A Stagnant Continent

In my political studies seminar this week, the conversation revolved around the seeming collapse of democracy in North America. Democracy, at its core, is based around the sovereignty of the people over their government. Meanwhile, statistics demonstrate that only 60-65% of eligible voters turn out on election day, and that a sufficient lack of any direct participation in North American politics by the middle- and lower-class members of society is becoming more and more predominant since the late 1980s.

The question that was raised was what reasons are there for the stagnation of the Canadian and American political systems? While my knowledge of the American system is fairly limited, the issues in the Canadian sphere of politics seem quite apparent, although solutions are far less obvious. Presumably, there are similar issues with the American system.

Trust– The meatiest, most frequent statement in polls concerning the issue was that Canadians in general do not trust individual politicians, and subsequently the government in its entirety. It is often said that the title politician is synonymous with liar, and in many cases, this view has been merited. In this regards, Stephen Harper’s movements for government accountability is good at its core, although I leave it open to personal debate as to whether the right steps are being taken in that regards. I do not think there is any question that cleaning up the reputation of politicians is necessary to get a more active involvement of the citizens of Canada.

Publicizing– The media’s power is incredibly potent, and yet arguably may as well be unused when it comes to government attempts to involve Canadians in politics. The only political advertising on television is aimed at specific party campaigns, rather than a better awareness of politics, or a larger range of participation. Only once have I seen a commercial that came close to encouraging voter participation, from a website mocking American elections and I thought it was delightful!

Rather than ads with hard-hitting points, such as this one, the trend in politics has veered more and more towards transforming election into a popularity contest. Ads such as the one I posted in my post on the newest line of Conservative Party ads. This, along with encouraging a sense of distrust in the parties putting forth such ads, does not give a sense of knowledge about the issues at hand. My immediate reaction upon seeing these commercials was that Stephen Harper must be running out of good, viable platform ideas. Indeed, the only sense that is attainable from these commercials is that the Liberal government of the past was unsuccessful at managing environmental affairs. Clearly the suggestion is that the Conservatives will be more effective in this area, however never is there any sign of how they plan to do this, which leads to doubt as to whether they truly are able to do any better than the Liberals. Citizens are not in any mood to actively seek the information concerning each candidate. If there seems to be no viable option, why not vote? The lack of effective use of media is a key point in discouraging citizen participation in politics.

Lack of options– In history class, we discuss the notion of a one-party democracy regularly. Undemocratic societies that mask their lack of democracy with “elections” are regularly frowned upon, since they are not holding up to the ideals of American democracy. This begs the question: Why do both of North America’s strongest advocates of democracy have very little historical and modern choice in their politics? Both Canada and the United States can be described, in general, as two-party states. While certain parties have been important in change in Canada, such as the NDP’s role in the establishment of the universal health care system, the two parties that have always been seen as veritable choices to govern are the Liberals and the Conservatives. While this presents us with two choices instead of one, the options remain fairly limited. Traditionally, the Conservatives are the Canadian “right wing”, varying from Joe Clark’s nearly Liberal campaigns to the far-right Harper policies, while the Liberals are “left”, although I would argue that they are currently further towards the left than they have been in decades, based on this article. In general the Liberals fall more towards the centre of the spectrum with true-left parties such the NDP being regarded as jokes.

This lack of options in any given electoral year is the basis for many ruts. First of all, the Parliament is crippled by the lack of cooperation between parties. When a majority government is attained, the choices are too streamlined, which leads to dissatisfaction. When a minority government is the result of a mixture of public emotions, the number of choices that result are very limited, because of the necessary alliances between the party in power and the “joke” parties. More often, the time parties spend in minority rule is used to convince the population to embrace the party more wholly in the following election, so that a majority government can once again be formed. This lack of cooperation truly gives the sense that, no matter how the Canadian citizens vote, the chances of any true compromise and progression resulting from an election are very limited. This cynical outlook on Canadian politics certainly would contribute to a lack of desire in Canadians to vote.

Bypassability– It has become more and more frequent that people are able to bypass the traditional government institutions in order to gain personal exceptions because of the amount of power that the courts have gained. Whereas many changes in the policy of the government would require convincing the government to consider a personal plight, it has become far simpler to skip the process entirely by taking an issue to court. Within a far shorter time, a true result has been achieved for the individual. If the process can be overlooked, and the process is inconvenient, why not skip it?

