A whole lot of 'kvetching' going on

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There's a whole lot of hand-wringing -- or, to use a technical poli-sci term, kvetching -- going on about the "broken" state of democracy, as CNN calls it. You see it in the United States, where health-care reform is mired in bipartisan name-calling, and in Canada, where Stephen Harper now prorogues Parliament whenever he doesn't want to deal with something. People howl but to no effect; that's why they say it's broken.

My take on this is that the system has not broken down. It was built broken. It was designed that way. It's functioning according to the original plan. Democracy was never the intention. Thwarting democracy was.

The U.S. founding fathers were clear in The Federalist Papers about their purpose in the Constitution. It was to block "faction," by which they meant the will of the majority, through electing "representatives" rather than direct participation, à la New England town halls. "Democracies have ever been found incompatible with ... the rights of property," wrote James Madison. Garry Wills says the founders' goal was to prevent "not faction, but action," which is exactly what we see there now: stalemate or, at most, tiny, irritating, frustrating, nearly pointless action on health care.

The British parliamentary tradition, which we inherited, resisted 19th-century Chartist demands for universal suffrage, based on similar fears that the elites would lose out, until they realized, to their surprise and delight, that it wouldn't happen after all due to the clever machinations of party politics -- which usually manage to subvert the real impulses of voters.

Occasionally, a genuine democratic impulse expresses itself in the early phase of the system: elections, as in the victory of Barack Obama. But then the fail-safe parts kick in, through Congress or Parliament, and nothing much gets done. The result is, you can elect someone different, but they can't do anything different. The system isn't malfunctioning, it's working perfectly.

Even kvetching has a role. In the United States, they vent (English for kvetch) at "tea parties." In Canada, we vent online about prorogation. People vent on talk radio. Venting may be democratic, but it's not political because it's an individual thing. Politics is not about everyone getting on their own private megaphone, it's about collective consideration and choices. It's like what can happen when a family gathers to discuss options for a very ill member. People don't vent, and they don't vote on each other's ideas. They deliberate and, with luck, a decision emerges. It's nobody's victory, and they may not even know who, if anyone, first proposed it. Democracy could be like that.

We had one such moment: the Charlottetown referendum of 1992. For months, our elites met and concocted an "accord" they all agreed to: parties, governments, business, labour, media, no dissenters, all in. Then they made the mistake of letting the population vote on it, something not in the formal political system anywhere. For weeks, ordinary people talked to one another about it, then massively rejected it. The procedure has not been repeated and probably won't be. More pointedly: It's never mentioned; it's been flushed down the efficiently run official memory hole. Maybe folks still whisper it around campfires: Psst. Charlottetown. Pass it on.

Uh-oh, I think I'm kvetching, too. It's so comfy. But the situation is daunting. The privileged use the reps and parties they installed back at The Creation to engineer ever more power (these days, via tax breaks, budget cuts, deregulation etc.), further increasing their leverage and gaining more resources with which to pressure reps and parties not to alter the system in ways that could jeopardize their power. It's not that nothing can ever change; but the longer it goes on going on, the harder any changing becomes.

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