10.24.2016 11:07 PM

This week’s column: democracy belongs to us – not you, politician

Like a flower – wonderful, beautiful, perfect.

That’s what a line-up to vote is, too: wonderful, beautiful, perfect. It is democracy, in its very essence: your neighbours, queued up with you at the elementary school down the street, shivering in the cold, stamping their feet, waiting quietly to get inside to get a slip of paper and a stub of pencil. And then, stepping behind a curtain or a cardboard barrier, and making an inconspicuous “X.”

Democracy is imperfect, of course. It has many critics. Mencken called it “the art of running the circus from the monkey cage.” Thomas Carlyle called it “the collective wisdom of individual ignorance.” Lord Acton, as is well-known, called democracy “the tyranny of the majority.” And Churchill, sadly, was just as condescending: “The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.”

There is a snide, patronizing thread running through all of that: namely, that your average voter is a fool, an ignoramus, and he or she does not deserve a vote. They lack the brains to make important decisions about governing.

But, as Ronald Reagan and others have pointed out many times, as imperfect as it is, democracy is the best that there is. It is assuredly better than all of the alternatives.

Weirdly enough, the subject of democracy was at the top of the news agenda on a single day, last week, in both Canada and the United States. On a single day, Wednesday, Justin Trudeau and Donald Trump forced us all to consider our respective democracies.

The Liberal Prime Minister was speaking to Le Devoir. His “electoral reform” promise – expressed in four short sentences in the Liberal platform, just a year ago – may not be needed any more, Trudeau suggested.

Said he: “Under Stephen Harper, there were so many people unhappy with the government and their approach that people were saying, ‘It will take electoral reform to no longer have a government we don’t like’. But under the current system, they now have a government they’re more satisfied with and the motivation to change the electoral system is less compelling.”


This statement rendered the Opposition apoplectic, of course. To NDP leader Thomas Mulcair, and others, it was the very pinnacle of Grit arrogance: Trudeau was confirming, in effect, that the promise to eliminate the first-past-the-post system was merely done to eliminate Stephen Harper – not to improve our democracy. Now that Harper was back in Calgary writing his memoirs, therefore, electoral refiorm was no longer needed.

The NDP get outraged about every sparrow that falls from the sky, so we shouldn’t get as hysterical about Trudeau’s statement, likely delivered with that familiar familial shrug. But there is a hint of menace, there. Trudeau – maybe, just maybe – seems to believe that democracy should conform to the desires of the Liberal Party of Canada. And, when it doesn’t, change it.

That was not the only shadow cast over democracy last week. On Wednesday, the very same day, the final presidential debate took place. For the first 30 minutes or so, Donald Trump seem to have been medicated – the insults, the interuptions and the persistent case of the sniffles were gone. But, soon enough, the combed-over, sausage-fingered raging Human Cheeto was back, saying things that would earn him a mouthful of knuckles in any self-respecting bar. Saying shit, in effect.

Here is what he said, near the end, when asked the de rigueur question if he would respect the election result.

“I will look at it at the time,” Trump said, as Hillary Clinton (and many millions of others) looked on in horror. “I will keep you in suspense.”

That statement was unprecedented in American history, Clinton said, and it was. A candidate representing one of the two major political parties, refusing for the first time to accede to the notion that – in a democracy – a peaceful and orderly transition of power is essential. Refusing to accept the will of the people, democratically expressed.

The major American newspapers, and not a few others around the world, promptly lost it. Of all of Donald Trump’s serial lies and insults, this one was the worst. He was literally placing American democracy in peril.

Someone talked to him. Overnight, he decided to moderate his tone.

“I will totally accept the results of this great and historic presidential election — if I win,” Trump said to a mob of his stormtroopers in Delaware, Ohio, where he is (regrettably) ahead. Even Alec Baldwin and Saturday Night Live couldn’t properly satirize that one, I told my astonished wife. The only votes that count, the oleaginous groper seemed to be saying, are the ones that favour me.

Like I say: Wednesday was a pretty bad day for democracy. Up here, one guy saying the rules of democracy don’t need to be changed, anymore, because a political adversary has been beaten. And, down there, another guy saying democracy’s rules should only be followed when he is acclaimed the winner.

Democracy, someone else once said, is a flower. It needs to be nurtured and protected. It is not immortal.

Last week, all of us were reminded why.


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    Steve T says:

    Good analysis of what would actually happen if the Human Cheeto decided to be his usual a**hole self after he loses the election:


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    pat says:

    Democracy is a nice thing because with it we expect rights. Who would vote against charter rights aside from a despot. The problem these days is that those rights we so cherish are becoming less a matter of the law, and more an issue about protecting privacy. Without privacy health discrimination is rampant, employers seem to cross barriers in terms of their involvement in your life, – any loser can send around a bunch of nonsense to compete for a job, or whatever their beef is, and neighbors can eaves drop – People tend to want to know more than they should, and that impacts freedom in terms of how people behave and enjoy their freedom – so as much as democracy is nice, and the charter is cool, without privacy none of it matters. You can’t be creative, and you can’t be free without privacy. We’ll end up at a time when employers are actively eaves dropping on staff (as if that doesn’t already happen), so then people won;t be free because a lack of privacy impacts their right to think freely, and to be creative, and to be different, and to hold independent opinions. – that’s what a lack of privacy does, so democracy is nice, but we have to have rights and privacy to go with it or we aren’t free anymore – Can you imagine an oil and gas staff member in a conservative office voting liberal. First they’d be maligned, and then fired – so they have to be able to vote in private –

    Sure democracy is important, but without privacy, and a real constitution democracy is a placebo – first thing every despot does is set up a surveillance infrastructure, and if we aren’t careful to protect our privacy we won’t have a meaningful democracy anymore. Maybe it’s already too late ??

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    JKR says:

    Thanks Warren. I’ve been reflecting on some issues regarding proportional representation. Proponents believe this system would be much more “inclusive” than our first-past-the-post system. Observing Trump, one could extrapolate and logically imagine a situation where the 40% of the votes he’s apt to receive would provide him with 40% of the cabinet appointments and a 40% share of the government. This, I understand, is how proportional representation works in some countries. Would Canada want to accept this type of political risk?

    “First past the post” pushes parties to the centre. Parties that ignore this, such as the Harper government last fall, often receive the result they deserve. I firmly believe proportional representation is for losers. The risks of enabling a Trump type person to gain substantial power is much greater than in “first past the post”.

    Regarding Churchill, did he not also say that democracy is the a bad form of government but is the best when examining all the others? (I don’t recall his exact words). I suggest the same logic holds true when examining electoral system choices here in Canada.

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      doconnor says:

      Of course under FPP, 40% of the vote can give you 100% of the cabinet appointments and 100% of the government.

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        Vancouverois says:

        Yep. The party gets a full four years to implement its program without hindrance – and can be held responsible for all of it, good and bad. And if they piss off enough people during that mandate, when that 40% goes down to 30% the next four years after that will see them shut out completely. Witness our current Parliament.

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          Kelly says:

          Except it wouldn’t have to turn out that way. Instead their vote could go down to 30% and the Greens, NDP and Conservatives could each get 23.333% of the vote and the phony majority would now have 100% of the real power with even less support. FPTP is a phony system. Period. Unless you only have 2 parties. And the Liberal and Cons would be just fine with that. Then they can pretend to compete instead of representing the interests of money, like they traditionally do. A two party system is a sham democracy. Real democracy is messy. PR is about everyone getting heard by way of multiple parties then coming together in compromise to make things work via coalitions. Government t is not about being “efficient” they seemingly most common argument for it around here. Janice Gross Stein delivered some great Massey lectures about this subject a few years ago. They came out in a book called The Cult of Efficiency.

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    pat says:

    I don’t think we are free – haven’t been for a while, and it’s a real shame that thousands of years of struggle for rights and democracy in the west are crumbling away because technology has robbed everyday people of their right to privacy – I think it is already too late, and as much as our charter protects individual rights and freedoms, everyday people are forming into herds that violate each others privacy – it’s a real disgrace these days, and something to be ashamed of –

    People informed by tabloids, jingoism and the moralized disgrace that results, privacy gone for cheap people with bad taste, competing tribes – too late now for democracy to flourish when basic things like a lack of privacy are robbing people of their freedom to think, and be creative and hold independent opinions – I think it’s a real and serious disgrace, and the point where we start to collapse –

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    Vancouverois says:

    When JT expressed admiration for China’s dictatorship, he wasn’t kidding.

    I’m still afraid he may try to force through preferential balloting, claiming it’s just a “simple” or “small” change.

