RM Archive - onsite copies of linked stories

RM Issue #040704

Voters: democracy's downside Unable to resolve our own contradictions, we scapegoat politicians, says former federal adviser JOHN HANCOCK

By JOHN HANCOCK Friday, July 2, 2004

Canadians expect more -- that is how Paul Martin explained his government's shortcomings in the recent election. He has also put his finger on a central paradox shaping politics in Canada, and across the Western world. At a time when voters have never had more power, better government, greater prosperity and progress, rarely have they been less satisfied. We do indeed expect something more, but what that is, no one can say.

Our problem isn't a lack of democratic choice. On the contrary, we live in an age of hyper-democracy. Focus groups, rolling polls, the test-marketing of everything from policies to posters -- the science of politics, as opposed to political science, directs all of its dark arts towards one question: What do voters want? In politics, as in economics, the consumer is king.

Nor do we want different policies. The scramble to occupy the same, crowded ideological middle during the recent election is as good an indication as any of where voters' preferences lie. Who doesn't want more trade, low inflation and balanced budgets? Who is against medicare, cultural diversity or immigration? Parties struggle, not to depart from the middle, but to prove they best embody it, while simultaneously trying to out their opponents as closest spenders, separatists or bigots. Labels differ, but we're all liberals now.

Why? Because that's what voters want. As our power increases, and our choices widen, our conception of the good society actually narrows to common themes: more growth, higher incomes, safer streets, a cleaner environment, better health and education. Nothing stops us from choosing something different -- say, a Canada where we retreat from the world, rebuild walls and return to the glorious age of state control. Nothing stops us from becoming another North Korea.

Nothing but the electorate's good sense. And the hard lessons of history. Having witnessed, and rejected, the great "isms" of the last century -- unrestrained capitalism, communism, fascism, socialism -- we've discovered that the most successful ideology is having no ideology at all.

The result is a Canada that is the envy of the Western world -- in a world that is doing well. What we buy, where we travel, how we live -- in our careers, relationships and values -- people have more choice, more freedom, more power (at least in the affluent West) than ever before. Globalization is not an alien monster imposed from above, but something we have created. Globalization is us.

So if we've got what we wanted, why are we angry? Maybe the problem isn't the politicians. If democracy is about getting the governments we deserve, maybe the problem is us.

Complacency has something to do with it. Paradoxically, voters can afford to be angry because they have so little to be angry about. This is not a time of war or depression. There are no pressing issues (mass unemployment, financial crisis, the imminent breakup of the country) to focus minds, and force us to take sides. We have the luxury in our prosperous democracy of being as mad as hell.

Then there's the problem of our sky-high expectations. One curious byproduct of this democratic age is a weakening of the idea of democracy. Democracy used to be rooted in a conception of the common good, and a belief that the wisdom of the majority takes precedent (within limits) over the wishes of a minority. But we, the people, have morphed into me, the people. In an age of instant gratification 24/7, what matters is what's in it for me, for the West, for Quebec, for the cities, for farmers -- in fact for anyone but society as a whole.

No government can please all of the people all of the time. But that's precisely what we've come to expect, the flames of our disappointed expectations fanned by a cynical media, angry talk radio and self-serving websites.

Perhaps these developments point to a deeper source of our democratic malaise: a palpable sense that something is missing in modern politics. A boredom with the bland conformity of the liberal consensus, and dreary predictability of public debate. A feeling that the unfettered pursuit of prosperity has created its own anxieties and deprivations, which a bigger house or a new car cannot satisfy. A disappointment that today's leaders have failed to live up to the heroic qualities that we want and perhaps need to invest in them.

Where is the vision? That, in a nutshell, is the lament in the democratic Western world. Never mind that no one can define what that vision should be. Never mind that the 20th century was littered with visions gone awry. Ignore the fact that today's Canada -- open, liberal, diverse -- is itself a hugely revolutionary idea in the historical scheme of things. What we secretly miss is a cause, a dream, a call to greatness -- a Pierre Trudeau or perhaps a Ronald Reagan -- even as our cynicism with politics grows, and voter turnout declines.

The problem comes down to this: We aren't entirely happy with what we have, but we can't see an alternative. We demand change, but vote for continuity. We yearn for utopia, but no longer believe it exists.

Unable to resolve our own contradictions, we've found an easy scapegoat: politicians. The danger is not just that we are blaming people whose great crime is doing what we ask, thus undermining the democratic idea, as well as our democracy. The bigger danger is that we're fooling ourselves.John Hancock, a former adviser to federal trade ministers, is now head of investment issues for the World Trade Organization.

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