One of the most misunderstood concepts in modern politics is what we colloquially refer to as "democracy".
Canadians, Americans, many European states and other select nations across the world refer to their system of government as democratic, but rarely comprehend the foundations upon which the term is based, or the sub-variants of democracy operating in the world today. No two democracies are really the same, though we can find commonalities among those systems that are parliamentary, presidential, or semi-presidential.
But apart from the type of democracy a nation may adopt, one of the key elements examined is the degree to which democratic principles are followed.
Arguably, the most important component of a functioning democracy is constitutionalism, meaning the adherence by a government to the rules and separation of powers defined in a written or unwritten constitution. In most systems this involves allocating power in different branches of government, such as an executive branch, a legislative branch, and a judicial branch. Beyond separating power, it is also important for each of these branches to be able to check the power of the others, so the consolidation of power is not centralized in one branch. These defining aspects of modern democracy stem from a conscious effort to avoid despotism and corruption, and are predicated upon historical experience and philosophical teachings.
In recent weeks, Canadians and Americans have been compelled to question the very nature of their political systems and the degree to which their democracies are working. In the Canadian context, the role and independence of the Canadian Senate have been quite prominent for all of the wrong reasons, as scandal and ethical corruption seem to be running rampant in the chamber dedicated to "Sober Second Thought." In the United States, revelations about a complex surveillance network known as PRISM and accusations of the government listening to phone conversations, monitoring personal e-mail, and the existence of an Orwellian "Big Brother" state apparatus have citizens and government officials questioning precisely how democratic America actually is.
Much of this questioning is derived from the fact that government has become far too big and the people have allowed their rights to be violated due to the growth in governmental control and operation.
We do not have pure democracy because, as Aristotle pointed out 2,000 years ago, it is deviant. Allowing every citizen of a state to have a say in the daily function of government is unreasonable, and thus grew what we now know as representative democracy. The entire purpose of these democratic systems is to allow the citizenry to elect representatives who will effectively embody their interests and goals, and protect their rights. There is no doubt we need government based on the inherently self-interested nature of humanity, but we must also hold government to account because those representatives we elect are equally as self-interested, and thus we separate power among governmental branches to avoid corruption.
James Madison, writing under the pseudonym "Publius," summarized this idea very well in Federalist Paper 51 when he argued: "But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself."
We live in an era where governments are far too big. And because of their size they are virtually impossible to hold accountable. Governments on both sides of the border have become crutches for people rather than institutions designed to ensure people have the best opportunities to achieve their full potential. We have allowed them to micro-legislate virtually every aspect of daily life. It really is only a matter of time until we see the "How to Wipe your Nose when you Sneeze Act".
The social contract of granting power to representative government was never intended to remove accountability and civic responsibility from citizens. It was, rather, a way for people to determine what kind of government they wanted to help guide them towards the best society possible. Somewhere along the line we dropped the ball and should not be so surprised at the Aristotelian deviancy we see out of our government's today.
Robert Murray, an online columnist for Calgary-based Troy Media (http://www.troymedia.com) is director of legislative and political affairs for the Ontario Catholic School Trustees' Association (OCSTA) and an adjunct professor of political science in the Department of Political Science at the University of Alberta. You can reach him by e-mail at: email@example.com