Friday, April 29, 2011

Civic Duty

The Globe and Mail has collected from leading academics and public figures some good ideas for reinvigorating democracy. “How to Redesign a Tired Democracy” is a thought provoking article, and I recommend everyone read the full collection of ideas.

Most of the experts concentrated on poor citizen participation in voting as the centre of their concern, and rightly so, I believe. Some of the ideas have merit, and ought to be given a try. Provincial-level requirements that high school students pass a course in Canadian history, Rudyard Griffiths’ contribution to the discussion, ought to be a minimum expectation. Proportional representation would probably provide a modest additional incentive to vote.

Many of the other suggestions I found untenable or poorly thought out. Direct, Internet-based democracy, for example, would give voice to those already motivated to imposing their influence and whims on others: conservatives and zealots. Political primaries, held up by Brian Lee Crowley as the best way to increase citizen participation, can be seen as a dangerous failure south of the border. Participation in political primaries in the United States is invariably highest among the extreme ideologues in each party, since these are the individuals most interested in maintaining ideological purity in platforms and candidates. During the months leading up to a primary election, middle-of-the-road Republicans retool their stump speeches and position papers to reflect ultra-conservative thought. But the day after the primary they become middle-of-the-road again so as to attract mainline voters.

Sometimes this chameleon act is not enough; in the 2010 election, moderate Republicans were shouted down and voted out, replaced by Tea Party conservatives. Likewise, in Democratic primaries, a candidate is obliged to speak forcefully in support of liberal issues, and the day after the primary becomes a centrist candidate. The result of the U.S. primary system can be seen in a tense, combative, essentially paralysed House of Representatives, where the Tea Party minority among Republican representatives’ ranks has become a feared enforcer of a chilling conservative line. Moderate Republicans know the Tea Party will put forward rabid conservatives as candidates for their seats should they attempt any compromise with Democrats. With dozens of examples of deposed moderate Republicans after the 2010 primary elections, centrist Republicans know the Tea Party poses no idle threat to their security.

Emulation of the U.S. model will not lead to increased citizen participation. Rather, it will tend to decrease the health of elections, government, and the citizenry itself, affirming and empowering the most extreme and diseased elements of society.

The most attractive idea for improving citizen involvement, I believe, was the final idea offered by Jim Stanford of the Canadian Auto Workers Union. Mr. Stanford recommended anyone deciding to vote be rewarded with a “nice crisp $10 bill.” While I find merit in the idea of financial recognition of those who vote, I wish to propose a different idea, with origin in the significance of citizenship.

Citizenship is not only a privilege and an honour, it is a right, and a responsibility. We are perhaps more inclined these days to emphasise the responsibilities of the state toward us as citizens, and in this light consider that the most important aspect of civilised society is the benefit conferred by citizenship. I wish to offer the perhaps old-fashioned notion of citizenship as duty. No reward should accrue to those who perform the normal duties of a citizen for her country. But those who shun their duty should not enjoy the full range of privilege inherent in the healthy and committed acceptance and active exercise of civic responsibility.

An agreeable means of reducing privilege to those who neglect their civic duty, it seems to me, could consist of an increased tax burden. Those who refuse the state the burden of consent would be legally obliged to realise an increase in the burden of financial support. A coupon could be issued to every citizen upon completion of exercising the duty to vote, a proof of civic commitment entitling that citizen to receive a reduction of income tax equivalent to 250 dollars. Such a simple change to the tax law would cost nothing, and would bring in a modest amount of tax revenue from the few hundreds of thousands who could not be bothered to fulfill their civic obligation.

The health of Canadian elections and government will improve when Canadians soberly accept and affirm the full truth and responsibility of citizenship.

April 29, 2011

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