18 August 2003

Principled participation in politics

Gideon Strauss asks:

How does one go about being a neocalvinist in a liberal regime?

This is one of the more difficult questions I ask myself. It sometimes seems as if it might have been easier to have been a neocalvinist in my native South Africa, where a fledgling democracy with a congenial electoral system provided the opportunity - and still provides the opportunity, in my opinion - of shaping the partisan dialogue in the early years after the founding of the regime. Here in Canada, and in the USA, one is faced with a settled regime that is deeply rooted in a liberal modernity of the English variety. The partisan dialogue follows patterns established long ago - patterns that seem to have the power to turn every debate into a reiteration of long-established conventional pieties, and to co-opt new voices within less than a generation.

This is something I've agonized over for some time, as both a Canadian citizen and an academic political scientist. I've been asked this question many times over the years by ordinary Canadians, including my own students. Most recently I've been asked this in the course of several radio interviews in the States. It's always been something of a struggle to come up with a satisfactory answer.

To be honest, when it comes time to vote, I tend to vote strategically, which is all but unavoidable in a first-past-the-post electoral system. This means that I try to determine which candidate has the best chance of defeating the incumbent, assuming the incumbent is a member of the governing parliamentary caucus. That's not at all a principled way of voting, except that it represents a feeble attempt on my part to defeat an executive with insufficient checks on its power, and thus to revivify Canada's enfeebled democracy. But I certainly do not enjoy exercising my right to vote.

In the US, because of the relative weakness of party discipline, it is possible for Christians to vote on a person-by-person basis and thus to cast their votes for individual candidates of integrity. Had I lived in Oregon during the half century that Mark O. Hatfield was in politics, I would have voted for him with enthusiasm. Hatfield was a serious Christian who served as governor of his home state and then as US senator and who always acted on conscience. But he was only one person. There was no Hatfield party ready to take the reins of government.

In Canada matters are in some respect worse because of the rigidity of party discipline coupled with the sheer pragmatism of the major parties. They are simply not very representative. There is simply no possiblity of a Mark Hatfield making a lonely stand for the cause of justice. The Canadian Alliance is doing little more than to move Canadian politics in a populist rather than a principled direction.

I suppose I put my hope in the increasing likelihood of our adopting some form of proportional representation (PR), following the almost certain forthcoming examples of Quebec and British Columbia. Some might charge me with harbouring utopian expectations over the adoption of PR. Not at all. Bringing in PR would simply be a way of opening up what is essentially a closed political system and allowing citizens of the various faith communities to enter the public square. What they do once they're there is another issue.

Adopting PR is not the end of the battle; it's no more than the beginning (at last) of a fair framework for waging political battles in the first place.

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