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      Kelly says:

      It would still be better than what we have. It is commonly known as “instant runoff” instead of having a second or third round of elections until someone gets a majority. Australia uses it in lower house and PR in upper house. Normally instant runoff would force parties to the centre but in Australia they have a tradition of caucus authority and MPs remove leaders all the time. As a result you can have coups such as what has occurred in the last 4 governments down under. Would work better where members pick leaders.

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        Vancouverois says:

        No. It would be far, FAR worse than what we currently have. It consistently gives completely disproportionate results that do not at all reflect the democratic will of the people. In this county, the only people who support it are a minority of extreme Liberals who believe it would help their party dominate, and put that concern ahead of democratic principles.

        It was imposed in Australia by a corrupt government that was trying to avoid a deserved defeat, same as in BC in the 50s. Fortunately for BC (sort of), the incumbents were so corrupt that they were defeated anyway, and the new system was repealed. Australia wasn’t so lucky.

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    dave constable says:

    In the late 18th Century, Jeremy Bentham cobble together his ‘panopticon,’ an idea for a prison. The building was a great round wall with no openings/windows on the outside, and completely open on the inside. Inside the wall was a large, empty space, in the middle of which was a guard tower, where the guards were stationed. The cells were on the inside of the wall, open to continuous supervision by the guards.
    In the mid 20th Century, Michel Foucault suggested that the panopticon was the method of the modern state, and models were the prisons, schools and hospitals of today.
    One way to look at the internet is as a panopticon. The possibility with the internet, though, is that, to strengthen democracy, we can use it the other way around: we , the ‘inmates’ can use it to watch and judge those in power. A struggle today is between those who would use the internet in this manner -to watch those in power – and those in power who want to control the internet to watch and control us.
    Last week’s hack of assorted well known high tech sites in North America looked to me as a part of this struggle. (The claim by someone calling themselves ‘New World Hackers,’ was a bit too close to the term ‘New World Order’ used by Washington powers.) By the way, the political party that seems to have been on to this from their get go is the Pirate Party. We already have piles of evidence regarding collusion between the state and internet providers in breaching individual privacy – usually in the name of national security or of ending child porn.

    I’m not sure democracy is the best way to make decisions for a group. Some other systems seemed to have worked well.
    We have very little experience in history of democracy, and it is possible we are very young in its use. If we get it right then we gather the experience and thinking of everyone in a group to analyze issues before that group, and make sound decisions. Seems to me that as much good info as possible leads to better decisions.
    In Canada we have system that favours only two political parties. We get maybe 60% voting, and 40% of the 60% voting for members of a party, – then we have party ‘discipline’ ensuring the leader of that party is obeyed, and then the leader of that party holding both executive legislative powers for 4 years, with accountability eroded by secrecy – it’s a lobbyist paradise.
    The two party system pushes both parties in the same direction of saying what is needed to win votes. Once in power, with so much secrecy, our system has resulted in obscene extremes of wealth ownership and distribution, degradation of our climate and oceans, and increasing manipulation of information.
    When democracy is watered down too much and perverted , and a lot of unjust and inefficient governance is delivered in the name of that ‘democracy,’ people begin to look for alternatives to democracy.

    I sometimes thought the Faust story would have a special edge if it showed Faust thinking that he was bargaining with Christ. We have some very powerful people and institutions claiming to champion ‘democracy,’ and we know darn well that in the back room they are doing the opposite.


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    MikeTO says:

    Quoting Mencken…hats off to you sir.

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    pat says:

    The system won’t matter until privacy becomes a cornerstone of democracy. Eventually we’ll have a bunch of misfits with ear pieces – eaves dropping and enforcing orthodoxy, hiring based on political affiliation, or lifestyle; listening in so they don;t have to be any good to have too much – wait that is probably already happening – you don;t have to be very bright, and you don;t have to work that hard – just follow along with the talking points set out by the grand master, and you’ll have a job. Sounds like the
    Nazis –

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    bluegreenblogger says:

    I was quite surprised to see Trudeau’s comment about maybe not for electoral reform. This is the first actual own goal he has scored so far. Sure stuff has happened, but nothing that would impact the core of his support like ditching electoral reform. I am not speaking from ignorance, this issues resonates in a way that nobody over 40 would realise, unless, like me, they have been immersed in youthful politics (Green Party in my case). Electoral reform is not just an issue, it is THE only issue for literally hundreds of thousands of people who stood up and voted for Trudeau last year. Most of them never bothered before. They will be really pissed off now. If you doubt the significance, look at what happened to Joyce Murray, she just flooded supporters through the door during the Liberal Leadership campaign. Surely the smart people reading this blog, er, I mean, website, noticed the Paradigm shift as it happened? I know pretty well, because I watched as the Green Party roped in tens of thousands of members and donors supporting electoral reform, Fair Vote, and the other organisations. EMay would never ever have got into Parliament without them. It is a thing, and losing them for the Liberals will hand the future over to whoever wins them next.

