Politics 101 – Part 1
The Challenges of Democracy
Democracy is the worst form of government – except for all the others that have been tried. – Churchill
When I look at the state of my city, my province, my country and my world I cringe in embarrassment. It appears that our species governs itself now as badly as we ever have in our 10 000 year history of being “civilized”. Yes, democracy is a peaceful to have the transfer of power and thus avoids civil war but it has a hard time getting the best people in society to be its leaders. Our current form of democracy keeps on dumbing the debate down, down, down. Here is a concrete example. When I was in my first election [Green party] I was given a 2 minute time limit to give an answer. During my last election 2 years ago it was 30 seconds. So, given that we here in Canada live in a democracy I am going to start this series looking at Politics and what kind of politics could possibly allow hard, long term decisions to be made that have a chance of “saving our bacon” from our current path to destruction. Fundamentally my question is this: is there any political form that deal with the suicidal path of our current global socio-economic system?
For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong. H. L. Mencken, American Journalist
So, let’s start this series with looking at the problem of how democracy seems to susceptible to turning into mob rule because it is to easy to descent to the lowest common denominator in how it addresses key challenges a society faces. Here is another another concrete example of what I mean by “dumbing down the debate”. Let’s compare Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address to a recent attempts by the Speaker of the House of Commons to say a few words about civil behaviour.
Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.
But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate – we can not consecrate – we can not hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom – & that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
What is amazing to me is that Lincoln grew up in a log cabin and was President during a war and there he is still trying to focus on what we as a people can aspire to. He is elevating the human spirit and inspiring us to be more, so do more, to imagine better instead of focussing on what is wrong, how bad “the other” is and lowering human nature to brute animal urges emphasizing division and smug self satisfied critical and assuming the worst of others. In marked contract to the above you can read below are recent bit of “tempest in a teapot” in our Canadian House of Commons. It is pathetic and embarrassing and is a perfect of example of the dangers that Democracy faces from constantly lowering the bar, constantly simplifying issues, constantly focussed on what is wrong, seeking to be adversarial instead of collegial, being in reactive mode instead of being proactive, only caring for short term gain without any care for the long term implications of what is done today. Is that a long enough list for you? All of them can be connected by one idea: Entropy. Democracy has the inherit problem of descending to mob rule, and that is why the ancient Greeks by and large did not think much of it because Democracy just means “rule by the people”. Well and good – but it clearly depends upon the quality of the people; their education, their moral character, their sense of being willing to sacrifice for the common good. All of that seems to be lacking in the event captured below.
The Speaker tried to make a speech about decorum — did anyone hear it?
In his seventh day in the chair, the new Speaker of the House of Commons sought to address MPs on the topic of decorum in the chamber. Much disorder followed. Greg Fergus, who was elected Speaker earlier this month, advised MPs on October 4 that he would be coming forward with “reflective guidelines” to foster civility in the House. He chose Wednesday afternoon, immediately before question period, to do so. But before Fergus could begin his remarks, Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre was on his feet, apparently expecting to ask the first question of question period. After a few awkward seconds, Poilievre attempted to ask his question, prompting Fergus to stop him and state that the Conservative leader would be able to ask his question once the Speaker was done speaking. But Poilievre stayed on his feet, prompting Fergus to seek advice from one of the House of Commons procedural clerks. House of Commons Speaker Greg Fergus’s attempts to deliver a speech on decorum faced opposition as Conservatives said he shouldn’t have delayed question period to deliver his remarks. After conferring, Fergus tried again, assuring the House that there would be a full session of question period just as soon as he was done with his remarks. Some members, apparently from the government side, applauded. Fergus motioned for them to stop.
This prompted Conservative House Leader Andrew Scheer, a former Speaker himself, to rise on a point of order. According to the rules of the House, Scheer said, question period is supposed to start promptly at 2:15 p.m. Conservatives stood to applaud. Scheer’s reading of the standing orders was correct, but as an experienced MP, he also knows that this rule is very loosely enforced and question period often begins sometime after 2:15 p.m. On Wednesday, had it not been for the Speaker’s statement and the resulting brouhaha, question period would have begun at 2:21 p.m. After conferring again with a clerk, Fergus told the House that the start of question period was within his discretion. Scheer tried again and this time accused the Speaker of breaking the rules. Fergus thanked Scheer for his intervention, restated his intent and then, over a chorus of heckling, attempted once more to begin his remarks. The Speaker finally gets to speak Fergus made it only a few words into his remarks before Poilievre stood on a point of order. Describing question period as “the sacred period during which we hold the government to account,” Poilievre insisted that the time for questions is meant to commence promptly at 2:15 p.m. By then, it was 2:27 p.m. The Speaker could have opted to deliver his statement after question period. That might have been more convenient for Canadians who wait with bated breath each day for the “sacred period” to begin. But question period is both the most-watched portion of Parliament’s daily proceedings and a national showcase for the incivility that Fergus meant to address. So there was a certain logic to his decision to use this particular time to make such a statement. Poilievre claimed that this was the first time since he became an MP in 2004 that a Speaker had sought to make a statement before question period. “I’ve never seen it,” he said. After conferring once more with the clerk, Fergus informed the House that his immediate predecessor had made just such a statement twice, while other Speakers also had done so in the past. More heckling followed. Fergus began again. It was now 2:31 p.m. Aaron Wherry · CBC News · Oct 18, 2023
So rather than me ranting about what is wrong perhaps you would like to hear what we can do to improve it. Well, lucky for you I read many years ago a book from the 1920s which proposed a solution. The book impressed me so much that it made me consider entering politics, which I did shortly after reading it. The book is entitled Revolt of the Masses by the Spanish political philosopher José Ortega y Gasset. In this book he defends the values of meritocratic liberalism reminiscent of John Stuart Mill against attacks from both communists and right-wing populists. Ortega likewise shares Mill’s fears of the “tyranny of the majority” and the “collective mediocrity” of the masses, which he believes threaten individuality, free thought, and protections for minorities. Ortega characterized liberalism as a politics of “magnanimity.” Ortega’s rejection of the Spanish Conservative Party under Antonio Cánovas del Castillo and his successors was unequivocal, as was his distrust of the Spanish monarchy and Catholic Church. Yet, Ortega’s political thought has been characterized as anti-democratic and conservative, and his work The Revolt of the Masses is widely regarded as a conservative classic. What I got out of him is that political systems decay without a constant struggle to elevate, to enoble, the debates and get the very best people to participate in politics. Sadly, that is not the case in Canada. In fact most of the time the very best people run away from politics because it has such a bad reputation. Or when they do participate they eventually quit in disgust, like Marc Garneau the astronaut who quit the Liberal party and politics over their supporting the Quebec provincial government over riding federal powers to protect English minority rights in Quebec. [the Liberals did this to ensure they did not lost votes from Francophone voters – see reference 3]
On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last, and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron. H. L. Mencken
What can you DO about this? How can you allow Democracy to avoid the pitfall of simplistic solutions to complex problems? It’s all in who you vote for. For whom you donate money too. So, put your money where your mouth is. Give money to politicians who will not accept business as usual. Vote for people who treat others with respect, but are not trapped in the straight jacket of political correctness either.
I am fond of pig. Dogs look up to us. Cats look down on us. Pigs treat us as equals. – Churchill
Did any politician you know ever act BEFORE a disaster? Well, I do. One. In Manitoba. He is the exception to the rule. He built the “big ditch” around Winnipeg so the city would not flood. It has saved billions. They called him crazy. But somehow he was able to stay in power long enough to get the job done. I wish I knew how he was able to do that, for it would help us elect a leader to deal with our current life and death challenge: ecological overshoot and economic collapse. Now on a global scale we are heading down a road to ruin, very much like the period just before WWII; everybody knew where they were heading, but were unable to act. To give you a sense of why we now need politicians and a political system to act in a way beyond their short term self interest take a look at the these graphs from the recently published report “The 2023 state of the climate report: Entering uncharted territory”.
Life on planet Earth is under siege. We are now in an uncharted territory. For several decades, scientists have consistently warned of a future marked by extreme climatic conditions because of escalating global temperatures caused by ongoing human activities that release harmful greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere. Unfortunately, time is up. We are seeing the manifestation of those predictions as an alarming and unprecedented succession of climate records are broken, causing profoundly distressing scenes of suffering to unfold. We are entering an unfamiliar domain regarding our climate crisis, a situation no one has ever witnessed firsthand in the history of humanity. The trends reveal new all-time climate-related records and deeply concerning patterns of climate-related disasters. At the same time, we report minimal progress by humanity in combating climate change. Given these distressing developments, our goal is to communicate climate facts and policy recommendations to scientists, policymakers, and the public. It is the moral duty of us scientists and our institutions to clearly alert humanity of any potential existential threat and to show leadership in taking action.
Again, what can you do? How can you help democracy face the real challenges our society faces? Don’t vote for business as usual. Vote for anybody courageous enough to say uncomfortable truths, even if imperfect – as long as they are not stuck in “normal”. Normal and keeping things safe are now our enemies. Now is the time of danger, and only by admitting to that can we make the world safe again for future generations. If you have the stomach, get involved in politics. Write articles to your local newpaper or blog or website and facebook page. Talk to your neighbours. Help them move beyond myopic self interest to see if we don’t swim together we all sink together. If you can help transform an existing political party, do so. If you want to help some “lunatic fringe” party who doesn’t stand a cats in hells chance of winning – do so. The key is to elevate the conversation as you do so. Use big words. Demand more of everybody – they are capable! See the best in everyone. And the hardest part of all – enjoy yourself and smile while you do so.