Sunday, 1 May 2011

Editorial - Rousseau May 1/2011

Reasonable Discourse and Democracy

It is certainly convenient how the date of the upcoming election falls before the release of so much pertinent information. Reviews of excessive government spending. Inquiries into troubling military incidents. Breaches of due process. In large measure, much of the previous opposition’s campaign has been geared towards identifying these and other affronts to the spirit of democratic accountability in this country. We already know how closed-off, unrepresentative, and churlish this government would be if granted the opportunity to represent us at home and abroad once again. Their ongoing politics-of-fear campaign is a testament to that. As is the incumbent’s insistence on childishly demonizing the opposition rather than engaging in any semblance of meaningful discourse. We are left shaking our heads, wondering if our political culture has really sunk this low. So many of us are forced to sit here, spellbound, unsure as to how this ineffective (and frankly embarrassing) government tasked with representing the ‘will of the people’ is so close to receiving yet another mandate. We are currently confronted with a crisis in leadership, and the legitimacy of our government is in danger of falling into disrepute. We must now ask ourselves how we have managed to get to this point.

To understand this question, I believe it is useful to return to the idea of democracy itself. The utility of any thought experiment lies in its potential to encourage us to re-visit many assumptions we have about social and political life. During any election campaign, there is always discussion surrounding the state of democratic practice itself. Questions surrounding citizen engagement, institutional reform, or party policy are always present, and should remain at the heart of modern politics. As many do not hesitate to remind us however, we do not live in a world of ideals...part of democracy’s appeal lies in the fact that there has never been consensus as to what an ‘ideal’ democracy would entail. What we can be sure of however is that there are ways we can identify ideal conditions for democracy. The obvious ones (of course including a legislative assembly, an executive, an independent judicial branch, and a vibrant and engaged civil society) have been analyzed and discussed by politicians and academics for centuries, and will undoubtedly continue to inspire our interest for centuries to come. We will continually gauge how close our democratic institutions come to satisfying these ‘ideal’ conditions in our ongoing civil conversation. What we may be in danger of missing however, is an adequate discussion of how the language of politics itself shapes our views, thoughts, and emotions. We may not be aware of the effects our increasingly pedantic political discourse will have on future generations. I believe it is crucial that we must add ongoing, critical, and enlightened discourse to the list of ‘ideal’ conditions for democracy outlined above. But what would ‘ideal’ political discourse entail? Is there even such a thing?

What ensures our liberty as individual citizens and unites us under our common government are the obligations we hold to one another. Those elected to govern and those who are governed are mutually obligated to one another. The social compact necessary for legitimate government entails an arrangement where individuals place their ‘person and all their power’ in common under the supreme direction of the general will. Once a member of this compact, each member becomes an indivisible part of the whole (Rousseau, Social Contract 148). Following democratic practice, it is through open and free deliberation that we come to determine this general will, and those entrusted to articulate the will of the people must be held accountable at all times. These are the assumptions we hold as sacred in our civil religion.

As informed and engaged citizens, we must develop a stronger appreciation for the unbounded power of information within a democratic community. The articulation of the general will is only possible through free, open, and democratic discourse incorporating all elements of society. Our individual freedom is inherently dependent on the maintenance of this fragile discourse. As Canadian citizens, we have witnessed our government’s systematic manipulation of information, blatant disregard for parliamentary protocol, and gradual abdication of responsibility to the Canadian people over a number of years. Our government is guilty of compromising the ideals, conventions, and decorum our parliamentary system is founded upon, and those guilty of such abuses must be held responsible for their actions.

This publication is a necessary step in cultivating a truly free political community. I hope this may serve as an indictment of our most recent representatives, and an endorsement of those who are in the best position to articulate the general will of Canadians. What we must remember is that our democracy is historically situated and necessarily imperfect. We must therefore be cognizant of the institutions, procedures and conventions providing the framework for our ongoing societal discourse so as to effectively mitigate against those ‘particular wills’ who do not have the common interest of our country in mind. This publication is necessary to provide the foundation for a new form of citizenship, and, through it, to provide the intellectual cohesion necessary for re-establishing our fragmented social discourse. We can finally begin cultivating a new form of politics. Our liberty is our obligation.

-J.J. Rousseau (PSQR)

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