Democracy, leadership conventions and the voting fallacy

Please chip in to support more articles like this. Support for as little as $5 per month!

Ontario Liberals hold their leadership convention this weekend at Maple Leaf Gardens -- a great choice of venue. The event belongs to a dying breed: brokered conventions. That means the wheeling, dealing and decision-making happen right there on the floor among delegates in real time. It runs counter to the trend toward more self-evidently democratic conventions, in which party members everywhere get to vote by mail or online -- the way the NDP chose Tom Mulcair last spring and federal Liberals will do so in April.

The Reform-Conservatives led the way on this. That clearly seems more democratic since all members can vote -- not just delegates, party bosses and insiders who are on the spot. Even U.S. parties, who used to have riotous brokered conventions -- one went 103 ballots -- abandoned them long ago. Yet there's an appeal to these past-their-due-date gatherings. I've always adored them. What is it?

Sheer nostalgia, like the locale? Weirdness and quirkiness -- people wearing funny hats covered in buttons? Trying to spot momentum as some switch sides and jump on the bandwagon? The sleazy, inevitable deal-making? Political drama that's practically Shakespearean, like Richard III's schemes? No, I'd say it's that these exclusive insider events somehow feel more democratic -- how can that be?

I think it's because people are actually talking, arguing, changing minds and votes based on what they hear and who makes sense -- to some extent anyway. I know we don't characterize democracy as talking, we picture it as voting, but that's what you could call the voting fallacy. It's not how democracy was in ancient Athens where all citizens (which excluded slaves and women) met, debated, heard each other out, new solutions emerged; that may not happen much this weekend but the model is right: people deliberating together rather than isolated individuals prissily casting a precious vote the way callers phone in to talk shows and bellow but rarely listen to others or go beyond making their pitch. Yes, I guess you could accuse me of being romantic and nostalgic.

But let me digress to a related case of the same mentality: the free speech wall that went up and came down swiftly at Carleton University this week, where a student dismantled it lest it incur some expressions of hate. I'm actually in favour of free speech for haters, racists etc., and not because I think speech does no harm. I think it can and does. But the damage done by "bad," vile or "wrong" ideas is a price worth paying for the benefits of getting many varieties of thought out there, and showing respect to every citizen.

What's usually missing though, from these eruptions over free speech, is the discussion component. It's as if the entire point is the right to vent, to post your opinion on a wall or comment page, like an exercise in catharsis or self-expression. It's the free speech equivalent of the voting fallacy. Why don't people focus more on engaging each other in the hope of advancing beyond the place they've already arrived? That should be the point of free speech in a democratic context: to reach agreements that build a sounder community. Take the classic case of prohibited speech: crying fire in a crowded theatre. What if there was time to discuss the cry, to point out there is or isn't a fire and agree on a plan of action? Since there isn't, it's OK to prohibit it. But in most cases there's time and space to have a conversation, what's lacking is the will or the habit. The mere vote or post absorb all the political oxygen.

And what about this weekend's convention: Isn't it another case of voting for representatives (delegates) who then get to do all the real interacting? Yes, with this difference. The people we elect to parliaments are cut out of the conversation too; as Tim Harper noted here, not a single elected member in Canada was at work this week. The discussions really occur only among top leaders and their coteries. At the Liberal convention, after the first obligatory ballot, the folks on the floor will get turned loose to their own devices. Any kind of democratic mayhem could conceivably break out.

This article was first published in the Toronto Star.

Photo: Sandra Pupatello/Flickr

Related Items

Thank you for reading this story…

More people are reading than ever and unlike many news organizations, we have never put up a paywall – at rabble we’ve always believed in making our reporting and analysis free to all, while striving to make it sustainable as well. Media isn’t free to produce. rabble’s total budget is likely less than what big corporate media spend on photocopying (we kid you not!) and we do not have any major foundation, sponsor or angel investor. Our main supporters are people and organizations -- like you. This is why we need your help. You are what keep us sustainable. has staked its existence on you. We live or die on community support -- your support! We get hundreds of thousands of visitors and we believe in them. We believe in you. We believe people will put in what they can for the greater good. We call that sustainable.

So what is the easy answer for us? Depend on a community of visitors who care passionately about media that amplifies the voices of people struggling for change and justice. It really is that simple. When the people who visit rabble care enough to contribute a bit then it works for everyone.

And so we’re asking you if you could make a donation, right now, to help us carry forward on our mission. Make a donation today.


We welcome your comments! embraces a pro-human rights, pro-feminist, anti-racist, queer-positive, anti-imperialist and pro-labour stance, and encourages discussions which develop progressive thought. Our full comment policy can be found here. Learn more about Disqus on and your privacy here. Please keep in mind:


  • Tell the truth and avoid rumours.
  • Add context and background.
  • Report typos and logical fallacies.
  • Be respectful.
  • Respect copyright - link to articles.
  • Stay focused. Bring in-depth commentary to our discussion forum, babble.


  • Use oppressive/offensive language.
  • Libel or defame.
  • Bully or troll.
  • Post spam.
  • Engage trolls. Flag suspect activity instead.