Monday 23 November 2020

A Search for Real Democracy

 Have you ever heard of Kelly Loeffler?  She is a Senator.  No, you probably have not heard of her because, first of all, she is a Senator in the United States and, secondly, she was only appointed at the beginning of this year. 

 Yes, that is right, she was appointed as a Republican Senator in the state of Georgia by a Republican Governor in order to fill a vacancy.  The reason I speak of her is because she is, in fact,, rather important.  The United States Congress has 100 senators, two for each state, and as a group they can block any federal legislation.

Now Ms. Loeffler is unique in one way.  She is the richest member of United States Senate.  That is saying a lot.  Back in 1986, when I was mandated to deal with American legislators, I was told that every single member of United States Senate at that time was a millionaire.  You couldn't get to be a Senator unless you were a millionaire no matter what your party.  You couldn't afford it because it was expected that you would spend your own money to get elected.

As a legislator from Canada, that struck me as strange.  It still would.  Today, it is illegal in this country for any candidate to be elected to our Parliament to spend more than $5000 of his or her own money.  As I recall, at least one candidate in recent years breached that law and went to jail.

Sen. Loeffler, however, has hundreds of millions of dollars and so that will not be a problem for her when she seek selection in the Georgian runoff vote this coming January.  In fact, she has already booked more than $40 million in television advertising in the Atlanta area and is already running advertisements making negative allegations against the Democratic candidate, the Pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta.

Now, what has this lady done in her eleven months as a Senator?  In her words she has voted "100% Trump".  In addition, when she took office in January she was given a confidential briefing about the approaching coronavirus and she is alleged to have used that information illegally to make millions of dollars more on the stock exchange.

There is something very wrong with this picture.  

This is not democracy.  And it is certainly not democracy to see the likes of Donald Trump try to hold onto power in the face of the fact that he has lost a democratically held election.  I don't think he will succeed but he is acting exactly the same as Alexandr Lukashenko in Belarus and several other dictators even as they, in turn, are condemned by Trump's Secretary of State.

Right now, we Canadians are smugly criticizing what is going on south of the border.  We have no right to.  There are a lot of reasons why Donald Trump will be deposed.  United States, indeed, is a land of liberty with a free press and his autocracy will not be tolerated much longer.  The checks and balances which make their Constitution so cumbersome are having a good affect.

For one thing, each state runs its own election before electors are chosen to choose the President.  There is a uniform date for these elections, the first Tuesday in November in leap year, but they are separately run elections.  In fact, in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, every county runs its own election.  That is a concept unheard of in this country.  Elections Canada is an independent commission set up by the Parliament of Canada and it runs the election process across the whole country independent of any political influence.  This seems to work very well.  In fact, the Member of Parliament I was referring to earlier who went to jail was a supporter of the government of the day. 

Do we have a right to be so smug?  Let us suppose that a real populist came along and was successful in winning a majority government.  So far, there have been a few attempts and they have failed rather badly On the other hand, on the provincial level, Doug Ford has exhibited elements of populism in his career and he may still.  What would happen, however, if a federal leader caught fire, so to speak, and swept into power with a majority.?  He or she could easily use that power to demand of Parliament that Elections Canada be made his or her personal fiefdom with his or her minions in charge.  Mr. Trump can only dream of such power.

In many ways, Donald Trump predicted his own election loss.  Had he been able to control the actual process itself, he wouldn't have had to make things as messy as he has now.  Canada's potential populist leader might well have much greater ability to destroy the whole process.  That is the way it was done in Belarus and in so many other dictatorships. Alexandr Lukashenko simply declared that he had won and had himself quietly re-inaugurated.

Harvard law professor Lawrence Lessig has written a very interesting book, entitled They Don't Represent Us, which tackles some of these problems.  For instance, he accepts the fact that it would be politically impossible to get rid of the Electoral College.  The small states would never permit it .He does note that a number of states have entered into a compact in which they have passed legislation which would order their members of the Electoral College to vote for the candidate who has the most votes in the whole country as opposed to the most votes in that state.  For instance, California, a member of the compact, would have had to cast all of its Electoral College votes for the Republican candidate for president had he had the most votes in the country as a whole.  This would be the case even although most people in California were voting for the Democrat.  All the country needs is to have enough states in the compact to represent 270, i.e.half, of the total Electoral College votes and the candidate with the most popular vote would be automatically elected.  At present states representing more than 180 Electoral College votes have so committed.

Lessig's main complaint, and it is applicable in this country as well, is that people do not, and indeed cannot, commit enough time in a democracy to study the issues.  Rather, knowing they have a duty to vote but not having follow the issues, they succumb to last-minute pressure in the form of, to say the least, very simplistic advertising.  He has an interesting solution to this problem.  He points out that it is a legal duty for citizens to drop everything if they are ordered to sit on a jury for a trial.  Why not, he asks, could there not be a random selection of a jury across the country wherein those chosen would have to drop everything for a month and go to the state capital or Washington where they would study some vital issue concerning or even dividing the country. They could be
subjected to facts regarding an issue with allowance for arguments on both sides, not unlike a civil or criminal jury trial. A poll would be taken at the end of the month or at the end of their study period.  Surely, he argues, this would be preferable to what happens now where people are pulled to the right and to the left by algorithms in social media.

The results would not necessarily be binding on legislators, but boy would they have a powerful influence on public opinion and, consequently, legislation.   Ordinary people like you and me would've had a chance to study an issue carefully and come to a conclusion. 

That is what our representatives should be doing.  In either of our countries, that would be a real step toward true democracy.

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