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.