Direct Democracy: Not a Utopian Fantasy but an Inevitable Necessity

Thursday, October 18, 2007


Written by Tristan Dineen

“The English think they are free. They are free only during the election of members of parliament.”
  • Jean-Jacques Rousseau

The 18th century French philosopher, Jean Jacques Rousseau once remarked that Englishmen (whose parliamentary political system we have adopted) were only free once every several years when they voted while remaining servants and slaves the rest of the time. Given the troubling situation currently facing democracy in Ontario, Canada and around the world, these words from over two hundred years ago gain a new and frightening relevance.

Standing in line waiting to vote last Wednesday in the provincial elections, I couldn’t help being conscious of the uninspired blandness of it all. There was no emotion, no enthusiasm, and, really, not too much life for that matter. People simply filed in, went through the registration procedure, marked down the “X” on the ballot, put it in the box and left. Despite the continual fanfare of pro-democracy pundits the world over that such a simple act is an act of heroism, I certainly was not detecting any of that “heroism” in the room that night. In fact, with regard to all the noise about “raising your voice” and “not letting others speak for you” in pre-election advertising encouraging people to go out and vote – that night no one said a word and the X’s on the ballots were as silent as a grave.

Viewing the statistics posted after the election was more than a little depressing. Almost half of the electorate did not bother to vote in spite of the millions spent on advertising encouraging them to do so. The victorious Liberals taking 71 seats while losing 4.5% of the popular vote. MMP, derided as being too complex from the beginning, just died: not even coming close to the (rather unrealistic) threshold of 60% needed for ratification with a lot of people not even coming close to understanding it and how it was supposed to work. Finally, and most depressing, the Liberals got 42% of the popular vote which means they represent just under half of the people who voted and none of those who didn’t. This means that as of now something like just over a quarter of Ontario residents are actually represented by the governing party and apparently voters didn’t really care too much because MMP crashed and burned. For all my faith in the public good I am beginning to see why a lot of people just don’t bother. It’s the same two parties (Liberals and Conservatives have had a total lock on federal and, in most instances, on provincial politics as well since Canada was founded), the same system, the same sort of people with similar promises made every time and all the advertising in the world won’t cause people to vote for someone they don’t have confidence in for the sake of voting (and the ID requirements in order to vote didn’t help either). Regardless of how many “I care, I vote,” pins you put out there it doesn’t change the nature of the regime. And, I can’t help thinking, that in a system where the governing party can win a landslide victory with the support of only a quarter of the population, the will of the people really doesn’t matter too much and considering that the voter turnout in this election was the worst in about fifty years, not too many of the people care either.

We live in a scientific and supposedly very rational age, but this does not mean that we can neglect the emotional component of politics and simply urge people to go out and vote for an uninspiring leader in an uninspiring political system for the sake of voting. It is increasingly evident that peoples’ hearts are just not in the political process in this country. True, just because a leader is awe-inspiring does not necessarily make their society awe-inspiring, but awe-inspiring leadership is necessary if society is to become truly great because their example inspires people to do great things. We must not discount the visionary element of politics. Without faith in a higher ideal a society will stagnate and its cohesion will degenerate resulting in a widespread lack of trust and a breakdown in society’s institutions and the relationships that bind them together. A sound and effective vision is essential to the health and wellbeing of human society and we must never forget that.

The human spirit is the mainstay of politics and while reason and rationality mediates it cannot rule without the human soul to invigorate it and hence culture and the emotional bonds and traditions binding human beings together will always be of crucial importance. The health or illness of society is less determined by economic rationale than by its political culture and condition. The low voter turnout in the last election, sadly, is part of a greater trend in Western democracies across the world where lower turnouts are increasingly the norm and it can only be called a crisis of faith. People simply a not emotionally involved in the process; participation seems almost mechanical, there isn’t a lot of enthusiasm and democracy is generally taken for granted as people focus on economic gain and career issues. Essentially they are Rousseau’s Englishmen; willing to be slaves to their pocketbook while only expressing freedom once every four years (if at all). Compare this with the situation in the developing world where patronage, corruption and coercion are very much a factor in electoral politics and where it tends to be rather hard to tell whether someone is legitimately voting for someone because they like their platform or because a thug with a gun told them to or because they were bribed with money or goods for their continued political support. While it is overwhelmingly accepted as the only legitimate form of government in theory, practically speaking, democracy worldwide is not in good shape.

Political suffrage has generally been a reward for continued political subservience and that is why the elite have embraced parliamentary democracy the world-over. What do you do when workers cause trouble? You give them the vote. What do you do when women cause trouble? You give them the vote. What do you do when ethnic minorities cause trouble? You give them the vote. Why, because there really is no better way to legitimize your own actions and shut up detractors. Effectively it allows them (the entrenched political elite – in our case Liberals and Conservatives) to rule generally with unquestioned legitimacy (they were elected after all) except for once every four years when they must proceed to either promise the world to their constituents or terrify them by blackening the image of their opponents. Either way the people are not free, nor is their voice truly heard in the corridors of power. Lower voter turnouts reflect in part, I believe, an increasing awareness that an X marked on a piece of paper does not constitute a person’s voice and that voting in this way once every four years does not define the concept of political freedom. Essentially we get one taste of democracy on one day every four years while remaining, in Alexis de Toqueville’s words, economically “industrious sheep” the rest of the time. We simply do not feel politically empowered.

