Taking Back Our Democracy: Bridging the Generational Divide

These are tough days for Canada’s parliamentary democracy.  Having endured years of steady erosion, it is now under frontal attack.  Journalists and public leaders, across the political spectrum, have begun to document the injuries. We are seeing stirrings of outrage. But this assault on our democracy could not be happening without some complicity or at least indifference on our part.  How many of us are so disenchanted with government that we no longer watch what is happening in Ottawa because we no longer care?  And, in these volatile and uncertain times, how many of us are prepared to trade off a little democracy for a little certainty or a tax cut.

These Uncertain Times

These are indeed uncertain and volatile times. The space between crises seems to be getting shorter while the world seems to be stuck, in gridlock.  Economies are slowing everywhere. Our leaders are having trouble finding almost any consensus on what ails us and what needs doing. They met in Rio+20 to achieve little more than confirmation of a lack of political will. The European economy hangs precariously, while European leaders are torn between the Austerians (largely Germany) and the Krugmanians, and our own government is unprepared to do anything beyond offering what must be irksome finger-wagging lectures.

Yes Canada has weathered these storms better than many, but this is no time for self-congratulation. Inequality here is high and rising and for the first time in living memory we worry that our kids won’t have it as good as we do.   And yet we watch our governments behave as though poverty, inequality, youth unemployment, climate change and environmental degradation are not real or are somebody else’s problem. Self-imposed austerity and a growing list of trade deals do not add up to a plan for a sustainable economy. Little wonder that many are losing faith in the ability of our political institutions to grapple with the challenges.

We are living in a state of what the late American sociologist Robert Merton called anomie, when a society’s goals and means no longer serve most people.  Our model seems to be busted. Today’s problems seem more complex, unfamiliar, and our institutions seem unable to cope.

We are past the point of tinkering.  The goals that gave us shared purpose seem now out of reach, less relevant, and we have lost or are losing trust in government as a means for collective progress.

The Rise of Junk Politics and Magical Thinking

One might think or at least hope that this state of anomie would be the opportunity to re-imagine Canada, to build a new consensus about goals and means.  But things don’t seem to be working out that way.  Instead, we see heightened polarisation, indeed multiple poles, with those who have benefitted most from the current model digging in to hold on to their privilege, and those who have benefited least, fed up, looking for something new or retreating altogether from the game.

And a game it is; just as the stakes rise higher our politics sink lower.  The toxic combination of anxiety, uncertainty and a creeping ‘declinism’ leads many to want magical solutions, simplifying paradigms, or scapegoats upon whom to vent our anger.  This is the climate of culture wars where reason can look like weakness, the long-term just too far off, and collaboration takes on its ugliest meaning.

And our politicians too often feed and feed off our fears, giving us mythical wedge issues, dividing us up into categories of heroes, victims, villains and fools, providing the scapegoats depending on our appetites.  We have watched what Benjamin Demott, the American writer, has called the rise of junk politics, with its hyper-partisanship, where everything is personal, evidence and expertise are devalued, and political cooperation is off the table. Little wonder that fewer and fewer Canadians, especially young Canadians, even bother to vote.

The Search for Leadership and the Rise of Authoritarianism

Such times have never been kind to democracy, ripe as they are for more authoritarian solutions where tough leaders take charge, get things done, and crack down on those who get in the way.  Democracy always takes a hit in rocky times.

What we mean by “democracy” evolves and has, over the past decades, deepened with each generation.   It is of course about the right to vote.  For my parents, who never missed an election, voting was the key (and how disturbed they would be at the current allegations of electoral fraud).   It is also about a system that ensures fair and representative voting and that every vote counts (something our current system of first-past-the-post cannot do).

But democracy means more than voting.  It means strong institutions to hold governments to account, constrain their power in the public interest, and protect our rights and freedoms, not least the freedom of speech and the right of association. That requires an effective parliament allowed and resourced to do its job, an independent judiciary and a free press.

It means greater transparency and accountability to ensure that citizens have the information they need to participate and to make their electoral decisions.

It means strong civil society and mediating organizations that ensure a diversity of views and balance, at least to some extent, the ability of citizens to be heard. It means making every effort to limit the extent to which money shapes politics.

But democracy is a messy business and, in the current climate, when the challenges seem intractable and we worry about decay and disaster, we are at our most vulnerable to trading it away for the false and dangerous promises of certainty, for the strong hand that is ready to take charge or for the saviour whose personal qualities promise magical, transcendent solutions.

To some extent, this may also reflect a generational divide in how we think about leadership and democracy.   For many of my generation, products of the industrial age, of hierarchy and the privileges and burdens of office, leadership is not about engagement, consultation, and cooperation, it is about strength, winning, doing what it takes to get the job done.

We see this in the occasional Tom Friedman article when he talks with some envy of the Chinese oligarchy and its ability to make big decisions fast and get things done – good things like electric cars (not to mention not so good things – and Friedman scarcely does).  Closer to home, recall the nasty attack ads on Stephane ”He’s-no-leader” Dion.  This did not refer to an ethical failing on his part or, given the “green shift”, a lack of political courage.  No, this was about good old-fashioned, who’s the boss, industrial strength leadership.  And we saw this in the campaigns against coalitions and minority governments in favour of stability and “strong” leadership.

