Democratic Demagoguery

It’s municipal election time here in Toronto, and the politicians are paying attention to the voters and promising bread and circus so they can ignore us for another four years.

Well the incumbent David Miller is certainly making promises along those line. He is currently saying he will invest the equivalent of $100,000 in each and every ward across the city in a plan to clean up and beautify Toronto’s open spaces. The works out at nearly $18 million. He points to a local artist who has painted murals on the underside of a bridge. Well in one park near me graffiti artists have done that. Big Deal.

Miller’s leading contender, Jane Pitfield, is taking a different tack, she is promising that there will be investment in the infrastructure — a commitment to work on transit issues. But lets face it, compromises and a peculiar obsession to balance spending ‘fairly’ between the boroughs has meant that a lot of Toronto’s necessities, most pointedly roads and public transit, has been systematically short-changed for decades. A recent grant to the TTC by the province is being swallowed up just to deal with maintenance — no new vehicles or infrastructure. And lets face it, poor roads cost us all in wear and tear on vehicles, not just our own cars, which we have to use, despite the gridlock, because transit is so under-developed, but the buses and the commercial vehicles suffer too.

Vote Early Vote Often

if you’re not on the voters list you can still vote … Even if you are ineligible. It only matters if the election is contested in court

Democracy costs. This election is costing the city about $6 million, and its been in the works since the last election. Many people question whether its worth it. As a democratic process, its almost laughable. The voter’s list has always been a mess but this year the amalgamation has finally gotten around to using the list compiled by the Municipal Property’s Assessment Corporation — an outsourcing effort. Although this has called into question the eligibility of over a quarter of a million voters, it is not as bad as it sounds. Or perhaps its worse.

Its like this: if you’re not on the voters list you can still vote; all you have to do is show up at a polling station with some identification — this doesn’t have to be “strong” identification like a passport or a driving license with your photograph. It seems a letter or bill will do the job. And even if you can’t produce identification, you can still cast a ballot. All you have to do is declare you’re eligible, sign that declaration and you can cast the ballot. I’ve heard stories about how years ago elections in Chicago were rigged by having people vote on behalf of the deceased, but this beats that hands down. (And it seems, Chicago is still vulnerable to voter fraud.)

And if someone is suspicious? No big deal, just go ahead. Any observer who is suspicious can register an objection, which is duly noted, but you still vote and your vote is still counted. Even if you are ineligible. It only matters if the election is contested in court.

Oddly enough, the city didn’t make up this rule, the province did, and the city can’t amend it.

Democratic Values

I am fascinated by the origins of democracy, not just the magnificent work that the founding fathers of the USA did (though not all of them beleived in the form of democracy that the USA ended up with), but its long and tortured history throughout the world. One of my heroes is Simon deMontford, who is one of the progenitors of modern
democracy. He pressed for political reform to limit the absolute power of the King, tried to uphold the terms of the Magna Carta and the the Provisions of Oxford, which form England’s first written constitution.

These forced King Henry III of England to accept a government in which power was placed in the hands of a council of 15 members who were to supervise ministerial appointments, local administration and the like – the things we would consider a very basic set of ‘controls’ on power. There was to be a formal Parliament which was to meet three times a year, to monitor the the council. These provisions were to limit the absolute power of the king and make him recognize his responsibility to the people of the country.

Sadly, neither the documents nor deMontford allowed for human frailty and greed, and the English barons did not stand behind these reforms, many pushed for their individual advantage. Yet another civil war ensued, deMontford was defeated, the provisions annulled and for the ensuing centuries the terms of the Magna Carta were ignored as well.

The Founding Fathers of the USA did a much better job, but then they not only had the experience of history and a better philosophical and epistemological base on which to work, they also had a clearer set of objectives and better human material to work with.

Not only were the original citizens of the USA educated and literate, it was also a ‘flatter’ society than the Britain it had broken away from, and much ‘flatter’ than the medieval England that deMontford had to cope with. In fact much of the constitutional debate focused not so much on what a hypothetical democracy should be so much as what it should NOT be — and that was pretty much defined by the aristocratic power structure of England. The American way of doing things would be equitable; there would be no privilege in law based on wealth, rank or heritage as there was in England. All men – well, slaves and women aside – were created equal.

