Representation and Recognition: Reflections along the Low Road to Democratic Reform

School of Policy Studies, Queen’s University, 2006

I was immediately intrigued when Peter Campbell invited me to speak and gave me the title for this gathering. “The Nature, Virtues and Failings of Canada’s political system”. Because I’m a simple guy, I had to say it to myself a couple of times “The Nature, Virtues and Failings of Canada’s Political System”. And I had to turn each word over in my head. And you know, even though I spend much of my time thinking about this country’s political system I’ve never thought to sum it all up like this, like a kind of political galaxy: the heavens, the moon and the stars — as though there was a “nature” to our political system, as though virtue was the goal, as though its failings were its own.

I don’t know if our political system has a nature. Certainly it has characteristics and I wonder if it might be helpful to phrase it this way, because to imply that something has a nature is to imply that it’s somehow natural — and at least so far as public opinion goes, there are few things more unnatural or which seem to make less sense than our political system.

I want to say that it has characteristics too, because I worry that when we allow ourselves the convenience of calling our way of doing politics ‘natural’ then with a slight of hand, we absolve ourselves from the very full responsibility we should bear for the outcomes our political system produces. Calling it natural conjures an illusion of permanence; in a way, it offers an excuse — and semantically, then conceptually and sometimes actually, it risks subordinating any new and substantive reform as some kind of an unnatural incursion. Because that’s not the way we do things. Because that’s not the way the system works. And I think we want to guard against this. When we fail to own our system as wholly of our making, then we surrender our powers of imagination and it is precisely these powers of political imagination that I want to talk about today.

There are, of course, a couple of tracks I could follow. One would be a lament for political imagination. I could observe as others have that our politics seem to be getting smaller – that the liberal democratic project has plateaued, with what seem to be smaller people championing smaller visions. When the destination and direction of travel felt clear and the injustices were both mass and obvious, politics was an agent for the major righting of major wrongs. Now politics feels to have grown managerial, more concerned with mopping up than staking new ground. And so the energy of entrepreneurs with ideas for a qualitatively different society goes elsewhere.

I could, like many on the right, see this principally as a problem of infrastructure, and insist that this ‘capacity problem’ was in fact an opportunity, a vacuum that could be filled if we invested more in public thinking: funding new policy foundations, and think tanks that would do our imagining for us. I would look to the US, and alert you to what some perceive to be a growing intellectual arms race between these new polemicists and policy-makers. I could either urge the left to mobilize in order to defend its ground or else I could echo Eisenhower and warn that whether left or right these ‘interests’ comprise a threat of sorts, constituting a ‘power-policy’ complex that increasingly threatens the capacity of our body politic for clear and independent thinking.

And that might be fun, in a gee-whiz and seductive kind of way, but what I want to do is to talk about something more fundamental – to try and get at something deeper which has been puzzling me for a while now:

Why do people have such a low opinion of politics?
Why are people turned off by politics?
Is it necessarily so?

And we should pause here – a long, still, silent pause – because too often when political types see these questions they want to gallop off and ask other, easier questions like: How can we re-engage people? How can we restore confidence?

And they turn what are good, deep, meaningful questions with unbounded potential into shallow questions – problems for which there appear to be solutions — problems that beg fixes. And so before we even really understand the problem – I mean really understand the problem -- we’re reading stacks of recommendations for whatever solutions we favor or might have at hand.

My favorite example of this is from a speech Paul Martin gave in 2004 when he defended his government’s record on parliamentary reform. “We identified a problem: the democratic deficit. And we took immediate action by implementing transformative change.”

Which, let’s be honest, just sounds kinda silly. Obviously, parliament has not been transformed and it was this sort of grand, declarative fuzziness that ultimately got the Prime Minister into a lot trouble. I’m still not sure what the democratic deficit is or was. I’m not entirely sure the Prime Minister knew. Yes, people aren’t turning out to vote, politicians are held in low esteem, backbenchers are disgruntled and too much power is concentrated in the PMO.

