Four Corners and Prorogies:

“Keep Moving, Please. No Democracies to see here”

Dear Virtual Editor,

Since I have an interest in the news from both my countries, I have planned for some time, as a public service to offer Americans a primer on what Canadians insist on referring to as democracy and a similar primer for Canadians about the U.S. version.

Cdn-US_FlagsThere was another thing that prompted me to undertake this project— and kept me from putting my head in my water dish when I found an authoritative report that the Miley Cyrus twerking (or tworking) that I referred to in an earlier post got thousands more hits last week than all the news about Syria.

What bothered me was yet another annoying reference to the “conflict between communism and democracy”.  For the umpteenth time, this is an apples/oranges comparison.  Communism is a debatable economic system that sometimes gets hijacked. Democracy is a political system currently suffering the same fate. So let’s talk about democracy.

I do not have the latest OED, the one that just included “twerking” by the way.  My considerably older version defines democracy as That form of government in which the supreme power rests with the people…The modern concept of democracy assumes the political equality of all individuals. This is what is currently on leave of absence in Canada and the U.S.

ElectionIn Canada at the moment, we have a dictatorship.  Trust me, this is not hyperbole, but neither is it a doomsday cry or a personal attack on the current dictator. Here is why it is true.

In 1972, I was a member of the Cumberland County North Carolina campaign committee for George McGovern. For the few who might not know, Cumberland County includes Fort Bragg, the largest military base in the country at the time. McGovern wanted to put a lot of soldiers out of work. There was very little competition for seats on this committee.

What does this have to do with Canada?  In the ’72 election, McGovern was trounced by Richard Nixon. He managed only about 38% of the vote. It was an historic landslide defeat. (If I were catholic, there is no doubt that Jude would be my patron saint.)  In Canada’s last election, Prime Minister Stephen Harper managed about 39% of the vote. So how did he get to be dictator?  Stay with me.

First, here we do not have a two party system. We have a currently dysfunctional parliamentary system. There are three to four parties, and membership in the House of Commons is determined by a “first past the post” method. Our campaigns run a merciful five weeks or so, not two to three years, but we still cannot find time for runoffs, so 39% will do just fine The party electing the most members to the House this way gets to choose the Prime Minister.  Nobody outside his Calgary riding (district) got to vote against Harper. 

gchoc2011_chamberUnder this scheme, the Conservative Party elected the most members in the last election. The next thing you need to know is that when those members get to Ottawa, they are not allowed to oppose anything Harper proposes.  There are no “blue dog Conservatives” in the Canadian system.  A member who does not vote the party line is kicked out of the party caucus. He or she may, of course, run as an independent and might retain the seat. History shows that this is not likely to happen more than once.  If the member has particularly annoyed the government, however, a strong candidate to oppose her could be “parachuted in”. No requirement that members reside in the place where they are elected.

In Provinces, (the rough equivalent of States) the same system and same practices are in play. The current right wing Provincial government in British Columbia has provided a recent example of airborne politics. The government of Premier Christy Clark won an upset victory (perhaps due to her perpetual grin that reminds us southern expats of a possum eatin’ peach seeds), but she lost her seat in Vancouver. Not to worry. She parachuted into a safe riding in Kelowna. She is now spared the embarrassment she presumably suffered when the legislature convened and she was confined to the visitor’s gallery.

In another recent example of Provincial politics following federal practice, it was not even necessary for one member of Quebec’s legislature to cast a rogue vote.  All she did was criticize a particularly xenophobic bill proposed by the Premier, who is the leader of her party. For that, the member was expelled the very next day.

There is one more element necessary to understanding Harper’s benign dictatorship.  In a functioning parliamentary system, the opposition parties matter because they can form a coalition representing the actual majority of voters and bring down the “first past the post” winner in a no-confidence vote.   That fate for the Harper government has been on the horizon   in the last few years, but he has an answer.  He dismisses parliament. (The term we use up here is “prorogued”.  Sounds like Central European culinary delicacy to me, although I have not yet seen supporters of Harper’s move referred to as “prorogies”.)

