The U.S. is the so-called beacon of democracy. Yet the two political extremes have become so tenaciously embraced in a dance of mutually assured self-destruction that their toxic fumes now poison even the most impartial and non-partisan.
Democracy was never a polite process – it’s founded on the adversarial contest of competing views, preferential biases and the repetitive change of leadership.
Whether parliamentary or presidential systems, democracy is founded on contest, and establishing legitimacy and trust. Leaders know they will be challenged, their policies and values contested, and every decision disputed. And every elected leader knows their office is temporary and only safe while the electorate wills it so.
Despite the spectacle of campaigns and elections, democracy is intended to reflect a responsiveness to the public’s wishes. It’s meant to ensure the equality of every citizen to participate, to have preferences transformed in the face of a better argument, to set aside ideological obstinance for the pursuit of the better alternative.
This is deliberative democracy. The essential political act of giving, weighing, acceptance or rejection of reasons is public, as opposed to the purely private act of voting. Participants must meet a set of conditions that minimally include communicative competence, reciprocity and equality.
Unfortunately, none of this rings true today.
- The opportunities for interpersonal reasoning have been severed by ideologies.
- The procedural structures have been delegitimized by claims of voter fraud and foreign influence.
- Opinions are imposed by violent confrontations and protests.
- Communicative competence is reduced to extreme rhetoric.
- Reciprocity is denied by the veto of majorities.
- Equality is only extended as far as the kick of the mule or the length of the elephant’s trunk.
The square ring of adversarial politics was held together by common decency, procedural justice, structural constraints and cloak of office. Today’s politics are fought in the octagon: it’s an ultimate fight, with fewer rules, extreme tolerance for damage, and the spectacle of a bare-knuckled caged combat.
It has become difficult to discern spin from fact and entertainment from governance. The reality show that has become American politics has damaged much more than that nation’s politics. It has damaged a world vision, a system fought for in opposition to fascism, communism and tyranny.
The allies who depended on American ideals and strength have been better able to maintain the commitment and respect for adversarial etiquette. Canada, Australia and New Zealand, and several European nations, haven’t been exempt from political scandals. Yet they’ve been able to maintain the purpose of governance: for the care of their citizens, through collaboration.
It’s inevitable that Canadians are influenced by the spectacle south of the border. It’s saddening that an American dies every minute as a result of COVID-19; that federal, state and local leaders appear more concerned with demonstration of political ideologies than saving lives; and worse that citizens would rather become infected or cause the infection of others than wear a facial covering or socially distance to make a point about their rights.
It’s almost unbelievable that statements about personal rights have become more important than any obligation to general societal good, even at the prospect of the loss of tens of thousand of lives of fellow citizens.
Perhaps it’s not democracy that has been corrupted, nor the democratic process, but rather the electorate itself. But what came first, the egg or the chicken?
It may be easy to be smug given Canadian privilege, social advantage and the relatively civility of our politics. But we should be forewarned of the consequences of the political manipulation of the electorate.
Political spin is expedient and gets parties elected, but it consumes trust and respect, which are both perishable. Trust and respect can only be violated or abused so far before they’re no longer available.
Societies like ours have invested heavily to achieve an educated and informed electorate. This is perhaps the most valuable dividend of a just and egalitarian society.
Yet today’s politics have become dangerously erosive, descending from campaigning to spin, from spin to propaganda, and from propaganda to ideological manipulation. This descent to manipulation cares not for the damage to the institutions of oversight, pedagogy, science or reason.
It’s time that political leaders understand, and are held accountable, for the psychological abuse of citizens, and the damage to the societal assets of intellectual, ethical and moral potential.
Our faith in social justice and good governance shouldn’t be damaged, manipulated, made cynical, and abused by fake news, alternative truths and spin. These are all the tools of psychological manipulation.
Those in power have a responsibility to advance and protect what civilization has achieved through centuries: education, intellectual development, science and reason.
Self-interested politicians shouldn’t be allowed to use the machinery of democracy or governance to diminish these accomplishments for the sake of partisan perspectives. That’s just too high a price to pay.
Anil Anand is a research associate with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy.