The Challenge of Participatory Democracy
Last Friday was the final lecture in our six-part lecture series, and everyone who came was brilliant. I’m going to post my lecture here, but I want to highlight a few things first.
I wrote this lecture to try to convince people to vote, partly because the topic of Participatory Democracy is a big one and I needed to cut it down, and partly because I wanted to combat voter apathy. I wasn’t giving them nearly enough credit. Not only were the people there excited to vote, but many of them already had, and they weren’t satisfied with leaving it there. Without any prompting from me, they started asking questions: “How do we influence our MP?” and “How can we build momentum for a Green movement after the election is over?” I felt a bit embarrassed, even – these people were calling for change, and were ready to commit to making a difference, and I was asking for the bare minimum!
And that’s just it: voting is the bare minimum. It appears that voter turnout is going to be the highest it’s been for a very long time, and that’s wonderful, but the real work starts tomorrow. They say that it takes only 3% of a population to actively change a nation, and even to non-violently take down a government(!), but the key word there is active: it takes 3% of the population working as if their lives depended on it. Voting once in four years is an important thing, but our responsibility as citizens is to remain engaged with the system, and if we want to see real change we’ll need to do even more than that. It means reaching out to your friends and neighbours, discussing ideas and issues, writing letters and petitions, planning and hosting events, and more. In the last by-election we received 3.6% of the vote – that’s enough to change our little corner of the world!
If that sounds good to you, I have good news: the Green Party Provencher Riding Association is happy to have you! We’ll be continuing to work to promote good ideas, important issues, and solutions to our collective problems. I’ll be sending out a mass email to call the Riding Association together sometime soon to discuss what we want to do over the next four years. Do you want another lecture series? A book club? Practical service projects? Fundraising dinners? We can do it together, but we can’t do it alone. If you’re in, let us know!
Now, here’s the lecture:
The Challenge of Participatory Democracy
Hello, and welcome to the final lecture in our six-part series. The lectures in this series were based on the six principle values of the Global Greens movement, an international movement of which every Green Party in the world is a part. We first heard from Karen Ridd about Nonviolence; then Wendy Peterson spoke about Embracing Diversity; Bruce Friesen-Pankratz was scheduled to speak about Sustainability, but was unable to make it, so we had a discussion about it anyway; Mona and Josiah Neufeld presented us with uncomfortable truths and stories about Social Justice; and last week Gary Martens presented on Ecological Wisdom. Each of these lecturers spoke from experience and theory about their topic, and our discussions expanded on them to include policies and economics, social psychology and philosophy. Tonight I will finish the series by discussing the value of Participatory Democracy. If you have any questions or comments throughout, feel free to ask, but we’ll also have discussion at the end.
Democracy is something we take for granted in Canada. I agree with this statement, but not in the way you might think. We’ve all heard it said that Canadians take democracy for granted, and that that’s why only 60% of us usually vote, and there may be some truth in that, but I think it’s actually much more complicated. Some people choose not to vote, or to spoil their ballot, because they take democracy quite seriously and feel that there are no options presented that are worthy of their vote; others fail to take democracy seriously when they do cast their ballot, voting for candidates they know nothing about, voting based on a party leader rather than their local candidate, or voting based on a single policy or issue without considering the overall best interests of themselves, their region, or their country as a whole. Either way, both voters and non-voters often take our democracy for granted, and this puts our democracy in danger: in both cases, politicians are not held accountable for the decisions they make on our behalf. So let’s look at our political system, including its logic, the role of the representative, our method of choosing representatives, the role of political parties, and the nonsensical nature of the political spectrum, before looking at what we can do to preserve and reform our democracy.
The Logic of Democracy
The logic of democracy is fairly clear: it is government by the people. But let’s break that down.
Government is what we call it when we all work together in a formal way to combine resources and set rules that benefit us all, and to thereby accomplish things that we would be otherwise unable to accomplish. Government is us, but we more often hear people referring to government as “them”. This is a sign that our democracy is breaking down, but we’ll get to that; the important point right now is that any time we work together and pool resources, we are acting politically and participating in government. This is true whether we do so voluntarily or involuntarily, and by whatever means a particular government may use to bring such a situation about.