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    bluegreenblogger says:

    Here’s a link for exactly WHY ditching electoral reform would be a disaster for the Liberals, and Boon for the Greens and NDP. EMay knows for sure, as do I and anybody paying attention that electoral reform is going to happen. the demand is more than enough. IF the Liberals cannot make it a partisan Liberal issue, or at a minimum make it non-partisan, then the Liberal Party will be giving up on future elections for no apparent gain.


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      Vancouverois says:

      Are you kidding me?

      The meetings have been poorly advertised and poorly attended. In Mount Royal, the turnout was EIGHTEEN. Do you really think the Liberals can get away with claiming that’s representative, and negates the need for a referendum? Forget it. No matter how much the deranged Elizabeth May wishes otherwise, that’s a non-starter.

      The simple fact is that few Canadians care. There is no widespread call for a change in our system, and any Liberal attempt to change it without at least a public referendum will cause them a world of political damage – and likely be challenged in court.

      They’re far, far better off just letting it drop. They might want to impose ranked ballots, but they seem to realize the dangers in such an attempt outweigh the potential benefits.

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    sam says:

    The smug Laurentian elite attitude that many out here in the west think is an integral part of the federal liberal psyche is now showing up in Trudeau’s words and actions. His disdain for the west, Alberta in particular, was clearly evident when he chided/reminded Kenney that he was still in Ottawa, not Alberta when Kenney brought up the plight of unemployed Albertan’s in his home province.

    Throw in the huge markup in drywall prices builders in the west now face (which builders in the east don’t) because of the tariff the feds imposed and the divisions deepen. Trudeau could and may be totally justified in the tariff given the circumstances, but optics matter and people in the west are seeing it as yet more eastern arrogance and it cements the assertion that eastern elites see the west as a cash cow to be milked, and little more.

    I predicted this time last year that at the end of this four year term there would be four things of note happen:

    1 – the nation would be in a lot more dept
    2 – the nation would be a lot more divided
    3 – the nation would lose much of it’s respected international stature.
    4 – grassroots aboriginals will realize they were sold snake oil, the chiefs have their shut up money and will say nothing.

    The first two are undeniably becoming fact, and given the trade ministers recent hissy fit / break down over a trade deal failure #3 is well on its way.

    The fourth, you ain’t seen nothing yet..

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      Maps Onburt says:


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    pat says:

    Funny thing is this; folks who benefit from illegal surveillance are all for it. It’s an atrocity and a disgrace., but you don;t have to look very far to see the very same thing. Every place that is not free has a surveillance network, and punishes folks for their point of view when it doesn’t jive with the grand master. The Nazis, Communist Russia, Libya etc etc – these places also had surveillance to enforce cultural rigidity, and orthodoxy – It’s a slippery slope, and someday those who benefit from illegal surveillance will be on the other side, and I’m sure their opinions will change when they are the victims –

    So, without privacy electoral reform is meaningless –

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    pat says:

    a lack of privacy also robs merit based professionals of their lives – and enables sycophants who will always pander to whoever is wealthy or powerful at that moment in time – without privacy our democracy is meaningless, and everything from corporate community to the broader professional community loses credibility because it becomes obvious that membership in a clan, and privilege supersedes hard work, competence, and ability – this thing about privacy is fundamentally important to both our democracy, and egalitarian society – the world becomes class based without the class or culture, and that robs Canadians of any benefit derived from a democracy – It’s soft fascism without the murder

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    pat says:

    I just don’t see the value in a police state for underwhelming narcissists – Unless of course you are an underwhelming narcissist – in that case it’s your only hope to have what you could never earn in a society that enforces privacy and rewards merit – these things are fundamental to freedom, and a democracy without privacy is a meaningless placebo.

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      dave constable says:

      I think our privacy legislation and regulations, federal, provincial and in assorted organizations, has been ripped off and is used to cover government, business and institutional butts, rather than protect any individuals.

