The Barrier(s) to Fundamental Democratic Reform

Jun 09, 2012 | Comments None


There is a strong potential for transformational democratic reform in Canada. However, there remain significant barriers to it that need to be recognized and removed. How we conceptualize democracy is central to a discussion of how we remove these barriers.

Political theorist Giovanni Sartori, a “realist,” describes our system in these words:” “Political parties have indeed become such an essential element in the political process that in many instances we might legitimately call democracy not simply a party system but a ‘partyocracy’ (partitocrazia).”1 Political philosopher, Joseph Tussman, an “idealist,” describes “democracy” in terms of what it aims to be. “The essential feature of a democratic polity is its concern for the participation of the member in the process by which the community is governed. … It gives to each citizen a public office, a place in the sovereign tribunal and, unless it is a sham, it places its destiny in the hands of that tribunal. Here is the ultimate decision-maker, the court of last appeal,the guardian of the guardians, government “by the people.”2

Citizens, politicians, and academics, living in a world where every political change is labeled “democratic” are, understandably, confused by the dramatically different way realists and idealists conceptualize the term. When we call a reform “democratic” do we mean that it strengthens the status quo or that it moves us a step along the road to Tussman’s democracy? In the interest of accuracy and clarity, “partyocracy” is the term I shall use to describe our current political system.

Fundamental or “transformational” change” is change that moves our politics toward the democratic ideal. Despite being disguised in democratic rhetoric, changes and reforms that do not do that are merely maintaining or strengthening partyocracy.

Sources of support for transformational change in Canada

Leaders One of the unique conditions supporting a political transformation in Canada that could lead to a popularly supported government is the apparent readiness for change of so many of our recent leaders. Our dysfunctional institutions are not viewed as sacrosanct. These leaders talk of change has not been matched by action but it does show clearly that a broad cross section of them accept the need for it and know their voters do, too. Consider the position of some of our leaders on change, and the fate of their ideas. Doing so confirms their rhetorical openness to change, even transformational change, while it also illustrates some of the barriers to their taking action.

Trudeau campaigned successfully on the transformational theme of “participatory democracy.” But he had no model of participatory democracy to guide the reform he proposed — other than that we should all join and participate in the deliberations of the Liberal Party. It was following the CCF/NDP in taking that approach.3 Absent a “map,” for transformational change Trudeau and his colleagues were quickly co-opted into the traditional system. The opportunity for fundamental change in the restive 60s, when it might have been taken up, was missed.

Jean Chrétien, when PM, was on record as stating that, “A challenge to all governments is to find innovative ways to put citizens at the centre of the governing process ….”4 He recognized the need for transformational change but he, too, had no ideas about how implement it. Interesting that he saw democratic reform as a task for government, i.e., as a top-down process.

His successor, Paul Martin, sharing Chrétien’s concern about the problematic gap between citizen and government did urge specific changes. On taking office he introduced proposals that, if followed through, would have enabled MPs to vote independently of party on many issues. They could have used this freedom to attempt to represent the prevailing opinion of their constituents.

“Attempt,” because there is not yet any institutional arrangement allowing the prevailing opinion to be identified beyond cumbersome and unreliable polls. And even if it were identified, it would likely be uninformed.

At the end of Martin’s proposals, it was noted, as almost as an after-thought, that their adoption required the cooperation of the opposition parties. Ottawa-based journalists welcomed the proposals — they seemed overjoyed to see some significant movement in the archaic system. But, in only 10 days, they were declaring them “dead” as, surprise, surprise, it became clear that the opposition would assume their traditional position. Hugh Winsor of the Globe and Mail wrote: “The democratic-deficit-reduction initiative is dead, killed by the realities of electoral politics.”5

Preston Manning and the Reform Party, reviving a position of prairie populists in the 1920s, had considerable success electorally with a commitment to constituency representation. The views of constituents were to be represented before those of party. Adopted, Manning’s proposition would have been clearly transformational — transferring power from political elites to citizens and sharing responsibility for governing with them.

During the time when the Reform party was a significant force in the Commons, Manning did experiment a bit with ways of marrying party representation with its opposite, constituency representation. The marriage failed.6

Bob Rae, a continuing presence in Canadian politics, speaking in front of the Romanow commission on health, cited with approval a report on public opinion compiled when he was Chairman of the Canadian Unity Council. “These [poll]results show that if and when political institutions do move toward change, Canadians will certainly be ready.”7

Canadians should be ready, as Rae suggests, because pollsters report the public as being fed up with the system. The authors of Political Choice in Canada conclude, “In general, the parties and politicians who run the political system are regarded with distaste by most of the public.”8

But whether Rae’s observation is true or not depends on the character of the political changes being proposed, and whether the public can overcome the psychological barriers the parties pose to thinking rationally. More on that later.

