Saturday, March 21, 2015

An Imperiled Democracy: Civic Illiteracy In Canada

I imagine that bloggers have any number of reasons for doing what they do, ranging from writing as catharsis to sharing information and insights in the hope of informing and/or changing people's views. And while I read a number of blogs on a daily basis that further inform my worldview, I am under scant illusion that our collective efforts have much chance of altering people's perspectives, largely due to the self-selection involved in the reading process. In other words, progressives tend to read progressives' blogs, while regressives reactionaries read the scribblings of fellow travellers. Rarely do the twain meet. The only audience that is 'up for grabs' is the 'mushy middle' and the politically disengaged, neither of whom are likely to be taken with a sudden passion for reading political viewpoints.

So what is the key to having a better-informed citizenry?

In a thoughtful piece at entitled Civic literacy and the assault on Canadian democracy, Murray Dobbins looks back to the time when there was a real appetite for activist governments, a time when people expected government to be a force for the collective good:
That was the so-called golden age of capitalism and it wasn't just because of expanding government services. It was so-called because of a much broader and well-informed citizen engagement -- both through social movements and as individual citizens.
That time, of course, has been replaced with one that emphasizes fear and economic insecurity, ably stoked by a regime that pays little but lip service to the notion of citizenship while systematically dismantling the very underpinnings of what makes a democracy healthy, even vibrant.
It's not just the institutions that are vulnerable, though they certainly are. It's a familiar list, including Harper's bullying of Governor General Michaëlle Jean to force the proroguing of the House, his guide book on how to make parliamentary committees ineffective, the use of robo-calls and other election dirty tricks, his attempt to break the rules in appointing a Supreme Court judge and his neutering the House of Commons question period through a deliberate strategy of refusing to answer questions -- a practice that institutionalizes a contempt for Parliament that spreads outward to the general public. At a certain point it doesn't matter who is responsible -- the institution itself becomes risible and irrelevant to ordinary citizens. Which is, of course, exactly what Harper intends.
But, Dobbins points out, such nefarious actions do not take place in a vacuum. At least in theory, democracy
rests on the foundation of the voting public. The extent to which the institutions of democracy can be assaulted and eroded with impunity is directly proportional to the level of civic literacy. The lower it is, the easier it is for malevolent autocrats like Harper to abuse his power.
"I'm not interested in politics" is indeed sweet music to the ears of autocrats like Harper.

The growing basis for our culture is not community or co-operation but conspicuous consumption and possessive individualism, asserts Dobbins, making Harper's dismantling of our institutions all the easier.

So what is to be done? When we could trust government to do the right things, we could afford to be minimally engaged. That time is long gone.
But when a politician suddenly appears on the scene willing to systematically violate democratic principles as if they simply don't apply to him, then the demand for increased civic literacy is just as suddenly urgent and critical. Yet it is not something that can be accomplished easily or quickly. Three sources come to mind: schools, the media and civil society organizations and activity.
Despite the best efforts of teachers and their unions over the decades, civic literacy is extremely low on the curriculum totem pole in Canadian schools. Provincial governments have resisted such pressures, which should hardly come as a surprise. There is a built-in bias in a hierarchical, capitalist society against critical thinking -- precisely because in liberal democracies the over-arching role of government is to manage capitalism with a view to maintaining it along with all its inherent inequalities. Having too many critical thinkers is not helpful.
The Media
The media, of course, are largely responsible for helping put Stephen Harper in power. Ever since the Machiavellian Conrad Black bought up most of Canada's dailies, they have been used (by him and his successors) as an explicit propaganda tool for the dismantling of the post-war democratic consensus. While there are some tentative signs that they now recognize they've created a monster (Globe editorials criticizing the PM on a number of issues like C-51) it's a little late. Twenty-five years of telling people there is no alternative to unfettered capitalism has had a pernicious effect on both democracy and civic literacy.
Civil Society Oragnizations
...despite their objective of informing people about the myriad issues we face, here, too, the model falls short of significantly expanding the base of engaged, informed citizens. Ironically, much of the defensive politics of the left are the mirror image of Harper's reliance on fear (of Muslims, criminals, niqabs, terrorists, environmentalists, unions, the CBC) to energize his base. We peddle more mundane but substantive fears -- of losing medicare, of climate change, of higher tuition fees, of unprotected rivers and streams and dirty oil.
Dobbin concludes that we must look elsewhere for inspiration, specifically to the Scandinavian countries, where informed citizens are not easily manipulated by fear and their level of trust in government remains high.
"Swedish prime minister Olof Palme once said that he preferred to think of Sweden not as a social democracy but as a 'study-circle democracy.' The idea … is associated most of all with the efforts of the ABF (the Workers' Educational Association). …The ABF offers courses in organizing groups and co-operatives, understanding media, and a broad range of contemporary issues, as well as languages, computers, art, music, and nature appreciation."

