Does this Sound Like Democracy to You?

Quick Links – Party Discipline, Systems Don’t Change, Democracy Defined (or Not), A Short History of Canadian Democracy, The Death of Divine Rule, The Ruling Class Gets a Say

Party Discipline

Apparently I live in a democracy, which is supposed to be a good thing from what everyone is telling me. So why is my Member of Parliament voting how his political masters tell him?  Apparently, I vote for my MP and then someone else tells him or her (I use him or her from here on interchangeably) what to do – what to say and even how to vote on issues. In other words, I vote for him to represent me and then he winds up voting how somebody else tells him how to vote. Not only that, but recently Canada’s MPs have been complaining that they don’t even know the financial implications of bills they’re voting on.

And not only that but apparently a Government “Whip” is telling my MP that they have to be part of the team and listen to their “coach” or their “manager”. And here I thought he was supposed to listen to me? After all, I sent him there – along with the rest of the riding. Like most Canadians, being relatively unversed in the democratic process, I was thinking that maybe democracy has evolved into something like a baseball game because the only time I can remember having a coach or a manager was when I played baseball or hockey as a kid.

So just to try to figure all this out, I went online and did a word search in the Canadian Constitution for the words ‘coach’ or ‘manager.’ Just for good measure I searched the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedom for the same words. Guess what – I couldn’t find a mention. Not one reference. Maybe I had missed something all those nights I was watching Hockey Night in Canada.

So what is it, exactly, that democracy means in Canada, I wondered. What does it do and why am I so lucky to be living under it? How is it put into practice? How are Canadians actually governed? Just some basic questions really. And it kind of turned into a moth and a light bulb situation. The more I looked, the more I circled the light bulb and the more I started bashing into things. Things that in hindsight, I really didn’t want to know anything about. Kind of like Alice in Wonderland heading down the Rabbit Hole. Make sure you really want to go there.

So that’s what started the investigation and, not having a clue about democracy but knowing something about systems, I decided to start there. See how the system is set up. One thing I do know is that systems are used by people. Systems define how things operate. They are usually very specific and operate with certain rules and parameters. Has anything changed in our democratic system in the last 400 years or so, I wondered.

Systems Don’t Change – Least of all Parliament

Because, in my limited experience, systems don’t change. They’re set up to do something and they operate like that. My badminton club was set up to provide members with a place to play badminton twice a week. The club officers make sure that dues are collected, the local school gym is booked, the equipment is functional and ready to go and someone comes a half-hour early on badminton nights to open the doors, turn on the lights, set up the nets and bring the birdies. And people get to play cheap badminton. In fact, I would hazard to guess that it is a nearly perfect system based on its objectives. Incidentally, this particular club has been running like this for over 80 years so it must work pretty well.

I would no more expect my badminton club to suddenly “evolve” into an organization to promote world peace and the brotherhood of man than I would my local high school to start a Nazi Youth Group. During its 80 years it hasn’t “evolved” into something else, become more enlightened or changed its operating characteristics. And if you’re looking for cheap badminton a couple of nights a week you’ve come to the right place. If you’re looking for world peace or a good deal on your next big screen TV, I’m sorry but we can’t help. It’s a badminton club.

And, also in my limited experience, it’s pretty much the same thing with people. If you want to know how the adult is you really need to look no further than the child. Anyone who has raised kids will tell you this. You have an influence on your kids but they come with their own set of fundamental characteristics. You can shape those characteristics depending on how you treat the child, but the underlying personality is pretty much set. Same with puppies. Get a Doberman or a German Shepherd and no matter how you treat them as a puppy, they’re going to be a fundamentally different dog than a Labrador Retriever or a Spaniel.

So, based on my experience with badminton clubs, kids and puppies, I wondered, how is it with our governing institutions? Was there some type of evolution over time when a political system that was designed to do one thing turns into something else? Is what shaped and defined it in its formative stage what you get hundreds of years later? Do political institutions fundamentally change by themselves, I wondered? For example, women, because they demanded it, were given the right to vote. If no demand had been made through the suffrage movement, would some men (presumably) have come along and said, hey, we’ve made a mistake, let’s at least give women a vote, for Chrissakes.