Diefenbaker used to bring members of his audiences to their feet cheering his tribute to the parliamentary system. But now our political leaders empathize with the political alienation of their constituents. In theory, they could be acting on that alienation and transforming the system. But as American political scientist, Michael Parenti, writes, “The power of the system operates even over those who are among its more powerful participants.”9 That observation bears emphasis.

This impersonal force — the party system — was waiting to handcuff Mr. Trudeau as soon as he took office. Most current leaders, with the obvious exception of Mr. Harper, are clearly on side for change, but not so strongly that they are prepared or able to buck the system. A push is needed from some source to turn their rhetoric into action.

Members of the Commons MPs are talking change, too. In one of his studies, our colleague, David Docherty, traces how, increasingly, MPs are chafing against party discipline, noting that a growing number of MP’s want to “…place district ahead of party and leader” but, he observes: “…this change has not been reflected in parliamentary practices. Members of the public are just as or more cynical about the motives and abilities of members to represent them today as they were fifteen or twenty years ago.”

He continues: “Members of parliament, at their most basic level, believe they are providing as close to delegate style of representation as the Westminster system allows. The public, however, is not buying. If there is a gap between the public and the men and women whom the public elect, it is likely to be found in this area.”10 Why would the public be impressed when the reform was just talk, merely a repetition of previous unfulfilled promises made over the last century. Still, the report is significant in that if transformational change was offered, some, perhaps many, MPs would welcome it.

Most of us will be familiar with the fairly recent study by the NGO, Samara, on the experience in the Commons of a cross-section of retired party MPs.11 All the MPs echoed Docherty in expressing strong negative feelings about how party discipline intruded on their representation of constituents. They saw this as the major problem with parliament. Further evidence of the fragility of the present system of representation is found in another poll where 89 percent of candidates for office “strongly agreed” or “agreed” with the proposition that MPs should be allowed to vote freely in the Commons.12 The system had not yet got these aspiring-to-be MPs in its clutches.

Political leaders and MPs talk favorably about change but they seem unaware of the different consequences for democracy if the changes are system maintaining or transformational.

Citizens and Obstacles to Change

Now, I turn to where citizens stand on the issue of change. They are alienated from the present system so, naturally, they are positively disposed to change in general. Politicians acknowledge the feelings of citizens by using rhetoric that is critical of partyocracy, their captor. This seeming unity of opinion of leaders and led is, however, challenged somewhat by polling on the views of citizens.

On the one hand, polling tells us that Canadians strongly subscribe to the traditional belief that parties are essential if we are to have democracy.13 At the same time, however, citizens are even more strongly committed to constituency representation, and have been for a century or more. This proposition was put to Canadians: “We would have better laws if members of parliament were able to vote for what people in their riding thought was best rather than having to vote the same way as their party.” Eighty three percent of respondents agreed.14

Canadians hold to this long standing belief in constituency representation even though this aspiration, threatening to the political establishment, has been almost entirely ignored by their “representatives.” The establishment has engaged in what Michael Parenti observes is “The most subtle form of ‘political education’ [is] the treating of events and conditions which are in fact amenable to change as though they were natural events.”15.

The strong majority of Canadians who support constituency representation suggests that a party or movement promising that transformational change might have sufficient support to overwhelm the partyocracy establishment. But that is to ignore the way the members of the public are socialized and controlled by the party system. Tiny though they are in terms of membership — 2 to 5 per cent of citizens — parties monopolize political life leaving citizens feeling helpless in partyocracy and, indeed, they are in a weak position

The 95 per cent in the political audience, who only watch how parties govern, are deprived of the participatory experience that would educate them, as our MPs are educated, through involvement in setting public policy. Socialized to accept the presence of parties and the political role it assigns to them, citizens are more likely to be apathetic and alienated than to be the change-ready people Bob Rae describes. It is easy to frighten people with threats when they lack confidence in their own political judgment, and should.16

The 95 per cent who do not join parties are uninformed by their exclusion from politics and the 2-5 per cent who do join parties are, in a different way, dumbed down too. They are in a weak position to even vote rationally.17 It is also the case that the citizen “audience” partyocracy produces is nervous about adopting specific political changes even though they tell pollsters that they think fundamental change in the system is needed. So when the 95 per cent are actually faced with endorsing a change they are hesitant. Referenda were held on the Charlottetown Accord and, at the provincial level on electoral reform, but Bob Rae’s ready-for-change citizens were predisposed to vote against them. BC was a special case.18 Many citizens are aware that their interests clash with those of political elites. This is natural given the lack of linkage between the two.19

People are only a little more change-responsive when the proposals for changes are supported by fellow citizens than by elites. It is a recipe for stalemate when, on the issue of institutional change, citizens don’t trust their leaders or themselves.

