Monday, January 25, 2010

This month in democracy

All things being equal, I should probably be feeling a lot more deflated and cynical vis à vis democracy and its discontents these days than I am. Three big blows to the democratic process have been landed, two in the U.S. and one here: (1) Stephen Harper’s prorogation of parliament, (2) the U.S. Senate’s stagnation and obstructionism, and finally (3) the recent decision by SCOTUS to reverse a century of legislation restricting corporate political contributions, effectively opening the floodgates for corporate money to influence and/or buy elections and elected officials.

I have watched the special Massachusetts election of Scott Brown, which took away the Democrats’ supermajority, and the ensuing commentary with bemusement. The Village Voice captured the absurdity most succinctly with their headline, “Scott Brown Wins Mass. Race, Giving GOP 41-59 Majority in the Senate.” If ever there was a moment in which the American electoral system was showing its flaws, surely this is it—the pros and cons of the current health care reform bills notwithstanding, surely an eighteen vote advantage should be enough to pass legislation? Apparently not with the threat of the filibuster hanging over it.

The U.S. Senate, it should be pointed out, is a pretty undemocratic body to begin with. It was originally designed to be the “sober second thought” in the crafting of legislation, with senators having six year terms as opposed to congressmen’s two ostensibly leading to a more stable, mature consideration of proposed bills. The senators were also fewer in number, and—most importantly—not determined by the populations they represented. Rather, each state gets two senators, regardless of size. This was less of a problem back in the late eighteenth century when there were only thirteen states, which did not have vast discrepancies in population; however, when the people of California (population thirty-six million) have the same representation in the Senate as Vermont (population six hundred thousand), the influence small states wield is wildly asymmetrical.

But that’s neither here or there—the filibuster has become an increasingly common tool for blocking legislation, to the point where, in practice, an obstructionist minority only interested in preventing votes (such as we now see in action) can grind the wheels of the legislative branch to a halt. Employment of the filibuster has increased more than fivefold—between 1951 and 1960, it was used an average of 3.2 times a year, whereas between 1981 and 2004 the yearly average was 16.5. (For a good breakdown of the procedural issues, read here and here).

The filibuster has a quasi-romantic quality in the popular imagination—from its very name, which means “freebooter” or “pirate,” to Jimmy Stewart’s Mr. Smith, to the West Wing episode “The Stackhouse Filibuster”—connoting a lone heroic individual standing up against the system. And indeed, certain instances of individuals filibustering do conform to that idea (though not always on the side of the angels, as with Strom Thurmond’s attempt to block the Civil Rights Act). More and more however it has become standard operating procedure for the minority party to thwart the majority agenda. While its use has traditionally been that of last resort, it has become business as usual.

I can’t help but see a parallel to Stephen Harper’s use of prorogation, insofar as it too is an arcane parliamentary procedure of last resort. The argument could be made that last year’s invocation of it was just that, a desperate manoeuvre to circumvent an undemocratic power grab by the opposition (not an argument I agree with, but it could be made nevertheless); no such claim could me made however about the decision to prorogue parliament this past December 30. This time, it was so blatantly and baldly a move to avoid having to address the Afghani detainee scandal until after the Winter Olympics, by which time (Harper would hope) the public’s attention would be elsewhere.

The use of prorogation twice in the space of a year is worrisome, not least because it would seem to set a new precedent for the PM’s autocratic powers, and redefine the relationship between the PM and parliament. For me, Stephen Harper’s most troubling quality has always been his obvious desire to arrogate presidential power to the PMO and overturn the Westminster standard of “first among equals.” The high-handed use of prorogation—both times—bespeaks both arrogance and a disdain for the checks on prime ministerial power that are a cornerstone of parliamentary democracy (to say nothing of the disrespect to the Governor General, and of all the bills before the House of Commons that now die).

What keeps me buoyed in the face of these events however is that it puts these governmental flaws on people’s radar. Prorogation Part Two would certainly seem, at this point, to have backfired for Harper. If he banked on Canadians’ apathy to see him through, the early signs aren’t good for him: his poll numbers have dropped, and people across the country are speaking up angrily. Nor have I heard anything in the way of support for Harper’s actions—the right seems more or less mum on the subject, which is a tacit admission that the PM was way out of line on this one. I have reason to hope that this may have been one bridge too far for Harper.

Similarly, there is also some real discourse in the U.S. happening about the filibuster, and the Senate’s arcane procedures more generally. I have less hope that anything will happen on that front than I am about prorogation being Harper’s Waterloo, but it is heartening. One way or another, Obama seems to be fired up: he’s taking a more oppositional and populist tone than he has since the election, and he has re-hired his campaign director David Plouffe to chart a new course. Hopefully, after a year of being conciliatory, he’s pissed off. The State of the Union should be a barn-burner.

Finally, the Supreme Court’s ruling last week taking the restrictions of corporate political donations doesn’t have me as outraged as I might have imagined. A large part of my calm was summed up nicely by Glenn Greenwald, who observes that any lament about the certain corporate interference in American government necessarily suggests that this is not already the case:

The reality is that our political institutions are already completely beholden to and controlled by large corporate interests (Dick Durbin: "banks own" the Congress). Corporations find endless ways to circumvent current restrictions—their armies of PACs, lobbyists, media control, and revolving-door rewards flood Washington and currently ensure their stranglehold—and while this decision will make things marginally worse, I can't imagine how it could worsen fundamentally. (

Sadly, I can’t disagree with Greenwald’s argument. Furthermore, in looking closely at the case and the decision, one finds that there are in fact some significant First Amendment issues that would have made the reverse ruling problematic from a free speech perspective. That the court decided to overturn a century of precedent on the funding of elections strikes me as something of a baby/bathwater situation, but it is fairly clear that there was no easy extrication from this case one way or another.

On the other hand, the ruling has evoked a storm of condemnation on both sides of the political coin, and may ironically do more to draw attention to the need to reform the way election campaigns are funded than any previous endeavours.

So, to recap: the U.S. Senate is broken, but so visibly so it has excited serious discussion about how to fix it. Stephen Harper has prorogued parliament in autocratic and arrogant fashion, and in the process ignited a grassroots protest and sent his numbers into a tailspin. And America’s Supreme Court has formalized corporate ownership of elected officials, which may well lead to a bipartisan effort to scale back the excesses of soft money. Of course, none of these eventualities may pan out—I sit here with fingers crossed. But if one or more of them do, it would be a vindication of the principle that sometimes things have to get worse before they can get better.

No comments: