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Democraphobia Runs Rampant in North America

The fear of democracy has a long history.  Plato was mistrustful of the demos, believing it would be subject to bullies and to tyrants. In England, the storming of the Bastille in France by the sans-culottes during the French Revolution was dismissed as a regrettable manifestation of "mobocracy". According to Thomas Jefferson, one of the most influential framers of the American constitution: "A democracy is nothing more than mob rule, where the fifty-one percent of the people may take away the rights of the other forty-nine." Really? I guess as a slave-owner, he had cause for concern if ever the "mob" had taken over and moved to take away his "right" to own slaves.

This denigration of the demos into the unruly mob is a tendency that we have not shaken through out the Anglo-American countries of the Northern Hemisphere.  Somehow down under, the Aussies and the Kiwis have been able to overcome the fear of the rule by the many and have adopted more modern democratic institutions, namely electoral systems in which the electoral results reflect the will and the desire of the masses in the representation found in their elected assemblies.

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This has not yet happened in Canada, the UK and the USA, which still cling to their outdated electoral systems that regularly distort electoral outcomes, where the results are often far from what the people intended.  In North America, this is particularly the case.

Here in Canada, the last two federal elections have produced "majority" governments in which a single party has found itself with a majority of seats in Parliament despite the fact that each of the two political parties that won the subsequent elections actually received less than 40% of the popular vote.  In effect, Canada is ruled by a minority that systemically receives the benefit of an electoral distortion in its favor and rules as if it had the support of the majority.

To the south of us, the Americans just staged a Presidential election in which according to the popular vote, the loser, Donald Trump, has become the President-elect despite the fact that his opponent Hillary Clinton received approximately two million more votes.  In this case, the election was decided by the infamous Electoral College which uses an antiquated method to decide the election: the winner of the popular vote in each state gets all of that state's electoral votes, and the winning candidate that goes on to become the President is the candidate who garners the majority of the College's electoral votes, not the overall popular vote.  At last count, Trump was awarded 20% more electoral college votes despite having received less votes overall than his opponent.

What's up with that?

Obviously, both Canada and the US pay only lip service to democratic principles.  For instance, the most fundamental feature of democracy is that it is the rule of the majority.  Yet, in both countries, electoral procedures are allowed to deviate from the democratic norm, which lead to the formation of governments that although created as a result of a popular election, do not reflect this most fundamental feature of democracy, the rule of the majority.  As is often the case, the Devil is in the details and in both countries the Devil manifests itself in each country's use of single member, winner-take-all, plurality electoral districts.  To the winner go the spoils of victory.  To the other candidates nothing.  Hence all the ballots for the other candidates, which often constitute the majority of the votes cast in the electoral district, do not bring about any effective representation for the electors who cast them.

Put another way, we do not hold democratic elections in North America.  What we do is stage electoral popularity contests guided by slightly different rules than in democratic elections. The winner of the popular election appears to have the legitimacy of a democratic result, but in reality the winning candidate or political party has won according to the rules governing the popular elections in each country, not by the rules governing democratic elections of which the most important is that each vote counts and counts equally.

This masquerade has been going on for quite some time.  At the heart of the problem is the fear of what the "many" might want and what the "many" might do.  Fear of an unruly mob taking over is far-fetched since the rule of law, backed by a substantial police and military presence, is well-entrenched in both countries.  However, the well-off few have reason to fear that the many, if given the reigns of power, would move to better redistribute the nation's wealth and to pass environmental and social legislation that would make the accumulation of great wealth of the few more difficult.  Heaven forbid! 

In reality, elections in North America are for the most part and with few exceptions little more than popularity contests conducted by the ruling elite that allows the population at large to participate in a public spectacle in which the public chooses between the two options provided to them by an electoral process designed and maintained by the wealthy.  For example, although there are considerable differences between Trump and Clinton at the level of outward appearance, neither represent a significant departure of the way wealth is acquired and maintained in the US.  Similarly, in Canada, with regard to social issues there are considerable differences between the Conservatives and the Liberals; however, both parties are the flip sides of the same coin when it comes to financial and economic matters.

Presently, in Canada there has been a Parliamentary Committee created to examine how to change the voting system as a result of the promise made by our new Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, during the last federal election.  This is the fourth time such a committee has been struck in about one hundred years.  Will this time be any different? 

Indeed, a promise made during an electoral campaign is often much different than the promise kept once the government is in power.  In this instance, it is the fear of the unknown that prevents the newly elected government from changing the electoral system because by changing the rules by which governments are formed, notwithstanding the possibility of making the government more democratic, there lies a very real possibility that the ruling party might lose its lock on political power that the present system has conferred upon it.  Better the devil we know than to risk an uncertain future.

In my mind, "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself."  In Canada, we spend billions to educate the public.  Consequently, we are not any less intelligent collectively than the people who govern us, although we are probably less concerned with the accumulation of wealth of the few than the well-being of the many.  To me, democracy is not such a scary proposition.

Get on with it!       

This post first appeared on The Disgruntled Democrat, please read the originial post: here

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Democraphobia Runs Rampant in North America


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