No schism is more consequential in public life today than the divide between those who do and those who do not exercise their democratic franchise. This gulf is growing ”” and it is not confined to Canada. This is a condition present in all Western democracies. What is most troubling about this is that people who are in the under-25 age cohort are the fastest-growing demo- graphic, and they increasingly comprise the largest portion of the non-voting contingent.
This situation did not arise from the work of a day: there is a history to cite. This history came in three phas- es, which can be called the late modern, the modern and the postmodern. The late modern phase dates to before the previous century but one, when the very word democ- racy was a much-feared word, conjuring images of the mob violence that accompanied the French Revolution in the eighteenth century. The framers of the British North America Act designed Canada’s upper body, the Senate, to be a bulwark against the excesses of democracy. The aim was to bring the regions into the center of decision- making by ensuring that those appointed to this chamber were men of property all. The property qualification in the Senate has remained static while all else has changed, including the gender balance.
In the second half of the 20th century the general pub- lic ”” now better educated and better informed ”” demand- ed a greater say in decision-making. This, the second, was the modern phase. The right to vote was gradually extend- ed to a broader element of society, which included women. Things, however, continued to work in a top-down way. Public consultation became the order of the day. Royal commissions and task forces were the vehicle of choice; these devices were then gradually supplanted by polls and focus groups.
However, these devices did not encourage an autochthonous sense of civic engagement. Democratic insti- tutions took on a corporatist tone, as the representatives of social, business and labour groups challenged each other for control of the public agenda. Non-governmental organizations and not-for-profit foundations fell into the same pattern: they let the people at the top dominate the organization. These were the people who invariably man- aged to grab the microphone at public events. Canada’s resident public intel- lectual, John Ralston Saul, derided the anti-democratic aspects of this, and said that our society was in danger of becoming an ”œunconscious civiliza- tion,” a civilization which would allow experts of all manner and circum- stance to take over. As a result, we lost the habits of mind, and the abilities, to become civically engaged. Like George Orwell before him, Saul worried that language itself was being debased, as jargon from other organizations, such as concepts like ”œpartnering” and the incorporation of ”œbest practices,” made their way into the public realm.
A number of panoptic factors con- spired to make this so. First there were geopolitical realities. The Cold War froze this second phase of doing things for a 50-year period. During this period of world history, the United States, as much as the former Soviet Union, was happy to do business with all manner of tyrants as long as they could buy their favours. But there was a price to be paid in terms of domestic politics. The same pressure groups and special interests continued to lobby, largely beyond public scrutiny. And, the same electoral laws and campaign finance rules stayed in place. When the Cold War ended, many countries revised and reformed these practices. There was one huge exception to this ”” the United States.
The radical historian and philoso- pher Immanuel Wallerstein has writ- ten about the long-term trends which could be identified in the capitalist sys- tem, or in his terms, the world-system. The first was the de-ruralization of the global economy, which was inexorably increasing the cost of labour as a per- centage of total value created. The sec- ond was the externalization of costs, which led to ecological exhaustion, and which drove up the cost of inputs as a percentage of total value created. The third area was the human rights revolution. Demands for democratic control over society accompanied this transformation of public affairs. Health care, public education and state-sanctioned efforts to minimize the excesses of the ”œrisk society” were the support structures which acted as the foundation for this phase of the push for democracy. The confluence of these three trends served as a defining influence on the cohort of young adults who have been dubbed Generation X by demographers. These people came of age when the stand-off between the former Soviet Union and the United States had ended. It was an age of managerialism ”” when there appeared to be a technical fix to the issues of the day and the big social movements were no longer bounded by the jurisdiction of the nation-state. Famously or infamously, the ethos of the time was encapsulated by the term ”œthe End of History,” provocatively posited by Francis Fukuyama in 1989.
