Re-engineering democracy

For the past several centuries, people throughout this shrinking planet of ours have been indulging in democracy as the means by which human affairs are to be governed, be they on a national or international level. This experiment has had, as any serious student of history will tell you, some mixed results.

The shift towards democracy can be said to have begun in the seventeenth century, when the “Age of Enlightenment” combined with the beginning of the “Industrial Age”, spawned social and political movements that brought about popular revolutions that were the genesis of our current democratic political systems. They reflected a profound shift away from the “might is right” feudal forms of societal governance, towards more humanistic and inclusive forms that were based on principles of self-determination, equality, majoritarian rule and a social contract, either implied or constitutional, between the governors and the governed.

To be sure, this transition did not happen without a number of unfortunate and spectacular failures and detours along the way. The French Revolution, the Bolshevik Revolution, and the advent of fascism in Germany, Italy and Japan are but a few examples where the cure for archaic, despotic or ineffective forms of government were worse than what they displaced. Nonetheless, the idea and basic principles of democracy survived and took root, resulting in today’s reality that the majority of nations on this planet can be said to be democracies. A recent study by the reputable think tank, the PEW Research Centre, estimates that 57% of the countries on this planet have some form of democratic system of government, 13% are autocracies, and 28% are some form of hybrid of the two. One would think that such statistics would be cause for comfort and hope as we look towards the future, but the events of the past few decades are showing that we cannot take democracy for granted, and that implementing and sustaining democracy is no easy matter.

The case of a free and independent Ukraine is an interesting example of how difficult it can be to build a democratic country. It has been thirty years since Ukraine became a free and independent state, and though it has ostensibly had relatively open and free elections, the state of democracy in Ukraine is precarious and unfulfilled, with a very uncertain future. There, a small group of very wealthy and corrupt oligarchs have managed to manipulate the laws, constitution and electoral processes of a technically democratic state to their own personal benefit, leaving the majority of the population poor and effectively powerless.

A more telling example is the state of democracy in our southern neighbour, the United States. The outrages and excesses of the Trump Presidency vividly demonstrated the vulnerabilities and weaknesses of what professes to be the leading example of democracy in the free world. Although there are many theories about what went wrong, I would posit that one of the primary causes is the fact that the whole structure on which the American governing system is built is archaic and out of whack with today’s modern realities. In the aftermath of the American Revolution in 1776 and the subsequent drafting of the American Constitution in 1789, the Americans built a system of government based on the political and social realities of that time. That reality included slavery, an entrenched class system, a dominant role by the religious establishment, a mistrust of central government, a wild and untamed hinterland, and a huge social, economic and cultural divide between North and South. The resulting laws, structures, divisions of power and electoral procedures became entrenched into the Constitution, which though amended 27 times subsequently, still remains much as it was back then. In fact, there have been very few constitutional amendments in the past century, when circumstances have changed drastically. Many of the provisions, the notorious electoral college being one glaring example, have long ago outlived their relevance and purpose, and should have been dropped or amended a long time ago. Unfortunately, the Americans have enshrined the constitutional creations of their Founding Fathers with an almost sacred aura, and to suggest changing them is viewed almost as treason. Most Americans truly seem to believe that what was set down in 1789 was a “perfect” system and should not be touched or tampered with. This type of thinking borders on the ludicrous. The societal, political, scientific, economic and cultural forces at play in 2021 are vastly different than what they were those centuries ago, and to suggest that the systems put in place back then are still effective today is naïve at best.

Although our system of government here in Canada is different from the one in the U.S., we too are still stuck with historical political anachronisms. Our preservation of a constitutional monarchy may be quaint, but it also essentially demonstrates our inability to cut loose from the historical leash held by a foreign imperial power that for centuries dominated and exploited our lands for their own economic benefit. No doubt, there were benefits from being part of the British Empire but let us not kid ourselves that the British were a benign altruistic and civilizing force in the building and shaping of our nation.

What we all need to realize and accept is that though the basic precepts and ideals of democracy are well defined and immutable, the way that democracy is implemented is not set in stone. There is no simple universal recipe that is applicable everywhere and has no expiry date. The way we implement democracy needs to evolve and be re-engineered to meet the priorities and needs of society at a given time and place. It is time we took a serious look at how we practice
democracy.