DeMontford’s ‘rebellion’ failed, a did so many others that followed it in England, France, Italy and Germany (but not quite so simply in Switzerland) because it was the aristocracy – those in power – that wielded the weapons. The “Bill of Rights” quickly filled in ten amendments to the original constitution to deal with such matters that were so ‘obvious’ and self-apparent that they had been overlooked. All these documents, and the marvelous literary debate that surrounded them, the discussion about distribution or centralization of power, ‘The Federalist Papers’, are of great political significance to this day and deserve reading by anyone concerned with any form of politics. The cases and logic they put forward were obviously lacking in many of the political groups I encountered at university and even today by many groups bleating about ‘democracy’. Can you say “shibboleth”? Of course you can!

Mob Rule?

But democracy has many flaws, above and beyond those facing the municipality of Toronto. The great American poet, E. A Poe described it as a form of “mob rule”. Another American, Tomas Jefferson, said: “A democracy is nothing more than mob rule, where fifty-one percent of the people may take away the rights of the other forty-nine.

And therein lies the problem that faces Toronto and most of the western world. Democracy isn’t equitable in practise. The “first past the post” system can mean the 49% get the raw deal. And since politics tends to polarize issues, make them absolute either-or situations, the losers loose everything.

Minority Rule

The reality is worse than that, though. The major democracies of the west have poor voter turnouts. Recent elections in the USA, Canada and the UK have been less than 60%. This means that as little as 30% of the population dictate to the majority.

Why such a poor turnout? We can speculate a number of reasons:

  • People don’t think their vote will count.
    There are a number of ideas behind this varying from ‘first past the post’ claiming to be a ‘representational’ system, though the idea that what does one vote mean among millions. In the US Presidential election, the one candidate that everyone is supposed to be able to vote for, the electoral college system means that the candidate receiving the most votes may not get elected.
  • People think that there’s a ‘system’ so votes don’t matter.
    In one sense this points to the government bureaucracy and the civil servants that persist regardless of the elected officials.
  • Sometimes you don’t have the candidates.
    The age of great statesmen and leader is past?

The last point is very true; the party system massively distorts a democracy. The small number – compared to the overall electorate – of party members selects the candidate. The party machine, which is much bigger than anything an independent can muster, finances his campaign. This is implicit in the economics of electioneering. Once the party is in power its ‘whip’ dictates what happens. (And recently here in Canada Garth Turner has seen what happens to anyone in the Party who doesn’t abide by the whip.) In situations like the UK and Canada it is the leader of the party with the most seats in parliament that becomes the premier. Only the party voted him to be the leader, not the whole electorate. If he steps down the party might select a new leader, who promptly becomes premier without a general election.

Yes, indeed, a small percentage dictates to the majority.

Thomas Jefferson warned of what he called “elective despotism.”.
Over 50 years ago in his classic work The Road to Serfdom the nobel prize winner Friedrich Hayek warned that democracy is no guarantee of either a liberal — “free” — society or of maintaining a standard of living.

Better than the Alternatives?

One of Churchill’s great quotes is:
It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried.

Well that depends on what you mean by “worst” and for whom. It is difficult to make comparisons across different civilizations and economic systems though human history. And what alternatives? Democracy doesn’t not equate to Capitalism, does it?

If we look back to many primitive societies we see a simple division – the peasant class who work the land and the those that do other things. Those other things may vary depending on the type and degree of civilization. In some situations the difference may not be great.

But we can romanticize about warrior tribal leaders and draw out examples from the ‘primitive’ world of a few hundred years ago. But it has taken time for those countries to ‘mature’ politically enough to be able to handle democracy.

To start with there has to be the sense of identity, call it nationhood. That is a recent concept in the west. A few hundred years ago there were kingdoms not counties and their border were mutable by conquest or marriage. Only a few like England had distinct boundaries, and even there there were the Welsh and the Scots in the days before it became “The United Kingdom”. But even at that stage there had been leaders

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