It might not be just the climate that's at risk this century. We might be on the brink of a much larger sea change sweeping through our political, economic and social structures.
Democracy, which after all is political egalitarianism, may be on its way out. The United States, with its "bought and paid for" Congress, seems to have quietly discarded democracy in favour of a corporatist oligarchy. The reality of this was affirmed by the United States Supreme Court in its Citizens United decision that upheld powerful political rights for non-voting interests. Money talks. Big Money talks loudly enough to drown out everyone else.
Money, today, is political power as we've never experienced in our lifetimes. That is manifested in rapidly growing inequality - in incomes, in wealth and in opportunity. Skilfully nurtured inequality is the precursor to the social fracturing that underlies real oligarchy.
A bellwether for what is happening is the rise of "internships." My daughter and her American beau recently settled in Vancouver. He graduated a year earlier and found work in his field but only in the form of three internships. At any given time he had two on the go because his earnings were so low he could only aspire to penury.
I first saw these arrangements when, as a young man, I lived in England. I met a couple of fellows starting their careers in banking. It turned out both of them were upper-middle class. They had to be because their career path depended on their parents supporting them for the first few working years. The idea was to keep out the riff-raff. Those who lacked adequate, alternate means of support could not afford to pursue the careers that, once the ordeal was over, paid handsomely. And so the "right" jobs were preserved for the "right" people. It was outrageous but I wrote it off as just another incident of Britain's powerful and rigid class structure. Now, like a contagion, it has jumped the Atlantic.
As Andrew Bacevich warned in The Limits of Power, a complacent American public has allowed their democracy to be stolen:
"Yet if presidents have accrued too much power, if the Congress is feckless,
if the national security bureaucracy is irretrievably broken, the American
people have only themselves to blame. They have allowed their democracy to be
hijacked. The hijackers will not voluntarily return what they have
"One result of that hijacking has been to raise up
a new political elite whose members have a vested interest in perpetuating the
crises that provide the source of their power. These are the people who under
the guise of seeking peace or advancing the cause of liberty devise policies
that promote war or the prospect of war, producing something akin to
Damn, he just might be right. What Bacevich wrote, as a lament for his America, should stand as a warning for what could lie in store for our Canada, our democracy, our people.
The theory of global warming has made us aware of the concept of "tipping points" but I wonder whether the demise of democracy embodies its own tipping points. In my unsophisticated, okay naive, understanding of democracy I fervently believed that universal suffrage, the vote, would always save the day, would remedy any excess, every omission. The vote, after all, vested ultimate power in the citizenry. The vote ensured our political classes would always do right by us.
Abe Lincoln is known for his quip that you can fool all of the people some of the time and some of the people all of the time but you cannot fool all of the people all of the time. Now I understand the retort to that is, "so what?" All that matters is that you can fool enough of the people enough of the time on the stuff that really matters and you have effectively thwarted democracy. The vote isn't enough to ensure the political leadership will do right by us when others with competing interests are more capable of demanding their attention.
A concentrated, corporatist media is a powerful instrument for perverting democracy. A viable democracy is dependent upon an informed electorate. Confuse the electorate, mislead the electorate, inculcate them with fear and it's easy to create a misinformed electorate. A plain and powerful example of that came in late 2008 when Harper and his minions, shamelessly aided and abbeted by Canada's corporatist media, spread the outright lie about the opposition plotting an unconstitutional coup d'etat to seize power from the Conservatives. An honest, free media would have skewered Harper for that, denounced his lies, exposed his manipulations, revealed the truth and fulfilled their mandate as watchdog of government. None of that happened and the "coup" smear took hold among the fearful and ignorant.
The events of late 2008 might have been a tipping point in the demise of Canadian democracy. There have been others, among them the steadfast refusal of the Liberals and Conservatives to pledge meaningful action to fight back the surge of inequality in our own country. Inequality of income, inequality of wealth, inequality of opportunity... the pillars of a vibrant, robust middle class that is, of itself, the very foundation of healthy, strong democracy. The object lesson is that while it's a given we cannot trust the corporatist Conservatives to do right by us, we have no reason to give the Liberals the benefit of the doubt on that score either. The NDP? That remains to be seen and it still has much to prove.
Who will pledge to fight back inequality? Who will commit to dismembering our corporatist mass media? Who will formulate a viable plan to tackle climate change? Who will restore posterity to its rightful place in government policy and planning? Whatever party does all those things - the lot - is the party that can be entrusted with our democracy, the party that we should bank on doing right by us, the Canadian people.