Thursday, 27 December 2012

"Democracy or Harper" or: why are you still listening to that page?

In a culture where Malcolm Gladwell is a bestselling author, the bar for whom or what captivates our attention is set considerably low. A host of figures are lifted up as authorities quite inexplicably. Their status provides a soapbox from which these individuals speak and a ready-made audience willing to hang on every word. They suddenly have access to a range of media outlets from print to television. Their musings are transmitted via blog and disseminated via Twitter. Status gives weight to the message.

The problem with so much of these figures is that come basked in a form of pseudo-authority which is largely unwarranted. Nate Silver’s predictive power provides leave to speak about elections generally. Jon Stewart’s satirical bite yields to a more serious state at times. In Canada, the National has its ‘Insiders’ panel (a lesser version of the template At Issue) in which partisans impart their ‘insider’ knowledge about the political process. Somehow one’s status as a partisan hack brings with it explanatory lucidity.
There is, of course, some value in what each of the above do. They are bolstered by a long history of work and professional experience, somewhat keen intellects and analytic mindsets. Even Power & Politics stalwart Tom Flanagan – on numerous occasions demonstrating he has completely lost his mind – is bolstered by a career in academe and successful political work.  In short, they have earned their status as pseudo-authorities.

Consider in contrast the current poster-child of left-wing protest politics, the so-called ‘rogue page’, Brigette DePape. I have never met DePape, so I have no insight into her character. She may be a wonderful, caring individual. Moreover, I’m sure we would agree on much politically. I have two major problems with DePape as they relate to her elevation by the Left as a pseudo-authority provided with, among other things, a pulpit in Macleans from which to preach.

First, her status has been achieved in such a mystifying fashion. DePape is famous not – as her supporters claim – for an act of selfless protest.  Rather, she is infamous for taking a decidedly partisan and political stand at a vastly inappropriate – albeit opportunistic - moment. Moreover, her ‘protest’ against the Harper Government’s agenda – before said agenda had even been enunciated by the Governor General – was a denunciation of the democratic will of Canadians and the political will of their elected Parliamentarians. (Colin Horgan at iPolitics does a nice job of deconstructing her argument about the electoral system here).

In short, her status was achieved, first, by disrupting an important symbolic moment in the life of Canadian democracy and, second, by simultaneously undermining that system, labelling it legitimate because it didn’t produce her desired outcome. This is a sign, not of courage, but of deep disrespect for our institutions and our democracy itself.

Second, the status is unsupported beyond whatever weight cheap theatre has been able to parlay into pseudo-authority. There is little here beyond left-wing platitudes and partisan denunciations of the Harper Government. Moreover, these are tired and facile. Attacks on the electoral system – while commonplace – are nevertheless intellectually bankrupt. They rely on cheap moral appeals to the democratic will – as if democracy can only expressed fully through proportional representation – rather than actual evidence. The fact of the Harper Government is not evidence to support electoral reform.

[Aside] The current system is designed to produce majorities. It does so for the practical reason that we are a Parliamentary – not Presidential – democracy. FPTP ensures that a government is able to get its agenda through Parliament without the political deadlock that has developed from the checks & balances system of the United States. Moreover, appeals to the mythic ‘popular vote’ in Canada are completed inappropriate. There is no popular vote; rather there is an aggregate of ballots cast in the country. The system precludes the possibility of a popular vote for the simple reason that we do not have a national election but 308 electoral contests simultaneously. There is an argument to be made for proportional representation, but that argument should not be made by distorting the reality of the current system. Majority governments are not unintended consequences. They are desired outcomes. [End Aside]

I focus on DePape here, not out of animus, but simply because she is so emblematic of a problem with our view of authority. We are far too quick to elevate individuals on the basis of some superficial criteria, in this case, because of some piece of politically motivated theatre. It is entirely unearned and unwarranted. More troublingly, it adds nothing to our political discourse. We have enough individuals – politicians and pundits – distorting the political process for partisan or political reasons. Bad behaviour does not imbue anyone with the authority to speak, particularly when they are so intent on dismissing what they don't agree with or devalue democracy while claiming to be its guardian. Moreover, we should dismiss reductionist arguments that claim "you're either with democracy or with the Harper government", particularly, it should be noted, as the authority of this government (constitutionally or electorally) is no different from any that have proceeded it.


First, I use the term 'pseudo-authority' simply because I don't believe these individuals have the necessary compliment of attributes for full-fledged authority: power or expertise.

Second, I hope no one conflates the alleged fraud of the 2011 election with the electoral system itself. 

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