Democracy is when we participate in government voluntarily, and in relative detail by choosing representatives to make decisions on our behalf. Historically most people voluntarily submitted to the king or queen in a monarchical government; but they did not decide who their monarch would be, nor did they have any say in what decisions the monarch would make. A king acts for the good of the people, but not on their behalf; they are his subjects, and he looks after them not unlike the way he looks after his horses – they are his to command, and his to kill if he deems it necessary. In a democracy, our rulers do not own us, but rather represent us and are accountable to us. It is through our representatives that we are able to participate in decisions about how to govern our own society.
Let’s give an example. Most of you are from Steinbach: how many of you think it’s a good idea to build a performing arts centre? How many of you think it’s a bad idea? By raising your hands just now, you’ve done something political. But note the trade-off that comes with democracy: we are all bound by the will of the majority, which means that even if many of us think it’s a terrible idea to build a performing arts centre, we will still contribute to that project financially (through our taxes) if the majority approves it. This is why we tend to get upset when we feel that the government does not represent us, but we’ll get to that. We all have a stake in virtually every decision the government makes on our behalf, which is why communication between elected representatives and their constituents is so crucial. If constituents are not aware of the issues being decided upon, they cannot communicate their interests to their representative; and if the representative does not act in the best interests of his or her constituents, but they never hear about it, there is no possibility for accountability.
The role of a representative is to represent their constituents – that much seems obvious. But what does that mean? The Reform Party, which no longer exists, championed “direct democracy” – that is, they wanted a referendum on just about everything, so that we could all vote on nearly every issue that ever came up. That would certainly be democratic, but it would also be difficult to manage: referendums are costly and time consuming, and the purpose of having a representative is so that we don’t need to invest that time and money and mental energy to make such decisions for ourselves. The mental energy is key: political decisions are often complex, and the time and energy and education it would take for all of us to make sound decisions on every issue is beyond the capacity of our society to maintain. In a direct-democracy system we’d either all be philosophers who live in caves because we have no time for anything but debating the issues, or we’d have a government that functions with a mob mentality based on the quick decisions of busy people. Neither is a good alternative.
The point of having representatives is that their full-time job becomes researching the issues, presenting them to their constituents for feedback, and employing wisdom to come to a solution that represents the best interests of their constituents and, if possible, also meets with their approval. It is important to note that these are not always the same thing: sometimes the decision we most need is not the one we want. This is the tragedy of democracy: while it can channel our best tendencies, it can also reflect our worst. More than one good politician’s career has ended because they made the right call even when it was unpopular, and more than one lousy representative’s career has been made by appealing to what is popular. Which brings us to the question of how we choose our representatives.
Choosing a Representative
Anyone who wants to become a Member of Parliament can do so, provided they are a Canadian citizen and can manage to collect 100 signatures to submit to Elections Canada. Choosing a good candidate is arguably much more difficult: with so many issues, and so many ways of approaching those issues, it can be difficult to find a candidate who has the same views that you do. Most of the time we make compromises, finding a candidate whose views are generally similar and living with the differences; this is where political parties come in handy, and we’ll talk about them in a moment. But we also need to consider the candidate’s ability to do the job: are they a good communicator? Do they understand the issues well? Are they wise? Are they successful in their previous or current profession, and does that profession and its required skills and knowledge relate at all to the work an MP performs? Given that an MP is supposed to represent the interests of their constituents, their personal suitability for the job is arguably much more important than their own personal views.
The suitability of the candidate is so central and important that it was traditionally considered long before any party affiliations. Political parties are a way of organizing MPs who are united in basic views, which is very useful for helping voters choose someone with similar views as them but not at all helpful in deciding who is the best qualified candidate. Political parties are not an official aspect of Canadian democracy, do not appear in the Canadian constitution, and until the 1960’s they did not even appear on the ballot after the candidate’s name. It was assumed, back then, that we were paying close enough attention that we would know who the candidates were, including knowing which party they may be affiliated with. The ridings were smaller back then too, so people had a better chance of knowing their candidates personally, but the point is that primary importance was placed on the candidate themselves, not on the party with which they affiliate.
Don’t get me wrong: political parties are useful for providing focus for our ideals and promoting greater cooperation in decision making. But they only remain useful if they are actually doing those things, and we’ve run into a few pitfalls with them. Political parties simplify the process of choosing a candidate because they give us a sense of the views and ideals of the candidate; but if we identify a candidate primarily by their party affiliation, the qualifications of individual candidates matter less and less, and eventually candidates from the same party become interchangeable. This situation is reinforced by the fact that political parties have taken on more and more power by creating internal rules and structures that govern which of their members are allowed to speak, what they’re allowed to say, and how they will vote on the issues. This renders candidates from a particular party completely interchangeable because they are unable to exercise wisdom or discernment in their decision making (as they’re told how to vote) or their communication skills to keep the electorate informed (as they’re required to only voice the official position of the party). This is the state of party politics in Canada today, and the Green Party is the only major party that refuses to put party politics ahead of the best interests of constituents. This is a major reason why I chose the Green Party.
