Wednesday, November 11, 2009

I recently found a response to a Walrus magazine article I wrote a few years back.

This article motivated me to begin blogging, so I thought I would report my response here.


In the September 2006 issue of Walrus magazine, Allan Gregg, wrote an article entitled 'How To Save Democracy'. As a renowned pollster (founder of Decima research, co-founder of The Strategic Counsel), I would expect Mr. Gregg to have a rich understanding of the Canadian mindset, and he doesn't disappoint there.

But unfortunately, the salvation he proposes negates the essence of the people he wishes it on.

Diagnosis and Cure

Allan Gregg begins with an assessment of the current political situation in Canada. Identifying and tagging our most obvious problems should be an easy task for a pollster, and he hits the biggest targets spot-on. “The core problem is that our cynicism cultivates further soil for more cynicism.” he writes. He describes the pitfalls in blaming politicians for cynicism, that doing so “distances the electorate even further from the system that was designed to protect and advance the citizen's needs."

The author points out public relations campaigns have had no real positive effect. He is also skeptical that electoral reforms such as proportional representation will achieve anything. But after showing a distaste for imposed, centrally-programmed solutions, Mr. Gregg goes on to propose solutions that run along the same lines.

His concept seems sound: politicians and the people are too far apart and the gap needs to be bridged. Perhaps if the people can see what our government, and our local MPs do for us, it will make government and civic participation more meaningful to us.

How can we make it happen ? Mr. Gregg suggests bringing politicians into closer contact with the voters, granting more access to the system, and making local representatives more influential. The suggested means of achieving these goals include compulsory voting, and “public sponsorship of festivals, reading series, debates and town-hall meetings” to encourage community.

But this is pure central programming and it would not receive any better response than the PR exercises he himself discounts. Let’s look at a recent example in Canadian politics to see why.

An Anti-Antidote

For a good anti-antidote to Mr. Gregg’s antidote, let’s consider the history of the Reform Party of Canada. Started by real communities of disaffected voters who worked within the system, believing it would make a difference in people’s lives, it was a model of a grassroots political movement. These people didn’t need to be taught the value of political action, or have the idea of community preached to them: they already had it.

So what happened to their movement ?

Fast forward twenty years or so and that party has become the Conservative Party of Canada. While still shiny and new, it is now very much a part of the Canadian political machine. Eastern Canadian voters certainly come to the new party as an alternative to the Liberals, but it is another political party now. It is no longer a movement for political reform.

And the chasm between the people and their leaders still exists after the arrival of the Reform/Alliance/Conservative party. In fact, it’s worse. This history illustrates the path that even a successful implementation of Mr. Gregg’s ideas would take.

The system as it is inevitably moves us to a division of the government and the governed, whether that government is big or small. In the end, the cynicism does not abate.

A Solution for Another Time

So why does Mr. Gregg fail to save democracy in the end ? It is because his solution attempts to solve the cynicism, which is a symptom of the problem, rather than working on the problem itself: an outdated political system that fits its people like a bad suit.

He gives himself away this fact himself with the sentence “we must make … changes aimed at elites as well as cultural changes aimed at the masses.” If Mr. Gregg truly thinks of the people of Canada as the masses, then can he really expect the ‘masses’ to behave as civically responsible individuals ?

This is his elemental error. Even as he realizes that we’re dealing with the masses, Allan Gregg reverts to a past ideal – a political system designed for a place, time and people that no longer exist.

The American founding fathers designed a system of government for a community, to be run by leaders (not by the masses) for the public good. The modern great-grandchild of that system gives every citizen can vote, where campaigns are run by remote control through pervasive electronic media. The mass public includes a majority who feel no obligation to civic duty beyond scanning the day’s headlines. They don’t even vote.

One can hope for change, but we shouldn’t waste our energies hoping for the impossible. No festival or reading program will cause ‘The Greatest Generation’ to reappear. That generation of civic minded, newspaper-reading individuals are gone, along with their dignified and revered political leaders. Who we are, how we do things, and how we see events have changed.

Mr. Gregg, in recognizing that we-the-people, are now we-the-masses should have followed through with that idea to a more appropriate solution. Although the mass public can’t expected to participate in the political process in the same way as the ‘public’ of the past, they can be useful in working towards positive change.

A more effective approach might be to leverage the distance between politicians and the mass public, rather than to try to bridge it. The mass public is disgusted with politicians that vie for their support but don’t solve our problems. One thing the Canadian mass public definitely wants in its government is good management.

If we could somehow crystallize roughly what the masses are looking for, and quantify a reasonably objective set of measures that help to define that ideal, we – the people – could set the political agenda. One could argue that the Reform push for deficit reduction in the 1990s was an example of the people demanding concrete and clear results. The Liberal government responded to pressure, making Reform and its grassroots supporters a significant agent of change in Canada.

Are there other ways in which we, the people, can get what we want from our politicians ?

Here’s a suggestion for a first step along those lines.

If there was a clear set of objective measures against which government performance can be measured that was generally agreed upon, there would be no place that a government or opposition could hide. The key would be for these metrics to be cross-partisan, clear and publicly accessible, like a score card.

For example, we have heard about hospital waiting lists to be growing, and hears every politician vow to lower them ? So how have they done against that goal ? Do you know ? Would you know where to look to find out ? Currently, when trying to form an opinion on such things, you have a choice between listening to superficial and contradictory arguments made on all sides (sometimes emotive, sometimes exhaustingly complex) or taking it upon yourself to do the research.

Is this a fit choice for the mass public ? Are either of these sources of information helpful to the masses ?

Without a clear source of information within reach, the public is shouted at by vested interests, drowning each other out with bullhorns full of contradictory facts and figures and deliberate misinformation. The majority gets confused, and checks out of the process.

Imagine how much more helpful it would be to see a box score such as the following in every daily newspaper:

This is only a rough example, and I don’t know much about designing charts, but wouldn’t adding such a table to our daily newspapers would put long-term thinking about health care squarely in the public mind ?

If I wanted to know the weather, movie times, or the ball scores, I would only have to pick up any local paper. Why aren’t long term medical statistics worthy of similar coverage ?

Faced with hard numbers above, fixed in the public mind, no politician would be able to hide behind rhetoric or exaggeration. The key indicators in the document, as discussed, would have to include measures agreed upon by a cross-partisan group: a clear, simple and report card.

The mass public needs to come up with better devices for making decisions. The key is for us to move forward is to recognize that we are a mass public, and to accept that political topography as a starting point. Simplifying the various debates, or giving all the information, or only the most sensational is no help at all.

We need start thinking about what the masses can do for us, rather than what we can do for the masses.