The State of Democracy in the US and Canada

By | November 7, 2012 at 12:53 pm | No comments | Events | Tags: , ,

Wrapping up our 2012 Ideas in Dialogue series with Kingwell and Stein

“Democracy,” said Janice Gross Stein, “is how you treat the people that didn’t vote for you.” Speaking at PEN Canada’s latest Ideas in Dialogue event, on the final day of the US presidential campaign, she agreed that the ‘trench warfare’ of divisive politics may leave us exhausted and skeptical, but added that we  shouldn’t confuse “a lack of progress with a lack of significance.”

Democracy in the Year of Election was an hour-long conversation between Stein and fellow U of T academic Mark Kingwell at the Royal Ontario Museum, moderated by the award-winning CBC radio host Carol Off. Both speakers offered pointed criticisms of the democratic process in Canada and the US, ranging from the hyper-partisanship of the Obama vs. Romney campaign to the general lack of interest in public service careers,  and the ad hominem rhetoric that has spoiled parliamentary debate within Canada.

Stein argued that despite its imperfections the democratic process still works reasonably well. Although a majority government can take office with less than half of the electorate’s support, ordinary citizens still have an important role to play. They can frustrate the ambitions of an over-reaching executive branch, via courts and the public sphere, and they can ensure the conversation between haves and have-nots remains focused and consequential. Although moral arguments about income inequality may fail, democracies  often listen when the same arguments are recast in economic terms.

Kingwell was less optimistic. He argued that the Citizens United Supreme Court ruling, the latest of several legal rulings that allow corporate money to hide behind a banner of free speech, may have ushered in an age of  ‘the best government that money can buy’.  He also warned that our widespread indifference to current, unprecedented levels of income inequality, were creating a heartlessly selfish political culture.

Sorry you missed the event? Don’t be, our podcast and footage is coming soon.

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