And, in doing the research, I found something to support my theory that systems don’t change even when people are desperately trying to change them. Even when they spend billions of dollars trying to change them. I came across this little tidbit from James A. Robinson, Harvard University, Department of Government and IQSS, in Working Paper number 446 written for the Economic Research Forum:

“In principle, policy interventions promoted by economists and by external entities such as the World Bank can lead to sustained institutional reform by working on any of these margins. In practice however, most such attempts seem to have little impact on the institutions of society because they do little to disrupt the distribution of power, and leaders can substitute one instrument for another that has been “reformed.” We are still far from having a convincing framework that will help us understand how to change the political economy equilibrium of a society.

In addition, simplistic analysis of policy reform without taking into account the incentives of the reformers is unlikely to be very productive. Though the government of the U.S. is currently very enthusiastic about promoting democratic reform, this was not the case when it was encouraging coups against democratically elected governments it did not like, in Guatemala and Iran in the 1950s or Chile in the 1970s. The recent experience with the democratic election of a Hamas government in Palestine shows that enthusiasm for democracy is conditional on who wins elections. Though institutions like the World Bank do not have such explicit political agendas, they are also complex bureaucracies whose practical objective cannot simply be assumed to be that of maximizing the welfare of citizens in poor countries.”

And in my search for democracy, this is what I mean by heading down a Rabbit Hole – I’m looking for one thing to answer some basic questions and I start finding something completely different.  I’m looking for the answer to a simple question – what causes a democracy to change over time and here I get some expert from Harvard telling me about a democracy encouraging coups against democratically elected governments? I thought we were supposed to respect democracies because the ‘people had spoken’? Isn’t that one of the basic rules of democracy that has actually been taken to extremes in Canada? Want to break up a country? Have a vote on it. Did someone have to stage a coup in Quebec? Hell no. They held a vote. Enthusiasm for democracy conditional on who wins elections? Seriously? We don’t like someone who wins an election, based on our own system of government and we stage a coup? Is that what this Harvard professor is talking about?

Anyway, if I understand Robinson, the principle of interventions doesn’t meet the reality because people will subvert the institution to maintain their control, to stay in power. Or something like that. He’s a little hard to follow. But if I am understanding any of this, it sounds like Robinson at least is saying that trying to reform an institution, even for incredibly powerful organizations like the World Bank is kind of like farting in a windstorm. It may make you feel good but overall you’re not going to have much of an impact.

And, if I’m also understanding this correctly if there is an entrenched distribution of power meaningful changes will be hard won, if at all. So, the pregnant question is: does the history of our Canadian democracy bear this out? Has it evolved into something other than what was created some 400 or so years ago in England? And, more importantly for me, what were the significant turning points along the way? How have we progressed? And when did the coaches and managers come in, I wondered.

However, after reading Robinson, I realized I also needed to find out just what the hell do we mean when we say “democracy” anyway? Because one democracy staging coups against another democracy kind of bends the principles for me. Maybe there were the coup-friendly democracies and the coup-less democracies (is that a word?) So I had to back up a little and get some kind of working definition of democracy. Because there may be some different flavours of democracy, I reasoned.

So what is Canadian “democracy?” Everybody that was brought up in Canada already knows what it is. We live under it, we’ve been taught how it works in school in a class called “Social Studies.” So we all really just know what democracy is. It’s some hard-won freedom that we have that the rest of the world wants and ain’t it great to be free? However, like I said, when you’re talking about ‘democracy’ things get awfully complicated in a real hurry.

Democracy Defined (or Not)

So here’s what had to say:

de·moc·ra·cy  [dih-mok-ruh-see]  noun, plural de·moc·ra·cies.

  1. government by the people; a form of government in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised directly by them or by their elected agents under a free electoral system.
  2. a state having such a form of government: The United States and Canada are democracies.
  3. a state of society characterized by formal equality of rights and privileges.
  4. political or social equality; democratic spirit.
  5. the common people of a community as distinguished from any privileged class; the common people with respect to their political power.

