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Democracy Simply Doesn't Work?

I have to echo Adam Radwanski in saying that this John Geddes column from Friday about a lecture given by the Prime Minister's former chief of staff is the most depressing thing that I, and likely you, will read today, if you have any faith in democratic governance.

My stance is closer to Churchill's: it's the worst system out there, except for all the others, and the reason is simply this - it, like so many theories that sound good, depends on a view of humanity as informed and rational that is...not always borne out by the evidence. I somewhat wish that it hadn't been Ian Brodie who'd said it (though his "insider's perspective" was extremely valuable), because it's too easy to spin as "The Conservatives are evil and cynical," when whether they're evil or not is beside the point - they're doing what it takes to win elections. Stephane Dion, or Preston Manning (for those few of you on the other side of the political spectrum who I haven't run off yet) were principled, honest men who might well have made good Prime Ministers from a governance perspective - but Jean Chretien and Stephen Harper better understood what winning elections required, so we'll never know.

If "what it takes to win elections" does not dovetail with "what it takes to govern properly", then the system is broken. The question then becomes: how is it broken, and is it salvageable? Some people on the Maclean's comment thread pointed to the FPTP system as the problem - and it is a problem because of the way it distort the choices made by voters - but that seems to me like someone who only has a hammer seeing every problem as a nail. The problem Brodie describes would remain, because the problem is not "the government we get is not the government we vote for", the problem is "people won't vote for good, evidence-based policy, and governments want to stay in power". So what lies at the root?

"Why do governments want to stay in power", doesn't really need answering. Removing the re-election incentive from politicians through enforced term limits, while admirable on its face, presents some consequences that I'm not entirely certain of - and in any case, that wasn't what I wanted to write about anyway. Maybe another time.

Why does good policy make bad politics? Brodie offers a pretty good answer: because it is difficult for the populace to understand its benefits, so they won't vote for it. I'll admit to some elitist tendencies on my part, but this isn't simply a reframing of "people are stupid". At worst it's, "people don't always think long-term, or think about consequences, especially in unfamiliar areas."

Does this mean that an effective enough communicator could overcome the inherent bias of voters in favour of the neat, simple, and wrong answer, and show them why their ideas are better in the long run? Well.. maybe. Barack Obama's election is a positive sign in this direction, but there are cloudy linings on that silver:

  1. It took the US bleeding out lives and treasure through an unwinnable war and a worsening economic crisis to make people stop and take a deeper look at the situation. As impressed as I am by him, I still find it hard to believe that he'd have won if he hadn't had W as an act to follow.
  2. Communicators like Obama are rare birds. If it's actually necessary that a leader who's interested in governing well also be one such in order to win, then the majority of leaders we actually get will still be partisan hacks instead, because the system rewards partisan hackery, barring a few outliers

I just don't see a sea change as having already happened, and I'm concerned about what happens when the rough waters we're in pass (assuming, for the moment, that they will.) Will we give in to our worse natures and go back to the same old "leaders"?