The system is ailing and the disease is cynicism. Perhaps the time has come for a radical new treatment

Over the course of tracking public opinion for twenty years, the private polls I conducted for my political clients showed that the number of Canadians who held at least a “somewhat” positive view of politicians fell from 60 percent to less than 20 percent. Today, Ipsos-Reid reports that a grand total of 9 percent of Canadians describe politicians as “extremely trustworthy.” How is it that the people we choose to lead us are now routinely considered venal and unworthy of our following? And what does it say about our ability to choose our representatives when these are the dominant characteristics we ascribe to them?

Forget already disgraced figures such as former Privacy Commissioner George Radwanski, or Public Works Minister Alphonso Gagliano. Even the much revered and iconic Auditor General, Sheila Fraser, can’t pass the test we have set for public office-holders. Why, in the fiscal year 2002–2003 (the last full year for which complete information is available), would a government official whose responsibilities are exclusively domestic jet off to Europe on two separate trips? The answer – in both cases to attend meetings directly related to her work – is lost on those determined to reduce a stalwart defender of the public interest to just another free-spending public servant.

But the core problem is that our cynicism cultivates fertile soil for more cynicism, and if we are to save democracy, we must make a concerted effort to reverse this trend, using new methods that, to date, have been unconsidered.

Our cynicism erodes not only our faith in public figures, it also reduces their latitude to pursue good public policy and instead rewards them for pandering to the path of least public-opinion resistance.

Consider the recent case of Canada’s Health Minister, Pierre Pettigrew. A thoughtful and serious fellow, he had the temerity to suggest that we might consider exploring how the private sector could be more involved in the delivery of health care. This utterance was declared a horrendous political misstep by the press, he was dressed down by his boss, Prime Minister Paul Martin, and the possibility was summarily repudiated.

Put in context, the fact is that Pettigrew’s statement was not mere caprice. He and his department officials – and for that matter, the press, Mr. Martin, and virtually everyone else – know that Canada’s health-care system already employs private delivery of health care and probably needs, and will be relying on, more in the future. In fact, if there wasn’t such intellectual prejudice shrouding the subject, most would recognize that their general practitioners are not civil servants, their offices are not housed in public buildings, and their medical equipment is not government-issued. They are private sector, small business people delivering publicly funded health care.

But as the electorate become more distrustful of our political leaders, we become less and less likely to extend the benefit of the doubt surrounding their motives. Decision-making paralysis sets in, the health-care system atrophies, and its deterioration becomes the evidence to support the cynical belief that the government and the political system are incapable of producing solutions to societal problems.

Is our cascading cynicism the fault of an uninformed electorate who pass judgment through a veil of unquestioning ignorance? Or is it our leaders who have lost any remaining perspective on civic virtue?

To the extent that there is any debate on this question, the consensus seems to be that if blame is to be ascribed, it should be levelled at our politicians. And through their acquiescence, attacks on one another, and their own efforts to address public accountability, our leaders seem to tacitly agree that the problem rests with them. The notion that repairing democracy is the sole purview of politicians in turn distances the electorate even further from the system that was designed to protect and advance citizens’ needs. In the end, we lose all responsibility for defending and saving democracy.

How can this cycle be reversed?

We know from experience what hasn’t worked.

Public-relations campaigns have been launched to encourage young people to vote. Limits and constraints that narrow their discretionary latitude have been heaped upon our leaders. Exhortations for a better calibre of individual to heed the call of public life are heard around boardroom tables throughout the land.

Far from reversing or diminishing our cynicism, however, these efforts have had no effect and, in some instances, have served to exacerbate and reinforce our mistrust.

Despite these efforts, voter turnout has continued to drop; in the June federal election, it was 60.3 percent, the lowest since 1898.

What hasn’t been tried, but is often suggested, is a structural change in our political and electoral system as the panacea for reducing the “democratic deficit.” Advocates of proportional representation, for example, claim it would more accurately mirror popular support. However, an electoral system that rewards small and regional parties might produce instability by granting too great a voice to special- and single-interest groups that would drown out appeals for a broader public good.

Similarly, it is argued that more free votes and a greater role for individual Members of Parliament would give local representatives more authority and the licence to reflect their own views, thereby giving them a more distinctive profile and accountability with their constituents. The problem is that, if we are to maintain stability in government, MPs cannot vote consistently against Cabinet, and Cabinet members certainly cannot vote against their colleagues.

These suggestions never go beyond the suggestion stage for good reason: our system of parliamentary and responsible government has evolved over centuries; reforms such as these, introduced piecemeal, could undermine the entire structure.

The key to revitalizing democracy must rest on two foundations: giving citizens and their leaders a more intimate understanding of one another by bringing the two into closer proximity; and providing real evidence that citizens’ efforts to affect the system can actually bear fruit.

In fact, everything I know about public opinion and the working of governments tells me that if we truly want to create a more cohesive and workable democracy, then we must make both structural and systemic changes aimed at elites, as well as cultural changes aimed at the masses.