This was also an era when the cycles of American history, identi- fied with the historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., had turned away from the bursts of experimentation, innova- tion and idealism associated with periods of public activity. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal was seen as the high point of that tendency, but the civil rights movement and Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty were cited with honour. But this era has passed into history. The private sector was presented to Gen-Xers as the place where the action was, and social move- ments were said to be the only organi- zations that could operate outside the box ”” in this case the ballot box. No wonder voting was viewed as deeply uncool!
Omitted from Waller- stein’s analysis, and the analysis of others who take a neo-Marxist approach to big picture change, was the role of individuals, and the place of individual agencies in changing history. What Wallerstein omitted was important. He did not explore the pivotal position of new technologies. So-called transformative technologies are not just tools, they have the capacity to completely trans- form the way people view the world and live their lives. The Internet is properly called transformative, as can cutting-edge developments in biotech- nology and nanotechnology.
We are now on the cusp of the third phase in the democratic revolution ”” the postmodern. In this phase people demand more meaningful participation. Voting every four years does not, evidently, count as meaning- ful participation. Polls and focus groups count for less. The days of passive def- erence to elites has ended. Canada is undergoing a social revolution (the journalistic shorthand for this is the ”œnew Canada”; the political system, in turn, is undergoing a parallel transfor- mation even as the electoral system remains skewed toward the interests of what may be called the ”œold Canada” ”” meaningfully identified as rural areas). The crisis in the political system is everywhere apparent. Voters, and espe- cially young voters, are dropping out of the electoral system in droves. Political parties are now, put simply, ignoring policy (policy in the second phase of democracy was primarily regarded as an instrumental arrangement in which whole segments of voters gave their consent to their governors in exchange for preferences which supported their class interests, or to put it more pithily, the electorate traded policy for votes ”” this was the theme of a highly influen- tial book published by Anthony Downs half a century ago, entitled An Economic Theory of Democracy. This was the dom- inant paradigm of the modern era). In the postmodern period, this paradigm has been reversed. At present, parties which offer policy pronouncements in election campaigns routinely reverse these pronouncements once in office. (Think of the Ontario Liberals, who solemnly promised a balanced budget with no tax increases in the October 2003 election, only to run a huge deficit in spite of a hefty hike in health care premiums only six months later in their first budget of May 2004, which only added to a climate of cynicism and cer- tainly caused collateral damage to the federal Liberals in the June election.) The bureaucracy, at all levels of govern- ment, appears to be adrift, and cities continue to lurch along without sus- tainable sources of funding. Much of the foment is driven by generational change. The Spanish philosopher, Ortega y Gassett, argued that the change that occurs from one generation to the next is the most revolutionary transformation that is possible in the course of human affairs. It is inevitable and it is all-inclusive: entire popula- tions and a whole set of decision-mak- ers are replaced with the simple passage of time.
A cohort of Gen-Xers has come of age. As is well known, they are fluent in computer technology (how’s that for a generalization?). Less well known and less understood are the consequences of technologically driv- en change. They reject the mediating institutions that come between them and social action ”” such mediating institutions are old-style political par- ties and the opinion-makers and pundits who operate in the mainstream media. The Iraq war helped to bring greater visibility to new technology formats such as Web blogs ”” personal diary accounts of day-to-day events ”” and gave a cult status to a blogger who went by the nom de guerre of Saddam Pax (which was itself a play on the name Saddam and the Latin word for peace). His accounts of daily life dur- ing the critical phases of the battle for Baghdad had widespread appeal to a younger crowd. This was because of Saddam Pax’s arch and cynical sense of humor, and because of his knowing references to the pop culture markers that a young Western audience had made their own.
