A decade into the twenty-first century, there is a growing perception that democracy isn’t working as well as it should be. A Canadian poll conducted in April 2002, for instance, found that 69% of Canadians think their political system is somewhat or highly corrupt while 25% regard the national political system as fully undemocratic (Leger 2002). The shortfall in active Aboriginal electors, especially in southern Canada, is still more worrying.
Given the frequency of histories, including government decisions, that limit certain communities’ meaningful democratic participation and rights, it is no surprise that citizens fear their influence over politicians is crumbling. In 2010, French MPs voted to ban the hijab in public—a form of dress that some Muslim citizens regard as a religious duty—a decision that French justice minister Michele Alliot-Marie justified by claiming “democracy thrives when it is open faced” (BBC 2010). In the wake of a major phone hacking scandal that involved three of the United Kingdom’s recent prime ministers, a 2011 Transparency International Report found that corruption is a growing problem in the UK and that the government isn’t doing enough to respond. Continuing poor results in the measures of the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women confirm the persistence of real barriers to equality, political and otherwise.
At the same time, it is becoming increasingly obvious that the forces of globalization compromise local decision-making within democratic states. The Occupy Movement is the latest to point out that market liberalization has weakened democratic control in ways that facilitate wealth accumulation for the elite and extend the divide between rich and poor. In 2008, the United States Federal Reserve secretly loaned $13 billion to its biggest banks, among which were some Canadian institutions, then fought for two years to keep this move—the largest bailout in US history—a secret to the public and the Congress (Ivry et al 2011). That deliberate invisibility is matched at the other end of the social spectrum by the near ‘disappearance’ of the poor as citizens with entitlements. When remembered, they are only too likely to appear as problems for the criminal justice or welfare system or victims largely of their own making rather than casualties of systemic disadvantage. Vancouver’s ‘missing women’ from the Downtown Eastside and the northern Ontario reserve of Attawapiskat are cases in point.
In short, there is good reason to be concerned, and to think critically, about the democratic deficit today. The articles in this section examine:
- How have shifting understandings of political community, systems, and actors—as well as the purpose of the state—reshaped democracies and democratic participation?
- How has the rise of market-oriented state governing practices precipitated democratic deficits, and, more specifically, undermined commitments to “social citizenship”?
- How has the development of new supra-national institutions of governance (such as the United Nations or the World Bank) transformed citizens’ relationship to their national governments?
Far from offering a singular perspective, the writings in this section debate these trends and their implications for democratic governance and participation, and are interested in how nations individually express their own democratic deficits. They also recognize that such typical failings of modern democracies, even where the franchise is compulsory as in Australia, need to be viewed in the context of a world where democracies still struggle to be born in Syria, Afghanistan, Guatemala, Zimbabwe, and North Korea. In such nations, the ‘deficit’ includes assassinations and press censorship, not to mention the frequent abuse of women and other vulnerable populations.
British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) (2010) “French MPs Vote to Ban Islamic Full Veil in Public.” Available online: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/10611398
Ivry, Bob, Bradley Keoun and Phil Kuntz (2011) “Secret Fed Loans Gave Banks $13 Billion Undisclosed to Congress.” Bloomberg Markets Magazine. Available online: http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2011-11-28/secret-fed-loans-undisclosed-to-congress-gave-banks-13-billion-in-income.html
Leger (2002) Canadians and Government Corruption. Montreal: Leger Marketing.