Anyway, I found these definitions pretty interesting, although a little short, so I explored a little further and stumbled across a website called “Wikipedia”. More on that later. It had some more ideas for me that I had trouble reconciling with what I had seen in my life and what, in its brief definition, seemed to be trying to convey. This came under a heading called “Characteristics” of a democracy.

“One theory holds that democracy requires three fundamental principles: 1) upward control, i.e. sovereignty residing at the lowest levels of authority, 2) political equality, and 3) social norms by which individuals and institutions only consider acceptable acts that reflect the first two principles of upward control and political equality.” This was attributed to Richard Kimber from “On Democracy”, Scandinavian Political Studies.

Anyway, I’m thinking theory??? Why in hell would we need a “theory” when everyone already knows what a democracy is? “Sovereignty residing at the lowest levels of authority,” “political equality” and the only acceptable acts reflecting these two principles? I actually worked for a provincial government and I thought I had a bit of an understanding of how things operated, but this threw me for a bit of a loop. Because when I was working for government, it was definitely a ‘top-down’ organization and I didn’t see a lot of upward movement. Anyway, I kept on reading and found another ‘theory of democracy’.

“The 20th Century Italian thinkers Vilfredo Pareto and Gaetano Mosca (independently) argued that democracy was illusory, and served only to mask the reality of elite rule. Indeed, they argued that elite oligarchy is the unbendable law of human nature, due largely to the apathy and division of the masses (as opposed to the drive, initiative and unity of the elites), and that democratic institutions would do no more than shift the exercise of power from oppression to manipulation. As Louis Brandeis once professed, “We may have democracy, or we may have wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can’t have both.””

Wow. And all of this is filed under “Democracy”. I’m looking for a simple straightforward explanation, some consensus from the experts and this is the best I can get? But which description comes closer to the truth? These ideas are miles, maybe even light-years apart. And how can one single article on democracy present such incredibly polarized viewpoints?

How do you reconcile something like “supreme power being vested in the people” with rule by an “elite oligarchy” as the unbendable law of human nature, due largely to the “apathy and division of the masses?” WTF?? On the one hand we seem to have an idea of a society in which no one is more privileged or powerful than anyone else and on the other rule by the “elite oligarchy”, which, incidentally, I also had to look up. Oligarchy – meaning “few” and “to rule or to command.” And what about switching from oppression to manipulation – could I find some examples of that I wondered? Hmmm. The only thing left was to go where the evidence points – the definitions are useless by much too wide a margin. Is it rule by the masses or rule by some elite puppet masters – and if it’s the elite – who the hell are those guys?

A Short History of Canadian Democracy

So beginning with the original concept, I figured I would have to go back and find out how and why the Westminster democracy was set up in the first place. And if I can answer that, maybe I can see what the system was designed to do. And see if it’s still doing it or has it changed somewhere along the line?

So let’s have a look at what would become Canada’s democratic system as it was being yanked kicking and squalling from the womb. Which takes us back to jolly olde England some 400 years ago. The institutions set up then were designed to accomplish various things and we’ll see if anything has changed, barring a World Bank intervention or a CIA coup. If any fundamental changes did indeed happen, it should be recorded as a significant event in the history of the parliamentary system. A turning point as it were. So the historical record should give us a clue.

So what were the forces in work at the time when “democracy” seemed to be the answer to the pressing problems of the day? Prior to having what we consider a parliament (literal translation ‘to talk’), King William of Normandy in 1066 introduced a system where he actually sought the advice of landowners and the clergy before making laws. Very enlightened of him, but also very practical. It’s tough to rule without some buddies around to make things happen. A man can’t do everything by himself and it’s much easier to try to talk someone into supporting you instead of running them through with a sword if they don’t. Swords are expensive. By 1215, the landowners liked this system so much that the democratic sperm met the democratic egg in the form of a document called the Magna Carta or Great Charter.

The Magna Carta formally restricted the king from levying taxes without the consent of the royal council. The Magna Carta, however, did not apply to collecting feudal “taxes” from his serfs, or peasants. In other words, the King could tax the living hell out of his personal feudal holdings but couldn’t touch the landowners without their consent. So, initially at least, the landowners got a kind of democracy and the serfs or peasants didn’t. The royal council gradually developed into what we could consider an early form of Parliament. And the prime purpose of this “Parliament” was essentially concerned with limiting the power of the English Monarchy, as represented by the King. However, at this point it was a far cry from sovereignty residing at the lowest levels of authority. Just ask any serf. The distribution of power had shifted to an elite club instead of just the guy on the throne. But it was a start.

