Ontario Liberals hold their leadership convention this weekend at Maple Leaf Gardens -- a great choice of venue. The event belongs to a dying breed: brokered conventions. That means the wheeling, dealing and decision-making happen right there on the floor among delegates in real time. It runs counter to the trend toward more self-evidently democratic conventions, in which party members everywhere get to vote by mail or online -- the way the NDP chose Tom Mulcair last spring and federal Liberals will do so in April.
The Reform-Conservatives led the way on this. That clearly seems more democratic since all members can vote -- not just delegates, party bosses and insiders who are on the spot. Even U.S. parties, who used to have riotous brokered conventions -- one went 103 ballots -- abandoned them long ago. Yet there's an appeal to these past-their-due-date gatherings. I've always adored them. What is it?
Sheer nostalgia, like the locale? Weirdness and quirkiness -- people wearing funny hats covered in buttons? Trying to spot momentum as some switch sides and jump on the bandwagon? The sleazy, inevitable deal-making? Political drama that's practically Shakespearean, like Richard III's schemes? No, I'd say it's that these exclusive insider events somehow feel more democratic -- how can that be?
I think it's because people are actually talking, arguing, changing minds and votes based on what they hear and who makes sense -- to some extent anyway. I know we don't characterize democracy as talking, we picture it as voting, but that's what you could call the voting fallacy. It's not how democracy was in ancient Athens where all citizens (which excluded slaves and women) met, debated, heard each other out, new solutions emerged; that may not happen much this weekend but the model is right: people deliberating together rather than isolated individuals prissily casting a precious vote the way callers phone in to talk shows and bellow but rarely listen to others or go beyond making their pitch. Yes, I guess you could accuse me of being romantic and nostalgic.
But let me digress to a related case of the same mentality: the free speech wall that went up and came down swiftly at Carleton University this week, where a student dismantled it lest it incur some expressions of hate. I'm actually in favour of free speech for haters, racists etc., and not because I think speech does no harm. I think it can and does. But the damage done by "bad," vile or "wrong" ideas is a price worth paying for the benefits of getting many varieties of thought out there, and showing respect to every citizen.
What's usually missing though, from these eruptions over free speech, is the discussion component. It's as if the entire point is the right to vent, to post your opinion on a wall or comment page, like an exercise in catharsis or self-expression. It's the free speech equivalent of the voting fallacy. Why don't people focus more on engaging each other in the hope of advancing beyond the place they've already arrived? That should be the point of free speech in a democratic context: to reach agreements that build a sounder community. Take the classic case of prohibited speech: crying fire in a crowded theatre. What if there was time to discuss the cry, to point out there is or isn't a fire and agree on a plan of action? Since there isn't, it's OK to prohibit it. But in most cases there's time and space to have a conversation, what's lacking is the will or the habit. The mere vote or post absorb all the political oxygen.
And what about this weekend's convention: Isn't it another case of voting for representatives (delegates) who then get to do all the real interacting? Yes, with this difference. The people we elect to parliaments are cut out of the conversation too; as Tim Harper noted here, not a single elected member in Canada was at work this week. The discussions really occur only among top leaders and their coteries. At the Liberal convention, after the first obligatory ballot, the folks on the floor will get turned loose to their own devices. Any kind of democratic mayhem could conceivably break out.
This article was first published in the Toronto Star.
Photo: Sandra Pupatello/Flickr
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