But I would contend that these are not discrete problems. Instead, they’re symptomatic and so they’ll prove resistant to ad hoc, essentially palliative measures. Take for instance, one of what I call the Big Four High Road Reforms: Electoral, Commons, Senate and Constitutional. Of these, Proportional Representation as an electoral reform has long been touted as the key to rebalancing power in the commons. Advocates contend that votes won’t go wasted and that as a result the citizen will take a greater interest in the political process. Which sounds great, except among those nations which have recently adopted a proportional system, voter turn-out rates remain comparable, regularly placing only five or six percent above our own. (OECD VOTING RATES) Public confidence is no greater, public enthusiasm for politics no stronger. So while p.r. might produce a more equitable electoral mechanics, and may for that reason be a necessary and just reform, it is not a sufficient reform for addressing what concerns us most.

But again, this is a distraction, because surely the problem isn’t that people aren’t turning out to vote – it’s that they increasingly view politics as irrelevant. And I think it’s fair to call this a failing.

Late last month, the centenary project of Britain’s Joseph Rowntree Foundation released the findings of an eighteenth month investigation into the state of British democracy. The project was called the Power Inquiry and it has enjoyed a status similar to our own Royal Commissions. A blue ribbon panel of experts was convened. They called witnesses, hosted consultations across the country and conducted comparative research. Their final report is fascinating because they systematically demolish the hoary myths of citizen engagement. They state unequivocally that the marked disengagement from formal politics is NOT attributable to:

• an apathetic and uninterested public with a weak sense of civic duty;
• a widespread economic and political contentment;
• the supposedly low calibre and probity of politicians;
• the lack of competitive elections
• an overly negative news media; or
• lack of time on the part of citizens.

Instead, they tell a different story. Their findings, anticipated by major studies conducted in both Denmark and Norway within the past ten years, point to what they allege is the growing obsolescence of our most cherished political institutions, including the concept of representation, the status of parliament, the majoritarian principle, the party. Which is all a bit shocking because when you fess up to the idea that the organizing mechanisms of our mode of democracy might themselves be part of the problem, then experiments in e-consultation, tinkering with the legal voting age, authorizing backbenchers to dissent, fixing election dates or electing senators – well it all seems a bit beside the point.

So while political scientists continue to debate the merits of one electoral system to another, one series of engagement techniques to the next – this micro-micro strategy ignores the bigger picture. We have plenty to say about campaign finance but remarkably little about the sociological tectonics which first shaped our parliamentary system and which now are being alleged to undermine it. Meanwhile the conceptual still point between a wholesale refutation of our political system and the endorsement of a marginally improved status quo grows wider.

And this, friends, is our challenge – to fill this space between refutation and incremental reform with an original analysis and a more subtle appreciation for the role and relevance of formal politics in an everyday democracy. We can still be proud inheritors of this most ingenious of social inventions. Representative democracy is the idea and parliament, I’m choosing words carefully here, is the technology: both have proved extraordinarily resilient and adaptive across more than two centuries of social change. Both have proved extraordinarily successful mechanisms for the mediation of difference, the safeguarding of sovereignty and the execution of power and public will.

But so indebted are we to this institution and to these ideas– to the concept of representation, to the legitimacy of majority rule – that we hesitate to ask impolite questions about where they come up short. We fail to see our political institutions and technologies as products of a historical age, of a particular social order; a pre-industrial society, illiterate, divided by class, an aristocracy bracing itself against a growing bourgeoise, emboldened by property and professional acumen. We forget the very real debates in England, at the founding of the American Republic and argued with such force in the Federalist papers, and here too, in Canada, when representation was itself a novelty, a suspect invention, when all manner of political mechanics, from the duration of a term to the arc of seating in a congress was a matter of fierce debate and significance.

This was the era of democratic design – before the lead cooled and the die set and everything became so laden with the phony historicism of fluted columns, and flying buttresses. And yet.

