Democracy in Peril

Journal of Business Administration and Policy Analysis, Annual 1996 | Go to article overview

Democracy in Peril


As a social democrat in terms of my values and inclinations, I believe that our current democracy is in peril. We are facing five to ten years of difficulty in terms of our political system for four reasons:

1) The "demonization" of politicians.

2) The media, which I affectionately refer to as the "scrum of the earth," have lost their way.

3) The interest and pressure groups believing that compromise is a dirty word. In other words, they threaten to destroy you politically if they do not realize 100% of their goal. This may be a fallout from the "me" generation, but it creates a serious problem in that it makes governing extremely difficult.

4) The predominance of the neo-conservative agenda. I do not have a problem with someone being neo-conservative, as diversity is the essence to our democracy and to our society. However, I would argue that for the last fifteen to twenty years, we have had a domination of the public debate by the neo-conservative agenda. This agenda, as I see it, has been organized through business and through many think-tanks in Canada who essentially have a neo-conservative agenda.

Because of these four trends that have been occurring Canada, I believe that we are moving towards a "rough patch" with our democracy being afflicted by these "viruses."

Now, I would like to walk you through a test that I tried out on about 200 Simon Fraser media students. I asked them to think about the reaction they have when they hear the word "politician." Is it positive or negative? If your first reaction was negative, what was it? Very few had a initial positive response to this question, with about one-fifth thinking that entering politics would be positive. Next, I asked them how many were involved in community activities such as amateur sports, environmental organizations or church groups. My point with this exercise was to demonstrate the demonization of politicians that is occurring. Many politicians, prior to entering politics, are very involved, respected members of their communities. One minute, you are a leader restoring salmon spawning streams, running amateur softball, finding housing for the homeless, etc. and then you run for public office (to the horror of your family!) and you instantaneously become a "politician" about whom anyone can say anything!

One of the most liberating experiences I have had was when I did a Rafe Mair show on 'NW radio to publicize my book, A Measure of Defiance. (Douglas and McIntyre, 1996). As an introduction, Rafe said: "I have the ex-Premier of BC on my show tonight, Mike Harcourt, who I call the 'Grim Moaner'." So I said: "How good it is to be back on your show, with your knuckle-dragging, anonymous cowards who tie up your lines all the time. Who automatic-dial the lines, so that they're all tied up, so ordinary people can't phone in." About the third call that came into the show was some guy in Richmond who said, "you're a liar, you're a cheat, you're a crook!" And I said, "And I'm retired. You're a jerk, you always will be and you're finished." That was a very liberating moment for me.

The problem that you face as a politician is if you enter politics, people are suddenly able to say that you are a liar, a crook, and a cheat because these are traits that are generalized to all politicians. I am not denying that some politicians deserve to be criticized. Bill Vander Zalm did misuse his office and Brian Mulroney's MPs did some nasty things that some are going to jail for. And Richard Nixon, I think we'll agree, wasn't one of the greatest examples of moral standards for the youth of the USA. But, I can tell you, and I sincerely mean this, that 99% of the people that I met who were elected politicians were there for the right reason: to improve their communities.

We've had some fierce disagreements about how to improve our communities, but that is what democracy is all about. Public perception, however, is skewed into believing that all politicians are dishonest liars and crooks. …

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