The Question of Democracy
It is commonplace at the moment to point to the war in Ukraine as a test of democracy. Its meaning there, on the ground, is transparent enough. Belarus, essentially a ‘client’ state of Moscow, is a case in point regarding the potential shift in social freedoms that a defeated Ukraine might well undergo. But it is also the case that in general, most citizens in every nation want a society that is more free than it currently is. This is not to say that they simply desire to ape any specific other country, say Finland, which perennially tops the best countries’ lists both in the objective scales of the world social health index and the more subjective sensibilities represented in the world happiness report, recently published for 2021. The idea of ‘the best’ aside for the moment, it remains clear that most ‘average’ citizens are yet vehicles for their respective traditions and thus do not entirely relish living in autocratic states. From Iran to North Korea, from Sudan to China and back again, what they do is make do.
The politics of autocracy differ from the cultures of tradition along a number of lines. One, State and Tradition hail from different historical worldviews. Where tradition has not, or has not yet, given way to ideology, its contents may be millennia old. Theocracies attempt to funnel some of these pre-modern or even ancient contents into their ideological platforms but the effect, though very real in some of its consequences – the ‘Sharia’ law in Iran, for instance – is yet symbolically fragile. Modernity and its predecessors have never mixed well, and it is almost always the case that those who are attracted to the latter day sainthood of revivalism or yet millennialism are themselves from the social margins. Two, the State is originally an urban phenomena that is acquisitive; it needs to grow its franchise and thus its power in order to survive. Tradition tends to be rural and seeks only its own reproduction over ensuing generations. This second schism between politics and culture sees the State often ‘dragging’ traditionalists into what passes for the distended present, but this tension also prevents the State from looking too far ahead of itself. Fittingly, and lastly, tradition looks rearward and the State looks forward, though only to a point. This third difference is the most disturbing for anyone hoping for a better human future, or perhaps any human future at all.
It is a difficult mélange, our contemporary political culture. Democracies, limited as they are in reference even to their own ideals, struggle to balance competing interests yes, but more so, and more deeply, conflicting claims regarding the definition of the ‘good’ society. For the margins, the premise of an extant God may still be at work, fronting a promise that any future means the end of history and the transfiguration of humanity. Or, at least, some elect community thereof. These citizens have no authentic interest in democracy just as they may shun autocracy. Their path is toward an inner light. The problem they present to the rest of us is that their mission often seeks to include those who it patently resents, even if it is to merely bid us onward along the highway to hell. A significant minority of North Americans cleave to such traditions, no matter how Barnumesque they became over the course of the nineteenth century, and no matter how personalist became their ‘beliefs’. In the crisis of today’s democracy, it is equally important to look critically and candidly at the aspects of our own society that are fundamentally anti-democratic.
And it is easy enough to do so, even if the stakes seem lesser than on the battlefield afar. Our own conflicts of culture and politics center around the difference between premodern moralities and contemporary ethics. The first posits timeless principles, such as the Decalogue. The second searches for a new Decalogue, a different table of values that reflects a radically altered reality. But though we might be smug to the point of disdain should some old-world voice sermonize at us, the neo-conservative margins of liberal society serve us more as a convenient decoy; a way in which to transfer the burden of defending democracy as over against a straw person; someone who can be mocked, derided as if he were not actually present, not unlike our conception of the God who is supposedly dead and yet who maintains vast legions of faithful. Instead of allowing such self-made decoys to distract us, the authentic task placed in front of the true democrat is rather to examine one’s own loyalties.
Three anti-democratic features immediately leap out from fully modern society, institutions that borrow only the trappings of traditions and those mostly as a marketing device. One, the presence of independent schools in our education system. Two, the lack of proportional representation in our political system, and three, the prejudice against youth participating in that same system. The three are linked, of course. In order to lay more fully an authentic claim to actually being a democracy, all three must be rendered obsolete. First, all private, parochial, independent and charter schools in Canada must be shut down, their public funding – the reality that those who cannot afford to send their children to such schools nevertheless help pay for them through taxes is a scandal that approaches a kind of banal evil – redirected to a universal and singular school system. Such independent institutions serve only to reproduce status and wealth hierarchies and as such they are radically anti-democratic. The resources of the various elites – whether these are purely economic, as they are in most cases, or whether exclusion is practiced by ethnic background or religious creed – must be placed into the common pool. This is how a democracy learns. Second, proportional representation must be adopted at all political levels, replacing the so-called ‘first-past-the-post’ rubric. This will ensure that regional and local voices are heard in a manner that more reflects their diversity. This is how a democracy governs. Third, the voting age must be lowered to age twelve, reflecting the age already identified in Canadian law that separates childhood from youth. Persons of this age already can have sex with one another, cannot be physically coerced, can seek out health and wellness counsel, and are subject to legal penalties for transgressing the law. They are thus already judged to be fully human enough to also be able to vote, and are certainly cognitively capable of understanding ‘the issues’ as well as most average voters. It is another scandal tending towards evil that the same ‘arguments’ against youth voting were used to prevent women from voting. The very same. Consign such bigotry to the dustbin of the past. This is how a democracy includes.
One education system in which an atheist student can study Islam, and a Muslim student can study Buddhism, in which any student can learn Mandarin or a once this-gender student can transform themselves into that-gender and so on. And an expanded and far more representative political dynamic that will force politicians to be more attentive and perhaps even responsible to all citizens no matter their age or their voting patterns. Such changes are not only necessary for the future of democracy, they are as well a transparent signal to autocracy that this is what we are defending; no longer are we going to be tolerant of our own incomplete project regarding human freedom, and no longer will we wanly wink at the inequities that stain our own relative freedom and signal the leaders of unfreedom that we too, after all, have their immoral backs.
Social philosopher G.V. Loewen is the author of fifty books in ethics, education, aesthetics, health and social theory. He was professor of the interdisciplinary human sciences for over two decades.