A blog to give a voice to our concern about the continued erosion of our democratic processes not only within the House of Commons and within our electoral system but also throughout our society. Here you will find articles about the current problems within our parliamentary democracy, about actions both good and bad by our elected representatives, about possible solutions, opinions and debate about the state of democracy in Canada, and about our roles/responsibilities as democratic citizens. We invite your thoughtful and polite comments upon our posts and ask those who wish to post longer articles or share ideas on this subject to submit them for inclusion as a guest post.
Contact us at democracyunderfire@gmail.com

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Why I am hung-up on Democracy

I’m going to take up from Rural’s post with this sentence: Canadians know far less about how our democratic system functions than they would like. Even a basic working definition of democracy is hard to come by. For example, the definition my Gage Canadian Dictionary gives is this:

1 a government that is periodically elected and thus controlled by the people who live under it. Under a democracy, the people rule either by direct vote at public meetings or indirectly through the election of certain representatives to govern them. 2 the ideals and principles of such a government, such as equality of rights and opportunities and the rule of the majority. 3 a country, state or community having such a government. 4 the treatment of others as one’s equals.

Quite frankly, that is a pretty bad definition, except maybe for number 4. Democracy is not the equivalent of “majority rule” for example. It is also not guaranteed simply because there are elections. We have elections, but we do not have democracy. I will explore the definitions and requirements of democracy and how it came to be that we no longer have a democracy in later posts. But for now, suffice it to say that it’s pretty bad when our own dictionary defines something as important as democracy so incorrectly. It is symptomatic of a much larger picture of the purposeful and systematic decay of democracy in this country by the proponents of unregulated and rampant market capitalism (the corporatists) and their puppet flunkies (the politicians); in short, of the few and the greedy. I will write much more about this later, and I will also talk about our role in this breakdown too; for indeed – we are all culpable, all responsible. We have all been too easily seduced. My writing on this blog is for the entry-level citizen into this topic; I’m sure I will bore my blog partner to death with such basic stuff – but someone has to write for people like me who are just now realizing that we ignore politics at our peril. I also recommend the writing of Ed Finn as a good introduction to what is going on in Canadian democracy (or rather, what is NOT going on).


The question I want to address now is this one: if democracy isn’t working right now, why keep clinging to it? Perhaps it is not the best system for Canada anymore. As one friend pointed out, democracy started in a city (Athens), not a country, and was the privilege of male citizens only (ie, no women, no slaves, no immigrants). Perhaps democracy can not be done properly in a country as huge as Canada. We have certainly not seen democracy work for our Southern neighbours either. Perhaps human beings are too selfish, as some say. Perhaps we have become too uneducated (which I will likely argue another time). Perhaps it is simply too late.

But as my research unfolds, I see some things that really catch hold of my imagination, some things that re-spark my idealism and my hope for the kind of world I want my children to grow up in. What is most compelling for me is the recognition that democracy is not a perfect system; that it does in fact suffer many flaws. Despite the flaws, however, it is the best system we have ever invented because it is the only one that takes human error into account. As Paul Woodruff wrote in his book First Democracy:

Human beings make mistakes, and human beings are prone to follow their personal interests at the expense of others. So it was for Athens, and so it is for us today. We had better work out a kind of politics that takes error and special interest into account. Democratic practices are the best defense against human weaknesses, and the most important of these is the liberal use of adversary debate. ( p 77) In democracy, there is always a critic around, always a competing leader with arguments for an alternative policy. More than that, democratic ways actually promote the kind of reasoning that we need to use when knowledge fails. (p 176)

Or, as Winston Churchill said even earlier:

Many forms of government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect... Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time." 1947

Democracy is the only system that provides average people like us the right and responsibility to be the directors of our own lives and to come together in a collaborative genius to solve the problems that affect us; to fulfill the basic human needs both for autonomy and for community. There has been a lot of research that shows that human beings experience a greater sense of overall well-being when they practice altruism and active concern for other people; being selfish and greedy is not good for us.* Furthermore, the current paradigm of individualism is destroying our planet, and yet we acknowledge that people suffer endlessly when not respected as individuals. We have to move into a new paradigm that respects that we are both members of a community and individuals in that community (and that the community includes the entire natural world in which we are a part). Democracy can bridge this span, allowing people to speak as individuals on matters that affect everyone – to feel pride and purpose in attending to or fighting for “the common good”, whichever the case may be. Maybe one day simply “attending to” will be enough, but right now, as this blog argues, we have to fight.

Kerans and Kearney, in their book Turning the World Right-Side Up, paraphrase and then quote Benjamin Barber (1984:xv): Individual autonomy is not where people start. They do not find themselves free people and then, on the basis of that freedom, decide to act together democratically. Quite the contrary: acting communally and democratically is how they forge their autonomy as adults:

“Without participating in the common life that defines them and in the decision- making that shapes their social habitat, people cannot become individuals.
Freedom, justice, equality, and autonomy are all products of common thinking and
common living: democracy creates them.” (p 123)

As a mother, and a person, these values are crucial to me; freedom, justice, equality and autonomy. They can only occur within a context of sustainability and community, and the best tool to give full life to all this is democracy. This starts with involvement in our civic lives; with an investment in our common spaces, both literally and figuratively, with the acceptance of our responsibility to let our collective genius do the work that needs to be done. Sustainable and equitable human living can not be forced; it must be created out of the collective will of a people.
Democracy, as practiced in Canada, has never been perfect and currently is close to non-existant as both Rural and I will elucidate in further posts. Massive change is needed. I don’t want to get into how parliament works or doesn’t work because I think it needs to be totally restructured (I question even having a Prime Minister – why not a Federal Council made up of members of each province/territory?), but if we can get the CEO’s (who we did not elect) out of parliament (which indeed we must), if we can address our antiquated electoral system and our tolerance for lying, ignorant and fearful politicians, if we can build a system in which everyone is represented and no majority is able to tyrannize a minority, if we can withstand any economic sanctions leveled at us by other nations while we change our rules of global conduct – then we can move onto building a future for all the generations yet to come. Either way, we can no longer continue to accept “business as usual”. It’s killing us, as Canadians and also as a species, slowly but surely.

We can – we must – become world leaders on this ever-dwindling stage that is our only home, our only planet, our only country. We can’t hide from this. We can no longer afford to be like the buffalo of long ago, blindly rushing toward the cliff in total ignorance, but in our case, taking a whole lot of other species along with us. We, the people, can clean up our act on this planet and build a good life (not an excessive life, not an over-extended life) for every living person, but not without a collective political will – not without democracy.

………but forgotten is the true meaning and purpose of politics, to create and sustain the conditions for community life. Politics was not intended to be the province of money, but the arena wherein individuals could collectively discuss and manage those elements of life that affected the whole of their town, city, or state. In other words, politics was very much about food, water, life, and death, and thus intimately concerned with the environmental conditions that supported the community. When business introduces money into the discourse, it will by its very nature corrupt the dialogue.
~Paul Hawken, The Ecology of Commerce, p. 166

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