Evidently we are facing a political crisis of faith and it is something we cannot afford to ignore – we not only need to restore peoples’ confidence but also their enthusiasm and it certainly does not look like this is going to happen under the present system. This brings me to the idea of direct democracy; the direct participation of the people in the affairs of government without reliance on elected intermediaries, and this is certainly not a new or untested concept. Without the direct participation of the people the word "democracy" loses its meaning and its significance. It is clear that in order to achieve such participation the political party must be abolished (it simply doesn’t reflect the voice of the people) as the vehicle for democracy and the community itself must form the basis of democratic governance. This makes the strengthening of local municipalities of crucial importance in order that the community may elect representatives of the people as opposed to representatives of a given political party. The non-partisan selection of great citizens to serve in the local processes of government is what, to a great extent, made the great civilizations of the Greeks and Romans so strong and united. Individual participation combined with communal solidarity is what must once again be brought to the fore if the essence of democracy is to be captured and freed from the shackles of parliaments and congresses. The empowerment of the locality and its significant autonomy require a strong sense of community involvement and civic duty - The ability of citizens to play a direct role in the running of the locality in which they live. This is something that must be emphasized; indeed it may be democracy’s saving grace.

Elected leaders at the local level must meet with the people, there must be open debate over local affairs and key decisions must be taken to the people who will be affected by the decision's outcome. The public must participate and participate directly at the local level, they must feel connected and that their will is being heard by those who represent them. This is essential otherwise there is a distinct possibility that democracy will degrade and die out of sheer apathy. People must be able to meet together with their local officials at a specific location and participate in the process of decision-making. This means that a meeting hall must be at the centre of each locality where all adult citizens who desire to participate politically may attend. In order for direct democracy to be truly effective in the larger cities they may have to be sub-divided into smaller units that will then work together in conjunction once their leadership committees have been elected. In all cases a real connection must be made between the citizens and their leaders.

Too often the MPs and Congressmen of the world are divorced from the populace – many of them “parachuted” in to regions completely unfamiliar to them based on the wishes of their political party – and it is essential that the people are capable of truly connecting with their democratically elected leaders. What better way to do this than to meet together in a community setting and directly choose their leaders. What better way of immersing the citizen in the political process so that they feel they have a stake in it and therefore have an incentive to actually care about politics!

The ballot represents a wall erected between the voter and his or her representatives. Direct democracy, real and direct participation in the affairs of governance, eliminates this alienation. The true voice of the citizen must be heard and expressed; for the citizen is not simply an X on a slip of paper. People are delusional if they think that they can call themselves real citizens simply by voting and placing a piece of paper in a box every four years. Political and civic participation must be an ongoing and continual process for it to be properly called active citizenship. Those who fear such an active citizenship and who make claims that it would lead to anarchy are deluding themselves considering the strength of the police and law enforcement in general in modern society and true believers in civic duty and the public good are hardly likely to riot and trash their own cities they have worked to build just because their chosen candidate didn’t make the cut. Citizens with a stake in the overall wellbeing of society will head out into the streets with violent intentions only when that society is truly under threat – as the Athenians did when they overthrew the oligarchy ruling over them and as the Romans did when they overthrew their monarchy. Hardly anarchists, these were concerned citizens facing up to regimes that threatened the public good.

Freedom has both an individual and a communal aspect and therefore participation and involvement in civic affairs is an essential characteristic of the free and dignified individual who must not only perfect themselves but also do their duty to society. Being social beings we can only find perfection in a communal setting among our fellow humans and this is a crucial point to remember when analyzing the various aspects of society throughout the world. Democracy should be for everyone and not defined by special interest groups (which political parties are for all intents and purposes). People do not vote for the sake of voting but because they believe in the candidates and in the political process they represent and if they do not believe they will not vote. The public has to solve this problem and the only way to solve it is through full engagement, not from special interest groups, not from community groups, not from political parties, but from everyone. Fundamentally we must think and act like citizens, not consumers. Only then will we have a society and a political system we can be proud of; only then will democracy, real democracy be secure.

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  1. Posted by: Tess on Oct 27, 2007 @ 10:27pm

    Hi there,

    One great place to cut your teeth as an active citizen at several levels is as part of a co-op. Check out the Co-operative Housing Federation of Canada. Could be good for your references too!

    Mrs. Why? on Squidoo.com

  2. Posted by: on Oct 29, 2007 @ 12:15pm

    This is by far and away the most observant political commentary I have read in a University publication since coming to Guelph. Thank you Tristan for reminding me there are others who are aware of the democratic deficiencies in Western societies. I have often argued with others, to no avail, that it is not voter apathy that keeps voter turnout low, but the system itself. Western democratic structure does not allow for direct participation of citizens by design. Current voting systems are merely a tool to subjugate the masses to four year bouts of party rule, as you so clearly pointed out.
    I would love to discuss this further. If you are willing, how shall I contact you?
    P.S. For any who found this article interesting or doubt the conclusions of the author, I suggest the following readings: J.J. Rousseau and Alexis de Toqueville as mentioned in this article, and Noam Chomsky; all should be required reading for those interested in the nature of political structures in my humble opinion.

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