Open and fair elections, and a peaceful transition from one government to another should the ruling party lose, are essential to free societies. We easily forget that free and peaceful elections are a relatively recent development and that even today most nations are enslaved by tyrants or wallowing in political disorder and corruption.
All is not well, however, in the house of democracy, something that is all too painfully evident especially during election campaigns. For example, the current campaign for the Canadian federal election on November 21 is characterized by a shameless display of demagoguery and hypocrisy. According to Vaughan Lyon, a professor of political science at Trent University,
free and open elections are the glory of liberal democratic states symbolizing popular power and rights. But, particularly in Canada and the United States, they are also cynical exercises in mass manipulation, an insult to the intelligence of thoughtful people and a travesty of democracy.
National politicians, writes Lyon, count on “vote-buying and double-speak” to succeed at the polls. “This perversion of a major democratic process is typical rather than exceptional, and it wins elections. We can expect to suffer more of the same, and of the unsatisfactory government performance that follows, unless we figure out why the system is performing so badly and do something about it.” (“Why Canada is Selling Democracy Short: The System Is in Need of a Change,” Globe and Mail, September 29, 1988.)
To figure out what is wrong with the system and what to do about it, we ought to begin with a careful reflection on the true nature of politics. This reflection should include at least the following considerations.
Style over Substance
Elections ought to be opportunities to examine and make judgments about important political ideas, such as the nature and task of the state and government as well as the limits of political power. This would require certain insights about the differences and the relationship between the public and the private realms. History has demonstrated, often tragically, that it matters a great deal to the freedom and well-being of nations and their people whether one political theory/ideology or another is accepted. In the real world choices have to be made, and those choices need to be clarified, tested and debated. Elections ought to be an opportunity to do just that.
Whatever happened to airing and debating meaningful political ideas during elections? Sadly, elections do not involve a contest of ideas with significant content, but largely concern appearance, style, and superficial appeal. Candidates are “handled” and their messages “packaged” to create certain impressions, regardless of the truth. The mass media, especially television, has helped to sensationalize and so trivialize politics. But it is too easy to blame machines and technology. People use the technologies, arid are responsible for the way they use them.
The prevailing poverty of significant political ideas means that, despite certain historical differences, the three major political parties in Canada are becoming more and more the same. This convergence shows up in a lack of open and honest debate about meaningful political philosophies and positions . Blandness and posturing are in. It is no longer the integrity of the candidate’s stand but the likability of his television image that is all-important.
Evading Hard Choices
Politics ought to include a reflection on ideas regarding the meaning of political life that will provide guidance for human behaviour within the context of a complex (and therefore highly interdependent) modern society. Since we live in a finite world and since human beings are created for responsibility, we are obviously called to make choices that require discipline, self-denial, and a strong sense of the moral good. In this regard, it is well to remember the fragility of the plant of political freedom (democracy) and the hostility of its environment. We all too easily take for granted the struggles and sacrifices of previous generations along the road to a constitutional, parliamentary political system in which the rule of law, based on a set of constitutional principles, protects our freedoms and rights. We must not assume that such is the normal and irreversible state of affairs. The fragile plant of freedom must be nurtured with care and a good measure of self-discipline.
Most political candidates would have us believe that their role is to form the government in order to make our lives more pleasant, prosperous, and problem-free. In this age of materialism and individualism, representatives of all three mainline parties outdo each other in offering voters economic prosperity and security with costly spending promises. In reality, Canada is simply piling debt upon debt and ensuring serious difficulties for our children and grandchildren. How can this kind of political manipulation be tolerated?
Rights Without Duties
By evading difficult choices and promising the sky, politicians and voters exaggerate human rights to the point where they become separated from duties and responsibilities. The exclusive emphasis on rights and immediate gratification of desires shifts politics from its proper concern with a healthy political constitutional order to meeting an ever-increasing list of demands and entitlements of a largely economic nature.
