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Federal Election 2011

Our Wounded Democracy

Citizens would rather shop, making them vulnerable to manipulation by politicians without scruples.

Murray Dobbin 11 Apr

Murray Dobbin writes his State of the Nation column twice monthly for The Tyee and on Rabble, and he also publishes articles on his blog.

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Feeding on apathy. Image credit: One Blue Marble.

What does it say about our democracy when the prime minister can with impunity demonstrate contempt for it and repeatedly violate its rules, conventions and the independence of its institutions and agencies?

Combined with a trend towards disturbingly low turnouts in federal elections, there is reason to start using the term crisis in describing Canadian democracy.

It has been a long time in the making and is the explicit accomplishment of corporate globalization -- although not one that is talked about very much. In the mid-1970s, the formation of the Trilateral Commission heralded the end of the old social contract whereby the activist state was tolerated by capital so long as it got what it believed was its fair share of output in the form of profit. When labour seized too much for its share, the contract was torn up.

But it wasn't just the private economy that was the problem. Workers and the previously marginalized in society had come to expect too much of government. Flush with tax revenue from a booming economy, governments, including Canadian governments, responded to increasing expectations. According to the Trilateral Commission's first publication, The Crisis of Democracy, there was in the 1970s Western world " excess of democracy."

The solution was to lower expectations of government while encouraging consumerism. One of the authors of The Crisis of Democracy, American Samuel Huntington, observed that the success of American democracy had been the adoption by millions of Americans of middle class values reflected in certain "consumption patterns.'" Another propagandist for the U.S. system, Daniel Boorstin, wrote in Fortune magazine that U.S. democracy was the "Consumption Community." He described the consumption community as "the great American democracy of cash which has so exasperated the aristocrats of all older worlds. Consumption Communities generally welcome peoples of all races, ancestry, occupation and income levels, provided they have the price of admission." In this democracy, people find "community" in the "communality of consumption" -- like drinking the same brand of beer or cheering on the same professional team.

The U.S. is the model for this consumption democracy where citizens have been largely turned into consumers -- politically apathetic, uninformed or easily misinformed, completely disconnected from their communities and finding meaning mostly in the shopping malls.

Shop 'til democracy drops

Canada, it seems, is not far behind. It had to happen eventually. After years of creating the consumption democracy and lowering expectations of traditional democracy, we have a population that is disengaged from its own community and its history. That means disconnected from a key source its moral core. Politics makes a difference if you are connected to each other. Otherwise, not so much.

And if you are spending most of your time shopping -- or dreaming about shopping or, if poor, wishing you could shop -- you are extremely vulnerable to political manipulation and the ruthless machinations of politicians like Stephen Harper. The truth is, even in the 1970s most people spent a minimal amount of time thinking about politics. What kept democracy alive was the tacit agreement amongst the political elite to respect democratic institutions and conventions, and to practice politics within the bounds of traditional political ethics.

So long as politics was conducted within those conventional parameters, lack of significant political participation was not fatal. But minimally engaged citizens are not equipped to deal with politicians who are willing to actually destroy the foundations of democracy and violate its most basic principles.

Harper's strategy of making politics offensive, negative and contemptuous of any standards of decency is working and is the source of much of the decrease in voter turnout. The Liberals claim that 800,000 of their supporters failed to vote in the 2008 election. The politics of fear is working, too, as Harper continues to frame himself as a leader who personifies, in U.S. framing guru George Lakoff's words, the "strict father" -- someone who is tough and uncompromising in a scary world. That Harper has made it scary is lost to those not paying attention.

And there is the massive application of negative advertising, the spending of literally tens of millions in public funds leading up to the election, promoting the Conservatives' so-called "economic record" -- both the kind of undermining of genuine democratic discourse common in the U.S. but almost unknown here.

Opting out carries huge risks

Combine these strategic attacks on the part-time citizen with a media strategically hijacked to roll back the state and it is less shocking to see Stephen Harper maintaining a strong lead over his opponents. The media has always been small-c conservative but when Conrad Black bought virtually every major daily paper in the country, he changed those newspapers into a new political agency explicitly dedicated to a radical neo-liberal agenda. The Asper family has pursued that agenda with equal aggressiveness. The media has been one of Harper's biggest advantages as they demonize government, the civil service, taxation and any kind of state intervention in the economy.

The impact of all of this on citizenship is discouraging but predictable. I am struck by the number of people -- even in the face of Harper's clear intentions -- who cast a pox on all politics and casually equate their cynicism and disengagement with sophistication and worldliness. The price for this willful ignorance will be high.  [Tyee]

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