Democracy isn’t always a clear winner. Traditionally its method of reaching decisions by voting has created the general impression that the majority is right. We count heads when we wish to see a matter settled. In the days of kings and monarchs, there was the growing desire for their subjects to have more of a say. In times of dictators and despots, the wish was for personal freedoms, one of which was the right to choose their own leaders. The flowering of democracy, where each individual had the right to vote for the politician of his or her choice, was seen as the apex, the epitome, of the political and pragmatic development of the human race.
Now we’re not so sure. Democracy has been in trouble for some time and the troubles extend so deep that some commentators have questioned the very legitimacy of the political order so fundamental in times past.
We take it as a given that politics itself has fallen into a morass. People are either angered or offended by it. I had a front row seat at the federal level that introduced me to so much that was fundamentally wrong with our modern politics. I was an opposition member of Parliament when elected, but I hoped to add to the greater good by throwing my weight behind those policies I believed our country required.
I needn’t have bothered; the game was rigged before I even got there. Naturally there was a governing party, but I had always subscribed to the view that effective governing was about all parties, and all MPs elected by the people of Canada. I was wrong. To believe that everyone elected should be part of governing might have worked in an earlier time, but modern political life is all about one party punishing the others to the point of total exclusion. It wasn’t supposed to be about the governing party and the opposition parties; it should have been about governing effectively through dignified cooperation among all parties in search of consensus.
Remarkably, given the modern state of political spectacle, it is amazing to consider that politics developed with very few referees. It was assumed that men and women elected to high office would of nature be respectful, dignified, and capable of moderating themselves. Such individuals were to comprehend that being selected by your peers was one of the most fortunate positions in life and the politician was therefore to act according to that high calling. Those days might not be at an end, but their full return appears nowhere on the horizon. Partisanship has so reared its ugly head that the party regularly supplants the people as the prime object of the politician’s actions.
Cities once used to be free from the outright pressures of such a party spirit, but no more. The kind of ideological thinking that envelops so much of the air at more senior levels of government has begun to infiltrate municipal politics in a way that is proving divisive. It wouldn’t be so troubling if it weren’t for the challenges cities are facing at the moment. This shouldn’t be time for posturing when solutions are the need of the hour, and yet more political time in civic politics is being squandered through inflexibility than through the complexities of finding effective answers to troubling problems.
It has become a daily occupation to deride politicians and their parties for the present malaise of democracy. If only it were that simple. The reality is that much of the same stridency of the political arena has infiltrated the electorate itself, and in the process civil discourse is under assault. We have become a grumpier people over time and the chasm between citizens appears wider than at any other time in recent memory. And at times it almost seems unbridgeable. Even among citizens there aren’t really any referees overseeing their conduct. They too are expected to rise above pettiness and display a sense of personal responsibility that sets the context for political and social progress. Cities once progressed because citizens of such a character as this worked together over the decades to build communities of strength, fairness and endurance. What happens when such a demeanour, this sense of personal dignity, falls into decline? The answer by now should be obvious: the city declines along with it.
We were warned about this. W. B. Yeats wrote in his The Second Coming:
“The center cannot hold when the best lack all conviction and the worst are filled with passionate intensity.”
The greatest demise of citizen responsibility is not seen in those “filled with passionate intensity,” but in the majority who “lack all conviction.” Any city will fall into decline when its leaders play at politics and when its citizens lose all interest in such a development and refuse to fight back.
In reality there aren’t any arbitrators for these things – democracy was premised on the idea that we could govern ourselves, legibly, honourably, with respect, tolerance, and a personal sense of dignity. Nobody is going to ride over the hill to save us. We stand alone against a politics that is unfit to bring out the best in us. On either side we are boxed in by partisanship, petty spirits, and ideologies unsuitable to compromise. All we have left are the better angels of our natures. We need to become better people if we’re to have better communities – the call is ours, not someone else’s.