Monkey see, monkey do when we ignore democratic institutions

The gorilla in the Senate is biding his time

By all means, throw up your placards, raise your standards high, moisten all the blowhorns your lips desire. Still, know that without the public institutions a free and open society demands democracy is as brittle as an oak leaf in a January wind.

Five million people marched across the streets of major capitals in Europe last week to support the laudable and necessary principles of free speech and expression. They locked arms – jews, muslims, christians and atheists, alike – to send a message to the brutalists of the world that they will not be silenced by threats or bullets. They chanted the mantras of democracy lovers everywhere: all must be heard and heard must be all.

But when they returned to their cozies and alcoves, to their apartments, flats and houses, to their mansions and villas, they faced the same conundrum they had left only hours earlier: a growing and appalling gulf between those who have and those who have not; and, even worse, a conviction that the mechanisms and apparatus of the democratic principles they cherish are hopelessly ruined.

And the spiritual disease is spreading rapidly and everywhere.

“As each U.S. election cycle rolls by, public life seems to grow more rancorous, frayed and fragmented, with the 2014 midterms being no exception,” writes Pooja Gupta  in a recent online number of the Journalist’s Resource (which bills itself as a project of the Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Centre and the Carnegie-Knight Initiative. . . an open-access site that curates scholarly studies and reports).

“There is a palpable sense that something deeper is at work in America, some sea change in the underlying patterns of life. . .A 2014 study published in Psychological Science, Declines in Trust in Others and Confidence in Institutions Among American Adults and Late Adolescents, 1972-2012, (finds that) trust in other people has sharply declined since the 1970s, reaching historic lows in 2008 and in 2012. In 1972-74, 46 per cent of American adults reported that they trusted most people. This dwindled to 33 per cent in 2010-12. Conversely, 51 per cent of American adults reported skepticism in others in 1972-74, increasing to 62 per cent in 2010-12. These results were mirrored among high school seniors, whose trust in others dropped from 32 per cent in 1976-78 to 18 per cent in 2010-12.”

What’s more Gupta reports, “Confidence in institutions also hit an all-time low in 2012 for both adults and high school seniors, after highs in the late 1980s and early 2000s and lows in the early 1990s, late 2000s, and early 2010s, with trust in the military being the only notable exception.”

It should come as no surprise, then, that Canadians’ confidence in their own Parliament has been dwindling for years. Data, current to January 2013, from the Conference Board of Canada suggest that citizens of this country believe their politicians deserve nothing better than a “gentleman’s C” in the performance of their duties. This represents a precipitous drop from heady levels recorded in the 1960s.

What accounts for the malaise? Apparently, your guess is as good as mine.

Or, as the Conference Board blue-skies, it could be that over-educated young ones – you know, the ones who can’t find jobs thanks to an economy that’s monolithically geared to produce oil, gas and low-paying retail jobs – are pissed off.

It could be that too many people are otherwise engaged updating their social media profiles hoping that their legions of followers give a hoot (they don’t).

It could be that all these factors, both social and economic, have left a bitter taste in the mouths of those who have been, over the past decade or two, sold a bill of goods by politicians who like to think they know what they’re talking about, but who are, all too often, only lightly interested in the good of the many at the plausible expense of their own meagre reserves of power and influence.

But if these factors have soured us on our system, then it remains to us, and only us, to rebuild it or replace it.

Our public institutions – a sound and principled bureaucracy, a sage and independent judiciary, a Commons and Senate ever vigilant against incompetence, prevarication, waste and corruption – are the monkey bars of our democracy. They are the skating rinks and splash pads of our civic commitment.

By all means, raise your standards high for our shared principles of justice and liberty. But don’t ignore the social architecture that will raise them even higher and, in fact, keep them there.

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