And let’s have a look at these “taxes.” Basically, the king had to ask the landowners for money but it was a free for all in strong-arming the peasants. At that time, rulers held sway through force of arms. England, at any given point in its history was essentially a bunch of armed gangs with the leaders looking to become the next ruler. If you could take out the other guys and hold onto whatever you conquered then you were the Ruler. It was pretty much as simple as that. Maybe this is the oppression stage of democracy, kinda like my puppy going through the chewing stage.

The Magna Carta itself was written in Latin in the year 1215. The document forced the king of the day, King John, to accept certain restrictions and these were put in writing for the first time (is that the sound of some exceedingly nasty moaning and groaning and a cherry popping?) Anyway, the idea was that the King could not rule arbitrarily. Restrictions included things like freemen or landowners not being punished except through the rule of law, no taxation without consent and some other truly remarkable ideas about how freemen at least, should or could be governed. Of course the serfs did not enjoy this protection and were pretty much on their own. Serfs “belonged to the land” and most never travelled beyond the village where they were born.

It’s also very interesting to note what happened to the original Magna Carta as there may be a lesson to be learned from the document itself. The truly interesting thing about it is that it was later translated into French and still later into other versions. In these later versions, the direct challenges to the King’s authority were watered down or even excluded from the translations all together. By the 19th century nearly all, save three, of its 37 or so original clauses were repealed.

However, I digress. In the birthing process of democracy, this was really just some very exciting foreplay culminating in an initial penetration. The King had his skirts up and the ‘landowners’ were having a go. And, regardless of some very early contraceptives and an attempt or two at an abortion, one of the insertions took hold and a long and very protracted pregnancy over the next few centuries began.

So when did the pregnancy culminate? In order to understand the actual birth we have to skip ahead a few centuries and look no further than a fellow named Charles I, ruler of England in the early 1600’s. Charles’ view of the world was that he was the King of England (and Scotland and Ireland, BTW) because of a somewhat shady legal principle called ‘Divine Right’. Which goes like this – God had appointed him Ruler of the Land and he could do pretty much whatever he pleased. If God didn’t like what he was doing, so the theory goes, he would figure out a way to stop him. Wow. Any modern “spin doctor” could get behind that one.

The deeply religious and quite superstitious populace at that time lived under church and state rule and the clergy, a force to be reckoned with, figured prominently in politics. Did God really care about who ruled England? We’re not sure but if you could maintain power by harnessing the influence of an entrenched religious organization that could sway the populace, well, you took gifts where you found them. And, just as an aside and in terms of ideas surviving to the present day – could we expect manipulation in the form of religious or superstitious influence from a modern democracy? Well, right into the 1900’s agencies such as the CIA were quite willing to use religion and superstition to manipulate entire populations. But, we’re getting ahead of things. This is so exciting! A baby was about to be born.

And it was at this point in history that the baby’s head was crowning. The idea of ruling by Divine Right contrasted sharply with the past centuries of work by Parliamentarians who took a somewhat different view of things.  And the whole idea of democracy then pitched England into a series of Civil Wars between the Roundheads (Parliamentarians) and the Cavaliers (Royalists) lasting from 1642 to 1653, which saw the execution of Charles I and the exile of his son Charles II. So what was the net effect of all of this bloodshed?  The fact that the wars were won by the Roundheads meant that an English monarch could no longer appoint himself as a ‘divine” ruler and govern without Parliament’s consent. In other words – a democracy! The actual legal establishment of this doctrine occurred at a much later date, but suffice to say that it was at this time that the actual democratic baby was pulled from the womb kicking and screaming amidst a somewhat bloody birthing process.

