23 March 2014

Too much democracy?

A century ago, during the Progressive Era in the United States, would-be reformers went about trying to democratize more thoroughly an already democratic political system. In 1913 the Seventeenth Amendment to the Constitution provided for direct election of Senators, who had previously been appointed by the several state legislatures. Even the method of selecting a presidential candidate was reformed to bring more popular participation to the nomination process.

In 1933 one-time presidential aspirant Al Smith observed that the cure for the ills of democracy is more democracy. But might it be possible to over-democratize a political system to its detriment?

Here in Canada our head of state inherits her office. The Queen has been an exemplary public servant during her lengthy reign, but no one can pretend she was chosen according to the merit principle or by popular acclamation. Our Senate is similarly filled by appointment, despite abortive efforts at reforming the upper chamber of Parliament. Yet we too were influenced by Progressive Era reforms of a hundred years ago.

Prior to 1919 a party leader in the House of Commons was chosen by the party’s parliamentary caucus. However, that year saw the death of long-time Liberal leader Sir Wilfrid Laurier just prior to the beginning of a convention to restore unity to a fragmented party after the divisive conscription crisis of 1917. Because delegates from across Canada were already scheduled to meet later that year, Laurier’s unexpected passing provided an opportunity to hold an American-style leader selection convention, which chose William Lyon Mackenzie King as his successor. The opposition Conservatives followed suit a few years later.

Since then the selection of party leaders has been even more thoroughly democratized, with ordinary party members and supporters playing an increasing role in the process. This is a good thing, right?

Well, perhaps not. In 1990, after Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher foolishly imposed a poll tax in Scotland, where she was least popular, her Conservative caucus were able to unseat her precisely because they had put her there in the first place. When she was no longer able to govern effectively, it was a simple matter to remove her and replace her with someone else. Even Tony Blair had to fend off revolts in his own Labour Party back benches.

By contrast, here in Canada such revolts are almost impossible to carry off, thereby preventing a potentially effective check on the Prime Minister’s insufficiently accountable power. In their award-winning book, Democratizing the Constitution, authors Peter Aucoin, Mark Jarvis and Lori Turnbull point out that making the party’s leader dependent on its rank and file has inadvertently strengthened the hand of that leader over his own parliamentary caucus. Because the party faithful are too diffuse a body to exercise effective control over their leader and because the parliamentary caucus cannot go against the rank and file, the leader’s – and, if the party forms the government, Prime Minister’s – position is enhanced within the system as a whole. The former Canadian Alliance discovered this problem just over a decade ago when their leader, Stockwell Day, proved unable to command the loyalty of his party caucus despite having won the support of the grassroots.

Philosopher Yves R. Simon once wrote that, for a democracy to function properly, it needs healthy nondemocratic institutions. Indeed there is a small but growing movement south of the border to repeal the Seventeenth Amendment to restore what they see as the integrity of the American federal system against an overly intrusive central government in Washington. In fact, for much of the past two and a half millennia in the west, the most thoughtful political philosophers favoured something they called a mixed constitution – one that would combine the best features of monarchy, aristocracy and democracy in a single composite constitutional framework.

Here in Canada it may be that we have the worst features of monarchy in its pure form. The office at issue, however, is not that of the Queen, but of her Prime Minister, whom Parliament, under most circumstances, seems incapable of reining in. Perhaps it’s time to reverse the reform of 1919 and allow the party’s parliamentary caucus to choose its leader. Yes, it may sound undemocratic, but over the long term it may serve to make the Prime Minister more accountable and to restore a badly-needed balance to our own otherwise resilient constitutional framework.

David Koyzis is the author, most recently, of We Answer to Another: Authority, Office, and the Image of God. This appeared as his monthly "Principalities and Powers" column in Canadian periodical Christian Courier.

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