The Democratic Deficit

By Max Fawcett | October 14, 2004

Update, later in the day: The Gallup poll indicates that, in contrast to polls taken immediately after the debate, Americans did see Kerry as the victor last night. Perhaps there’s hope yet…

Last night’s third debate was, like the two before it, a total mismatch. Where President Bush was a smirking, wise-cracking idiot, Kerry was personable and articulate in his description of a plan for the United States. The only plan that Bush could muster was a recommendation that everyone not take their flu shots, a response to a question about the lack of flu vaccines in the United States this year. His responses throughout the debate were exasperatingly ignorant or malevolent, with the occasional “Bushism” mixed in. At one point in the debate, while Bush was responding to a question about job creation and Kerry’s face was on the split-screen of CNN’s coverage, Kerry looked very subtly towards the camera, cracked a half-smile and almost winked, as if to share his incredulity over his opponent’s ignorance with the television viewers.

The point here is simple. Maybe I’m blinded by my own social-democrat biases but I think that these three debates should leave anyone who is sober and has an IQ above, say, 90, with the conviction that John Kerry is the man to lead America. But after each debate, I’ve flicked on the American networks to see if their pundits saw it the same way. They didn’t, and in both the second and third debate called it a “draw”, a decision that seems more appropriate to the crooked world of boxing.

So, it is ultimately in the hands of the American public. On the one hand they have a man with a drunk driving conviction and cocaine use in his past who, as President, unjustly started a war and killed thousands of Americans and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, who has run up the biggest deficit in history and is responsible for losing over 2 million American jobs. On the other hand they have a man who is a decorated war veteran, a respected Senator, and an articulate and thoughtful man with a plan to pull America off the dangerous path it is currently following. It shouldn’t be a difficult decision.

Unfortunately, it seems that the American public is having a harder time than they should: the latest numbers reveal a dead-heat for the Presidency. It confirms something that I’ve been thinking for a while now: democracy can be dangerous. Now, don’t get me wrong here – I’m a social democrat and part of that self-identification means that I’m a democract. I am.

But the situation in Iraq has highlighted the fact that democracy is not, as both the current American administration and many Americans believe, the ultimate good. It is not so important that we should sacrifice other equally important values – justice, tolerance, and peace, to name but a few – at its alter. I know more than my fair share of Iraqi-Canadians who have told me that, in spite of Saddam Hussein’s craziness, life was much better before the American invasion. Pakistan has had a similar experience with democracy, as it radically destabilized the country and put power in the hands of those who used it to punish their enemies.

We are not immune to this fetishization of democracy in Canada. Led first by Preston Manning and the Reform Party and now Stephen Harper and the Conservatives, along with a good chunk of the Liberal Party of Canada, there is a significant push for so-called “democratic reform”. What this would mean is plebiscites, recall iniatives, and other measures intended to keep a leash on our elected officials and put more power in the hands of the public. It’s a mistake.

Pierre Trudeau once famously said that the public should just leave him alone for his four years and, if they didn’t like the work he had done, they were free to fire him. He understood that great initiatives like the Constitution and the Charter were, in a way, more important than a rigorous fidelity to the democratic process per se. To be effective, democracy must be co-equal to values like justice, freedom, and order, and we as Canadians have so far managed to walk this fine line with a measure of success.

America, on the other hand, has not. Whether it’s an outgrowth of the way their nation was founded, the outcome of the civil war, or just their own particular national story, Americans have always fetishized democracy. The Land of Freedom and Democracy has persevered as America’s shared identity, in spite of the often contradictory realities that crop up. Under the leadership of a competent President this can be put to effective use in creating change at home and encouraging stability abroad. Under leadership like Bush’s, it results in the projection of American values, with an emphasis on the expansion of capital markets and the imposition of a farcical version of democracy, at the blade of a knife. One look at the last four years should verify this description.

The point here is not to slag democracy, or to slag Americans. But I do think that the impending American election in less than three weeks is a real test of the strength of their democracy. They have seen three debates in which one candidate absolutely mastered the other in every conceivable way. Yes, Bush is “dumber” and Joe from Alabama could have a beer with him, and while that may appeal to some it shouldn’t be enough to tip the scales in Bush’s favour. In each debate John Kerry laid out the damage that Bush and his cronies have done to the country: lost jobs, a mess in Iraq, a massive deficit, increased healthcare premiums. Bush, on the other hand, has been content to crack wise and repeat his mantra about strong leadership being decisive and single-minded. But the American public shouldn’t be fooled, and it has the opportunity to rise up and toss out a rotten administration, one that borders on tyrannical in the way that it deals with the rest of the world and has imposed its will on enemies both domestic and international.

Let’s hope that they can do it.

Ottawa, October 14, 1001 w.


  • Max Fawcett

    Max Fawcett is the former editor of the Chetwynd Echo, a weekly newspaper in the small northern town of Chetwynd, B.C. He currently lives in Edmonton, and works as the managing editor of Alberta Venture Magazine.

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