Running our democracy on auto-pilot


On both sides of the 49th parallel, citizens pause, if only for a frigid winter’s moment, to reflect on the political bargains they’ve made and the consequences of disenchantment.

In the American Capital last night, President Barack Obama delivered his State of the Union Address, a show the pundits unanimously panned in their previews.

This lame-duck Commander in Chief, they declared, has dropped the ball in practically every zone of the playing field. Now, even his once-ardent admirers have turned their backs on him.

What could he possibly say that would reduce the bitter partisan bickering and undo the gridlock in Congress?

In Ottawa on Monday, after one of the longest recesses in some time, Parliament reassembled just in time to receive the federal government’s 2014 budget. And oh, political observers clucked, what a deliberately dull, strategically boring, document that will be when the nation gets a look at on February 11, a month ahead of schedule.

But, then, what else would it be in the run-up to an election?

“It’s an opportunity to just get going early out of the gate and set the tone,” Michele Austin, a former Conservative operative and a top flack at Summa Strategies in Ottawa, told the Globe and Mail. “I’m not convinced that the Olympics has a lot to do with it (the budget’s early release). . .This is a bridge budget. It’s taking people to a surplus budget.”

Meanwhile, Kul Bhatia, an economist at Western, told the CBC, “The indications are that the fiscal situation is better than they’ve let it be known. This is based on some information that they have that is not in the public domain – that’s my hunch.”

Increasingly, we are told, the people we elect ostensibly to safeguard our system of government think of us as customers. That would make them used car salesmen and women, kicking the tires of democracy and pronouncing them sound.

The customer, of course, is never wrong, but sometimes he doesn’t read the fine print – the exceptions to the warranty, the nullifications to the contract we figuratively sign when we dare to vote.

Just like the pre-owned auto we drive off the lot, the government we get is often only just good enough. What qualities it lacks won’t bring it to a grinding halt. But neither will the absence of certain cherished virtues stave off a creeping sense of buyers’ remorse in the living rooms of the nation.

On this score, recent public opinion polls tell a convincing tale.

“Just 21 per cent of likely U.S. voters believe the federal government today has the consent of the governed.” That’s according to a Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey. “Sixty-three percent  do not believe the federal government has the consent of the governed today; 16 per cent per cent are not sure.”

Here in Canada, we’re not much happier with our elected lot. In a piece published online earlier this month entitled, “Democracy and the death of trust,” EKOS Research Associates founder Frank Graves declared, “The rise of mass education, along with more critical media and a more cynical pop culture, has produced a more aware and less trusting public – a shift which poses huge challenges to governments and democratic institutions.”

That may, indeed, be true. But it is also true that we, the unelected drivers of our democracy, must shoulder most of the blame, for it is we who routinely install public servants demonstrating only the profoundest gaps in imagination, only the most thorough absence of courage.

Do we limit ourselves and the well-being of our society by deliberately curbing our expectations of the political class?

What do we actually want? Is it a tax free bank account with the twice the allowable contribution level? Is it a topped-up child tax credit? Is it a national budget surplus of $4 billion?

Or is it better, more open-handed cooperation among political parties – and levels of government – on matters that actually resonate with all Canadians: education, health care, infrastructure?

In the end, all the truly hard decisions fall to us. That is our part of the bargain we keep for posterity.

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