My conclusion from this review of factors supporting and inhibiting change in different groups, is that, remarkably, in Canada both leaders and led back similar change. With some notable exceptions, politicians at all levels of the party hierarchy and citizens are sympathetic to the idea that MPs should have more freedom from party constraints to represent constituents. This merging of ideas for change has not yet led to action by citizens or the political establishment, however. None of the actors have thought through and developed a credible model of direct representation.That is not to say that appropriate institutions would be difficult to design: they are not.

The pressure for change, and for the transformation that constituency representation would bring has not yet been strong enough to shake the hold of the present system. An atomized and politically alienated citizenry is in no position to mount that pressure. And the politicians. while wanting more freedom from party control, have not seriously considered how a system based on constituency representation might be organized. The question of “why not” brings us to our concluding section. What role does, and could, the political science profession play in the change process today when conditions for change are so propitious?


Political Scientists: System Maintenance and Transformational Change

As political scientists we know the power of words.

Communism, socialism, fascism, theocracy and other belief systems have moved millions to die for their differing ideal conceptualizations of politics. Down through the ages the concept of “democracy” has had a similar power to unite people for a cause, and we need it to do so now. But in Canada and elsewhere democracy’s power to bring people together in common endeavor to build an ever more humane social and economic order has been eroded by the many political scientists — “realists” — who have accepted and propagated the notion that partyocracy, the delegation of citizen rights and responsibilities to parties — is a permanent stopping place. It is not seen clearly as an ideal toward which each generation must make a contribution if it is to be kept current as a force in our lives.

Many politicians are now having doubts about how parties affect their representational function and citizens have long expressed the desire that their elected representatives take their direction from constituents. The significance of this meeting of minds is, however blunted by their differing perceptions of democratic progress. “Realists,” cast a democratic rhetorical “blanket” over partycracy, and equate democratic reform with strengthening this undemocratic type of politics. Those political scientists are, in effect, telling citizens, “If you want democracy, and of course you do, then you must accept parties.” Even strongly change-oriented colleagues often take that dogmatic position.20

If we rule out consideration of non-party representation, as realists do, we are condemning our citizens to indefinite rule by an institution that citizens mistrust and many politicians deeply resent, for good reason. The we-must-have parties dogma puts limits around consideration of what changes can be made to our system to make it more genuinely democratic. Further, we are encouraged to ignore democracy and democratic citizenship, with all the humanistic values they embrace, as ideals to guide our political development. Why would we do that?

John Meisel concludes his important article on party dysfunctions with the observation that “…there is a need to explore new or modified ways of carrying out some of the tasks parties have assumed within Canada’s political system.”21 Amen!

It is not the case that we must have parties if we want democracy. The truth is the opposite: We cannot have real democracy as long as we rely on competing parties, each with its own agenda, to represent citizens and organize their governments. The fundamental choice we are facing, or avoiding, is between accepting partyocracy or aspiring, as and how we can, to move toward the democratic ideal of participatory democracy.

The real meaning of democracy is not lost in the confusion caused by realists misapplying the concept; it is too strong for that. But a major barrier to transformational democratic change, is put into play. System changes and reforms are directed toward strengthening an undemocratic system. Energies are expended on that rather than being guided toward creating a higher level of democracy. Citizens supporting constituency representation, i.e. transformational change, are left weakened as agents of change, because they have been socialized to somewhat believe they already have it. No clear distinction has been made for them between partyocracy and democracy.

MPs wanting more freedom to represent constituents are similarly weakened by the misleading rhetoric applied to the system. Even though they resent party constraints, they cannot easily call on the power of the democratic concept to support a break out from partyocracy’s hold on them.

Citizens and leaders find it difficult to meet on common democratic ground and get the transformational change the system requires underway when they hold different concepts of democracy. Is a call for a more democratic Canada, a call to strengthen partycracy or move toward genuine democracy, its opposite?

The idealism of Canadians is not now harnessed to social ends because we are uncertain about the direction dictated by the idealism. The report of the Task Force on National Unity reported finding “A widespread frustration among our fellow citizens with the aimlessness and lack of common purpose that characterizes much of Canadian public life, and a strong desire to commit oneself to some projects and purposes which are held in common among large groups of citizens.”22 What common purpose could be of more value than transforming our obsolete political system?

