Has Centralization of Power to the PMO Put Canadian Democracy on Life Support?

Don Lenihan has a must-read column up today, on how centralization of power to the Prime Minister’s office over the past several decades has atrophied the connection Canadians — especially youth — had with our government, and what he believes this could mean for Canada’s system of democracy:

In the early 1970s, the Trudeau government adopted a new generation of governance tools to make it more effective in the modern-day world. The approach involved rigorous new management practices, and the formation of complex plans — “strategies” — which the prime minister would push forward, using the power of his office.

What wasn’t clear at the time was that execution of these strategies also called for more Executive control over the system. As this came to light, it set in motion a decades-long centralizing trend during which succesive PMOs clawed ever more power away from Parliament.

While opposition parties condemned Trudeau, Mulroney, Chretien and Harper for weakening democracy by weakening Parliament, these leaders saw increasing centralization as the unavoidable cost of getting things done. And, all things being equal, perhaps they were right.

Unfortunately, the story doesn’t end there. Indeed, a whole new chapter may be opening. There is growing evidence of a ripple effect that is now reaching other parts of the body politic. If so, centralization may be having a far more profound impact on our system of government than anyone realized.

Falling voter turnout, especially among youth, is a striking example. Elections give citizens a legitimate and orderly way to challenge and change governments. Without them, our democracy would quickly revert to some form of authoritarian rule.

So why don’t young people vote? In particular, why don’t the ones who are protesting tuition hikes in Quebec, or those in the Occupy movement, take their concerns to the ballot box? Don’t they realize that their protests are calling into question the legitimacy of our democratically elected governments?

Yes, they realize this. That is exactly the point. They are taking to the streets because they don’t believe the political system works. They don’t believe it creates real accountability. Once elected, they think a government is essentially free to do what it wants, so they see no point in voting.

If this were just uninformed prattle, it would be annoying, but we would find ways to cope with it. Unfortunately, young people are making a serious point and the evidence for it is mounting.

Take Bill C-38. When replying to charges that it was a Trojan horse, the Harper government argued that it had to get these measures passed quickly to support the economic recovery. In other words, democracy was deemed less important than effective governance.

Okay, but where does this end? We learned a long time ago that, in a contest between democracy and effectiveness, nine times out of ten democracy will lose. Eventually, people will stop trusting the government at all.

Sound familiar? If not, let me spell it out.

It is one thing for opposition parties to accuse the government of being undemocratic. It is another when people take to the streets to do so. It is profoundly disturbing when a whole generation no longer sees a point in voting–or at least it should be.

The lesson here is simple: too much centralization undermines legitimacy. The more scope a government thinks it has to act unilaterally in the name of effectiveness, the less legitimacy those actions will have.

[D]emocracy was deemed less important than effective governance.” Think about that as the cult of libertarianism continues to court a new generation that is both frustrated with status quo politics and has been well-conditioned to respond positively to free-market fundamentalist boilerplate.

Features and bugs, redux.

x-posted at The Agonist

Greatly Exaggerated Rumours, Jack Layton Edition

by matttbastard

Michael Valpy addresses the current conventional wisdom that without Jack Layton, the NDP — and Canada’s left — is now doomed, doomed, DOOMED!

Ahem. Sorry ’bout that. Now, where were we?

Oh! Right.

Valpy:

When polls from the past federal election are closely analyzed, what shows up is that Mr. Harper’s Conservatives were elected by a lot of old people — people over the age of 45 whose electoral participation rate is between 60 and 80 per cent, climbing higher as they climb to meet their Maker. People under the age of 45 were powerfully anti-Conservative but at best only about 40 per cent of them voted. Andif they had voted in the same proportion as the over-45s, there would not have been a Conservative majority; there probably wouldn’t have been a Conservative minority. What likely we might have got is an NDP-led coalition.

So then let’s suppose that half, at least half, of the electorate are powerfully opposed to Mr. Harper’s neo-liberalism, which is what the polls suggest. Let’s suppose they’re more in tune with Canada’s historic Red Toryism, the political culture that led to, in the words of philosopher George Grant (Michael Ignatieff’s uncle, although Mr. Ignatieff didn’t like his thinking) “a country which had a strong sense of the common good … that was possible under the individualism of the capitalist dream.” We certainly know this is the case in Quebec. We certainly know that younger Canadians, and even a significant chunk of older Canadians, have a strong sense of the common good and don’t like the contemporary conservative ideology of the individual.

Without Mr. Layton — without Jack, le bon Jack — it does not mean Canadians opposed to Mr. Harper’s neo-liberalism are simply going to go elsewhere or become less engaged with their democracy. It doesn’t mean Quebeckers are going to abandon their fling with the NDP.

