history of democracy

Democracies Ancient and Modern

A gathering of people with protest signs in the plaza outside of Innsbruck town hall
The Climate Strike in Innsbruck, September 2019

I had a couple of women, constituents, come to my office and say, ‘We fought so hard to get a seat around the table, and you got there and you gave it away.’ It kind of stunned me. My answer to them was, ‘We didn’t fight hard to get a seat at the table so that we [could] do things the way they’ve always been done and let the boys still run things the way the boys have been running things.’

– Jane Philpott, independent MP for Markham-Stouffville and former cabinet minister, interview with Jason McBride, “Can Jane Philpott Change Politics?” (2019) https://thewalrus.ca/can-jane-philpott-change-politics/

Remember when (the Prime Minister) was held in contempt of Parliament by majority of the members? And the Governor General let him get away with ignoring this and treating it as merely a partisan stunt? … Our elections seem to have been transformed into something like a plebiscite on who makes the best Prime Minister. … our 19th century institutions are in a shambles because we don’t remember the 19th century principles that made them effective, and we haven’t replaced them with more recent principles and institutions

– Steve Muhlberger, “Democracy in Trouble” (2013) https://smuhlberger.blogspot.com/2013/07/democracy-in-trouble.html

Perhaps we find it normal for voters to be told, in every election, that they cannot vote for the party they actually support, but must vote for a party they dislike to forestall the election of a party they detest. But in the vast majority of the world’s democracies that use some form of proportional representation the idea would seem absurd, not to say presumptuous. It is for voters to tell parties what to do, not the reverse. … there’s the obsession with the horse race: where the parties are in the polls, and what strategies they are likely to pursue in response … this is partly a phenomenon of first past the post, and the winner-take-all mentality that accompanies it. The point of an election is not just to find out who won, but what the public wants. And the point of election coverage is not just to report who’s winning, but what the winners would do with the mandate they seek.

– Andrew Coyne, “Shouldn’t every riding be a ‘battleground’? The problems with how we do elections” The National Post 13 September 2019

Formal democ­ra­cy, in such places, rides like a float­ing cork on an ocean of invis­i­ble influ­ences, tan­gled pow­er struc­tures and murky social forces.

– Phil Paine, “A New International Body” (2006) http://www.philpaine.com/?p=425

I am Canadian, and we have an election coming. The past four years have seen a managerial government in Ottawa which worked through some of its easier commitments– legalizing marijuana, providing drinkable water to some but not all First Nations communities, negotiating a not terrible revision of NAFTA with the current administration in Washington, taking a share of Syrian refugees- but avoided deep structural changes like electoral reform or accepting that unceeded land belongs to its inhabitants not the Crown. The three biggest parties have chosen to take vast areas of policy off the table this election: the staffers who run them all agree that we should have a mixed economy with a welfare state, that whoever the United States government defines as enemies are Canada’s enemies too, that their candidates should include men and women with all kinds of ancestry who repeat the same talking points. They dutifully talk about affordability, about “hard-working Canadians” or “the middle class” or “entrepreneurs,” and about cutting a public service here or creating a new one there. Where in some countries candidates spend most of their time calling potential donors and begging for money, in Canada they spend it knocking on doors looking for people to talk to. The new anti-immigration, climate-contrarian People’s Party is not expected to get more than 4% of the vote, and the other parties all talk about anthropogenic global warming even if some of their policies are more coherent than others. If you are outside Canada, it probably sounds comforting. But in Canada people who watch the system are worried that while the forms of parliamentary democracy remain, there is less and less substance underneath. Between writing job applications, I have been reading some excellent reports from the Samara Centre for Democracy based on interviews with former MPs.
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