What ships are for
Rethinking democracy in Canada
“A ship is safe in harbour, but that’s not what ships are for.”
- John A. Shedd
We do democracy safely in Canada. No risks, no funny business. We don’t rock the ship. In fact, we don’t usually even take it out of the harbour. John Shedd’s line about ships in the harbour is meant to inspire risk-taking and a longing for adventure. The claim is simple: we can protect ourselves from risk and the danger inherent in leaving the harbour of our comfort, but that’s not living – that’s not what life is for.
In an advanced, industrial, liberal-democracy, we spend most of our democratic time in the harbour. Every several years we vote at the federal, provincial, or municipal level. If we become really passionate about something we might write a letter to an editor or to our member of parliament – but probably not. Few people work for interest groups or political parties. A couple of times each century we’re asked to vote in a referendum on some important question – which we do, but only because it’s really, really important, and it’s only once or twice per lifetime.
All of this is safe democracy. But that’s not what democracy is for. Canadian political theorist C.B. Macpherson argued in his book The Real World of Democracy that liberal-democracies (like Canada or the United States) were more liberal than democratic. We’re liberal because we’re concerned with our rights and economic life; to be democratic is to partake in collective self-rule. We’re really good at being liberal and far less good at being democratic.
The upcoming federal election is a great occasion for rethinking the balance between our liberal and democratic capacities and concerns. During an election the campaign dominates the news, Canadians start talking about “politics,” and even tune into things like the leaders’ debates. Radio programs asks “regular” citizens what they think and, all of a sudden, everyone is doing democracy. But observing citizen behaviour during an election is kind of like watching someone hit a golf ball for the first time: the attempt is dramatic, energetic, and unbridled, but – if the person is even able to hit the ball – the result is usually a mess.
Elections reveal our democratic incapacity by bringing to light how little we engage during the periods between elections and how poorly we engage once an election is called. To return to Shedd’s metaphor: election campaigns are a time when we take the boat out of the harbour, but we sink it because we have no idea how to sail. While citizens may know what they like and dislike, popular commentary tends to focus on concerns relevant to liberal capacities and imperatives – tax cuts and spending, for instance. When so-called “big questions” are asked, our frame of reference becomes parochial and insular – we focus on ourselves and on the moment.
Democracy, done well, demands more. Doing democracy properly means learning how to sail. This requires regular practice. Practice assumes the opportunity to acquire and develop skills. This means overcoming the idea of “democracy-as-voting,” and instituting public space for open, constructive, reciprocal exchanges about how we want to and ought to live together today and tomorrow. This requires coming out of our homes and entering into the public sphere in order to engage with other citizens. This takes time, effort, and puts the citizen at the helm, which is risky. But this is what democracy is meant to be: risky. We might conclude, however, that Canadians just do democracy differently. We vote and we have rights; if we don’t like what we see or what is done to us, we change our votes and assert our rights. That’s fine, but let’s not call this democracy.
What might an alternative democratic order look like? There are a myriad of options and potential configurations for an order that starts to balance the scales between our liberal and democratic capacities and outlets.
A balanced liberal-democracy starts with electoral reform, so that more voices could achieve effective representation in parliaments and legislatures across the country. This new order would also teach children how to think about and engage in political activity – in other words, it would educate citizens. These educated citizens could then be provided with an outlet for their political ideas, concerns, desires, and preferences. This would require regular public forums and consultations. It would also require that we provide citizens with the time and resources needed to take part. The government would have to listen and respond, which calls for government and state transparency at a much deeper level than we currently have. All of that would be a start.
What happens when you open democracy’s Pandora’s box? What would people say? What would they demand and how would the state respond? What about the radicals? Wouldn’t this breed confrontation and conflict?
Sure, maybe. Deep and meaningful democratic reform hasn’t really happened anywhere in a democracy like ours. We could, of course, work to build more engaged, open, and respectful citizens; and we could fail. However, potential failure should not keep us from pursuing the changes we need to improve the inclusivess, transparency, and responsiveness of our democracy.
On the occasion of the federal election in May, it’s worth calling into question what we want our democratic institutions to look like, while accepting that any change will be difficult and risky. We can do this by choosing candidates who take democratic reform seriously or, if we are unable to find such candidates, by demanding that democratic renewal be placed on the agenda. Or we could keep our democracy in the harbor, keep it calm, docile, predictable, and liberal – but that’s not what democracy is for.
|David Moscrop is a co-founder of Thought Out Loud. He lives in Vancouver, British Columbia where he is a PhD student in political science at the University of British Columbia and a part-time freelance writer.|