I admit that is a harsh question. But I think it is a fair question. But before explaining why, let me start by saying that I believe the cliché about the electorate always being right to be true. Lat night, Manitobans re-elected the Progressive Conservatives led by Brian Pallister. While some are elated with that outcome and others dejected, it is the electorate’s decision and it is the correct one.
Why is that so? Because if we have democracy, then whatever decision voters deliver, is by definition valid and correct. Having said that, the correctness and validity of a decision does not say anything of its quality. Voters are the boss and the boss gets to make the decision. But that does not mean the boss is always right.
So even though voters get to call the shots, why are they generally so miserable? It is very common to hear voters complain that nothing ever changes and all politicians are the same. Is that not the boss making bad calls and complaining about the outcomes? If democracy gives voters the right to make the final decision, why are they so dissatisfied and why are fewer and fewer of them turning out to vote?
It is because democracy is dying. The rights that took millennia and revolutions to realize, are slowly withering away into an inconsequential exercise in futility. The democratic process has ground us to a stalemate where we reasonably feel that nothing ever changes. Our frustration with the status quo turns us to indifference or to desperation of accepting that which we previously considered unthinkable. Our indifference keeps us from voting while our desperation leads to accepting politics of division and blame.
Either way, democracy is in deep trouble. More than that, the symptoms suggest it is terminally ill. And we the people, being the patients, better find a cure before this greatest social invention since our arrival on this planet takes its last breath. As with any disease, let’s set aside the symptoms and start with its underlying causes.
Some would suggest that our species is collectively too stupid for democracy. While that is a tempting thought, it does not explain the disease fully. Others like Dr. Shawn Rosenberg from the University of California Irvine says that democracy is “devouring itself” and “will be replaced by far-right populism and authoritarianism”.
What leads Rosenberg to this dire prediction? He argues that ordinary people are overwhelmed by the exercise of democracy which demands thoughtfulness, discipline and the ability to separate fact from fiction. And he thinks many of us are simply not up to the task. He further argues that we have demonizing the elites who helped ordinary citizens negotiate the complex issues we faced and these elites have been replaced by the social media. And in his view, that reliance on social media has made us more susceptible to inherent human biases that go unchallenged when consumed in online privacy rather than through open discussion involving opposing opinions.
Rosenberg is a prominent academic and I think he is just using more sophisticated language to say we are all just too stupid to make democracy work. But before we get mad at him for sounding elitist, let’s take a moment of honest reflection and see if any of his suggested causes are worth serious consideration.
I accept that democracy is dying; after all, that is the entire premise of this article. I also agree with Rosenberg that filling our informational appetites in front of impersonal device screens has made it easier for us to only consume that which feeds and satisfies our biases. Extensive research demonstrates that to be overwhelmingly true.
That means that we are talking to fewer people, not having our opinions challenged by others and as humans will do, we gravitate to read and consume only what we agree with. And Rosenberg may be very right that all that is concentrating us into two diametrically opposed groups; one of which is supporting far-right, authoritative styles of governments across the planet.
I can agree that the demise of democracy is caused by a combination of stupidity, laziness, cynicism, human nature and underlying economic failures that have made voters disengage or turn to politicians who express anger on our behalf by blaming minorities, immigration or free trade. As these two polar opposites grow, the thoughtful middle has shrunk.
But not all of this has been a slow, steady and organic evolution. Democracy is an institution that needed constant nurturing and care. Somewhere along the way, not only did we stop nurturing democracy, certain constituencies started popularizing the idea that democracy needed checks and limits to protect ourselves. To call a spade a spade, it has been mostly right-wing politics that has deeply wounded the exercise of democracy.
In the United States, democracy has been held back by grotesquely partisan districting exercises and restrictive voter ID requirements to curtail phantom election fraud. These thinly veiled efforts were designed to limit the franchise for the poor and minorities. While claiming to defend democracy, they attacked the very institution of democracy. And social media information and disinformation fuelled support for these initiatives. Rosenberg is not elitist; this partisan fuelled limit on democracy is real elitism.
In Canada, most jurisdictions have moved to place limits on political contributions, particularly by corporations and institutions like unions. Individual contributions have also capped to annual maximums. Aside from the occasional noise about voter fraud (mostly from the right), Canada’s independent election system has protected us. But before you go too far thinking I am praising Canada or its Provinces, let me assure you, our hands are hardly clean.
Take our own Province as an example. Since his Government was elected in 2016, Premier Brian Pallister has done away with various forms of public support for political parties. He argued that the public should not be “forced” to support political parties and any public donations should be voluntary. All of that sounds wonderfully principled and many agreed with the Premier’s suggestion that “political parties should be willing to go out and actively ask for support and generate it."
But the stated rationale overlooked one essential fact; that democracy and its exercise could never be free or paid for only on a voluntary basis. We are not talking about buying someone a chocolate bar. We are talking about the most foundational part of our way of life. It is worth at least the price of a chocolate bar to each citizen who values and benefits from democracy. The populist ideals claimed as the justification for ending universal public support that allowed full participation in democracy regardless of individuals wealth, were nothing more than an attempt to make democracy more of a playground for the privileged.
Playing partisan politics with our most revered institution has not completely silence those of lesser means, but it made it harder for them to be heard. And legitimate voices in our democratic process deserve our support. These voices challenge our assumptions and help us improve the quality of our decisions. These voices are the only effective means of challenging our own biases.
Using the right to govern to advance partisan interests is yet another blow to democracy. If our governments continue to use the mandates we grant them to undermine faith and confidence in our institutions, we will end up in democracy in name only. It will be certain that influence and access will be limited those who can afford political contributions.
It took centuries of human existence and evolution for democracy to take hold. For a time, it flourished. Then came the reversals. I don’t agree with Rosenberg that sidelining the elites is the cause. I blame these manipulative acts to gain political advantage by telling us that paying for democracy is an affront to its exercise. It is not. Public sustenance is essential to the democratic institution and its integrity. Paradoxically, paying for voices we may find disagreeable is exactly what protects our own democratic right to be heard.
Am I suggesting that government’s like Mr. Pallister’s are the cause of democracy’s demise? Yes, but not entirely. This is where “we the people” earn our stupidity stripes. We let our partisan biases be the only lens through which we judge the legitimacy of our government’s conduct.
To this extent, Rosenberg is right; we have proven ill-equipped to “run a well-functioning democracy”. Democracy is dying because many of us cheered Mr. Pallister’s raw partisanship. As democracy’s pulse fades, the remedy lies in our own biased minds and the choice to administer it is entirely ours. RIP democracy.