Tier-based rift– The final major point that plays a role in the amount of turnout nation-wide is the cynical outlook that results from the current electoral system. The general view is that Ontario has too much power to be justified. While I am not aware of exact breakdowns of voter turnout per province (if any of you should come across something, I would be most pleased to hear of it!) I would imagine that Ontarian voters turn out more frequently than those in other provinces. Other provinces have an outlook that the federal government does not provide anything in their interests, and as a result there is potentially hesitancy to go to the effort of wasting a vote.

The biggest problem that arises, perhaps, is that it may very well be that the parties truly do not want a larger citizen participation in politics. Some of the issues above seem fairly simple to resolve. The media, for example, could easily be used beneficially. I do not believe that the government is unaware of the lack of awareness and eagerness in voters today. To encourage more participation in politics through television ads would be a simple matter. As far as I can tell, those people who run the system currently are pleased to have it appeal only to a limited crowd.

Some of the issues, however, would be much more difficult to fix. For example, the debate concerning the lack of representation from other provinces is incredibly hard to resolve. Population-wise, the current system does a decent job of breaking down the country into sections. The fact that there are more seats in Ontario is natural, since the largest portion of the population rests there. However, the truth remains that Ontarians, particularly urban ones, represent a narrow set of ideologies that do not necessarily coincide with the more rural provinces of the east and the west. Citizens’ assemblies propose other systems such as proportional representation would at least aid in alleviating the differences nationally, if not resolving it entirely. But the changes this type of movement seeks is no small task, and often seen as a waste of effort.

One thing that basically the entire seminar agreed upon was that a more diverse system of parties would encourage true democratic values. Minor parties need to be provided with the tools to emerge as contenders, should the people think their platform is worth consideration. With more options, a minority government would become more frequent, and parties would have to learn to cooperate automatically instead of the hesitant, self-serving attempts that are made currently. However, the truth is that parties are just that: self-serving. Policies that make smaller parties a lost vote help to maintain the power in its current location, which suits the Conservatives and the Liberals just fine.

The depressing note that I am going to end on is this: The only way to turn this trend around is for people to become more politically active. It is not in the parties’ favour to go to the effort of re-inviting prodigal voters, and so it rests upon the shoulders of those who are politically aware to insist on these issues until it becomes necessary for the government to change. Otherwise, there is no end to the un-democratic spiral that has engulfed North America.


2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. blackberry guy
    Feb 15, 2007 @ 21:02:00

    Re people not voting:
    I tend to be elitist on this point. How many Canadians actually follow the issues in sufficient depth to have an informed opinion? 100%? 80%? 60%? Less than half?

    If people who don’t have an informed opinion decide not to vote, that’s just fine with me! I don’t see it as constituting a crisis for democracy.

    How’s that for a “not politically correct” opinion?


  2. Knotwurth Mentioning
    Feb 16, 2007 @ 05:30:00

    See, the thing is, I think that that comment is politically correct. That is what the parties in power want you to have as an opinion. I think you are probably accurate in suggesting less than half of people are truly informed about politics — but this is what the upper-class politicians want. The “workers”, for lack of more original terminology, are nothing but mindless drones upon which the economy is founded. For the workers to sit around doing nothing but consuming is what the politicians strive for!

    This is evidenced in the fact that the issue of votership is basically ignored by the government. Frustration has occurred because of stagnant politics, the show-boating and insulting displays by politicians, and a general sensation that no party really represents the needs of the society. Too often politics are broken down into semantics, because politics are essentially marketed towards the intellectual upper-middle class and above. But it does not merely affect those classes. It is an age-old debate, I know, but to deny the effect of politics on the workers is impossible. As such, the fact that upper-class politicians have stooped to tactics that clearly do not appeal to the lower classes suggests to me that this really is a trial for democracy.

    I used to think as you do, so don’t get me wrong. However, the facts are pretty boldly evidenced that the upper class controls the majority of what the lower classes consume, which includes politics. When was the last time a prime minister was truly from a lower-class family? I am not a fan of the “capitalists sitting behind a desk plotting against the lower classes” view, but there is validity in the notion that points out that the rich would just as soon stay rich, and to do so requires poverty. With truly equal participation and opportunity, the divide would certainly collapse, at least to an extent, and that is why there is a crisis for democracy in North America.


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