reflect on what they want an election, and their system of government, to be. I hope we can collectively turn this into a positive, and wake up from the hangover swearing that, by God, we’ll never do that AGAIN, and make damn sure of it.

        (Incidentally, I’m assuming you meant to write “these things for granted”, and not “Hesse things”. Is that one of those goofy auto-correct software things I hear about? If so, glad I stay away from it. Lord only knows what sort of Joycean or Dadaist free associative mess my posts would look like!)

      • himelfarb says:

        I don’t agree with your take -this is not pass fail, all or nothing. Even if everyone or most agrees on the importance of those things – institutions to seek the common good, independent judiciary to protect individual rights and freedoms, independent media, and, most important, independent civil society – there will always be great disputes about each – see what’s going on in UK re Leveson, the attacks here on charitable organizations, the disrespect to parliament etc – and therefore there will always be pressure to make things better, to argue what better would look like, etc -.. These test are not pass or fail but questions about how we best achieve things together while protecting our fundamental freedoms – always challenging, never perfect – but complacency leaves all this questions to the powerful few and if we do not care we frivolously spend what democracy we have and without even the smallest investment in making it all work better for the future Chesterton understood that democracy could only work when we understood the importance of what we hold in common and when we ordinary people make it our business to participate in its pursuit. Lacking that, democracy erodes. With that we have made progress, uneven, in the past and will again.

  10. Mark Hammer says:

    Then I guess I didn’t express myself well. By encouraging people to “close their eyes”. it was not my intent to use that to encourage complacency but rather to allude to the imagining of something better, which would be more actively pursued. Bad choice of metaphor, I guess.

    We CAN do so much better. And, lest anyone think this is a purely partisan view, one needs to distinguish the zeitgeist from specific governments. There probably IS a little blame to spread disproportionately, but ALL parties, current and future, national and regional, can assist in doing a better job at fashioning and supporting democracy. And, much like action on climate change, there’s nothing wrong with a little unilateral movement. The you-first-no-you-first approach isn’t getting us anywhere.

    • himelfarb says:

      Well, I buy all that for sure

      • mikehunziker says:

        I too like your democratic checklist – in the abstract – but wonder what many of the checklist items mean in practice.

        I think many would agree about the importance of “containing the influence of money”, without necessarily agreeing on what sort of influence we should be most concerned with. I note that in a subsequent post Mr. Himelfarb was critical of the federal government’s “attack on charities”. Why? If we are concerned with the influence of money in politics, shouldn’t we be concerned with it whatever its source? Why is corporate funded lobbying bad, but environmental or union funded lobbying okay? I don’t think it is any different in principle. Maybe it is, but in order to make that case, we need to hear some principled reasons why some forms of associational life should be granted exceptions denied to others.

        And, as Mark points out, government itself can distort democracy by using public funds as a means of pandering to favoured constituencies as a means of entrenching their incumbency, a fact that gives rise to the expression that democracy is two wolves and a lamb debating about what to have for dinner.

        It seems to me that if we are concerned about money in politics, as I think we should be, we ought not assume that those organizations to which we are partial do not also have a corrupting or distorting influence on political outcomes. We shouldn’t allow corporate interests to dominate political discourse, but we shouldn’t allow trade unions, single-issue lobby groups (including environmental ones), or charities to do so either.

        Second, I think it important – extremely important – that particular citizens or groups not confuse the rejection of their particular set of desired policy choices with a failure of democracy. I share Mr. Himelfarb’s concerns with the health of our democracy, but I don’t think arguments that cite particular policy choices as examples of democratic failure are good ones. In a democracy there are always constituencies whose preferred policy choices are rejected. That does not necessarily imply democratic failure. Again, more argument is needed to make out or reject that hypothesis.

        One example of what I mean: the failure to obtain a comprehensive domestic and/or international strategy to deal with climate change is often cited as an example of the failure of democracy, or the international system, or both. Maybe it is, but much more needs to be said. After all, we have no reason to believe that the people who argue against such an agreement care any less about the welfare of their children and children’s children, or about democracy or liberty. They have their arguments too. I assume that if advocates of such an agreement won the day, some opponents would point to the presence of such an agreement as evidence of democratic failure. Something tells me that, without further argument, advocates would not be that impressed with that kind of argument.

      • himelfarb says:

        Maybe so. The notion of the Common good will always be contentious and yes we all have our reasons and of course a vibrant democracy is no guarantee that we will meet our challenges and certainly doesn’t imply that we will all agree. It is much more about who decides – the rich and powerful or the majority of us – and about how well we protect the minorities and individual rights in the process. Allowing charities and NGOs some room to pay is a recognition that if we do not find ways to level the paying field, those with the resources prevail. And it is high time we stopped thinking of government as some thing foreign and instead focused on closing the gap between government and citizens.

  11. anonymous says:

    Bonne année.

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