And yet surely a democracy worthy of its name does more to shrug off the false pieties of parliamentary language, of petitions neatly stacked before clerks, of brassy patinas and decorous stone. In the urgency of its cause, it mounts a constant inquiry into its readiness to speak and to hear and to act – to do fairly, with neither deceit nor theatre.

It could be that in our own time, in our own language, this spirit of coordinated action, of public reason, of finding solutions to common problems is the animus lost to popular clamors for increased accountability. This vogue, which is in fact the stillbirth of political imagination anticipates an actuarial politics that makes a vigorous and democratic politics less and less possible. Which isn’t to say that when we demand accountability we intentionally demand the closing of political horizons – of new forms and occasions for political possibility. But our instincts become restrictive, our gaze suspicious and politics, as a way of soliciting collective action or opinion – so essentially humane and vulnerable – is left to the care of a cynical jailor, quartermaster to a distrustful public.

Some years ago, Ursula Franklin, a physicist at the University of Toronto wrote a Massey Lecture entitled The Real World of Technology. She acknowledged her debt to another Massey lecturer, CB Macpherson, who, some twenty years early, had himself, delivered a lecture entitled The Real World of Democracy.

Macpherson argued that we need to be realistic about democracy – as a concept and about its origins. There’s no sense being sentimental. According to Macpherson, democracy in the west was the natural consequence of an increasingly liberal society, a liberal society that was, for the most part, also a capitalist society. Now we know that more than anything else, capitalism requires a secure and stable marketplace. So he alleged that individuals, forced by capitalism to be free from any other social and economic obligations, seek democracy chiefly as a means to secure their place within the market. Owing to this, Macpherson was skeptical about the means of a liberal democratic capitalist society to ever tackle what most afflicts it: material scarcity, because the unequal distribution of resources, the prize afforded for risk and ownership, is what keeps the capitalist engine primed. This, worried, Macpherson, was the Real World of Democracy – not an accommodation or counterpoint to market forces, but simply the necessary political order, where in his words, “the implacable force within a liberal society is scarcity in relation to unlimited desire.” This was his mode of economic and democratic realism.

Franklin, for her part, sought a similar realism when she analyzed the role of technology in western societies. While not denying the extraordinary gains in material production that accompanied the industrial revolution, Franklin worried that technology can also create unwholesome dependencies – what was first useful or revolutionary in time becomes essential and captivating – impossible to do without. We know well the environmental havoc automobiles wreak, but our dependency on them is such, and so well established, that any alternative is either stalled at the point of conception or else dismissed as impractical or utopian. Those technologies that give us new freedoms – like mobility -- can also makes us slaves and force us to accept their side effects like pollution or urban blight. Franklin worried that many of the technological practices we adopt make us increasing dependent and estranged from our better instincts and full capacities as human beings. Modern technology might give us bounty, but it also gives us trouble. Few modern technologies are, to quote Ivan Illich, “tools for conviviality.”

Now why am I bringing these two books up? Because it’s now twenty some years later and there’s a third book I’d really like to read – one that brings together the titles and ethos of these first two. What I’m suggesting is that it might be time to consider The Real World of Democratic Technology.

What qualifies as a democratic technology? Just about any practice or mechanism that is related to the aggregation of popular opinion for the legitimation of specific action. Put simply, it’s the ways by which we secure approval for common work. This includes everything from the focus group to the ballot box, from the constituency office to the order paper. Its useful to think about democratic institutions or traditions as technologies because it makes plain that these practices and mechanisms were once designed and that like all technologies they cut two or more ways, they have certain biases structured in, and they can, over time become obsolete or become in need of serious overhaul.

Think to Thomas Kuhn who observed that the structure of scientific enterprise is built upon consensus opinions – which he called paradigms. Throughout history, science and popular thought has organized itself according to the most dominant of these paradigms – that the earth was flat, that the earth was at the centre of the universe, then the sun, that competing fluids governed our emotions, the women had a status relative to men – each of these propositions structured entire world views --- they governed lives -- and in their time seemed normal and beyond dispute.

