How the right knocks over democratic building blocks

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Welcome to rabble.ca's extended series on the Canadian left -- Reinventing democracy, reclaiming the commons: A progressive dialogue on the future of Canada -- a look at where it stands after the 2011 federal election, and what the future can hold. The series will run in this, rabble.ca's 10th year, and is curated by journalist Murray Dobbin.

We are living in a moment of wrenching disconnect between the severity and complexity of the challenges that we face as a society, and the apparent inability of our institutions to respond to these challenges. Our society is becoming less equal, our prosperity is becoming less secure, and our economy is ripping at the fabric of nature. Yet, while a majority of Canadians still hold progressive values, and while many conservatives care deeply about these issues, we are experiencing a creeping erosion of our ability to achieve progress through our democracy.

While it is too early to tell for sure, I expect that the new Harper government will continue its strategy of slowly dismantling the post-war consensus that established a powerful role for government in creating common goods, from secure pensions to universal health care and an ever-more educated population. The essence of the strategy is to publicly attack government while gradually damaging its ability to contribute to society and expanding the role of the private sector. This strategy contrasts with the "shock doctrine" identified by Naomi Klein in her book of that title, a strategy to use public confusion during crises to ram through free-market policies, and it reflects Prime Minister Stephen Harper's desire to move the Canadian political centre to the right and make his party the "natural governing party" of Canada.

Like the shock doctrine, the creeping erosion strategy was first implemented by the right-wing governments that rose to power in the 1980s. It is a powerful approach because it creates the conditions for further rightward shifts. For example, these governments repeatedly created massive public deficits by cutting taxes while raising security spending, and then they used these manufactured deficits to justify cuts to social programs. The Harper government's agenda of tax cuts, spending on fighter jets and prisons, and subsequent "we have no choice" cuts to social spending is a standard example of this tactic. 

This creeping erosion undermines our belief that we can and should work together through our democracy to achieve progress. Again, the strategy is powerful because it continually creates the conditions that reinforce its own arguments by making the problems it identifies even worse. When the Harper government is secretive, authoritarian or incompetent it is also re-enforcing its political agenda to persuade Canadians that government cannot be trusted and that it is not the answer to our shared challenges. Similarly, policies that expose Canadians to greater economic insecurity, from trade deals to deregulation and union busting, also make Canadians more afraid of change, and therefore more resistant to government interventions in the economy that are designed to reduce inequality or protect the environment.

The upshot is a decline in our trust in our institutions, and in our society. When people believe that government is dominated by self-interested elites, or that their neighbours will find a way to cheat the system, then they are far more likely to oppose collective approaches to problems that involve any short-term cost or uncertainty. This decline in public and social trust is not just a consequence of political strategy, it is highly connected to the longer term decline in "social capital," identified by the likes of Robert Putnam in Bowling Alone, but the creeping erosion strategy is designed to cynically leverage this decline for political power.

To counter this strategy we must inspire people to work together for progress through democracy, instead of retreating into their private lives.

On the one hand, this means establishing a narrative for change that transcends single-issue demands on government by talking explicitly about the role of government in improving people's lives.

On the other hand, we need to go beyond treating democracy as an end unto itself. While abuses of government power and a broken electoral system are wrong, they do not motivate people who no longer view government as a place where they should invest some of their hopes for a better life. Instead, we need to link democratic process with outcomes that people care deeply about. Democracy is not just an abstract ideal, democracy is a practice whose application has given us the programs that Canadians still strongly support because they express their values and make their lives better.

Ultimately, we need to combine our advocacy on issues with advocacy about the process of government decision-making about those issues. In recent years there has been an explosion of interest and innovation in more participatory processes for government decision-making. These processes take advantage of the skilled facilitation of dialogue between experts and diverse citizens through online and face-to-face engagement. These processes can build trust. They can build bridges between progressives and conservatives. They can generate the new ideas, relationships and support that are necessary to tackle the major challenges that we face together. To revitalize the role of government as a force for the common good, we have to make government more open, inclusive and connected to people.

Of course, in the near term, activists and advocacy organizations are going to be more focused on resisting the most destructive elements of the Harper's governments agenda. In this context, we have the opportunity to inspire people about the potential for progress through democracy. We need to experiment with new ways of embodying democratic practices within our own organizations. We know that when people feel a genuine sense of engagement and ownership over the campaigns and organizations that they participate in, they will give far more of their time, energy, money and creativity to the cause. We also know that practical democracy is challenging, and that we must be easy on ourselves as we experiment with new methods and make mistakes.

As creeping erosion diminishes our experience of progress through democracy, organizers need to step up their practice to provide it. This is particularly true for younger Canadians who have never had this positive experience. So many people deeply desire to be part of something bigger than themselves. It is up to us to create the conditions in which more and more Canadians get to live that experience.

Jamie Biggar is the executive director of leadnow.ca, an independent advocacy organization that has just been launched to bring generations of Canadians together to achieve progress through democracy.

To link other stories from Reinventing democracy, reclaiming the commons: A progressive dialogue on the future of Canada -- please click here.

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