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        pat says:

        Too easy to violate to privacy rights, and I doubt many are aware aside from actual lawyers, what privacy legislation entails. The issue is the ease with which your entire life can be violated at the whim of a fools ego. And considering the consequences for private citizens this issue is going to define our future as a free society – violating privacy enables bigotry and discrimination on a lot of fronts, and that can have a severe impact on a persons well being, career and financial security. The benefits of being Canadian are gone – consider a hyper-partisan province like Alberta – consider applying for a job in Alberta as a liberal, or a person who has a private health issue, or somebody who has independent opinions that don;t jive with conservative orthodoxy – you won;t get the job, no matter how talented or qualified, and that’s because in the application process they are enabled to discriminate against people via privacy violations – it’s a disgrace, and something to be ashamed of –

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          pat says:

          So the emphasis in the recruitment process is orthodoxy that falls outside of the parameters of the charter of rights and freedoms, and that’s enabled by privacy violations that wreak of unearned privilege and make hard work, merit, and education a moot point – a disgrace – violating privacy enables bigotry and discrimination, and creates a two tiered society in a country that brags about equality – simple as that. It’s soft fascism – makes people less free, and it redefines employment and work in a manner that takes us backwards to a softer version of indentured-servitude, or slavery without the violence –

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            pat says:

            In order to grasp this issue you have to have an understanding of human struggle, and the abuse of people, and the hard fought battles that emancipated working poor, indentured servants and slaves to become the middle class, and for then to have middle class kids go to university and become professionals – this took thousands of years. Unfortunately thousands of years to a Magna Carta, and then eventually the rules we have to protect people in Canada from discrimination become a moot point when modern technology enabled an age old, and destructive instinct in the human animal – and these days that enables people to skirt the rule of law, and discriminate without consequence – this is robbing Canadians of the benefits of citizenship –

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    Maps Onburt says:

    I see less of an issue with Donald Trump saying he’ll wait and see how much hanky lanky is going on at the polling booth as illegal voting is an undeniable campaign issue and he’d be silly to prejudge that the problems have all magically disappeared. He’s got good precedent here with Al Gore and Swiftboat Kerry doing the same thing. Of course if he loses by the large margins that are being predicted it’s a moot point whether or not he actually concedes as there will be no reasonable grounds for the argument it made a difference. The democrats brought this on by criticizing the system in the past when it suited themselves and by having a proven history of vote manipulation. Dead voters, illegal alien, no iD required in many states… what could possibly go wrong???

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      doconnor says:

      You can’t be so naive to believe this is really about election rigging (and poll rigging) rather then his pathological need not to be seen as a loser.

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    FlyingSquirrel says:

    American reader and political junkie here, just wondering something. Even from a cynical point of view, wouldn’t moving to proportional representation perhaps benefit the Liberals most in the long term? While it might mean no more majority governments, I’d think it would also pretty much guarantee the Liberals some sort of influence under almost any government, given that they’re ideologically positioned between the NDP and CPC. Even if they came in third, it seems like they’d be the junior coalition partner to either the Conservatives or the New Democrats – I can’t imagine an NDP-CPC coalition forming. They can’t think that they’ll be able to just win first-past-the-post elections indefinitely.

    Similarly, wouldn’t an alternative vote system like Australia likely benefit the Liberals and to some extent the NDP more than the Conservatives? Maybe there’d be some western ridings where NDP voters would vote Conservative, and Conservative voters would vote NDP, before they’d vote Liberal, but it seems like there are probably more Eastern ridings where the Liberals and NDP are fighting over the anti-Tory vote and would pick up each other’s ranked preferences. And wouldn’t there be at least some Tory voters who’d rank the Liberals above the NDP in their preferences?

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    Maps Onburt says:

    Yes, you’ve hit on why the Dippers and Greens want PR, the Liberals want ranked ballots and the Conservatives want FPTP. Without the consent of the provinces and/or a referendum, it won’t change to anything anytime soon. The Supremes have already ruled that you can’t make changes to the electoral system without a broader mandate than 38% of the last election. The reality is that the Liberals and Conservatives are just fine with FPTP and don’t want PR as it dilutes their power and the ability to get things done. The squeaky wheels at the NdP, the Greens, the Christian Heritage Party,!the Rhinos all want PR because they’d get a seat at the table but it effectively means those seats wouldn’t represent the local constituencies and would just be barking seals for their party interests (not that it’s much different than FPTP). Ranked just is another term for perpetual Liberal government.

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