This week I have done a lot of thinking about the competing forces of democracy and centralization. These are not often forces that are considered in opposition to one another, but I think this is increasingly something worth examination.
Before I continue I think that there is a big hole in my analysis, and I should be upfront about that right now. That is that I was not alive during other political eras and therefore cannot say from personal experience what it was like to try to participate in our democratic system in 1978, and I can only really speak from experiences following the year 2005. My conclusions are based on (what are from my point of view) logical deductions.
As Samara Canada’s “The Real Outsiders” states, “Not only is voter turnout decreasing, but every year fewer Canadians are getting involved in other kinds of political activities, like joining or donating to political parties, signing petitions or attending protests.” The study goes on to discuss this group as the disengaged, and given their status political parties routinely ignore these voters.
But why did so many people disengage over the last few decades? What has changed? Democratic reformers, such as myself, point to our political institutions and the false majorities, but the system never stopped 70%, or nearly 80% of voters in the 1960s, from voting. Instead we must look to our politics and see what has changed in the intervening decades and how it may have altered the political landscape at the local level.
Beginning in the Trudeau era power moved away from the Members of Parliament to the Cabinet, and the Prime Minister’s Office. No party has reversed this trend, and if anything it has dramatically escalated under Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Worse still, the practice of centralized power was copied within the opposition parties and in the provincial spheres. In short order the leader of a given political party controlled the apparatus of his or her party. Members of Parliament, of MPPs, or MLAs, or MNAs, etc. who spoke out against the leadership were muzzled and the result was a sufficiently cowed caucus.
What does this have to do with democratic participation? While it would be nice to think that people participate in political parties because of altruistic civic instincts, I am not sure that it applies to the majority. Most people involved in politics wants to A) feel their voices are being heard, and B) shape the decisions taking place. This means helping to elect preferred candidates (both in the general election and nomination) and helping to push the overall leadership to your point of view. Before this gross centralization legislators more than likely had the interest of their constituents, and therefore their re-election, at heart. Their ultimate loyalty was to the constituents whom they served, not their masters in the leader’s office.
The effect of all of this is that even if citizens join a party, or volunteer and elect a new legislator they are more likely to eventually turn against them or betray their trust. This still happens from time to time, a backbencher or someone in cabinet (of upper echelons of a party in opposition) speaks out against the leadership’s decisions. Minister James Moore (CPC – Port Moody-Westwood-Port Coquitlam, BC), for example, spoke out against the Northern Gateway pipeline, which is incredibly unpopular within British Columbia. Sadly, Minister Moore retreated from his outspoken position when party discipline was reaffirmed.
Citizens get involved in politics because they want to influence the outcome. Increasingly it seems that parties are moved by polls and focus groups and not by activists and loyalists. As a result it can hardly be surprising that membership wanes. People have no interest in participating in toothless organizations that act as rubberstamps for those placed above them. Think of the American presidential primaries for Obama in 2012. They were a formality, and turnout, as a result suffered. When parties can appoint candidates, or transform legislators into convenient mouthpieces and puppets, citizens see little value in participating.
Disengagement can only be reversed through empowerment, but, tragically, it is not in the interest for those in power to democratize their political parties. Democracy offers uncertainty when rigid authoritarianism provides much greater comfort to those already ensconced in power. However, the methods to fix this problem are in the hands of the citizenry. If hundreds, or thousands of people join a riding association or political party with a common set of goals then they can affect real change. Political parties are ultimately democratic institutions, leadership can be kicked out and replaced with more democratic or grassroots-friendly candidates.
My experience within the Ontario New Democratic Party has given me hope so far. I believe I have already had a small impact. The Executive of my local riding association has been very supportive and eager to encourage new members. I helped to establish a social media presence by launching a Brampton West NDP Facebook page.
Speaking of which, I have a guest post on Samara Canada’s blog today, which discusses social media and its importance in engaging millennials and reinvorating our politics. Check it out here, Opacity and Unresponsiveness Alienates Canadians.