The Death of Divine Rule

So centuries of work and discussion in the early Parliaments, the evolution of human thought and the ideas of how men should be governed culminated, after a series of wars that plunged an entire country into violence, to establish that, no, God does not appoint a Divine Ruler. That’s it. Sounds simple enough, but to put that one simple idea into practice took centuries. People had to be convinced that God was not really appointing their rulers. Armies were assembled. Pitched battles were engaged. People died in bloody battles. And it seems to validate what James Robinson points out in his essay that the only real reason that change was forthcoming was because the fundamental distribution of power had shifted.

So the baby was born and democracy now meant that a group of men, rather than a single ruler would be the form of government from now on. In other words – Democracy, sweet Democracy! The Baby is BORN baby! Men are created equal and we’ve entered the enlightened age. God does not, according to our English Parliamentarian forefathers, somehow hand you the exclusive right to rule people. Freedom at last. So let’s review how long it took to punt this one idea.

The pregnancy was realized with the production of the Magna Carta in 1215, laying the groundwork for democracy. The English Civil Wars took place some four centuries later and finished the birthing process, essentially completing the transition. If you consider a modern generation lasting some 20 – 22 years, although people had much shorter lives back then, the transition took at least twenty modern generations.  Keep in mind that a boy of 12 back then was considered old enough to swear allegiance to the king and girls got married in their early teens. Realistically, we’re probably talking about thirty or forty generations at least.  If nothing else, it is truly amazing how long a single political idea, the institutions behind it and the forces of inertia and power can persist and what it can take to put even just one single new idea into application. Kings aren’t appointed by God and you don’t have the right to tax us without our consent. (OK, maybe it was a couple of ideas). But Wow!

And, really, ideas are at the crux of how our governments are set up, managed and how you are governed today. The vast majority of Canadians buy into them and essentially govern themselves. But what is an idea? It is a thought. Nothing more. Change the thought, the Buddhists tell us and you change the world. Which is a good theory, but if the thought has physical backing in the form of men at arms, or even the inertia of tradition, the power of a thought can be truly astounding and persistent. So if you have your own personal thoughts about government and you happen to have a thought that requires a transition to what YOU may think is a reasonable and equitable change, you can probably bet that it will be vigorously opposed, on any number of grounds be it religious, economic, the current power structure, established legal tradition, or institutional tradition and all of this backed up by force of arms if necessary.

God said I am your ruler. Swear allegiance to me or I’ll run you through. There’s an idea that allowed monarchs to rule for multiple generations over centuries. It was bought into by the serfs, knights, landowners, merchants and anyone else who was living in England at the time. Anyway, what were you going to do? Tell God that he was wrong? Better have a few knights on your side if you want to fight that battle or, alternately, prepare for martyrdom.

The Ruling Class Gets a Say

So based on the principles of democracy does the institution self-evolve into an altogether different organization, over the centuries, as man, presumably, becomes more enlightened? The idea of it seems to be in direct contradiction to the English parliamentary historical record and does not seem to be supported by the academics or even my own limited experience with badminton clubs and puppies.

If the system was self-evolving, why would it take a World Bank or a CIA ‘intervention’ or a ‘coup’ to make fundamental changes, I wondered?  The system, as they say, is what it is and does what it does to meet its original design objectives. Even a fundamental external influence will not do anything as the power structure will simply find a new way to achieve its objectives, according to Robinson.  Anyway, we’ll continue to look for evidence one way or another as we progress.

So what was the grand design of our democratic system? It was designed to allow the ruling class a say in what the king was doing. That’s it. That was how it was formed, what it accomplished and maybe even what it does today. The names have changed, but the players remain the same.

The Privvy Council has become the modern Cabinet and the Prime Minister’s Office has effectively taken the place of the King, and we still have representatives of the commoners and the House of Lords. Political parties have been the norm since the first formal Parliament in England and there has been no end to the acrimonious debates since. All that hasn’t changed as far as I could see. Factor in Party Discipline and the control system is complete.

So, what we’re still trying to establish, bloody birth not withstanding – what is this animal called Canadian democracy? How does it work? If you’ve lived on this earth for any length of time and if you have observed institutions in action, you may find that the hype surrounding the entity may be entirely different than how it acts based on its stated principles.  It would seem that the ruling class gets a say but the rest of us are out of luck.