First, there is a culture war in Canada; it’s not going to disappear with Mr. Layton’s death. Second, as some of the most astute commentators of Quebec politics have pointed out, Quebeckers don’t take frivolous bon-bon steps in their politics. Their engagement with the NDP is more than a celebrity fling with Jack; it’s a new, sophisticated engagement with Canada.

Thus Mr. Layton can accurately be seen as the catalyst, not the seducer, both of Quebec’s re-engagement with the country and of a debate within the whole country about its political values.

As they say, read the whole damn thing. Valpy goes on to tackle Blatch’s “talented gracelessness” — and the Canadian public’s instant, somewhat overwhelming mythologizing of Layton —  with keen insight.

h/t Stephen Wicary

Red Red Meat (Or, Why Are Democrats Afraid of Getting Their Hands Bloody?)

by matttbastard

Following a long summer recess spent navigating heavily astro-turfed town halls and trying to bring yappy Blue Dogs to heel, President Obama finds himself  barely clinging to a piss-poor public option on health insurance (after preemptively tossing single-payer aside) and his once-formidible public approval rating.  More ominously, the GOP (and its once seemingly irrevelvant wingnut media proxies) has regained control of the malleable DC media narrative, with usefully idiotic outlets like Politico dutifully playing stenographer while chronicling the (as-yet-unfulfilled) Republican ascendancy. With what Michael Tomasky calls “a high-stakes address” on health care reform from Obama only hours away, one must reflect on why, after decisively winning what many at the time called a ‘transformative’ general election, the Democratic Party is now fighting for its political life.

Conventional beltway wisdom on how to survive as a mainstream political entity is as follows: Appeal to the centre, courting noble independents and so-called ‘moderates'; electoral success hinges on support from the unaligned mushy middle.

Sounds exactly like what the old white blowhards on Hardball are constantly yammering on about, right?

Well, don’t buy it.

In a TNR piece published in 2006, Thomas B. Edsall debunked the myth of the centrist swing voter as nonpartisan kingmaker, noting that most so-called independents are actually rather, well, partisan:

In late 2000, even as the result of the presidential election was still being contested in court, George W. Bush’s chief pollster Matt Dowd was writing a memo for Rove that would reach a surprising conclusion. Based on a detailed examination of poll data from the previous two decades, Dowd’s memo argued that the percentage of swing voters had shrunk to a tiny fraction of the electorate. Most self-described “independent” voters “are independent in name only,” Dowd told me in an interview describing his memo. “Seventy-five percent of independents vote straight ticket” for one party or the other. Once such independents are reclassified as Democrats or Republicans, a key trend emerges: Between 1980 and 2000, the percentage of true swing voters fell from a very substantial 24 percent of the electorate to just 6 percent. In other words, the center was literally disappearing. Which meant that, instead of having every incentive to govern as “a uniter, not a divider,” Bush now had every reason to govern via polarization. This ran counter to Rove’s previous thinking. In 2000, he had dismissed the tactic of running on divisive issues like patriotism, crime, and welfare as “an old paradigm.” And Bush had followed his advice by explicitly reaching out to the center-left. For instance, during the campaign, he held a press conference with a dozen gay Republicans and sharply criticized the GOP Congress for a plan to save money by slowing distribution of tax credits for the working poor. But Dowd’s memo changed all that.

Republicans know that investing in polarization, not aisle-crossing bipartisan capitulation, pays dividends  — it’s why they haven’t been afraid to break out barely-muted racist dog whistles and fall back on appeals to naked fear of all-powerful government intervention (Death panels! FEMA camps! ACORN!) Rather than moving to the (constantly shifting) centre, which some talking heads have suggested is key to a return from the wilderness, the GOP has instead gone hard right, doing its goddamndest to engage/fire up its conservative base, especially those wayward souls who last year stopped publicly identifying as Republicans and, in some cases, voted for Obama or, more often than not, simply stayed home (and, most importantly, didn’t donate to the RNC). What the GOP is trying to do with their seemingly self-destructive obstruction uber alles strategy is simple: work the base into a free-spending fever pitch while simultaneously demoralizing Democrats and disengaging skeptical independents (an effort aided quite handily by ineffectual leadership in both Congress and the White House, both deeply in thrall with the oracular advice imparted by those self-appointed soothsayers of Byzantine Washington protocol, the DC punditocracy and press).

The GOP aren’t concerned if ill-defined centrists/independents are (purportedly) turned off by gauche appeals to right-wing base impulse. If centrists/indies are dispelled from participation in the political process (ie, by not voting for/donating to ANYONE) and the GOP’s white, red state evangelical base does show up (angry, inspired and with checkbooks in hand) the Republicans stand to gain in 2010 (and, hopefully, 2012). Republicans don’t give a rat’s ass if centrists/indies swing to the GOP or not, as long as they don’t vote for the Democrats.