At the mass or cultural level, the main problem is that our very distance and detachment from our leaders, and from one another, allow us to form and hold views that do not require scrutiny or evaluation. An example of how structural change can dramatically promote a cultural shift was shown in the Supreme Court decision of Brown vs. the Board of Education in the U.S. That decision, more than all the sermonizing from American liberals about the corrosive effects of racism on American life, or the activism of civil-rights leaders, forced blacks and whites to integrate. It was a change in experience, not beliefs or values, that changed the culture.

The most fundamental step in altering behaviour may be the introduction of compulsory voting. Turnout has fallen steadily since 1988 and is especially low among newly eligible voters, fewer than 30 percent of whom voted in 2000. Making voting compulsory – as is the case in Australia or Greece – forces every citizen into at least some engagement with the system.

If you have to vote, chances are you will at least learn who the candidates are in your area. Even this minimal involvement will foster the acquisition of other attendant information about politics, legitimize election results, and give the marginalized a greater stake in the process. (Those who would charge that this is draconian or anti-democratic should note that paying taxes and going to school are mandatory because both are deemed necessary for a strong society.)

Creating community, creed, and a common sense of destiny also requires citizen contact. There was a reason the ancient Greeks built theatres or early architects made the town square the centrepiece of their city plans. By strengthening the avenues of cultural distribution, public spaces can be combined with art and ideas to advance citizen interaction and build a stronger sense of civic virtue. Public sponsorship of festivals, reading series, debates, and town-hall meetings can all be used to inveigle individuals out of their rec rooms and into the streets, where citizens will gain a greater feeling of “ownership” of their community and its problems.

Technology is another powerful tool: computer programs could be set up to simulate public-policy alternatives, so that individuals could develop their own defence budget or old age-pension plan. Such “e-democracy” initiatives could facilitate an immediate feedback loop between elected representatives and their constituents on current issues of the day. Not only would this give citizens more input into government decision-making, but there is every reason to believe that if we can use technology to learn more about the consequences of our beliefs, over time we will come to make better decisions.

Even with compulsory participation, cultural democracy, and technological innovation, however, real change won’t happen unless citizens also come to believe that their elected representatives are not only responsive, but are empowered to act on the demands of those they represent.

Since 1774, when Edmund Burke delivered his famous speech to the electors of Bristol, the prevailing model in the parliamentary system has been that elected representatives are “delegates” of their constituents. Once elected, MPs follow their own good judgment, and voters leave them to it, having their say about each politician’s performance during the next election.

Today, when most voters view their elected representatives as their inferiors, and virtually all have become conversant with current events through the explosion of broadcast and digital media, it is probably prudent to rethink this model. By moving away from a “Burkian-delegated” model of representation to a more integrated and less distant “partnership” between leaders and voters, it may be possible both to harness the citizen’s own sense of (non-political) powerfulness and give our representatives the tools to actually make changes in their constituents’ lives. This might involve the introduction of recall, referendum, and initiative measures by which voters could have the ability to replace their representatives between elections, cast judgment on laws, and submit their own legislation.

At the same time, by giving MPs more control over, and a direct say in, local government services, we could revitalize old-school “retail politics.” It is not mere coincidence that voter turnout in the 2000 federal election was 85 percent in the tiny province of Prince Edward Island, or that private polls showed that more than 90 percent of voters in Cape Breton Island knew the name of their local MP. Not only are politicians familiar faces and considered “neighbours,” but citizens also have a material understanding of the consequences of their political choices in smaller communities in this part of Canada. When I first started working on Parliament Hill, one of the more apocryphal tales I heard was that if you were a Liberal gas-station owner in Atlantic Canada, and the Conservatives formed the government, the RCMP might stop filling up at your establishment.

Now considered the type of graft and corruption that should be avoided, this story illustrates that elected representatives with the power to intervene on behalf of, and to deliver services directly to, their constituents give tangible proof of the impact of politics on citizenship.

In effect, this would amount to making each local Member of Parliament the chief operating officer of the government in his or her community. Government and Cabinet would still make policy, but it would be administered locally and overseen by elected constituency politicians. In short, the goal here would be to focus less on the inward influence of representatives in Parliament and more on the outward influence they wield with voters in their ridings.

Concepts such as putting politicians and voters in closer and more constant contact with one another, granting voters greater and more direct access to the political system, and giving representatives access to government resources to be deployed against local needs are neither innovative nor new. Citizen contact and debate was the cornerstone of Athenian democracy. Empowering voters was essential to such populist movements as the Grange and the United Farmers of Alberta. Another powerful example is Tammany Hall, which was fuelled by local networks of bossism and patronage.

For some, revisiting these ideas may smack of sentimental nostalgia or even taking up the cudgel of a now disgraced past. But the fact is, compared to today, many aspects of democracy were healthier in an earlier time. Past civilizations and societies atrophied, not because these concepts were faulty, but because they were applied to an uneducated, ill-informed, and acquiescent population. Because we have progressed – because we now have a citizenry that has the tools and wherewithal to chart a new collective destiny – we also now have it in our grasp to use the best of the old and the new to save democracy.