Another serious issue with party politics is that the way in which a party simplifies the voting process by consolidating views and values into one group has a dumbing-down effect. Imagine choosing between several candidates without any party affiliations: you would look at their individual qualities and views, and treat it much like you were about to hire someone (which is effectively what we’re collectively doing). The process is much easier if you can simplify all of a person’s characteristics down to a few categories or issues, which is what party affiliation does. But there are still many different ways of viewing the world, and a political party that wants to reach a majority of voters will try to appeal to as many of them as possible. In order to do so, it must make its categories or issues as broad and vague as possible, to give the most possible people the sense that their views fit best with this party. As parties reach across the political spectrum and become more generic, they inevitably either become interchangeable with each other (yet still competitive with each other), or completely polarized in their views. Or sometimes, oddly enough, both at the same time.
Canada has a number of political parties, but we’ve historically only been ruled by two of them: the Conservatives, or Tories, who have had many different names and incarnations throughout our history; and the Liberals, or Grits, who are the longest-running party in Canadian politics and the party that has ruled the most. They are named after the two sides of the political spectrum: liberal and conservative.
The Political Spectrum
The political spectrum, or vote compass, is another way of simplifying the voting process. In general, liberals value freedom, equality, and fairness while conservatives value authority, loyalty, and sanctity. Of course, both sides value all of those things in different amounts, but the terms liberal and conservative are generally applied to the two ends of the spectrum and used to emphasize differences in views. But what does it mean to be a liberal? Up until the 20th century, it primarily referred to trade: liberals were people who believed in a free market to increase investment, while conservatives preferred systems of tariffs that protected their industries and promoted savings. But around the start of the 20th century, the term “liberal” began to refer to social liberalism, or the belief that the government shouldn’t control people’s private choices. By the end of the 20th century, “liberalism” usually referred exclusively to social liberalism and was associated with socialism, which prefers tariffs to protect industry – a traditionally conservative strategy. Meanwhile, conservative parties have completely embraced the free market, and subscribe to “neo-liberal” economics. So liberals are socially liberal and economically conservative, while conservatives are socially conservative and economically liberal. But the Liberal Party of Canada is socially and economically centrist, and the Conservative Party of Canada is economically liberal and refuses to discuss social issues at all (except crime, I suppose). So what does it mean to be liberal or conservative? Not much.
One of the reasons that I joined the Green Party is that we get out of this tangled mess of terminology. We are often characterized as being a far-left party, which is to say very liberal; but our actual policies fall all across the spectrum. We are fiscally conservative: we want to pay down debt and implement sustainable resource and spending strategies. Socially, we fall all across the spectrum: many of our ideas are quite progressive, but often by applying progressive means to reach traditionally conservative ends (such as trying to make progress on the issue of abortion by dealing with poverty and health issues that often lead to abortions, rather than insisting on controlling women’s behaviour). It seems to me that the other parties have founded their identities on being left-wing or right-wing or centrist, but we’ve founded our identity on fundamental values – the six values that this lecture series is based on. This gives us the freedom to get out of the political spectrum altogether and focus our attention on the issues that Canada faces and the best ways to address them, regardless of which end of the spectrum those ideas may come from.
A Team Sport
So, back to democracy. We’ve seen that the use of political parties and positions on the political spectrum can help us to simplify the task of deciding how to vote. Unfortunately, they can also reduce politics to a team sport: we all choose our colour, sometimes with very little reasoning, and we tend to stick with that colour regardless of the merits of the candidates or the platforms of the parties. Then we can root for our team, and hate on the other teams, without having to make sound judgments about the issues.
If you think that this is a strange analogy, I should point out that it’s not mine: politicians have used the analogy to justify voting against the best interests and will of their constituents for the sake of promoting party politics. And as long as we see it that way, we’ll continue to root for our team even when they’re not winning for us; too often, we become the Leafs fans of politics. But this isn’t a game, it’s our life. And as long as we continue to cheer for our team rather than engaging with the process, our politicians can get away with an awful lot.
