Breaking Democracy

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One of the easiest forms of government to break is not fascism or communism, not the rule of kings, not any form of authoritarianism. The easiest system to break is democracy. It is in fact designed to be broken.

Whereas all forms of authoritarianism have one singular goal — to maintain itself and the power of those on the top — the fundamental goal of democracy is to allow the continual mixing of voices and interests so that, in an ideal world, everyone would have a share of power. Of course, as soon as it was invented there were those who began to take steps to subvert it. First you had cliques that were formed in legislative bodies. These men (in those days always men but women are equally capable) would work together to exercise power as a block. From this we eventually got parties — not necessarily a bad thing but still a step away from the purity of one person-one vote.

As parties matured, they too become less and less democratic, building structures to limit debate and ensure that the central committee — who generally commanded a plurality of support if not a majority — could control the way the party operated.

In part this was a case of practice overcoming theory. While pure consensus may be an ideal, in practice it is hard to achieve and hard to maintain. In the name of getting things done we always let a certain amount of hierarchy and authority if not authoritarianism creep into the mix.

I’ve been involved with party politics for years and I have a pretty good sense how parties work. The best of them are open to debate and persuasion but only up to a certain point. For example, no matter how skilled the debater, no Marxist is ever going to have much influence over a conservative party. And so on.

But people try. When I was involved with the NDP, we were on constant alert for Trotskyites and other communists infiltrating the party. It never occurred at the mainstream level where the centre often does hold but in fringe constituencies, where you only had a dozen or two members, it was easy for a small group to take it over. Purges were common enough that everyone knew when one was coming — much the same as the Conservative party has had to frequently purge itself of racists and fascists. You find your enemies in your own distorted reflection.

This is one of the reasons that party leaders retain the ability to refuse to allow some candidates to run. It is recognition that small organized groups can subvert a democratic process for their own ends. You may think this is simply a matter of the in-group trying to suppress the out-group but it is more than that. Populism — the unbridled power of the vote — is not democracy at its finest. It is, rather, another step in the direction that parties have already taken us —away from rule by debating and anarchic individuals toward rule by the organized mob.

And that’s ten minutes.

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3 thoughts on “Breaking Democracy

  1. Plenty of Trotskyites, communists, anarcho-syndicalists, anarcho-communists and other fringe-left types infiltrated the NDP without getting purged. We called it the youth wing back in the day. It’s just that they either learned to conform to party expectations (like some of their friends) or became disillusioned with the NDP as a vehicle for collectivist action after slamming their heads repeatedly against centerist, capitalist walls, and departed (like me).

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    • And, of course, some on the right wing of the party used the accusation of Trotskyite to remove left wing opponents. One of them was Paul McEwan, who as a sitting MLA, was eventually thrown out of the NS NDP. I was one of the witnesses for the prosecution.

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