What barriers to transformational change would be removed, if political scientists stopped muddying our thinking about democratic change. And, strengthening our claim to be “truth tellers,” agreed to call the system what it is, a partyocracy? All political actors from citizens and prime ministers, to political columnists and students would be jarred into asking important questions about the basic features of the system and its future.

Perhaps, all those committed to change, and to transformational change, their thinking clarified, could come together to take advantage of the unusual national consensus that exists now that the present party system is dysfunctional. Our future course of action could then be charted with the democratic ideal at the forefront of our thinking.


1 Giovanni Sartori, Democratic Theory (New York: Frederick A. Praeger, 1965),120.

2 Joseph Tussman, Obligation and the Body Politic (New York: Oxford University Press, 1960),105-6.

3 For an extended discussion of the CCF/NDP and Liberal positions see, Vaughan Lyon, Power Shift: From Party Elites To Informed Citizens, (Bloomingdale,Ind.: iUniverse, 2012), 268-278.

4 Jean Chrétien, Speech before the Progressive Governance for the 21st Century Conference, Berlin, June 2000.

5 Hugh Winsor, “When politics wins out over principle,” Globe and Mail (May 10, 2004, A4).

6 Lyon, Power Shift, 280-285.

7 Bob Rae, “Canadians will certainly be ready.” Opinion Canada 4,35 (December, 2004).

8 H.D. Clarke, L. LeDuc, J. Jenson, and J. H. Pammett, eds. Political Choice in Canada, (Toronto: McGraw-Hill-Ryerson, 1979), 30-31.

9 Michael Parenti, Power and the Powerless (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1978), 13.

10 David Docherty,“Citizens and Legislators: Different Views on Representation,” in Value Change and Governance in Canada, ed. Neil Nevitte (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2002), 174.

11 Press release summarizing views in Samara, “It’s My Party”: Parliamentary Dysfunction Reconsidered (Ottawa: Samara, April 2011),2.

12 Jerome H. Black and Bruce M. Hicks, “Strengthening Canadian Democracy: The Views of Parliamentary Candidates,” IRPP Policy Matters 7,2 (March, 2006), 36.

13 Asked to agree or disagree with the statement, “Without political parties there cannot be true democracy, “68.5 percent strongly, or somewhat strongly, agreed while 23 percent somewhat or strongly disagreed.” “Survey conducted for the Institute for Research on Public Policy,” April 2000.(Location: CORA Queen’s University.)

14 Paul Howe and David Northrup, “Strengthening Canadian Democracy: The Views of Canadians,” IRPP [Institute for Research on Public Policy] Policy Matters 1,5 (July 2000):23.

15 Power and the Powerless (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1978), 125.

16 Elizabeth Gidengil, André Blais, Neil Nevitte, and Richard Nadeau, Citizens (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2004) ,71. Also see Patrick Fournier, “The Uninformed Canadian Voter,” in Joanna Everitt and Brenda O’Neill, eds. Citizen Politics (Don Mills, Ont.: Oxford University Press, 2002), 92-109.

17 For a discussion of the impact of partisanship on thinking, see John Meisel, “The Dysfunctions of Canadian Parties: An Exploratory Mapping,” in Democracy with Justice, eds. Alain Gagnon and Brian Tanguay (Ottawa: Carleton University Press, 1992), 416.

18 See Kern Carty, Fred Cutler,and Patrick Fournier, “Who Killed BC-STV? For most voters, the more they knew, the more they liked it. But not Liberals,” The Tyee, July 8, 2009.

19 On the differing interests of elites and citizens see Ekos Research Associates, Inc., Rethinking Government ’94 (Ottawa: Ekos Research Inc. 1995), 12-13.

20 In a book on reform, Vernon Bogdanor, a British political scientist writes: “Any contemporary discussion of the party system must begin from the realization that parties are essential to democracy … in every democracy in the world, political parties compete for the right to form a government. So any attack upon the party system which called for the abolition of parties would be entirely futile.“Vernon Bogdanor, The People and the Party (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981), 2.

21 John Meisel, “The Dysfunctions of Canadian Parties: An Exploratory Mapping,” in Democracy with Justice, eds. Alain Gagnon and Brian Tanguay (Ottawa: Carleton University Press, 1992), 426.

22 Canada, Task Force on National Unity , A Future Together: Observations and Recommendations (Ottawa: Task Force on Canadian Unity, 1979), 114.


Commenting is closed for this article.