As we enter a new year, most of the Western world seems lost in a political malaise. This notwithstanding that the unprecedented wealth accessible to us extends beyond the economic to cultural and spiritual resources that are available at a keystroke. And all of this is protected in a rich world cocoon of unprecedented peace, security and the rule of law.
The exact expression of dysfunctional and confrontational politics varies by country but all of them, including Canada, seem full of angst. Voters are unhappy and don’t know what to do. Is there a common thread?
Some say that the overarching problem of our time is inequality and, indeed, this has been quite dramatically increasing. But surely a problem so easily solvable (if the will exists) cannot itself be a root cause.
So often, problems of governance come down to the relationship between the individual and the collective. People generally report happiness and satisfaction in their private lives. Families continue to function, though now less central and more fragmented. Small towns with stable employment and population generally seem content.
The malaise appears at a larger scale. While we often like our local leaders, the distant big shots and the systems they run are more often viewed with contempt. “Big business” and corporations used to be seen as proxies for prosperity. Now, they are villains.
“Big government” used to be seen as the guarantor of order and social services. Now it is seen as partisan, dysfunctional, wasteful and often corrupt in the service of special interests.
Nowhere in Canada is this more apparent than in major developmental projects or, in Europe, in such fundamental questions as immigration. Governments used to be able to issue permits for the entry of this or that person or the construction of this or that project and things would proceed according to those rules. Governments could give what we now call “social licence.” No longer.
This is extraordinary, and very unhealthy. If all of us have to be consulted on everything and agree on everything to obtain “social licence,” nothing will happen in a smooth way. And yet change will happen, because it always does – whether because of technology, the animal spirits of entrepreneurs, international competition or other uncontrollable forces. And if that change is not smooth, it will be turbulent, as we see in matters as far apart as pipelines in Canada, health care in the United States and race riots in Europe.
So perhaps the root problem lies in our democracies, the ultimate expressions of our societies’ individual-collective relationships. Our ways of democratic governance, invented long ago and resistant to change, do not seem up to the modern world’s challenges. We need version 2.0.
How is it that Canada has a Parliament as bitterly partisan as any in its history, where the proper thing to do is deride and insult one’s opponents and dismiss their ideas (even their facts – see Conservative blindness on crime) as beneath contempt? The legislatures of our larger provinces are little better. Our children learn from this.
Even large civic governments are mistrusted. Toronto and Montreal are the poster children, but my own home city, Vancouver, has an ideological council majority whose trademark is to decide in private and then pretend to consult. People get this.
These patterns are replicated in other countries. The machinery is creaking; only the details vary.
With a few exceptions, none of these governments are populated by bad people. Perhaps we have to look at the underlying systems.
So here is a proposition: Democratic reform should be Job 1 in the Western world, and Question 1 for candidates in every election.
There are plenty of ideas, though all require caution. Canadian prime ministers have too much power, according to a recent parliamentarian’s bill. Agreed – but he or she mustn’t be emasculated or we’ll end up with a situation like the U.S. presidency, where the leader has the power to reduce the world to a nuclear cinder but not to pass sensible laws.
The electoral system should be reformed, others say. Parliamentarians, our representatives, should be empowered. There should be much greater timely freedom of information. Agreed – there is much more. Let us study how.
What’s important now is commitment. The answers will come, but a determined quest must begin. Things are not working as well as they should. It is the noble challenge of our times.