A Time For “Honest Abes”

by Glen

Jane and I came out of the movie “Lincoln” deeply moved. I had written a book on perhaps America’s favourite president 15 years ago, with research that took me to Kentucky, Springfield, Illinois, and of course Washington D.C. That preliminary work and our struggle against slavery in Sudan prepared us well for the movie and we weren’t disappointed.

But in leaving, we encountered someone in their thirties, I think, who felt let down by what he had witnessed on the screen. “It was all this boring legislative stuff. With Stephen Spielberg I expected a lot more special effects,” he offered as we exited. If only he knew, I thought to myself. My experience in Ottawa had taught me that political life is largely made up of that “boring stuff” – committees, votes, drafting of laws, planning meetings. It’s the real “stuff” of democracy, and if the way it was portrayed on the screen appeared glacial, it is such developments that ultimately provide us our protections and progress.

Even as I watched the movie, I marvelled at how far we have come in so many ways. Lincoln’s margin for getting the Thirteenth Amendment passed to outlaw slavery was razor-thin. It was 1865 and much of America still believed that blacks weren’t human and that owning them was in the best interests of the State. Then again, they didn’t believe women deserved the vote either. Arduous political work was required just to move the justice needle enough to, in legislation at least, remove blacks from the blight of slavery. It all happened in a democracy, but it revealed that in any moment in time citizens and their governments can yet reveal just how far they have to go to enact the deeper issues of justice and equality, equity and responsibility.

It might be correct to say that we might be living in such a time. According to the monitoring group Freedom House, which uses a range of data to assess social, political and economic realities, democracy has been in steep decline for the past five years running. In fact, we are in the longest continuing democratic decline in nearly 40 years. Most of this is revealed in the developing world; democracy is faltering in places from Latin America to Asia, from Africa to former Soviet states.

It’s also becoming clearer that democratic decline has taken hold in developed and affluent nations as well. The deepening divisions in Europe, the U.S. and Canada have caused the democratic franchise to lose much of its tensile strength as hyper-partisanship and animosities undermine the ability to adapt to the needs before this generation.

The findings of Freedom House are supported by the Economic Intelligence Unit’s Index of Democracy which studied democracy in the form of electoral process, pluralism, political participation, political culture, the functioning of government and civil liberties and concluded that democracy as in retreat around the globe. It added to its findings by stating that, “In all regions, the average democracy score for 2010 is lower than in 2008.”

To be clear, the studies focused primarily on the developing world. The Arab Spring, which many viewed as the “flowering of democracy” in the Middle East, has instead led to even more complex scenarios and a divided Arab community. On the other hand, India, for all its problems, somehow keeps it population of 1.3 billion people together democratically, even though it is blighted by 50% poverty and illiteracy, challenged by 3000 languages and 27 linguistically divided states with their multiplicity of religions.

But keeping things together is not the same thing as adapting to new realities in ways that still protect the hard-won democratic gains of the past centuries. It remains a difficult thing for a country like Canada to export democracy when we have historically low voter turnout, increased scepticism concerning the political process, a deterioration of trust in institutions such as courts, parliaments, federalism, and, yes, even civic administrations.

These are just the institutions of democracy; what about the issues themselves? We continue to be undermined on the world stage by our lack of solution to the aboriginal problem. How could such an affluent nation permit the abiding, and growing, presence of institutional poverty in its midst? How could such a wealthy country tolerate such increased levels of homelessness? If our economy is so great, why can’t the next generations locate employment, buy a home, or even settle down? In a land requiring so much energy for a relatively small population, how can we not agree on a workable solution to climate change? These are enduring issues and our democracy has proved unable to solve them.

That young man in the theatre wanted politics with special effects, but that is what we have at present: human deliberation skewed by manipulated perception, not reality. We need more Abraham Lincolns to openly deal with the flaws within all of us by the judicious use of law and the use of developed and respectful characters over flash in the pan politics. This isn’t about political corruption or competency; it’s about courage to confront a generation with the choices it must make. When Lincoln said in his Second Inaugural address that we must do the right as it’s given to us to see the right, it was a profound moment. The problem with democracy at present isn’t that we don’t see the right; it’s that we don’t practice it. Time for some honesty. Time for all of us to raise our game and free our generation.