06 January 2010

Can conservatives be democrats?

Stephen Harper's proroguing of Parliament as if it sat at his pleasure has raised questions about the Prime Minister's commitment to democracy. But a larger question might be whether conservatives, by the very nature of their philosophy, can ever truly be democrats. They may believe in our system, but our system isn't a democracy. We have elections, so there is obviously a democratic component, but there is also a powerful plutocratic component.

Democracy means political equality, and we are a long way from that. For example, our public forums, the mass media, are owned and controlled by a small special interest group within the corporate sector. The only independent mass medium, at least on the national level, is the CBC. The rest is the property of media barons. The most powerful media empire in the country was, until recently, controlled by one family. That is plutocracy or, if you like, oligarchy, but it is not democracy.

In Calgary, we have four daily newspapers, two national, two local—all conservative. That is the choice the vaunted free market system offers us. It is reminiscent of Henry Ford's famous offer on his Model Ts: any colour you like as long as it's black. In Calgary, we can buy any philosophy of newspaper we like, as long as it's conservative.

Nor does corporate control stop with the media. Corporations dominate the economy and economic decision-making by our politicians. Trade agreements such as NAFTA, which so powerfully affect all of us, were driven by corporate demand, certainly not by the wishes of ordinary citizens. And corporations are still allowed to contribute to political parties in most provinces, quite aside from their propaganda and political lobbying through front organizations such as the Fraser Institute, the C.D. Howe Institute, the Canadian Council of Chief Executives, and so on, and so on. Most annoying is that we all pay for corporate funding of these organizations through our consumption of corporate goods and services.

So what kind of system do we have? Part democratic, part plutocratic. Essentially, a hybrid system.

The question then becomes, do conservatives support our hybrid system or do they support a democratic system? Preston Manning, perhaps the leading conservative intellectual in the country, has established the Manning Centre for Building Democracy. The centre is ostensibly about promoting democracy and it expresses some fine values such as individual freedom, principled leadership and even informed, deliberative democracy. But it supports all these good things within a conservative framework and never mentions the greatest challenge in creating a democratic Canada—overcoming the power of the plutocracy. Manning clearly wants to improve our current tattered system, but apparently not at the expense of challenging the privileged position of the plutocrats. We can only conclude he is content with a hybrid system, considerably improved yes, but hybrid nonetheless. And this, I suggest, is the conservative position generally.

Furthermore, it is what we should expect. Conservatism has always been about protecting privilege. To support a democratic system, conservatives would have to advocate a dramatic reduction in the political influence of the rich generally and the corporate sector specifically. They would have to support democracy in all our institutions as any true democrat must, including a democratic media and democratic workplaces. All this would go against the very grain of conservatism.

This is not to say all conservatives support the Prime Minister's cavalier treatment of Parliament. We have heard from some who don't. Nonetheless, although conservatives may want to improve the current system, and although they may strongly support freedom (which is quite another thing from democracy and deserving of a separate discussion), they are not comfortable with broad political equality. Conservatism and democracy in its fullest sense are simply incompatible.

1 comment:

  1. I've been read "Not a Conspiracy Theory" by Donald Gutstein. It gets deeply into the web of corporate media, think tank propaganda mills and astroturf outfits. Very well referenced.