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Democracy's Finest Hour?Democracy's Finest Hour?

Democracy's Finest Hour?

All that really needs to be said is being said about the necessity of democratic politics being the default politics for the human condition. As this week's failed attempt to remove Scotland from its 300-year union with England illustrates so successfully, democracy is capacious enough to allow for a breathtaking breadth of proposals, from the inherently elegant to the essentially idiotic. The brilliant quid pro quo of the system is that judgment of those proposals is never final, but always binding.

Peter Stockland
3 minute read

When both sides in the Scottish referendum vote praise the contest as democracy's finest hour, something is being said about politics that really matters.

All that really needs to be said is being said about the necessity of democratic politics being the default politics for the human condition.

For all its susceptibility to majoritarian overreach and its constant vulnerability to oligarchic manipulation, the enduring strength of democratic politics is its delivery of the disciplined humility that all human beings need.

As this week's failed attempt to remove Scotland from its 300-year union with England illustrates so successfully, democracy is capacious enough to allow for a breathtaking breadth of proposals, from the inherently elegant to the essentially idiotic. The brilliant quid pro quo of the system is that judgment of those proposals is never final, but always binding.

Those who lose, as the Scottish nationalists did this week, are entirely free to shake hands, go home, and begin arguing all over again for the rightness of their cause. Canadians know all too well how their Quebec counterparts have done just that for two generations.

But the table stakes of democracy bind all players with the moral imperative of peaceful acceptance of immediate outcome. To enter into a democratic contest is to accept with humility that one's most persuasive arguments might not carry the day, and to commit, as a consequence, to refuse to resort to other means to achieve the defeated end.

As anyone who pays five seconds of attention a week to international news knows, for vast swathes of humanity, rejection of that simplest and most difficult compact means resorting to other means: riots, armed thugs, militias, or terrorist missiles that bring down passenger planes.

All, of course, were very much on the mind of Ukraine's President Petro Poroshenko when he addressed the Parliament of Canada this week. Poroshenko presides over a country where the democratic compact faces violent external aggression from Russia and what could be fatal reneging from within its own borders. We are all reminded daily of the toll in terms of body counts and political failures.

Ukraine's president was eloquently defiant, however, on both the military and democratic fronts. The country will proceed with free and fair elections at the end of October, he said.

"And whether it takes five years or 50 to liberate it, we will never recognize the illegal occupation of Ukraine."

Naturally, that brought enthusiastic applause from many proud Ukrainian Canadians occupying seats in the House of Commons visitors' gallery. Their presence personified the power and the fragility of democratic politics. They were there not just as an audience of Poroshenko's words, but as the embodiment of what he was saying.

There was, after all, a century between the arrival of the first Ukrainian immigrants to Canada and Ukraine's emergence as a democracy in 1991. For those in Ukraine, it was a century of blood. For those who came to Canada, while genuine hardships and odious bigotry were frequently suffered, there was the delivery of democratic promise.

"The sons and daughters of farmers," Poroshenko said with simple beauty, "became prominent members of Canadian society."

They did so not as a result of any kind of noblesse oblige on the part of tenderhearted Canadians already here, but because they accepted, very early, the necessity of democratic politics as the default politics of the human condition. They accepted the essential compact of engagement, outcome, and humility that their ancestral relatives in Ukraine must struggle to sustain.

The paradox of Poroshenko's speech to the Canadian Parliament, though, was precisely that it was delivered to the Canadian Parliament. For while he spoke of democratic virtues to people who are the direct beneficiaries of democratic politics, the very forum in which he spoke has become a byword for dysfunction, stagnation, intellectual putrefaction, and material corruption.

Barely 24 hours before Ukraine's president addressed Parliament, I listened to a federal cabinet minister passionately, and statistically, demolish the whole myth of parliamentary breakdown. Yet when asked what parliamentarians themselves are doing to confront and dismantle those misconceptions, the minister essentially shrugged and said the narrative of failure is probably already too deeply embedded in the mind of a citizenry that no longer cares anyway. In Canada, in essence, politics—democratic politics—no longer really matters.

Well, then. If that is so, let us begin to cast our eyes around the world for alternatives, shall we?

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