People in Egypt and elsewhere have expressed their concern about recent events in that country as indicating a breakdown in a commitment to democratic values and democratic institutions. The recent deposition of the democratically elected but increasingly autocratic president has divided Egyptians and observers alike. Was that deposition of Morsi necessary and justifiable or was it a strategic mistake in the long run, since electoral politics has been trumped once again by direct action, and the intervention of the Army? I think it is safe to say that many people don’t know what to think, given the unattractive alternatives.
It is easy enough to point out that Egyptians have not had much experience in democratic debate and dealmaking, with the result that an appeal to force or the threat of force comes too easily. However, a little bit closer to home for those of us in North America we are also seeing the erosion of democratic principles and practices.
First let us look at Canada. Our parliamentary institutions are based on 19th century practices and beliefs. Many of them are not really written down. Both parliamentarians and the general public have lost track of customs that worked very well in the 19th century but are not really understood today. Canadians strictly speaking do not elect a leader, a president, a Prime Minister, but a government which can command the support of the House of Commons. Ministers of the Crown hold that position as much through a relationship with the Crown as they do as partners with the Prime Minister. In principle they have a lot of independent authority. Thus the now obsolescent practice of ministers who have blown it big time resigning their position in Cabinet. They held the authority in the situation in question, and because they did not fulfill their role adequately, they felt obliged to quit. When was the last time this happened in Canada? Ministers no longer resign because of scandals and no one can really make them do so except perhaps the Prime Minister, because it’s an old custom that no longer is part of the political culture of either parliamentarians or the population at large.
Indeed an even more important principle has been lost track of in just the last few years. That is the idea that the Prime Minister and his cabinet only hold office when they can command the confidence of the House of Commons. Remember when Steven Harper 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? One can have a certain amount of sympathy for the Governor General who probably felt that if she fired Harper instead of letting him prorogue Parliament, she would enjoy no support whatsoever in the political class. She was right, but right here the Canadian Constitution broke down, and few people noticed or at least took it seriously. Our elections seem to have been transformed into something like a plebiscite on who makes the best Prime Minister. Canada has come to have something like a presidential system but without much in the way of countervailing institutions – with the important exception of the power of the provinces to resist the feds.
So 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. Close as we come is the tremendous power of the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) which I’m pretty sure is not constitutionally defined institution at all.
If you look at the United States things are even worse. The United States has at least two governments, the publicly recognized one and the secret security apparatus. The security government does pretty much what it wants, while the publicly recognize government flails around, and fails spectacularly at dealing practically with real problems. See this recent article about the Republican tactic or attitude of devaluing legislation, at least on the federal level where there are many important fights that they can’t win. Compromise and dealmaking are out – just like in the 1850s! (Alarm should sound!)The dysfunction is not on the constitutional level, rather in the bizarre rules of the House and Senate that make sensible discussion almost impossible. These bizarre rules are not anything new, but when the will to discuss issues evaporates – well, anyone can see the result.
John Keane in his Life and Death of Democracy has pointed out that what we think of as democratic institutions – elections and parliaments – are really not sufficient to make democratic practice possible in the modern world. This is even more true of democratic ideas. Too many people in established democratic countries have no serious understanding of how the system might and could and should work, and the price they pay is its dysfunctional situation now.