Citizenship – “The Problem of Diffuse Passions”

So here’s where today’s average Canadian citizen is situated. To one degree or another elites have always managed this country, but in recent years their ideological divisions and partisan animosities have begun to degrade both the effectiveness and belief in democracy itself. Since the First World War, people like Edward Bernays have consistently attempted to keep citizens under control of sorts, first by fear and then by greed. Corporatism is now far more global than it is “Canadian” and continues to press for advantages like free trade, lower tax rates and a shrinking work force in order to pursue its profits and efficiencies. Modern media have kept tabs on all this like it was a scorecard, with winners and losers, instead of undertaking the arduous and investigative responsibility of speaking truth not only to power, but to citizens as well. The Internet has shown promise for galvanizing a new spirit of cooperation across the country but has mostly exacerbated the divisions already present.

Which leaves us with the citizen. Politically speaking, we’re in a bind. While the majority of Canadians remain progressive in outlook, the way they vote actually undermines what they seek. By voting for progressive parties like the Liberals, NDP, Greens and Bloc (to name the major ones), they have consistently crossed themselves out, leaving the field open for the smaller but more focused right-wing forces to dominate the playing surface. If anything, this last federal election affirmed again that by splitting the votes the way they do among numerous parties, citizens actually can get the opposite of what they desired. Some resent the present voting system, claiming that new methods such as proportional representation or partial-proportional representation would actually see citizens getting the parties they voted for. Perhaps. But many experts agree that it will lead to more progressive parties not less, thereby splitting the vote even further. Of course, some will forcefully disagree, but I suspect this is correct.

Despite all this, there are citizens groups across the vast country that continue to ply their efforts at bringing new life to a flagging democratic reality. The fact that a winning party can succeed by suppressing the vote in general seems to them to be undermining a sacred trust.  And they grow increasingly angered at the one-upmanship that political parties continue to display in democratic assemblies and the support shown for this type of partisan display by the media and ideologues on the Internet.

There are thousands of such groups of citizens, ranging from environmental gatherings to seniors’ advocates, who continue to press for change but get little in return. They are active and they are empowered, but they miss that one vital element necessary for them to win the day – combined cooperation. I’m not talking about everyone supporting just one party, though it might very well come to that. No, I’m wondering how those of us who truly believe in a more progressive Canada can possibly succeed in isolation? We continue to underperform because we fight our numerous battles to the exclusion of one great plan of cooperation.

I sadly learned this lesson firsthand a couple of years ago as I traveled across the country on a speaking tour of universities on the subject of foreign aid. At every venue, members of the various development groups bemoaned the decline in federal government support for foreign aid. They were all dedicated, as they were equally determined to make a difference, but they were far too isolated from one another. Often there were in competition. I was also disappointed to discover that many of those complaining the most refused to speak up in public because they were getting government funding and didn’t want to lose it. These are dedicated citizens too far apart to tackle the status quo and change the course of public policy. Some pick their own personal causes but refuse to throw their weight behind other initiatives equally as important. In effect, this grouping of organizations is a microcosm of our society at large.

Canada is a nation full of diverse special interests that stand largely isolated, like most other western nations – a development that is proving an uncomfortable reality. Since the end of the First World War, Canada, like other western nations, has been clearly unsuccessful at transmitting to the next generation those public virtues of economic restraint and the benefit of considering the future social growth of the nation. We have instead excelled at distributing temporary wealth and goods galore, often to the detriment of our children’s future. Rather than creating a new romance for the progressive nature of our public life, we have instead grown passionate about our own various sets of special interests, each vying with one another for air time, funding and political clout.

To the extent that the last century broke free of the economic, cultural and social bonds of the past, it is because the hopes of ordinary Canadians prevailed over the vested interests of those running the state. We are in danger of losing that outlook because we’ve been too busy pursuing our own respective interests. How do we bring all these groups, each with a differing task but sharing a clear desire for democratic renewal, together in order to return to progressivism? To this problem we now turn.