In geopolitics, this third phase of the democratic revolution has meant that more emphasis is placed on peo- ple-to-people interaction. Trade delega- tions between business partners are one example of this, linkages between schools and universities in different countries, another. This does not take the place of the traditional state-to-state diplomacy of earlier eras, but it does flesh out that diplomacy, and gives it definition and context. In domestic pol- itics, the same impulse finds expression in the demands for electoral reform. In an article published before he entered elective office, Pierre Trudeau argued that reform in our federal system has historically had an entry point at the provincial level. Public health insurance had its beginnings that way, as did other policy initiatives. The same argu- ment can be made for proportional rep- resentation today. British Columbia, Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island have govern- ments which are studying the situation and actively examining alternative vot- ing systems which incorporate various elements of our present first-past-the- post system into other arrangements. Citizens’ assemblies, in which a repre- sentative sample of the population is chosen by lot in the manner of a jury, have worked in British Columbia. This model is likely to travel. It is a novel way to offer a different forum for policy issues.
But structural change is not enough. These are procedural changes, and they do not represent substantive change. These changes may keep a small army of self-styled ”œexperts” employed but they are hardly likely to fire the imagination of youth across the country. A debate has to take place about the funda- mental allocation of resources in our society. In the traditional way of doing things, the state divided up resources according to social and eco- nomic class, and according to geo- graphic location. What if that model was turned upside down? Right now most state support comes to people at the end of their lives. Hospital care is expensive, and those who make it their professional responsibility to keep track of such things inform us that we use hospitals the most during the last six months of our lives. And social services are directed toward the elderly. Projections for hospital costs and attendant social service costs are rising at an unsustainable level. Ours is an aging population, coupled with a smaller proportion of a labour force, which contributes to the tax base, which in turn supports social services. In Germany, Italy and in Japan the problem is particularly pronounced. Why not strike a new ”œsocial con- tract” with the young? It might be beneficial to offer to the younger gen- eration state support when they are under 25, if this same generation agrees to pay more of its own way in its golden years.
How is this to be done? Look south of our border. In his 2002 State of the Union Address President George W. Bush announced plans for a ”œfree- dom corps.” Every American, he declared, should be willing to devote 4,000 hours of service to their commu- nity, the equivalent of two years of 40- hour weeks, to their country and to the world as a way to expand the ”œcul- ture of responsibility, citizenship and service.” The aim of this program was to strengthen an existing program, the Peace Corps, and to bring it up to lev- els of participation which it had not seen since the 1960s. Established by President Kennedy, the Peace Corps was the only program which allowed American citizens to take ”œsoft power” values beyond America’s shores. (The American military, presumably, insured that ”œsoft power” was backed up by the most overwhelming military might in the history of humankind. This was the only example of force in Iraq, after all, that made Libya come clean on terrorism.)
North of the border, journalists like Andrew Cohen have called for a Canada Corps. Cohen makes the case for a system that is open to people of all ages who want to serve their country in either a military or a non-military capacity. In the February Speech from the Throne, and again at a foreign policy address in Montreal before calling the election in May, Paul Martin endorsed the concept of a ”œCanada corps,” consisting of Canadians of all ages, engaged in building a bet- ter Canada and a better world. The proposal is sound. The question then becomes: how can it be imple- mented? More importantly, how can this Canada corps foster a sense of civic engagement?
The place to start is with post- secondary education. An entire generation of students are building up huge debt burdens. The prospect of debt is particularly daunting for students from working class back- grounds. How do we make sure that our society is open to opportunity? Numerous proposals have been floated, such as making tuition fees contingent on the prospects of future income. Business school grad- uates could, as an example, pay more tuition than people in social work. Other proposals have submit- ted differential fees for individual courses or individual professors. Popular courses, would, presumably, be more expensive. Some proposals are market-based and user-paid; oth- ers make the case for having state support and then insuring that the state keeps out of the business of macro-managing course selection. All of these proposals have one ele- ment in common: they fall back on the notion of ideology and left ver- sus right. A more enterprising approach would be to have the money follow the individual instead of the institution.