This same kind of tribalism also often causes us to hate the other teams with as little thought or analysis as we used to decide which team to cheer for. It also causes us to treat a government led by the other team as a “them” rather than an “us”, and this often leads to a conflicted relationship with our government. We begin to see the government as someone who wants to take our money, rather than as the embodiment of our collective participation and best interests to which we would voluntarily contribute. The only way we can hold the government to account at that point is to tell them how angry we are – but as long as we’re caught up in the team-sport tribalism mentality, they can keep our anger directed at the other teams, and it doesn’t actually affect the actions they take with our money. We can never hold the government to proper account so long as it is a “them”; accountability must be something that we collectively do.
When we fail to hold our representatives to account, they no longer need to serve our best interests. When that happens, our system has collapsed. What do you call a representative who isn’t representing anyone? Of course, they continue to represent the best interests of someone, even if it isn’t their constituents: unaccountable representatives usually represent themselves, but also usually other powerful interests, like corporations and the wealthiest Canadians, who are always actively lobbying in their own self interests. Our representatives are supposed to lobby Parliament on our behalf, but they are also subject to lobbying, and if they’re not lobbying for us they end up lobbying for someone else.
We’re seeing the beginning of corruption in Canada right now. The Conservative government and its members have been convicted of corruption-related crimes several times: election fraud, contempt of parliament, breach of trust, and more. The fact that they were convicted says that we still have a judicial system that is able to do its job, to a limited extent; but some of these crimes occurred almost a decade ago, and we voted them in again. Twice. The second time with a majority. The courts are limited in what they can do: Dean Del Mastro went to jail, but there’s no jail sentence for Stephen Harper for his contempt of parliament, and the sentences for Mike Duffy and Patrick Brazeau have yet to be decided. But an unengaged electorate decided that they didn’t care enough about corruption to change the way they voted, or to show up to vote at all. What this shows politicians is that they don’t need to be moral leaders in order to rule our country.
So how can we fix this? There are a few ways.
First, vote. Period. Whatever the result of the election is, if we had a 100% voter turnout it would tell the government that people are paying attention. When the people are watching, politicians will behave differently.
Second, make an informed choice. Weigh the track records of the parties, and stop rewarding corruption. Weigh the qualities of your local representatives, and choose someone who can do the job well. This is not the time for a team-sport tribalism mentality. If good candidates from small parties get a big chunk of the vote, it will send a message to the parties that they need to choose good candidates, and having more good candidates will lead to more MPs who speak for themselves. Weigh the platforms of the parties, and choose a party with vision rather than voting for the party that looks like they can win. If people voted for the best platform rather than the front-runner, we’d see a very different result and parties would know that they need smart policies to win rather than just divisive rhetoric.
Third, continue to be active after the election. This election has more hype and promise than any election in a long time, but I’m concerned that a lot of people who were eager to vote last weekend (3.6 million of us!) will be very disappointed on Tuesday, and will check out of the process again. Political engagement doesn’t stop when a representative is chosen, it’s just getting started! Talk to your MP, whether you voted for them or not, and let them know that you’re paying attention and want to keep their ear about issues that are important to you. When constituents do that, it helps MPs to do their job.
Fourth, ask your MP to vote in favour of Proportional Representation. This is a voting system that would replace our current first-past-the-post system. In our current system, the person with the most overall votes gets elected, regardless of the actual total percentage they receive – so it’s common for someone with only around 30% of the vote to get elected, leaving 70% of the population disappointed. In proportional representation, parties would get a share of the seats that is proportionate to their share of the votes. By current polls, the Green Party is estimated to win one seat in this election even though we’d get around 5% of the total national vote; in PR, we’d get 15 seats. But more than that, with PR people would change the way that they vote: as it stands, people want to vote for someone who has a chance of winning, but PR would more or less take that out of the equation, empowering people to vote their heart or their conscience. Polls show that the Green Party is the most commonly listed 2nd choice, which makes me wonder: if they thought we had a shot at winning, would we be their first choice?
Finally, join a political party that inspires you. A major indicator of the strength of a party is the number of members that they have – people who are willing to spend ten bucks and identify themselves with a party. It’s a relatively small step, but it helps the party to identify their supporters and engage them to make a difference in the next campaign. It also sends a signal to the other parties that maybe this party has a lot of good ideas that are worth stealing!
Thanks for taking your time to engage with me tonight; please be sure to take the time to engage the process on Monday and cast a ballot.
Thanks everyone! It’s been brilliant getting to know you. Make sure you vote today, and vote your heart! Vote for vision. Vote Green.