Democracy in trouble: Time to wake up

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I hate to be grim, but there's this gnawing question in the air: Is democracy in trouble? If so, what does it mean? In both Canada and the U.S., what's transpiring is astonishing.

In Canada, Stephen Harper unilaterally shuts down Parliament with an astounding rationale: Parliament is just a bother, an impediment to doing real work, and people don't care if it's shut down.

You'll remember that this is the language used by generalissimos plotting coups: Democracy doesn't work -- it's just a bunch of squabbling factions, scheming intellectuals and protesting students -- so authoritarian measures are needed to break the logjam and get things done.

Even more disturbing is the question ravening above it all: Is Harper right in his calculation? Will the outpouring of outrage and protest waver after a few distractions and photo-ops, leaving Harper to rise again in the polls after the Olympics and the budget, emboldened to go for another power grab?

In the U.S., the picture is even more mind-boggling. Despite the unprecedented havoc wreaked by the Bush-Cheney Republicans -- two lost wars, a near-depression, unprecedented deficits, the constitution and due process grievously undermined, the hurricane Katrina bungle, America's reputation as a world leader and the ultimate can-do nation badly bruised -- and despite being decisively routed in the last presidential election, the dregs of this party are still having their way.

As in Canada, where the Conservative party is no longer the Conservative party but the barely disguised derivative of a right-wing fundamentalism, so the U.S. Republicans are light years away from the party of Lincoln and Eisenhower ("I despise those who go to the gutter on either the right or the left and hurl rocks at those in the centre").

With Sarah Palin supplying the sex appeal and Fox News and Rush Limbaugh the barking, the Republicans are now a gutter party in which the radicals are cowing the rest. Thus, no moderate Republican senator, congressman or state governor dare break fundamentalist orthodoxy and indulge in the "bi-partisanship" so wished for by President Barack Obama without being the target of an internal kneecapping.

So there's gridlock. The effect, if it stays this way, is democracy in crisis where nothing gets done and eventually something cracks -- and not for the better. The ultimate purpose of Republican obstruction, in case you're wondering, is mainly to serve the ends of those financing it all, including those anti-tax "tea parties" -- big business, in which the banks have three times as many lobbyists on Capitol Hill as there are congressmen, not to mention Big Pharma, Big Oil, Big Health Insurance (the stock market zoomed up when the Republicans won the Massachusetts senate seat, on the assumption health reform was dead), and so on. It's crass and bare-knuckle.

Meanwhile, like the Liberals in Canada, Obama takes the high road, ignores the snipers, and assumes that elevated oratory and civilized debate will win the day. Will it? Or have the disruptive forces shifted the venue of political action permanently to the gutter where they have a clear advantage?

Back in Canada, here's another unnerving thought. It's not just because of Stephen Harper. Anti-democratic concentration of power in the prime minister's office has been increasing since Pierre Trudeau. We are now, apparently, the most undemocratic of the British-derived parliamentary systems.

Is there a deeper "structural" dynamic of democratic disintegration at work beyond Harper's machinations? And is this greater disintegration in part because of our proximity to the U.S.? After all, the Harper government draws its inspiration, if you can call it that, from the Bush Republicans, having borrowed some of their electoral operatives and tactics, and still cultivates those contacts.

Are we down to desperate measures in our democratic life? Can Harper be made to pay the ultimate price for shutting down Parliament and other low tactics, and the Liberals and NDP actually manage to restore democratic principle (and just getting rid of Harper won't, in itself, do the trick)? Meanwhile, will a few brave Republican souls defy the party warlords and give Obama the votes he needs to get some things done?

But even if all this happens, properly functioning democratic government shouldn't have to depend on close-shaves and last-minute rescues.

Ralph Surette is a veteran freelance journalist living in Yarmouth County.

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