Better democracy

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Maxwell Cameron is a Professor at the UBC Department of Political Science. This article is featured in "Reflections of Canada: Illuminating our Biggest Possibilities and Challenges at 150 Years", a collection of essays by Canada’s leading writers, researchers, and public intellectuals peers into the country’s past and future in the 150th year since Confederation.

By Maxwell Cameron

Canada has an exemplary democracy, but it is showing signs of stress as it enters its 150th year. It is not that our institutions are deeply flawed, although they could surely be improved. Rather, our democracy is stressed because we are having trouble sharing the burdens of responsibility at a time when citizens are under pressure to compete in an increasingly market-driven world.

Democratic elections often pose existential choices. What kind of country are we? What do we want to be? And by what means can we achieve our ends? These choices test our collective wisdom. We hope and expect that our fellow citizens will select their representatives in a manner consistent with our collective aspirations as a people. If voters fall under the sway of a demagogue, democracy may be undermined. If a majority chooses a party that a substantial minority finds reprehensible, the value of democracy is diminished for the minority. Citizens in a democracy, unlike in other systems of government, have a stake in the moral character and judgment of their fellow citizens and representatives. This shared responsibility is one of democracy’s greatest features. And also one of its greatest challenges.

One of the signs of a stressed democracy is declining voter turn-out. According to Elections Canada, voter turnout has declined from an average of 76 percent in federal elections in the 1960s and 1970s to around 71 percent in the 1980s and 1990s, and to 63 percent since 2000. For engaged citizens, participation is a civic duty, which is sustained through civic rituals like voting. For apathetic citizens, voting is a bother. They may not care about the outcome or may think voting makes no difference. Or perhaps they believe that all politicians are the same. Whatever the reason, non-participants refuse to partake in the nation’s communal political life. As a result, the public sphere is diminished both by their absenteeism and by what it conveys to others—that voting is a waste of time.

Another sign of stress is the lack of interest in politics. Few Canadians are members of political parties, much less active participants in riding associations. As a result, they have little experience with the political process. Ignorance can be as corrosive as apathy. So-called low- information voters often make decisions based on gut instinct, favouring “truthiness” (what feels true) over the truth. This encourages politicians to act manipulatively, for such voters are vulnerable to fake news, dog whistles, scandal mongering, and vote suppression, all of which occur with growing regularity in Canadian elections.

Caught up in the demands of everyday life, many voters are so focused on the short term that they cannot slow down to consider the impact of their decisions on future generations. Preoccupied with their own problems, they may fail to take a more encompassing view of what is good for them and their community. To be better citizens, we need to cultivate empathy—the capacity to feel and see the world from the perspective of others—understanding, and judgment. Otherwise, apa-thy, ignorance, myopia, and egocentrism may prevent voters from acting in ways that would have the approval of their own better selves. With greater motivation and knowledge, an apathetic or ignorant voter might come to see the importance of voting—and voting wisely. But how and where do we find our better selves?

Democracy in the classical sense (the Greek word is a conjunction of “rule” and “the people”) provides mechanisms through which citizens may become more engaged, knowledgeable, empathetic, and aware of the ways in which their own lives are inextricably bound to the fate of their fellow citizens. These mechanisms include deliberation, judgment, collective decision-making, dialogue, and conflict resolution. The more citizens are engaged in deliberative processes of meaningful decisions, the more they are able to understand the perspective of others and see their own problems in the light of larger circumstances. The end result is that citizens can reach more mature and enduring judgments, and that is why democracy is better than its alternatives: it makes for better citizens.

In a representative democracy like Canada, the opportunities for direct participation in decisions affecting one’s self and community are limited. Citizens elect their representatives to govern on their behalf, rather than participating directly in self-government. There are few opportunities to participate in deliberation and judgment, to listen and learn from the perspectives of others, and to make decisions of real consequence. Without continuous reinforcement and opportunities for practice, the character and virtue necessary for active citizenship atrophies, and tends to be replaced by apathy, ignorance, short-sightedness, and selfishness. One of the most powerful objections to contemporary liberal democracies is that they do not provide opportunities for the kind of active citizenship necessary to ensure the vibrancy of the practice of democracy.

It is sometimes said that people get the politicians they deserve. It would be more accurate to say that good institutions alone are not sufficient to ensure virtuous citizens and leaders. As Barry Schwartz and Kenneth Sharpe argue in their book Practical Wisdom, a capacity for self-government must be cultivated to ensure voters and their representatives are discerning, judicious, responsible, and generous in outlook. What many Canadians see when they look at their representatives is very different, Alison Loat and Michael Macmillan claim in Tragedy in the Commons. They often see pandering, toxic negativity, excessive partisanship, and permanent campaigning. They see parties operating like public relations vehicles for candidates who worry more about how they are perceived in the polls than serving the public good; desire for media attention leads politicians to gratuitously attack each other, undermining trust in both politicians and politics. They see political parties exaggerate their differences, to the detriment of their ability to work together to get results. They see politicians who ignore evidence, devalue science, and make ill-informed decisions. They see the influence of money, which forces politicians to be permanent fundraisers, often at the expense of time they could spend legislating and governing.

