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Is American democracy suffering from an overload of politics? – CBC.ca

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The polls tell us that roughly a third of all U.S. citizens believe — wrongly — that U.S. president-elect Joe Biden’s victory was achieved through fraud.

That finding is more alarming than surprising. Trust in the federal government dipped below 30 per cent among Americans at the beginning of this century and has only declined since then.

Canadians, meanwhile, have much more trust in their governments and public institutions. So what explains the difference?

Political scientists on both sides of the border say the current U.S. crisis of trust is partly the consequence of a system that permits partisanship to run wild in the name of unfettered democracy.

An independent election authority, a non-politicized judiciary and a non-partisan media might all be pillars Americans could cling to to keep from being sucked deeper into a vortex of mistrust and dysfunction.

But there are no such handholds, say experts — since the bodies that administer elections, the media that report on them and even the judges that may ultimately decide them are now all associated with one party or the other. So are the prosecutors who might bring charges in cases of malfeasance or fraud.

“The solution to the problems of democracy is more democracy,” said American philosopher John Dewey. But a lack of institutions that all Americans can agree to trust is showing the limits of that notion.

Constitutional experts say Canada has always had a lot less raw democracy than the United States — but may do a better job of actually implementing voters’ wishes.

Top-down or bottom-up

“Authority flows in two diametrically opposed directions” in the two countries, said constitutional expert Philippe Lagasse of Carleton University’s Norman Paterson School of International Affairs.

“In the United States, since its founding, sovereignty, authority, politics have very much flowed from the bottom up. That seemed to be a far more democratic system, and it’s seen as one where people have more influence over certain decisions and you’re able to have referenda, binding term limits, election of different office-holders.

“Whereas our system is much more top-down. We have, federally, one body that’s elected, the House of Commons, and every other office effectively is appointed or contractual.”

Americans can vote for everyone from the president to local sheriffs and dog-catchers. Canadians can only vote for their local representative. 

Consequently, says Lagasse, “in the United States, large numbers of offices that would be neutral — or should be neutral — are elected offices. We rely on apolitical office-holders to make these decisions.”

A supporter of President Donald Trump holds a sign during a rally in front of City Hall in Dallas, Saturday, Nov. 14, 2020. (LM Otero / Associated Press)

3,000 systems

No one personifies that apolitical role in Canada more than the chief electoral officer, who is empowered to spend whatever it takes to conduct elections and only has to account for the budget afterwards.

Jean-Pierre Kingsley served as Canada’s chief electoral officer for 17 years.

“Their system was set up by their Founding Fathers, whom they revere, and it’s very difficult for Americans to change this system,” said Kingsley. “They thought that by diffusing authority throughout the land, they would be able to prevent any kind of fooling around with the system.

“The effect of that is that you get 50 different laws, but you also get 3,000 different election authorities, because the elections are run at the county level.”

Kingsley said the system provided more opportunities for politicians and parties to put their fingers on the scale during elections — as southern states did through a century of Jim Crow voter suppression tactics following the passage of the Fourteenth Amendment that gave African-Americans the vote.

“The appointment of the officials that are responsible is done through the political network, and we see this being used by the president right now,” he said. “If the electoral authorities were appointed by Democrats, he’s making comments about that.”

Awash in money

The nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics estimates that candidates and outside groups spent $18.4 billion Cdn on this U.S. election cycle.

The total spent by parties on Canada’s election last November was somewhere in the range of $75 million. So the U.S., with nine times Canada’s population, has nearly 250 times as much election money sloshing around.

The decision of the U.S. Supreme Court in the 2009 case of Citizens United v. the Federal Elections Commission gutted a 2002 law that sought to reform campaign finance, using the argument that campaign money is protected political speech.

In his dissent, Justice John Paul Stevens warned that the decision “threatens to undermine the integrity of elected institutions across the Nation … A democracy cannot function effectively when its constituent members believe laws are being bought and sold.”

“If the system doesn’t control the money, then the money controls the system,” said Kingsley.

Supporters of President Donald Trump cheer as his motorcade drives past a rally of supporters near the White House, Saturday, Nov. 14, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci) (Evan Vucci/The Associated Press)

Billions for ads, peanuts for elections

Spending limits for parties and candidates in Canada are imposed by the bureaucrats at Elections Canada, based on a standard mathematical formula.

Kingsley points to the billions of dollars spent by candidates, Super PACs and outside groups in the U.S. and contrasts it with the often miserly budgets given to local authorities who have to administer an election during a pandemic.

“They’re caught having to go and ask for additional money and so on,” he said. “If the lines are long, the lines are long. They can’t afford to open more polls. People just have to wait in line for five, six or 10 hours.”

All that inconvenience has an effect. The turnout in the recent U.S. election was 66 per cent — the highest turnout in a century but still below the average turnout for federal elections in Canada.

Lines on a map

Jonathan Rodden, a political scientist at Stanford University in California, is an expert on gerrymandering — the practice of drawing election maps to favour one side over another.