Oh yes, we also have a Senate in Canada. It is not a legislative body. It issues a lot of good reports and studies and can sometimes delay really, really bad bills. Senators seem to do a lot travelling and sometimes fudge considerably on their expense reports. That seems to be the only thing at the moment that upsets Canadians about government.  Senators are not elected. They are appointed by Prime Ministers.

0610d95f6d38e0ab2ac72a8b06a7612dThe result of this structure as it is currently operating, is that nothing Mr. Harper opposes is allowed to become law and all of his affirmative proposals must become law.  Proroguing is not even necessary now because his 39% in the last election yielded a “majority” government.  Mr. Harper does not go around in a flashy faux military uniform with a sash and epaulets. (Although a recent photo op in a cowboy hat didn’t work out too well.) Nevertheless, add to the Canadian structure the fact that he is empowered to, and does run a secretive regime in which all matters must be cleared through the Prime Minister’s office, and I contend, with malice toward none and charity toward all, that this amounts to a dictatorship. It is certainly not a democracy.

Perhaps a Canadian reader will undertake to comment and challenge the case I have laid out here, but I doubt it. In addition to their legendary politeness, Canadians are proud that the “C” in Canada also stands for Complacency.  The Nixonian level 62% of us who did not want Mr. Harper are quietly bearing the consequences of mandatory sentences in the face of falling crime rates, ongoing destruction of the environment, silencing of  dissent from the scientific community, secrecy, corruption, and a raft of miscellaneous unpleasantness. Very quietly. In British Columbia at the moment we are much more up in arms about the questions of whether our electricity meters will make us sterile and what can be done about the presence of working class deer in upscale neighborhoods. No kidding.

A final note to American readers: Do not be misled by the names of our political parties. The governing federal party may be called the Conservatives, or Tories with some accuracy.  The provincial party in British Columbia which is Tory twin, however, is called the Liberal Party.

Mr. Harper is allowing parliament to be un-prorogued next month. There next election, is in 2015. Keep moving. No democracy to see here.

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Do not despair, Canadian friends, there is no democracy to see in the U.S. either.

WATCH-Obamas-State-of-the-Union-addressOne of my Canadian friends recently asked me which of the two political systems I thought superior.  It was a close question for me, but I told him that structurally I would probably prefer the U.S. system. I quickly added , however, that the question was rhetorical because corruption matters much more than structure and the U.S system at the moment is thoroughly corrupted.

kstreetEven a well structured democracy cannot overcome corruption.  The US governs from K street, where the lobbyists are, not from Pennsylvania avenue or Capitol Hill.   “Elected” representatives are bought, sold, and employed after leaving office by lobbyists.  At the moment, the Republicans own the greatest number. They have the most money.  That is in part because the Supreme Court has said that artificial people are the same as real people and can buy as many elections as they wish. The NRA’s frustration of the will of about 85% of the people on gun safety legislation is only one of the latest examples of the current state of affairs.

As if corruption was not enough of a problem, someone has not been minding the structural store. The House of Representatives, counterpart to the House of Commons, is supposed to be the “people’s house”.  In the last election, the Democratic Party garnered 600,000+ more votes for House candidates than did the Republican Party.  The result?  A commanding majority for the Republicans.  This was mainly achieved by a device known as Gerrymandering.  Republican legislatures draw bizarrely shaped election districts in order to ensure a few very safe seats for Democrats, and then disperse the remaining Democratic voters into a much greater number of districts where they are outnumbered by Republican voters.  Here is a bonus for bar trivia TexasCongressionalDistricts2009players: The practice originated in 1812 when Massachusetts Governor, Elbridge Gerry drew districts that resembled a salamander.  In 2012 Pennsylvania, for example, the practice elected 13 of 18 Republicans to the House, in spite of a deficit of 75,000 votes.

Not satisfied, Republicans are currently engaged in the complementary activity of simply denying the right to vote to those who are likely to vote for Democrats. (See previous post.)  They are pulling this off because of the availability of tons of money to appeal to the very worst in human nature, but also because Democrats seem to have borrowed a healthy dose of Canadian complacency.  They cannot be bothered to become involved in local politics. Members of state legislatures have never been the sharpest tools in the box but when a sufficient number of wing nuts get elected they can do a lot of damage.  This year, Democrats spent so much time gloating about winning the presidency that they failed to notice that the national rug had already been pulled out from under them in 2010, the census year, when Republicans gained enough state houses to Gerrymander the House of Representatives.

