So I’ve been watching a BBC mini-series from 1988 called A Very British Coup. There’s an understated but powerful scene wherein the Labour cabinet is debating its spending proposals; at one point, a frustrated and beleaguered Chancellor of the Exchequer declares that there’s little point in further discussion. The Prime Minister, wonderfully portrayed by Ray McAnally, gently admonishes him: “Democracy takes time. Dictatorship is quicker, but too many people get shot.”
Lord knows, I’ve been known to go on about civic engagement and the responsibilities of citizenship. But they’re becoming an even bigger challenge nowadays, and the underlying reasons reflect not just on this or that facet of governance, but on the nature of democratic society itself.
I know, I know — “democratic deficit” has become one of those overused terms that gets thrown around so frequently and so carelessly that it starts to lose its impact. At some point, however, certain events or patterns can bring it back into focus.
Exhibit A: Toronto City Council voted, this week, to reverse an earlier decision and reject the notion of ranked ballots, in a pronounced FU to notions of accountability, representation, and years of effort and outreach by local activists. From what I’ve heard, the discussion lasted about a minute and a half. I’m not going to rehash the details here: my friend Daren does a far better (and angrier) job over at his place. Go read.
What does it say about democratic culture, though, when people supposedly charged with stewardship of the public good can blow off their responsibilities in such a cavalier and thoughtless manner, and face little or no political consequence?
Let’s chew on that a while, and then move on to Exhibit B: the cesspool currently masquerading as our national conversation in the context of the federal election campaign. Let’s forget about the Islamophobia, the manufactured controversy over the niqab, and the coded messages in expressions like “old stock Canadians” for a moment, and focus on something even more basic and troubling.
What if, on reflection, you’re not convinced that the current system really offers any meaningful choices? What if none of the established parties hold out any hope that they’re going to address things that actually matter to you? What if the current conversation isn’t speaking to you? What if, with all the sound and fury, you still don’t feel represented?
Is it so unreasonable to point out the arbitrary exclusion of certain viewpoints? Is it irresponsible to observe that the parameters for Serious and Reasonable Ideas are set by a very small, privileged, and insular class of people?
What if there’s no popular mechanism influencing whose voices matter and whose voices get shut out? What if the manufactured narratives in the corporate media aren’t resonating with you? What if all kinds of questions aren’t discussed in any detail because of an apparent tacit agreement among the major parties and media outlets?
Is choosing among a handful of pre-packaged brands on polling day really comparable to meaningful popular input? By the same token, if you’re not convinced that any of those brands are going to undo the damage of the past few decades, is refusing to participate in the charade really so unreasonable?
I don’t have any easy answers. Over to you, internetz.