Preston Manning: Building democracy, or just activist influence?

He’s 67 years old and it’s been nearly a decade since he relinquished the leadership of the Reform Party on the eve of its rebranding as the Canadian Alliance, but there’s no rest for Preston Manning. He’s still busy at the helm of the Calgary-based Manning Centre for Building Democracy, not to mention writing the occasional op-ed for the Globe and Mail.

I’ve read some of Manning’s Globe and Mail articles, and they raise some questions about whether he envisages Canada as a “learning democracy” where legislators try to learn as much as possible about an issue before legislating, or as an “activists’ democracy” where groups with firmly entrenched ideas about how the world should be battle it out for supremacy, one campaign at a time.

Given his longtime advocacy of referendums and citizen recall, and his suggestions that Canada needs even more U.S. and British-style think tanks (never mind the fact that Americans and Brits are just as likely as Canadians to use words like “useless” and “dysfunctional” to describe their political systems), I suspect that Manning leans toward the idea of an “activists’ democracy”.

My perceptions of what Manning has in mind were reinforced by the op-ed piece that he wrote for Monday’s Globe and Mail. In his article, Manning suggests that Canada consider adopting open primaries for the selection of political candidates, as the Conservatives are starting to experiment with in Britain.

It all sounds very democratic on the surface. Under an open primary system, we would eliminate the system where party candidates are elected by constituency associations — a process that has long been rife with irregularities and allegations of vote-rigging — and allow any citizen who wishes to do so to help choose a party’s candidate.

In reality, however, that could turn out to be an act of replacing one flawed system with an equally flawed system.

With no controls over who participates, what is there to stop one party’s activists from gate-crashing another party’s open primary and deliberately voting in the weakest possible candidate as the opposition’s candidate? What is there to stop a single-interest group from organizing among themselves to ensure that a champion of their cause gets a party’s nomination, and then goes on to face a string of weak opponents in the general election thanks to their own strategic voting?

With the right mix of technology and organizational ability, there’s not much to stop them from doing those kinds of things.

Under Manning’s vision of democracy, activists would have a much stronger influence on how the country is governed. While the passion that many activists bring to the table is admirable, I’m concerned that behind that passion is sometimes a quest for power rather than a quest for knowledge.

Or, as philosopher Bertrand Russell once put it, “The problem with the world is that the stupid are so cocksure and the wise so full of doubt.”

Manning is careful, however, to leave out any mention of activists, preferring to write instead about how open primaries might boost voter turnout.

The trouble is that researchers already have a fairly good grasp of what boosts voter turnout. Voter turnout is likely to be higher when the outcome of an election is up for grabs, which can be seen by comparing the relatively high voter turnout rates in tight races to the low turnout rates when the outcome of an election is a foregone conclusion.

Researchers have also discovered that peer pressure plays a role in encouraging voter turnout. People are demonstrably more likely to vote if others will know if they voted.

This suggests that Manning is overlooking a much less complicated option for encouraging turnout: taking a page out of the charities’ playbook and giving everyone who shows up to vote a small “I Voted Today” sticker to wear on their chest for the rest of the day.

Unlike Manning’s open primary concept, which would give activists a stronger voice in our political system, a peer-pressure approach to getting people involved in democracy would be aimed at luring out the moderates: the calm, reasonable voices of those who are neither firmly on the left nor on the right; the people who see Ottawa politics as being the ultimate example of the cocksure prevailing over the wise and think it’s all quite disgusting.

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About theviewfromseven
A lone wolf and a bit of a contrarian who sometimes has something to share.

4 Responses to Preston Manning: Building democracy, or just activist influence?

  1. cherenkov says:

    Referendums as well appear democratic, but are often anything but. If you recall the Charlottetown Accord referendum, nobody knew a damn thing about it other than a vague idea of it’s purpose, and most ended up voting based on propaganda that they found in their mail boxes. Rather than putting power in the hands of the people, it took power away from elected representatives and put it into the hands of interest groups. Referendums could work for values-based issues (capital punishment, etc..) but otherwise generally a bad idea.

  2. theviewfromseven says:

    I agree, Cherenkov. I used to like the idea of referendums years ago, but have since come to the conclusion that they should be used only under limited circumstances.

    They might work in Switzerland (as a letter to the editor of the latest Economist pointed out), but that’s likely due to the fact that smaller jurisdictions tend to be more stable and better at working out their differences than larger ones, all other things being equal. In a larger jurisdiction, they’re prone to being hijacked by ideologues and self-styled “culture warriors”.

    They’re also a lousy way of consulting people on complicated issues because all the public ends up with is a closed-ended yes/no choice rather than the opportunity to explain, inform and ask questions.

  3. Extenze says:

    I just love your weblog! Very nice post! Still you can do many things to improve it.

  4. theviewfromseven says:

    Thank you. How can I improve it?

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