Unlike Canada, there is at least the possibility in the US House of members voting against the wishes of their leaders.  But the leadership controls the matter of when and what comes up for a vote. Proroguing is not required. One recent example was immigration reform, another measure supported by a vast majority of the public.  The Senate passed a bill some time ago. There was a danger that Democrats and a few Republicans would form a majority of the undemocratically elected body and pass legislation that Democrats and the President wanted.  Republican House Speaker John Boehner simply announced that there would be no votes allowed on anything not supported by a majority of his party— on this matter, a minority of a minority.

So how is the House spending its time?  To understand that, we have to consider another structural feature: the presidential veto. Admittedly undemocratic, but part of a fairly sensible scheme of what is called “checks and balances”, it allows the elected president to put thumbs down on a piece of legislation unless both the House and Senate pass it by at least a two thirds majority. The Affordable Care Act, or Insurance Industry Windfall Act, is the only law passed since the 2008 election that is of more significance than a resolution designating National Blueberry Month.  It is the legacy piece of the current president.  No bill denying funding for its implementation will be passed in the Senate or survive a veto.  House Republicans, however, have taken a page from Dean Smith—his coaching, not his politics. Instead of bringing up issues of interest to the public for a vote, they have gone into the Four Corners. (Sorry Canadians. I will explain details later.) To amuse themselves while running out the clock, this week they voted to defund the Affordable Care Act—for the forty first time.

images-1That brings us to the US Senate. The Senate is a purposely undemocratic elected body, another aspect of checks and balances.  Texas has more than 26million people and two Senators, as does Wyoming, population 576,412 .  In the last election, more Democrats than Republicans were elected to the Senate.  Republicans, however, discovered an anti-democracy tool that is not part of the official “checks and balances”.  It is called the filibuster. 2009—2017 model.  It is also a Four Corners device. In the past, Senators would occasionally speak for hours and hours in an effort to delay or defeat a bill.  They could only be stopped by a two thirds vote to cut off debate.  Today, the practice is easier on the larynx. If one Senator raises his hand and says “I filibuster”, an imaginary debate is deemed under way and it takes a two thirds vote to shut it down.  Actually, there is no requirement to raise your hand, or even be present in the Senate chamber. Currently, the Republican minority is filibustering everything except National Blueberry day.  The Senate majority leader has the power, but not the backbone to put a stop to this unofficial legislative veto.

electoral.college.map.2012.v.finalThe final structural impediment to democracy in the US, one that nobody from either party wants to talk about fixing, is the Electoral College.  Instead of voting directly for President and Vice President, Americans vote for people that they do not know and could not pick out of a police lineup, called Electors.  There actually was a pre-Twitter era when this made some sense.  There was no news or information available so localities picked people they trusted to get together and decide which candidate was best for them.  Failure to reform this institution shortly after the first telegraph wire was strung, however, is the reason  Al Gore , with half a million more votes than George W. Bush in 2000, got off to study that global warming hoax while Bush got to kill people in the Middle East.

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I apologize for insulting the intelligence of Middle School students in both of my countries, who are no doubt completely familiar with all I have just explained.  Forgive me kids, but this primer was directed at adults anyway.

When I was a Middle School student in Tennessee, I went on the obligatory field trip to the state legislature in Nashville.  The city is known as the “Athens of the South” and it is only natural that it pays homage to Greece, the cradle of democracy. On the grounds of the legislature there is even a magnificent building that is a replica of the Parthenon.  Before we all trooped into the gallery to watch democracy in action, a guide explained to us that bills were drafted, brought to the floor and then debated.  The elected representatives of the people considered one another’s arguments and then voted on whether the bill would become law. We then got to see that happen!

I imagine guides are still giving this pitch to Middle School students in Nashville—and Columbus, and Montgomery, and Washington D.C.   Probably also in Victoria, Calgary, Quebec City and Ottawa. I just wonder if it is a little harder these days to do it with a straight face.

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