Is the political concept of a democratic government disappearing?
The answer to that question is complicated, as a fundamental democracy philosophy of government – by the people for the people – has been under sustained attack from populist and extremist authoritarian movements globally in recent years.
For Okanagan College political science instructor Rosalind Warner, the revival of the anti-democracy movement will not come from politicians, or from the extreme right or left-wing political fringe, but from the middle of the political spectrum where common ground is found on most issues.
“This idea that we live in a polarized society is not accurate. That is what the politicians tell us to believe but in reality, it is not the case,” said Warner.
“Most of us agree on the need for health care, the need for some form of gun control, the need for abortion with some limitations.”
But the politicians are finding it easier to drive wedges with the support of extreme fringe elements, turning the political game from one of creating policies for the greater good of people to a game of winning and losing, of love and hate, of feeding on anger and resentment rather than change and progress.
Warner discussed the current global state of democracy in a speech on May 20 sponsored by the Society for Learning in Retirement program at Martin Education Centre.
She outlined several trends that have led to the current state of dysfunction, and mistrust, of governments in the U.S.
Looking to our neighbours of the south, Warner cited the source of that country’s current political discourse beginning with the evolution of the Tea Party movement in 2009, whose initial principle aim was to protest taxation without representation.
But Warner explained the political aims of the Tea Party began to shift into cultural issues as it weighed into the mortgage default crisis that overshadowed the Barack Obama-John McCain presidential election of 2008.
Of note, Warner cited how Tea Party activist Rick Santelli, a CNBC reporter, struck an odd note when he publicly opposed the government providing bailout assistance to mortgage holders put in a financial predicament, not of their own doing.
“What he said was we should not subsidize losers, that instead of that we should bail out the mortgage holders who caused the problem in the first place,” Warner said.
That winner-loser attitude subsequently began to permeate through the U.S. political infrastructure in the years that followed, she said.
As the Tea Party began to debate health care and other government services, it also began a storyline that Obama was not an American, was not born in America, and was a radical Muslim – all factual falsehoods.
As that campaign played out on social media, one of the early high-profile individuals to jump on board in support of that movement was Donald Trump, Warner noted.
“The government at the time tried to find a compromise by bailing out the banks and leaving it to them to determine what mortgage holders should be bailed out. So the perpetrators of the mortgage crisis were bailed out, and they kept the money,” Warner said.
Economics has continued to play a significant role, she said, in another aspect of change that has impacted democracy, establishing was has become two separate worlds – those what she called the real economy and those in the virtual economy, with others sometimes classify as rural vs. urban interests
Warner said the real economy represents jobs in manufacturing, energy, construction, commodities, consumption and trucking.
“These were people not university educated but were people who worked on things, not ideas,” said Warner.
The virtual economy, on the other hand, placed a higher significance on university education in fields such as insurance, marketing, financial services, entertainment, media, travel and education.
She said the disparity between those two economic groups began to widen, to the detriment of the real economy workforce.
“The real economy participants began to see those in the virtual economy, which tended to be more urban centred as opposed to rural centred, as the enemy. And as that transpired, the government began to side more closely with the evolving virtual economy. In effect, they switched sides,” she said.
“So those in the insurance and banking industries were making money hand over fist, those in the real economy not so much. And COVID accelerated this division.”
Warner said for democracy to find its footing again, the exchange of ideas must change from hollering at each other to listening to different views, the rules and accountability within the democratic political arena must be respected and adhered to and to look beyond our information silos within the current social media infrastructure to find consensus.
She said the U.S. remains a work in progress on those issues, but similar characteristics exist in Canada and other European democratic governments as well.
“We all need to interact and not react to anger with anger,” she said.
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