Sharp Edges

Jim Taylor is an Okanagan Centre author and freelance journalist. His "Sharp Edges" column appears every Saturday in the print edition of The Penticton Herald.

It’s election day in British Columbia. Obviously, I can’t forecast the result of that election, but I hope for the best.

Election day in the U.S. is just 10 days away. There I fear for the worst.

Elections are supposed to be the hallmark of democracy. The advertising here in BC urges people to vote. Vote early, vote by mail, vote on election day, but vote regardless.

I consulted several dictionaries. They generally agree that democracy consists of government by the people — either directly or through electing representatives.

Many people would, I think, quote Abraham Lincoln’s closing sentence in his famous Gettysburg address: “Government of the people, by the people, for the people…”

On that basis, I’d argue that there has never been a true democracy.

In a world of some 8 million people, no nation is small enough for the people to govern themselves directly. You cannot pull together groups of more than about 100 and expect consensus on the finer details of policy. The details have to be worked out by representatives.

Switzerland may come as close as possible to direct government. Wikipedia says, “For any change in the constitution, a referendum is mandatory; for any change in a law, a referendum can be requested.”

Ancient Greece is often cited as the beginning of democracy. But it was not government by the people — slaves, women, and foreigners were all excluded. Only free men could cast a vote.

And Lincoln himself was expressing an ideal, not a fact. At the time the U.S. Constitution was written, “the people” meant white men. It excluded slaves and women, well over half the nation’s human population.

The U.S. Constitution begins, “We the people…” and then largely ignores “the people.” Rather, the original seven articles lay out the powers of the three branches which will govern those “people”, and the relations between the federal government and the various state governments. (The rights and powers of “the people” don’t show up until the Constitution’s 27 amendments.)

The people elect directly only one of those three branches, the houses of Congress.

The judiciary — supposedly independent of politics — are appointed for life. The president assembles his own administration; the president himself is elected indirectly, by the College of Electors, an elite group responsible to their state governments, not by popular vote.

Five times, the College has granted the presidency to a candidate who did not win the popular vote.

So I don’t think the right to vote is the defining characteristic of a democracy.

If it were, Cuba, China, and Russia would qualify as democracies. Citizens of those countries get to vote. But does their vote make any difference?

I suggest an alternative definition — a democracy enables the people to vote out their government peacefully. Of course, that also implies that the government in power is willing to accept the change and make way for its replacement.

That’s where England’s Magna Carta of 1215 may live up to its reputation as the origin of democracy among western nations.

King John signed a royal charter of rights, drafted by Archbishop of Canterbury Stephen Langton, “to make peace between an unpopular king and a group of rebel barons” (Wikipedia’s words).

The Magna Carta did not grant power to “the people.” Certainly not to peasants, slaves, serfs, and women. Not even to all the nobles.

Rather, it took powers away from the king. It transferred some of his powers to a council of 25 barons.

British parliaments since then have continued that transfer of power. Today, the Queen’s role is largely ceremonial. True, she must give assent to any bill passed by parliament before it can become law. In practice, she can delay a bill, but she cannot veto it.

Conventional wisdom would say that a country where the ruling powers cannot be removed, or refuse to be removed by an expression of the people’s will, is not a democracy.

Again, China, Cuba, and Russia come to mind.

More recently, Alexander Lukashenko refused to relinquish power in Belarus. Riots resulted. Gambia in Africa, and Venezuela in South America, had similar situations in the recent past.

I’m not concerned that the government in B.C. might refuse to accept the results of today’s voting.

I am concerned that President Donald Trump may be less willing to accept the will of the people, should it go against him. And that his followers may be even less willing to concede defeat.

Democracy is a fragile thing.

Jim Taylor is an Okanagan Centre author and freelance journalist. He can be reached at: rewrite@shaw.ca