Our system of government, loosely known as democracy, is a complicated machine of many moving parts, guided by bureaucrats and elected representatives tasked with the role of making sure it all works. Should it fail to function effectively, the system is designed to self-correct through periodic elections designed to give citizens ongoing opportunities to render their verdict on whether their aspirations are being matched with suitable policies.
That’s how it’s supposed to run anyway and in the last two centuries generally our political systems in the West have proved adaptable and responsive. In recent years, however, there is a growing sense that political power is no longer leveraged or guided by the people. Sometimes it’s because our expectations are too high. We have been spoiled as decades of economic growth and expansion have given us the sense that this our natural right as citizens and we grow frustrated when political or economic bungling appear to keep that sense of promise from us.
We can be fickle and frequently are. We desire something done about climate change yet frequently vote in governments determined to oppose policies that would confront the problem. The growth of poverty worries us, yet we don’t wish viable policy solutions to interfere with our own private pursuits. We bemoan the lack of pay equity for women but carry on with business as usual, refusing to cause a citizen ruckus demanding complete action on this file across the board. Understanding this fickleness among the electorate, political aspirants and their parties learn to campaign on aspirations and then govern with austerity, saying such dreams can’t be afforded.
And now our democracies are moving closer to crises because, well, sometimes these problems add up until they become overwhelming. It is the fault of both the electors and their representatives, but the system is designed so that the governing forces forge initiatives to overcome our greatest challenges. When they refuse to do so, terms like “elitism” or “oligarchy” makes their presence known in the public dialogue. They become regularly tossed about when a citizenry comes to believe that they are not doing as well economically as their parents did.
However it all comes about, a growing sense emerges that we can no longer repair our biggest problems. The most poignant example of this at present is occurring in America, to the degree that the country is in the process of ripping itself apart as government no longer seems capable of either forming a working hegemony or satisfying everyone’s demands. Faced with such impossible odds, the political class finds it easier to tinker and protect the status quo than to actually forge policies powerful enough to overcome our largest collective challenges. In their own strange way, citizens endorse such incrementalism since it doesn’t disturb them by calling on them to sacrifice.
This is what leaves us stuck. We won’t reward politicians who demand great things from us and instead elect those who speak to our aspirations but don’t actually require us to pay for them. They wouldn’t get elected if they did – or so the theory goes.
Suddenly our democracy looks ineffective, leaving many political commentators to talk of the emerging “post-democratic” era. We are left with the growing awareness that we can’t dig our way out of our self-inflicting morass. Where there is clear collective support for things like gun control in America or pro-climate change policies in Canada, the grinding politics of the day sees to it that the reforms are never effective or comprehensive enough to defeat the problems.
All this ineffectiveness leaves huge vacuums in our democratic systems that people and their governments look to the selective private interests to fill, which they frequently do at costs ending up far more expensive or limited than public plans. All this call for smaller governments is actually double-speak for killing our democratic dreams and possibilities. The private sector plays an important role in our democracy, but they won’t, of their own accord, overcome poverty, effectively tackle our growing mental illness problems, or create meaningful work for everyone. They will only take on such things if contracted to do it. We once believed that our systems of government were predicated on the belief that the private sector would create the prosperity while public policy invested in humanity – a partnership now in serious disarray.
And so we muddle along. In truth, we are far more fascinated by the possible scandals in Ottawa than developing effective carbon pricing or bettering working conditions. The media knows that and merely broadcasts our interests right back at us. They have to survive too and that’s hardly going to be possible by extensively covering complex policy problems.
Mired in our ineffectiveness, some say that only grassroots activism can change government minds. But the real problem isn’t elected representatives but the millions of other citizens who elected them. And the overwhelming challenge for governments is their combined penchant to promise us a prosperous and more inclusive future without calling on us to pay for it in the present.
We are stuck, and in such a paralyzed condition we come to believe that democracy is longer sufficient for our dreams. The trouble is that there are no real viable alternatives. We either infuse a new spirit of sacrifice and aspiration into our democracy now or continue the inevitable flirtation with oligarchy.