After secondary school, students could enter a two-year Canada Corps program. They would essentially be working as interns, with people who have the experience to mentor them in specific fields of activity. They would not be paid a salary. Instead, those who entered this program would have their basic expenses cov- ered and would be given a small amount of spending money. These individuals would be paid in the form of vouchers. (Parenthetically, it should be noted that the concept of vouchers is making a comeback.) The debate about vouchers has been hijacked by the right in the United States. In other parts of the world, political parties of different stripes are exploring the practical ramifications of this idea. Milton Friedman, the Nobel Laureate from the University of Chicago, published a classic article on this idea in 1955, entitled ”œOn The Role of Government in Education.” Looking back, Friedman expressed amazement that the debate over vouchers went the way it did in America. He was quoted in a 2003 New Statesman article by Stephen Pelland as saying:
[V]ouchers would allow the lower classes to have nearly the same opportunity as the upper classes. So it would reduce the difference between rich and poor. The only reason it has been argued the other way is…well, I don’t know. (Quoted in Stephen Pollard, ”œMilton Friedman lives again.”
How would this initiative work? Non-military participants could work in small teams that would partner with university-based groups in the developing world. The priorities of the group would be decided at the local level, just as the actual working arrangements would be decided local- ly. There would be two main ”œclus- ters” of activity: health and education. Within these activities, priority would be given to issues involving clean drinking water and HIV/AIDs treatments on the one hand, and education for young women on the other. Participants on the military side could have invalu- able training in the support structure for peacekeeping, which would include actual work on the building of hospitals and schools. This experi- ence would take Canada to the world in a constructive way. But it would not end there.
More of our budget for foreign aid could be directed toward people-to-people diplomacy. What would this mean in practice? Universities could receive more federal funding to partner with sister institutions in the devel- oping world. More student exchanges could be built into the system, along with parallel systems of faculty exchanges and exchanges for support staff at universities and colleges. The signal has to be clear: Canada is a country that opens itself to the world by being open to talent and enterprise. More emphasis has to be placed on making sure that professional qualifications from other countries are dealt with quick- ly and in an open manner. All levels of government have to work togeth- er on this problem, in conjunction with the professional associations themselves. This is another aspect of people-to-people diplomacy which has to be prioritized.
There is another aspect of the Canada Corps proposal that should be considered. What about the needs of our own country? The Canada corps should, at its base, be concerned with the most needy in society. Intergenerational technology transfer could be key. Canada corps volunteers could work in homes for seniors, and teach seniors the won- ders ”” and the perils ”” of the Internet. The rewards would not be uni-dimensional. The elderly have much to give ”” they could mentor Canada Corps volunteers, in return, and teach younger generations about family history and about the chal- lenges faced by previous generations. In this sense, all history is local. The Canada corps could serve as an important archive for these stories. This would serve as a lesson in civics and citizenship for all involved. Another priority group could be abo- riginal individuals living on and off- reserve. Again, technology transfer would be the goal, as the Canada Corps could help with the integration of computer technology, e-commerce and sustainable business plans.
This technologically enhanced ”œcan do” philosophy should be brought to other federal programs. Life-long learning can only be a liv- ing reality if vouchers are made a central component of the Employ- ment Insurance system. The longer a person depends on the governmental support system, the more retraining must be emphasized. And yet, such retraining must rest on individual choice. Employment Insurance will have a different, on-the-ground reali- ty in different regions of the country. A way to break the cycle of depend- ency is to demonstrate to people that they can empower themselves through their own efforts. The main role of the state would be to work through the tax system in order to create a competitive business envi- ronment. Competitive would mean not depending on already existing infrastructures ”” competitive would require innovative thinking.
In this postmodern phase, politics has to do away with the middleman. It is important to ignite an authentic sense of civic engagement ”” and gov- ernment can make good things hap- pen. The place to start is with young people. Untold stories are the vehicles through which voluntarism has been on the upswing on campuses across North America. Government can har- ness this optimistic spirit and turn it in a positive direction. Civic engagement is one means of alleviating the democratic deficit, by involving more Canadians in the affairs of our coun- try and of the world.
The proj- ect was sponsored by CIDA and the Gorbachev Foundation. He has written extensively about public policy issues. In the 2003-04 academic year he was a senior research associate at St. Antony’s College, Oxford University.