We live in a democracy – a democracy built upon the hard work, and even deaths, of many who came before us. Yet, let’s be honest, we take it for granted. It is a right, a privilege, and is essential to our freedom and liberties. But I believe it is at risk in many of the so-called developed nations, long the bastions of the protectors of democracy. And our indifference may mean we pay a very heavy price in the future.
Why the risk? Let’s consider the essence of democracy and why it is supposed to work. Democracy is based upon the citizens of a free society periodically making decisions as to who will govern them – who will set the laws and who will put policies in place to make life better.
To function properly, the citizens in a democracy should be sufficiently knowledgeable to make informed decisions regarding the options presented to them by competing political candidates.
For this to be the case there needs to be (a) a quality education system – a combination of formal schooling, trusted and able media, and other information technologies that are used by the citizenry to become well-informed on the current issues; (b) issues and options that are reasonably understandable, enabling citizens to make informed choices; and (c) a fair, open, regular, and easily accessible system by which citizens are able to exercise their decisions through voting for their preferred candidates and parties.
But what are today’s realities? We have a society – and world – changing at an incredible rate. Our education systems struggle to keep pace. We have always struggled with the challenge of keeping curriculum relevant, but now that challenge is evolving into an impossible task.
At the same time, our media outlets are pressured by change and shifting economic realities. The media are no longer able to invest in research and coverage as they once did. Coverage is not as broad or as in-depth. Readers and viewers are increasingly focusing on headlines and quick new Twitter-type hits that cannot possibly provide in-depth coverage, background, or contending opinions in a single space.
At the same time, we now have a world in which anyone can be a news source, posting thoughts, opinions and images willy-nilly often with little credibility and usually with no verification. So-called news sources now proliferate like a media wild-west and it is difficult to discern credible sources from those that may in fact be seeking to influence thought through lies and misinformation.
At the same time, issues are becoming increasingly complex – more challenging to understand and more difficult for citizens to formulate informed opinions on. How may Brits do we think voted on Brexit from an informed position on the options? Even after all the news coverage over the many months since the “leave” vote won, it would be very difficult for anyone in the UK to provide a really informed voice on the issues involved.
When President Trump announces, almost whimsically, significant tariffs on imports coming in to the US and starting trade wars on many fronts, do many in the US really understand the consequences of tariffs on business, consumers and the economy? When those in the inner circle of politics in Canada get all worked up about the SNC Lavalin Affair, how many average Canadians do we think have any real understanding regarding what happened and whether what happened was appropriate or not?
How many voters can exercise informed opinions on policies towards North Korea, Iran, Russia, Hong Kong and other matters pertaining to foreign affairs? And climate change is real – regardless of what President Trump says – but it is a massively complicated issue.
Politicians are involved in policies that affect central bank leadership and policies on interest rates and our nation’s financial management; government spending and taxation policies and our annual deficits and our accumulating national debt; internet and digital services, access, and cost; infrastructure investments and priorities; and so on.
The question is: are we evolving into a complex world where, without significant improvements in public education and information, it is getting impossible for voters to make informed political decisions? Are the likes of Donald Trump and Boris Johnson succeeding with populist, simple-to-understand policy statements because people are no longer able to keep pace and truly understand the issues, challenges and decisions their nations face? Are more likely to follow in their foot-steps?
The turnout of voters for many elections is dismal. Why is that? Because they don’t care – or because they don’t understand the issues and options to make a confident, informed decision? Or both? Will voter indifference, combined with vulnerability to simplistic political solutions to complex problems, threaten our democracy – at least our democracy as we hope it would be – and how it would operate? The results of many elections around the world tell me we are at risk. But I don’t see anyone focusing on the issue and trying to do much about it. How are we going to close the gap between the increasingly complex issues that modern societies face and the ability of the citizenry to make informed political choices among the options presented to them by competing political parties and candidates?
I for one believe the challenge and risks are great. But I wonder how many others are similarly concerned – particularly those in positions to do anything about it. So often today we do not plan change. Change sweeps over us and we occasionally pause to reflect and see where we have come and whether we like what has happened. But that has to change too. It is time, I believe, for us to look forward to where we are headed and try to influence that path and influence change so that we create a society that we want rather than one that simply evolved from indifference.
Democracy is a precious gift provided to us by those who worked so hard to achieve it. The least we can do is all that we can to protect it.
By Gary Rabbior
Canadian Foundation for Economic Education