There were 10 other groups doing study circles -- many of them subsidized by the government. Half of all Swedish adults were involved in them.
Much work needs to be done to reinvigorate our democracy and reengage our citizens. Articles such as Dobbin's only represent the start of what will be a long and very difficult process.

And time is very short.


  1. Your opening paragraph says it all Lorne, yet we keep writing in the vain hope that we may influence a few into realizing that our democracy is a fragile thing already starting to slide down the slope to destruction. I too see a bit of a turn around by our public media and really hope it is not 'too tittle too late', never the less we shall keep up the effort at this end and thank you for doing the same here.

    1. Likewise, Rural, I appreciate your efforts. In the final analysis, there really is no alternative to 'fighting the good fight,' is there?

  2. As usual, Lorne, Dobbins aptly diagnoses what's ailing us.

    1. Only strong medicine, if we will take it, Owen, can rid of this canker within our midst.

  3. The problem Lorne is that Harper only needs 40% to win. All of what he says and all of his policies, particularly in an election year is directed at his base.The rest of Canada mean nothing to him,because he doesn't need them to win.Harper never takes his eye off the prize, 4 more years. So he can advocate the most offensive and sometimes ridiclous things, and the fact that the majority of Canadians with furrowed brows think, what hell is he saying means nothing, because Harper is not speaking to the majority he is speaking to his base, because that is the Con strategy in winning and it may work. The creation of the income-splitting tax for only 15% of Canadians is a glaring example of Harper consciously courting his base at the sacrifice of the needs of the majority of Canadians and he does it openly. What Canadian PM caters to the few, while angering the majority.Harper does. Most PM's want the majority on their side and they develop policy with the majority in mind, otherwise their career in politics is short lived.What Harper is doing is unprecedented. It's success relies on low vote count. Canadians need to turn out in droves to vote in October, because if Harper gets 4 more years, we ain't seen nothing yet!

    1. You have distilled the essence of the Harper philosophy and strategy into a few sentences, Pamela, aptly describing how this man and his minions have shown ongoing contempt for the kind of broad-based consultation and consensus that makes for a healthy democracy. It is, as you suggest, imperative that Canadians live up to their civic responsibilities, educate themselves about the issues, and turn out in vast numbers in October. Otherwise, there appears little chance of recapturing our heritage.

  4. This morning I wrote on a similar theme and concluded that our best hope now of restoring Canadian democracy rests with bare-knuckle progressivism to knock the neoliberal stuffing out of the Liberals and New Democrats and thereby reconnect them with eligible voters who are currently disaffected by political parties that don't address their deep concerns.

    The scourge of neoliberalism has advanced under Harper, with a good bit of cooperation from the opposition, into a state of illiberal democracy which, unless staunched, tends to lead to autocracy.

    1. I completely concur, Mound. It is time for people to lose any defensiveness they might feel in challenging what has become the neoliberal status quo and fight vigorously for the things that may life truly worthwhile.