How appealing is the promise of certainty, of someone who will bring democracy to heel or somehow transcend government, of someone who, while giving lip service to democracy, is willing to sidestep or subvert its institutions to get things done. This zombie leadership dies hard even if it is increasingly out-of-place in a networked world of savvy, connected citizens.

Authoritarian leadership can work in short bursts and in emergencies but over the long-term it will inevitably do great harm. It cuts itself off from the information and diversity of views necessary for creativity.  It cuts itself off from the people it purports to serve. It divides, inevitably creating winners and losers, insiders and scapegoats.  The poorest always pay the heaviest price.  This all breeds meanness – just look at our increasingly punitive crime policies, our approach to refugees, our willingness to cut services to the most needy. But in the end we all pay a heavy price.  We are all disempowered and alienated from the common good.  Only narrow, short-term interests are served.

This zombie leadership is running headlong into the digital age where it clearly does not belong.  But it persists because it is familiar to those who hold the power and  because it soothes our anxieties, feeds our need for magic solutions and quick fixes, and allows us to surrender responsibility for an uncertain future to someone else.

The dangers it poses to democracy are heightened in a system like ours in which majority governments face few constraints. We do not have the effective, if sometimes paralyzing, checks and balances of our neighbor to the south, so that means we are more dependent on good faith and respect for the institutions and principles of democracy. That makes our democracy more fragile, more easily injured.

A New Kind Of Leadership

Of course leadership matters.   But we need a new kind of political leadership: committed to closing the gap between citizen and government; to bridging state and an independent civil society; to bridging social, generational and ideological divides. Leadership that understands that government has a positive role to play but must be balanced by engaged and informed citizens and robust civil organizations.

We need leaders who embrace the new generation of communication tools  which make  more open government feasible.  Of course that doesn’t mean tweeting one thing and doing another. And it doesn’t mean “popularism”, going after the latest trending issues and opinions.

Leadership comes with a responsibility for modeling ethical behaviour, for appealing to the best in us, for believing in our potential, for challenging us to rise above our fears and private interests.

It means wanting to know and speak the truth but understanding the dangers of certainty and the importance of evidence, expertise, and citizen engagement.  Vision is important but vision not grounded in human experience and evidence is hallucination.

And, yes, leadership sometimes means, after having taken the pulse, doing what the majority may not have chosen, taking responsibility and accepting the accountability that comes with that – but doing so with openness and transparency, explaining what the evidence says, and with the humility to adjust or even change course as the evidence requires.

How Do We Get There?

Where will the new political leadership come from?  I suppose it will only come if more ordinary Canadians, with diverse experience outside of politics, and across all the estates, are willing to step up and demand better.  How heartening for example to see David Suzuki one of the most respected – and surely the gentlest – of our leaders put himself on the line and challenge us to stop thinking about good people and bad people, “radical” environmentalists or “greedy” capitalists,  but rather recognize that the problem is with our model, a nasty version of capitalism that treats people and the natural world of which we are part as commodities to be exploited.  How heartening to see doctors fighting for the health of refugees and a group of lawyers ready to pay higher taxes for the common good.  And more and more voices are calling for an elevated politics and an enriched democracy.

We also need some of these people to enter the increasingly ugly political fray to change things from the inside.  We cannot leave politics entirely to professional politicians.

We have much to learn from young Canadians who bring new experiences, new tools and new ways of thinking to the table.  They seem less ready to trade democracy for a super-leader or saviour. Most are not looking for a tough boss or someone with all the answers.  They may share the general disdain for government, but for different reasons:  it is too opaque, too remote, too hard to penetrate and seemingly impossible to influence – too undemocratic.  They don’t want less democracy, they want more.

Yes, many have opted out of conventional politics, including voting, but they are also finding new ways to engage in public life, in their communities or internationally, and some have taken to the streets, standing outside all our conventional institutions and conventional wisdom to find something new.  They are the digital generation that can make those of us stuck in the industrial age so uncomfortable.  How the semi-leaderless Occupy Movement or the students in the streets of Montreal drove so many of us crazy.  Their leadership was emergent, fragile, shifting, in a word, democratic.  Networks and communities replaced hierarchies.  And the generational divide is exposed.  This is not the hyper-individualism or entitlement thinking that detractors claimed.  It is about rebuilding civil society from the ground up, about a new kind of solidarity and a different kind of leadership.

Finding new ways to engage and contribute, rejecting government as parent or nanny, refusing to see the state as the answer to everything – that is all part of a better future.  But to the extent that the young ignore conventional political institutions, including voting, to the extent that they do not engage with the state and try to make it better, we risk an ever-wider gap between civil society and state and a continuing erosion of our democracy.

Holding on to stale notions of leadership is dangerous but so too is disengagement.  We risk a state that becomes more and more remote and authoritarian, less and less willing or able to pursue a better future, to constrain the powerful, to listen to or help those who need government most, to solve problems that cut across our communities and the generations.

We need Canadians across the estates and  across the generations to get indignant, to get  engaged, to enter the fray, to re-imagine Canada, and to take back our democracy.

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