Politics, in its own way, is a history of revolutions – revolutions prompted by new attitudes and beliefs about power: who should have it, how it should be used. Dictatorships, monarchies, democracies, people’s republics, – each is a paradigm of power – and we can see by simply looking to the history of the 20th century how spectacularly these paradigms have competed and how frequently they clash.

So to understand the dominant political paradigm of our age, we first need to think hard about the axioms that govern our system. Only then are we ready to examine and form a critical opinion about the technologies – the practices and mechanisms -- that constitute this system. Rarely, however, do we question the axioms. Instead, as I’ve said, we prefer to tinker with the technologies – trying to eek out a little extra performance, pretending that a certain tweak will make the system spring to life, good as new.

There are at least six axioms that I believe sit close to the core of our current political system – what I’ll call First Wave Representative Democracy.

• The first is that the vote is the most prominent and often final means of rendering political judgment. In order to be heard and for our opinions to have weight, we are told to convert our opinions into votes. Votes are either serial or binary – they either limit opinion to a list of options, like a slate of candidates or they force an answer, demanding either a yay or nay, yes or no.
• The second is that a simple majority of votes constitutes decision-making power. Find one hundred people, if fifty-one want one thing and forty-nine, another – those forty-nine are out of luck. The majority rules.
• The third is that citizens elect representatives, who continue the process of forming opinions and voting on their behalf. In this way, citizens are periodically asked to divest their political authority to an agent. This is celebrated as a core duty of citizenship and we worry that fewer and fewer people are willing to do it.
• The fourth is that the purpose of politics is to make rules; the job of the representative is to legislate. I’ll say more about this later.
• The fifth is that political parties are the primary vehicles for formal political involvement.
• The sixth is that strong leadership is valued. Like it or not, we focus on the man or woman perceived to be in charge. On the one hand, we are inclined to take comfort from strong and inspired leadership; on the other hand, it usually doesn’t or can’t last.

In other words, our political system is plebescitarian, majoritarian, representative, legislative, party-based and leader-centric. Now we’re all familiar with the particular virtues of this system, but I want to cast it in a slightly more critical light. I can say that because is it plebescitarian, it has a tendency to manufacture divisions and adversarial relationships. Because it is majoritarian, it manufactures a contest of winners and losers. Because it is representative, it manufactures political elites. Because it is legislative, it manufactures laws. Because it is party-based, it manufactures discipline. Because it is leader-centric, it manufactures top-down authority.

And the trouble with all this is that while the centre holds – people continue to respect the laws of the land and the legitimacy of elected leaders – few of these manufactured political characteristics have much consonance with the everyday lives or organizational aspirations of modern, highly individuated citizens with overlapping and very fluid identities. And so public confidence in this system of democracy diminishes as cynicism grows.

This first wave of representative democracy succeeded in creating the formal mechanisms by which all voices are functionally equal and contesting political wills are held to common rules. I believe, however, that a second wave of representative democracy will amend these mechanisms and create new ones. If first wave of representative democracy was about extending the franchise and counting votes the second wave will do more to figure out what those votes mean. This is the difference between being heard and feeling heard.

“Feeling heard” is a hard thing for formal systems to address. It’s not something that’s easily systematized. It is the most difficult kind of democratic practice. It requires a kind of emotional intelligence. Feeling heard doesn’t only entail listening. It implies more than consultation, more than the demand for ready-formed opinion. It breaks down ideas about expertise. It sometimes entails direct involvement. And make no mistake, the problem of citizens not feeling heard is the real challenge here – it is the driver of this second wave, from representation to what we might call recognition, from a representative democracy to a recognizant one. It is the same driver that is pushing people out of political parties and into single-issue campaigns, towards ngos. They want high fidelity politics – political movements and organizations that are attuned to their interests and ideas about the world. What our current system gives them is a low fidelity politics, where the votes are binary, the resolution low and the choices frequently zero-sum.

Sometimes when I step back, and look around, it seems as though we are trying to run 21st century software on 19th century hardware. And it’s towards this conundrum that I think more research ought to be focused. We need to hear as much from the political psychologists and sociologists as we do from the political scientists if we’re to sort this through and make sense of what’s been going on.

