Monday, November 21, 2011

Questioning Democracy

I'm big on democracy. I'm one who thinks the Occupy XYZ groups should give up their tent cities and get involved in real politics with all their energy.

But here is a bit from Linda McQuaig in the Toronto Sun dressing me down for failing to see the need to operate outside the normal democratic channels:
When thousands of Egyptian protesters took over Tahrir Square in events widely celebrated as the Arab Spring, I don’t recall anyone being concerned that they were violating local bylaws.

Of course, Egypt was a dictatorship and the only way to protest the lack of democracy was by breaking laws.

Canada isn’t a dictatorship, and so protesters — like the group now ordered evicted from St. James Park — don’t have the same clear moral licence to ignore bylaws that their Egyptian counterparts had.

Critics argue that the Toronto Occupiers have made their point; if they want to take it further, they should join a political party — attend all-candidates meetings, put up lawn signs, eat hot dogs at summer barbecues, become backroom operatives.

Of course, Occupiers should join political parties and try to change them. But part of the Occupiers’ point is that democracy has become a hollow shell.

In theory, democracy is one of humankind’s noblest creations — a system in which people govern themselves. In practice, the results have been, well, disappointing.

In particular, as the Occupiers note, the concentration of wealth in the hands of the top 1 per cent undermines meaningful democracy, blocking the will of the bottom 99 per cent.

Or as the late 19th century Republican strategist Mark Hanna put it during another era of extreme inequality: “There are two things that are important in politics. The first is money and I can’t remember what the second one is.”

This is more obviously true in the U.S., but it’s also true here.

The financial elite manages to exert its dominance, not just at elections but at every stage of the political process — from the drafting of party platforms, the financing and organizing of political advocacy campaigns, the writing and amending of legislation, to the shaping of public opinion through the media (which they largely own). The wealthy are adept at influencing every stage of the broader political process.

Given the lopsided influence of the wealthy, those seeking to restore meaningful democracy and a more inclusive economic system can be forgiven for thinking it’s necessary to grab attention through extraordinary measures like occupying more than 1,000 parks across North America.


Rather than hanging out at malls or zoning out on Facebook, these young people have endured real hardship in the Canadian near-winter to fight for a more inclusive society. Any inconvenience they’ve caused through their peaceful occupation seems minor in comparison to their contribution to the public good.

As lawyers from the Law Union of Ontario point out: “Some inconveniences to local park users is a small price to pay for the larger price being paid by the 99 per cent worldwide in the face of an economic system that privileges the few over the many.”

Are occupations really necessary to draw attention to their cause? Perhaps not. But I’d trust their judgment over mine. After all, they’ve managed to change the public discourse, putting inequality front and centre — something activists and writers, myself included, have failed to accomplish despite decades of trying.

An article last week in the mainstream magazine New York notes that we’re now moving “from the terror era to the income-inequality era.”

Wow. After only two months, the Occupy movement — without backing from billionaires or governments — seems to have moved us into a new era. Not bad for a leaderless group that sleeps in tents and doesn’t even use microphones.
Go read the whole article.

I'm hoping that the Occupy movement has moved us into a new era. But it isn't yet clear to me. I wish it were true. And hopefully it will be. But I still prefer my democracy via organized politics. I can accept a short term thrust to make political parties more accountable, but I don't want to think that "change" is only possible by street protest. I watched street protest in the 1960s and it didn't change anything. Real change is hard and it comes through an organized political effort.

The energy of the Occupy movement should continue demonstrations but its real heart needs to move into either creating a new political party or seizing an existing one and reshaping it to the needs of the 99%. Institutions can run the long race. Individuals out protesting on the street are, by nature, short term. Individuals need to get on with their lives. Get jobs. Raise families. You can't spend 20 years on the street carrying a sign. But a political party can spend 20 years building a following through educating the public.

It is going to take some bitter battles to put the top 1% back in a box and rein in the big corporations that have gotten used to "lobbying" to co-opt the government. The Progressive Era spent 30 years getting consumer protection laws passed and anti-trust laws passed and improved schools and raise the educational level of the public. Today there is just as much, if not more, that needs to be done in these areas plus rein in the income inequality (not through a Great Depression which came at the end of the Progressive Era). There is a lot of social change needed and it will be a long tough slog. The Occupy movement has set off a spark. But for it to be an enduring flame of hope and real change, it will need to be institutionalized.

Hopefully the American public learned a valuable lesson with the election of Barack Obama. You can't rely on politicians. You have to move politics up a notch and ensure that political platforms have teeth and that the politicians take an oath to uphold the platform with consequences if they fail to act in a "party spirit". More discipline is needed. The last 40 years of running on "faux political platforms" has to come to an end. People need to know what they are voting for. The era of "pretty faces" and charismatic leaders has to come to an end. A new era of institutions and commitment is needed.

I think Linda McQuaig puts too much emphasis on the momentary street struggle. She needs to look back over history and see that real change only comes when the "change" becomes institutionalized. Obama was able to put forward a false platform and then ignore 90% of his promises because there is no teeth in the Democractic party. The poor voters were sold a bill of goods. The new social movement needs to either form a new party with strong institutional structure or re-structure the Democratic party to put teeth into the platform with party discipline for its representatives. Not loyalty to a "leader", but a commitment to the party platform passed in the party convention.

Hopefully we are entering a new era. But I will believe it only when there is a political party with the discipline and structure to carry out the true democratic wishes of the electorate.

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