Furthermore, by discarding the strong change mandate voters handed them last November, the current Democratic leadership has done absolutely nothing to give the general public–especially left-leaning Democratic partisans–a reason to renew their current lease on Congress (much less the White House).

I’ll give the GOP one thing: they know when to throw hunks of bloody red meat to the more voracious animals that reside under the increasingly constrained boundaries of the Republican “big tent.” By comparison, the treatment progressives receive from the Democratic Party (perfectly encapsulated by the ritual purge of one of the few actual progressives in the White House, “Green Czar” Van Jones) is largely based on thinly-veiled top-down contempt. Recent rumblings from certain progressive circles about sitting on their check-scrawling hands  and staying home in 2010 perfectly illustrate why you don’t brazenly and repeatedly spit in the faces of the ones who brought you to the goddamn dance in the first place.

When will the Democratic Party give its long-forsaken liberal partisans something to chew on (even if it risks staining its collective hands bright crimson)?

Recommend this post at Progressive Bloggers

Jonathan Kay: Wrong on the Internet

by matttbastard

What do you want me to do?  LEAVE?  Then they'll keep being wrong!

Jonathan Kay once again illustrates why the thin ranks of the Canadian pundit corps do not represent a meritocracy:

It so happens that, with Barack Obama gradually rolling out his star-studded Cabinet in recent days, I’d already been giving quite a lot of thought to the deficiencies of our Parliamentary system. The wonderful thing about the American system — the aspect that never gets talked about for some reason — is that the President can appoint any genius he likes to Cabinet spots — people like Larry Summers, Robert Gates and Colin Powell. And these people do not have to kiss babies, run in by-elections, or get sham appointments to some upper chamber in order to gain their offices. The President, as ultimate decider, just picks the best people, they accept and … that’s it.

Well, yeah, except for that pesky little check and balance called Senate confirmation–otherwise, yeah, that’s it:

The role of Congress is enshrined in the U.S. Constitution, which directs the president to select officials with the Senate’s “advice and consent.” Only 51 senators, a simple majority, are required to approve a nominee.

All 15 Cabinet secretaries require Senate confirmation, as do federal judges and ambassadors. White House aides such as chief of staff and national security adviser don’t. The law establishing a federal agency dictates which agency officials require Senate approval.

This, my friends, is one of the many, many reasons why they can’t give away the National Post these days. Paul Godfrey has his work cut out for him.

Recommend this post at Progressive Bloggers

On ‘Myths’, Memes, and Former GOP Media Flunkies

by matttbastard

“If I had a world of my own, everything would be nonsense. Nothing would be what it is, because everything would be what it isn’t. And contrary wise, what is, it wouldn’t be. And what it wouldn’t be, it would. You see?”

- Alice in Wonderland

File under “Andrew Malcolm is a tool and a hack“: Greg Mitchell takes apart that Campaign Finance Institute (CFI) report on Barack Obama’s donors currently making the rounds:

The Campaign Finance Institute (CFI) study disclosing that Barack Obama actually raised most of his campaign money from “larger” not “small” donors has gained wide, approving, coverage in recent days, from USA Today to the New York Times and Los Angeles Times and countless web sites, even making Huffington Post at least twice, including as a top link. Inevitably the headlines refer to the “myth” of Obama riding a wave of small donations to victory. That study’s author himself uses it.

But the “myth” is actually in the spinning of the report, including by its author, Michael Malbin, a former speechwriter for Dick Cheney, when he was Pentagon chief, and a resident fellow at The American Enterprise Institute from 1977 to 1986.

As usual in these cases, it’s not that the numbers are wrong, it’s the analysis and how the interpretation is being played by the media. Because, buried in the report, are all the figures and arguments for showing that the CFI’s “myth” is actually a myth.

Make sure to read the whole thing, as Mitchell quite thoroughly addresses a lot of the issues brought up by both the report and its breathless beltway boosters. With that said, I suppose it would do you all well to keep the following caveat in mind, in the interest of fairness: Don’t let, y’know, facts and reality automatically stand in the way of all those oh-so-balanced-and-objective attempts to erect a solid foundation of misinformation that reinforces lazy conventional wisdom.

For all we know, up really is down.

Recommend this post at Progressive Bloggers

matttbastard @ The Unapologetic Mexican

by matttbastard

This week, The Unapologetic Mexican has a series of guest posts featuring various African-American responses to the election of Barack Obama, The African American Perspective, which runs through November 16th. Yours truly truly was given the privilege of participating. My post, Barack Obama: [Re]defining Possibilities, can be viewed here. Thanks to Nezua @ UMX for providing me the opportunity to opine at length on this subject–despite my Canadian citizenship (hey–the one drop rule knows no borders.)

Other posts in the AAP+ series:

Recommend this post at Progressive Bloggers