Two years ago I woke up in London, knowing what I would spend the next three years of my life researching. I remember calling up a friend in Cambridge who was studying English and proudly explaining that I was going to look at Canadian politics from the bottom-up, from the periphery, not the centre and I knew, knew deep in my gut that I was on to something. Constituency offices, I said. Nobody had looked at them – Ned Franks had even called them the terra nullis of Canadian political science. And of course, my friend said, “What’s a constituency office?”

And this, more or less, is the question that led me back to Canada, to load up my truck and set out on a four month, 35,000 kilometer tour of the country that would ultimately take me from the east coast to the west and ultimately north to Whitehorse. Along the way, I visited nearly 100 of these offices – the local shops where MPs hang their shingle and attempt as Flora Macdonald did when she opened one of the very first offices here in Kingston in 1972, to simply keep in touch.

Two interests and one suspicion coincided. Alongside politics, I’ve always been acutely interested in architecture and the design of public space. Thomas Jefferson said that design and politics were the same thing and I’m inclined to agree. My second interest concerned the hand-wringing going on about declining voter turn-out and the disturbing fashion to lament voter apathy – a concept I don’t believe in but do find offensive. It seems to me that decrying apathy is nothing more than a fine way for political elites to shift blame and chastise a preoccupied public for not sharing the same priorities. My suspicion was that most of the early work being done to engage citizens online, through e-assemblies and deliberative online commons was no panacea. Instead, I started thinking about trust – how it works, where it comes from and how it is prerequisite for confidence in a person, an organization, a system. Trust itself is a function of relationships. Relationships are best formed in person – when you can look a person in the eye, shake their hand, and get a sense of their character over the course of conversation or common work. And the more I thought about it the more surprised I was realize that constituency offices – these scruffy, scrappy offices that are well off the mainline political radar, are one of the very few pieces of fixed infrastructure we have in our democratic system for citizens to encounter their representative, and where a trust- yielding relationship might most easily be formed.

And as it turns out its the common table with a well-scoured coffee pot at the local office that is a key piece of this country’s democratic infrastructure.

The funny thing about constituency offices is that it was no sooner than they were set that government grew… and then front line offices were closed.

• Bureaucratic capture / Mr. Fixit
• Amanda K. / Satisfaction with problem solving

It’s people like Amanda that get me closest to thinking about where democracy needs to head – along this low road to democratic reform. If electoral systems are to political theorists what cathedrals and skyscrapers are to architects, then the triplicate form, the telephone query, and the public meeting are the truck and trade of the low road thinker. Their concern is the everyday experience of government and they understand that public service reform and democratic reform are flip sides of the same civic coin, because again, their chief interest is the citizen’s experience of the state. To the low road thinker, genuine engagement and perhaps the rekindling of a more animated relationship between citizens and their state can only be achieved through participatory experiences, not simply more accurately representative assemblies.

The low road thinker doesn’t define democracy as government by the people, but rather as a means for sharing and solving problems together. My concern remains that most of the mainline, high road democratic reforms won’t in fact strengthen democracy. Instead they strengthen parliament, and we need to be clear that the two are not synonymous. They strengthen representative government, and this itself is a different thing than democracy.

I want to go one, final and provocative step further and ask a closing question: Has Canada built its last parliament? Is that it? Is all that is left, merely the option to solemnize yesterday’s buildings and democratic design? To endure another hundred years of lenses trained on prime ministers’ footsteps dashing up stairs?

I rather doubt it. We have no reason to believe that the democratic revolution is anywhere near complete. It will require new institutions, new conventions, new democratic technologies and designs. Remind yourselves that someday everything you know will seem old-fashioned – every bit as unfair and unjust as everything else that’s comes before it. So stretch your minds, avoid yesterday’s debates, take a clear-eyed view of what we’ve got and remember it’s the means not the end. A greater democracy still eludes us and there’s much, much more still to be done.