Carrot and Stick Democracy

The main disadvantage to being a bully is the constant need to maintain your position. For a bully, a fluid social situation is trouble, because you have to be continually restoring your control by acts of aggression. That’s why authoritarian types like structured societies. It is much better for a bully to work in a hierarchy, because you can achieve a position and then relax to some extent and enjoy your power. If you have the population really well trained, they will do your job for you, using social pressure to keep others from challenging your rule, under the misconception that this helps them keep their own meager positions more easily. More fools, they.

Creating Poor Democracy

If you consider that an election is a contest for control of the government, and that winning one more vote than half gives you the right to do what you want with the country for the duration of your term, then you don’t have democracy; you have serial autocracy. One bully after another, threatening enemies with destruction and doling out prizes to keep supporters happy.

True democrats consider an election to be a contest to persuade people to trust you to do a good job of managing the country for the duration of your service. This makes it necessary to listen to the people carefully and constantly, so that when the time comes to make a decision, you are making the one that serves the people the best.

Notice I didn’t say “what the people want.” The given in this equation is that the people trust you to have the knowledge, to do the research, to make the specific decision based on the general guidelines that are all the people know enough to give you. For a truly democratic leader, reputation and trust is much more important than personal power.

Those who see elections solely as power contests find it practical to use the power of government to give people what they want, on the assumption that those people will respond by voting for them in the next election. This leads to the kind of fragmentation of the vote seen in recent Canadian federal elections, with parties using increased information derived from social media to target pockets of voters – ethnic groups, for example – with something different to bribe each group.

The resulting party platform reads like a piece of omnibus legislation for the American House of Representatives: a smorgasbord of unrelated temptations with a little something for everyone. It also leads to tax cuts, because lower tax is the simplest bribe. Which leads to a hyper-complicated tax system, with everybody exploring this or that tax loophole, legislated specifically, year after year, as each successive government bribes a new set of voters.

The Government We Deserve

And it’s no good blaming the government. We elect them. The voters are the ones who are supposed to notice when a ruling party forgets who elected them and on what promises, and wanders off chasing the ephemeral votes of whatever new target groups they have discovered.

The Stephen Harper Conservatives discovered this to their detriment in the last election, when they aimed all their campaigning at their faithful supporters: the 32% of voters who, in the end, voted for them.

In a more recent example, the present Liberal government achieved power by promising a change in the electoral system. This is the kind of simple, all-encompassing improvement that appeals to all voters. Once they got elected, however, they dropped the idea, and have instead gone way overboard in courting alternate gender and human rights activists, thus undermining trade negotiations, antagonizing religious groups and micromanaging bureaucratic language to the point of treading on freedom of religion and speech.

While I applaud the purpose of the Liberal Party’s actions, I am forced by their recent behaviour to suspect that these progressive policies do not, in fact, stem from progressive beliefs. I draw the unhappy conclusion that these moves are motivated by the cynical analysis that courting this particular voting bloc will give the Liberals more votes in the next election.

If we place even the slightest credence on the pollsters, the average Canadian voter has caught on, dropping the Liberals drastically in popularity.

Not Good Enough

So far, so good, but at the moment the only alternative (unless we luck into a minority government) is to elect the Conservatives, thus starting the roulette wheel turning again.

Reform Needed

Without electoral system change, Canadian democracy will continue to be a competition to see who is going to wield the big stick and the lid of the honey pot for the next four years.

It seems to matter far less which form of preferential ballot is used. Different countries have tried different formats, and – if we discount the effects of effort justification – all seem relatively pleased with the results. What is important is that we put first-past-the-post on the trash heap of history where it belongs: a great way to decide on a Stanley Cup winner, but a lousy way to choose a responsible government.


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