The current emphasis on rights and entitlements is another attempt to evade responsibility and difficult decisions. All parties are reluctant to tell the voters the bad news. Whenever they do—for example, when one party reminds us that certain spending restraints must be put into effect, or that a particular social program such as unemployment insurance must be made more effective and less costly—rival parties are quick to criticize such proposals and to assure the electorate that they would do a much better job in providing people with the goodies they desire. No democracy can long survive such assaults on reality.
Politics is Everything
Respect for the difference between the state and the non-state structures (or the public and the private realms) is fast disappearing. Political parties and their leaders are posing as those who have it within their power to resolve an increasing number of problems or perceived problems, many of which fall outside the proper purview of the state. On the “demand side,” ever-growing numbers of interest-oriented pressure groups are making their claims on the state. That’s why the trend toward an increasingly interventionist state is extremely powerful. Very few dare to buck that trend for fear of being read out of the respectable company.
The politicization of life makes into matters of state concern many things that ought to be left to arrangements between private individuals and institutions. And the politicization of human relations fosters bureaucracy, rule making, standardization, and alienation. Radical feminism, such as that of the National Action Committee on the Status of Women, provides a clear example of politicization’s destructiveness. To reduce the relationship between men and women to a struggle that must be regulated by political means is a complete misreading of human relations. Rather than encouraging reconciliation and harmony, it is certain to promote more intolerance, hostility, and the destruction of a healthy political order.
The cumulative effects of the above characteristics means that modern politics becomes increasingly shallow, nasty, and hypocritical. Words don’t mean what they used to mean or what they ought to mean. Instead, words become slogans that are used to manipulate and to deceive.
Professor Vaughan Lyon is correct. We need to understand what is wrong with the kinds of politics and electioneering all too briefly described here. If we fail to do that, we will continue to squander, the precious heritage that previous generations, by the grace of God, have handed to us. And we will have nothing to pass on to those who follow.
Michael Bliss on the Failure of All Three Political Parties
Michael Bliss, professor of Canadian history at the University of Toronto, minces no words about what he thinks is wrong with Canadian politics and particularly with the current election campaign. He predicts the triumph of conservatism in keeping with the prevailing mood of our time. There is a growing skepticism among voters about the big government solutions so popular in the 1960s. And most importantly, Bliss writes, there is a steep decline in anti-American sentiment, despite continuing attempts by anti-free trade activists and the Toronto Star to whip it up. He thinks that the real conservatives in this election are the Liberals and New Democrats because they staunchly oppose free trade and virtually every other change brought in by the current government. They seem to think that the current good times can last without any adjustments and changes.
Against this background Bliss predicts victory for the Progressive Conservative Party in the November 21 election, but the irony of it, he writes, is that it may not mean very much. Canada is facing monumental problems in the 1990s relating to our economy and our Constitution, but no party, including the Conservatives, is inclined to contemplate or discuss them. Bliss then concludes:
When the next recession comes, Canadians are going to wake up to find that a generation of short-sighted politicians, Liberals and Conservatives alike, with New Democrats as cheerleaders, have burdened our country with a debt load of staggering proportions. The problem of financing the debt we have built up in the boom years of the 19808 will menace our social programs, our ability to compete in international markets and our national unity. If by that time we have implemented the Meech Lake constitutional accord, turning Canada into one of the world’s loosest, most balkanized federations, our paralysis will be nearly complete.
The 1988 triumph of Mulroney conservatism, if it comes, may not mean much except on the trade question. With none of our leaders—not Mulroney, not Turner, not Broadbent or any of their followers—willing to address our country’s internal economic situation or its constitutional prospects, we are having a strange campaign indeed. The verdict of history may be that our politicians, so full of sound and fury on the hustings, are being tragically irresponsible—the whole lot of them. (Michael Bliss, “Tories Are Riding a Broad, Social Trend,” Toronto Star, October 16, 1988)
Professor Bliss’s comments are like a breath of fresh air. It’s too bad there are so few who dare to say it like it is.