Many, though not all, of the defects in contemporary democracies can be traced to features of neo-liberal globalization: the promotion of competition in all spheres of life, the overreliance on rules and incentives, and rampant individualism.1 The heavy-handed use of incentives and rules promotes the desire for external rewards or gratification, rather than the search for fulfillment through activities like citizenship. A self-centred individualism weakens the bonds of attachment to others and can lead to alienation and, in the extreme, mental health problems. Unchecked competition undermines a healthy culture based on the pursuit of happiness, intrinsic rewards of social activity, solidarity with others, and the ability to work together toward common goods. Such values, which are embraced in many Indigenous cultures and in local and neighbourhood associations, are necessary resources for a vibrant democracy, yet they are under constant threat.

So, what are we to do?

Political cultures depend on practices, and the practice of democracy is a good place to start if we wish to make improvements in our political system. The representative institutions of parliamentary democracy need to be supplemented by participatory innovations that provide citizens with opportunities to acquire the skill and know-how necessary for being good citizens and politicians. Participatory budgeting, which could be adopted in many Canadian municipalities, creates opportunities for engaged citizenship by giving neighbours a say in the allocation of part of the municipal budget. Such innovations provide practical and experiential training for democratic citizenship. Citizens assemblies, in which randomly selected members of the public are given the opportunity to deliberate and propose legislation, are another participatory innovation with the potential to enrich the everyday experience of citizens. Even traditional institutions like schools and universities can do more to pre-pare people for public life by creating spaces in which individuals can experiment with the activities of representation, deliberation, legislation, coalition building, and conflict resolution. Mock parliaments in high school motivate students to vote when they come of age.

This is not to say that we should not also strive to improve our democratic institutions. For example, some form of proportional representation might mitigate Canada’s highly adversarial and hyper-partisan politics. In the short term, hope for electoral reform has been frustrated precisely because of the kind of partisan logic entrenched within the current first past the post system. The failure underscores the need to create well-designed deliberative procedures when crafting reforms—not poorly conceived town hall meetings or superficial Internet quizzes. Even without institutional reform, however, change can come through organizational innovation. For example, Canadian political parties are due for an overhaul. Party discipline needs to be relaxed and more power given to caucus rather than to party leaders. Nomination processes need to be more transparent and better regulated. Parties need to be more deeply rooted in civil society and more democratic in their internal functioning.

More fundamentally, preserving the vitality of democratic practices and institutions demands that we counteract the forces promoting competitive maximizing and individualistic self-gratification. Competitive maximizing may be desirable in the context of business, provided it is well regulated. But when the ethos of competitive maximizing spills over into other spheres of public life, it corrupts and demoralizes institutions necessary for good government. The democratic case for rolling back the rights of corporations is a persuasive one, and we need to seriously rethink the idea of corporate personhood. One cannot attribute to corporations such attitudes as care or responsibility, which are essential for moral agency. Corporations should, therefore, be barred from funding political parties, think tanks, and schools, and their public licence to operate should be conditional upon business practices that advance human needs and environmental sustainability.

To rein in the ethos of competition, it is necessary for politicians to downgrade economic growth and unfettered competitiveness as policy objectives, and emphasize well-being and happiness. Such a “human development” approach offers a powerful alternative to economic growth. Indeed, many countries are beginning to integrate the goal of happiness in policy-making. Bhutan, for example, has pioneered the concept of gross national happiness to replace the gross national prod-uct.2 In Latin America, Indigenous social movements have sparked a lively debate about how to replace a materialistic concept of the good life with sumak kawsay: living well, in harmony with nature and others. One way to promote the objectives of such movements is by constitutionalizing rights that enable non-material fulfillment, including a healthy environment, education, high-quality public child care, and health care. Recognizing Canada’s Indigenous legal and constitutional traditions opens a pathway to similar sources of the wisdom necessary for collective flourishing.

Canada’s sesquicentennial marks an occasion for celebration but not complacency. If democracy is to thrive, it must offer meaningful opportunities for participation and collective decision-making. For a country like Canada, the risk for future generations is not that democracy will be abandoned or overthrown, but that it will be diminished, corroded, and hollowed out by the more powerful forces of the global marketplace. The struggle for democracy is ultimately an effort to ensure that our institutions provide a process through which citizens can find meaningful answers to existential questions. What do we, as a country, wish to do and be? What is good for Canada, as a nation? In seeking answers to these questions, we must strive to perfect our democratic institutions to serve our better selves.