Declaration of Voter's Rights

Monday, April 6, 2015

The Democracy Primer

“Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.” ― Winston Churchill "
A dictatorship would be a heck of a lot easier, there's no question about it." ― George W. Bush
“Democracy is worth dying for, because it's the most deeply honorable form of government ever devised by man.” ― Ronald Reagan

Authority figures in the Western World speak glowingly of democracy, usually in a self-congratulatory kind of way, as a way to distinguish our countries from the less virtuous dictatorships or monarchies that still exist. The word is taken very seriously, and as Reagan points out, “is worth dying for”. We are constantly reminded that every war, on some level, was fought to ensure a continuing freedom and democracy around the world. This is profound stuff.

But what do they really mean when they’re talking about democracy? What do we think of when we hear the word?

“Democracy” first became known as a political concept in Ancient Greece, when Athenians adopted a system of government that gave the people (demos) the power to rule (kratia) for themselves.

“Democracy” is defined in the Canadian Oxford Dictionary as “a form of government in which the power resides in the people and is exercised by them either directly or by means of elected representatives”.

It would seem, at least semantically, the single most significant principle of “democracy” is that the will of the masses should determine a country’s fate; not a single, charismatic authoritarian, not a cabal of corporate elites, not the military, not the church. I think most people who live in a democracy would agree; that it is the participation and power wielded by each citizen is what defines democracy as unique.

Most people would also agree that this is the most legitimate system of government that we know of. I’m not going to suggest that democracy is a bad thing.

Unfortunately, I am going to propose that our current version of democracy is broken. It does NOT reflect the true essence of the Athenian concept, and in fact the word has become little more than a rhetorical tool used by cynics to conjure an ideal that no longer exists, if it ever did.

Why do I say that?

Canada uses a “winner-take-all” or “first-past-the-post” electoral system, where the candidate with the most votes wins the entire constituency. In a multi-candidate race (the norm in Canada), this often means a winner with less than 40% of the total votes cast, the other 60% are wasted ballots. The same numbers are common when an entire region or nation is involved.

The most recent example of this was the Ontario provincial election about two weeks ago, in which Kathleen Wynne of the Liberal party formed a majority government with 38.65% of the popular vote. If participation is valued in a democracy, one can only wonder how 61.35% of Ontario voters feel. Their votes, and voices, are essentially rendered meaningless.

Think of Reagan right now: would he advocate dying for a system of government that could allow for complete control by 38.65% of the population?

Imagine the FPTP kind of logic in a different context: A simple analogy would be a school of 100 students, each of whom votes on the cafeteria menu that will make one of three choices that day: One block of 40 children favors the peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, one block of 30 votes for salad, and another block of 30 votes for fish and chips. With our current “winner-take-all” electoral scenario, 40 students would decide 100% of the menu, and everyone would eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Never mind that the other students have peanut and gluten allergies, with this system, their voices don’t count for anything.

To me, this seems almost like the opposite of democracy. Instead of a broad based majority deciding its fate, we have a narrow minority controlling decisions for everyone, with no obligation to address the needs of the many.

People will quickly point out that in complex societies, with literally millions of voices, someone has to be “the loser” in elections - not everyone gets what they want. We can’t give 100 students 100 custom made lunches. Fair enough. However, what is important to recognize is that governments, in theory at least, don’t exist to give everyone exactly what they want. They exist to address and balance the needs of an entire collective, be it municipal, provincial, or federal and find acceptable ways for disparate viewpoints and ideas to co-exist as best they can. And to do this properly, every vote has to be given some weight, some power. Every citizens’ participation in the electoral process must have meaning; if it is merely a vote that carries no influence whatsoever, then the entire system suffers accordingly. What good is a democratic process that offers no kratias to the demos?

This is why we need proportional representation. It is the mechanism that allows democracy to function as it is intentioned: with rule by the people exercising their fair and proper share of power.

Guest Blogger Jason Hanson

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