“I draw a lot on comparisons with Canada in my work,” said Rodden, “to think about what might we get if we had a Canadian-style commission, as opposed to what we get when we have districts drawn up by self-interested incumbent politicians.”

He notes that in both Canada and the U.S., urban voters skew progressive and rural voters skew conservative. But in the U.S., political parties use redistricting as a wedge to drive those two solitudes even further apart and give themselves an advantage.

He said Pennsylvania — ground zero for the recent post-election chaos — is a classic example of a GOP gerrymander, in which the goal is “to stuff as many Democrats as possible into as few districts as possible.”

The Democrats have played similar games in states like Maryland and Illinois (though less effectively).

Strange bedfellows

Rodden said Cincinnati is an example of a city where gerrymandering has combined with racial politics to produce an outcome that appears intended to deprive African-American voters of electoral clout. Ohio Republicans split the city in two and attached each part to a suburban hinterland, he said, producing two GOP-leaning districts and effectively nullifying Cincinnati’s heavily black Democratic majority.

And Republicans have sometimes found allies among incumbent Democrats who want to create districts they can’t lose, Rodden said.

“There can be strange incumbent bedfellows in that process,” he said.

Rodden said U.S. voters tend to dislike seeing state legislators draw up federal election boundaries and have voted to replace the partisan system with bipartisan or citizen commissions on several occasions when the topic has come up through ballot initiatives.

Canada already has an independent body drawing electoral boundaries.

“Our system is less susceptible to partisan influence in the drawing of those boundaries,” said Lagasse, “and this is in keeping with the Canadian tradition of neutrality of the civil service.”

Powers that aren’t separate enough

The confirmation of Amy Coney Barrett to the U.S. Supreme Court again revealed the all-too-narrow wall that separates the American judiciary from the other two branches of government.

Like many nominees, Barrett — widely seen as arch-conservative — spent much of her confirmation hearing sidestepping questions about her political views. The 6-3 partisan split on the U.S. Supreme Court is hardly a state secret.

In a recent speech to the Federalist Society, Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito waded even further into politics while discussing his dissent in the ruling that legalized gay marriage.

Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito, shown with other justices at the White House on July 23, 2019. (Carolyn Kaster/The Associated Press)

Nowadays, he claimed, “you can’t say that marriage is a union between one man and one woman. Until very recently, that’s what the vast majority of Americans thought. Now it’s considered bigotry.”

(Of course, the First Amendment protects Americans’ rights to say anything they want about marriage.)

Alito also used his speech to attack five senators, all Democrats.

So it’s not hard to see why many Democrats doubt that a Justice Alito would rule impartially on the outcome of the 2020 election, should he be called on to do so.

Meanwhile, the attorneys-general who run the justice system in individual states are even deeper in the political fray. For proof, just take a look at the “Lawless Liberals” ads run by the Republican Attorneys General Association (RAGA).

“If hurricanes Kamala and Joseph make landfall, the Republican attorneys general, as the nation’s ‘insurance policy,’ will defend America from complete annihilation,” said RAGA executive director Adam Piper.

Canadian judicial appointments are much less controversial — but this is one area where some experts say Canada is slipping toward a more partisan approach.

The federal government is currently defending its nomination process in court from allegations that it gives politicians too much discretion — a concern voiced just two weeks ago by the Canadian Bar Association.

But Canada’s system of appointments is still a far cry from what’s in place in the U.S., where 90 per cent of state judges must run for office.

“Some might see that as less grassroots, but there’s wider public trust [in Canada] that these office-holders view their jobs in terms of the public interest, as opposed to advancing the perspectives of a particular subset of the population,” said Lagasse.

“This effort to constantly devolve decisions down to the grassroots seems more democratic, but it ultimately ends up having nefarious effects on your politics. It allows smaller groups of people to take hold of nominations of candidates. And similarly, this decision to replace the vast majority of the executive branch with every change of chief executive does not bring stability to the system.

“But primarily — and paradoxically — this constant effort to devolve power has actually left people dissatisfied. Strangely enough, in our system, we centralize power but we end up with governments that can do things, that can provide for people, and it creates more public trust.”

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Indian movie superstar Rajinikanth to launch political party – CKPGToday.ca

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His political prospects appear bright following a vacuum created by the deaths of Jayaram Jayalalithaa, an actor-turned politician with the governing party in the state, and Muthuvel Karunanidhi, the leader of the opposition Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam party.

Cinema has always influenced Tamil politics by turning actors into popular politicians.

C.N. Annadurai and M. Karunanidhi were scriptwriters who went on to become chief ministers. M.G. Ramachandran, a top actor-turned-politician, also had a strong following.

Born Shivaji Rao Gaekwad, Rajinikanth worked as a bus conductor for three years before joining an acting school. He started in small roles as a villain in Tamil cinema and worked his way up, landing roles in Bollywood, the Hindi-language film industry based in Mumbai.

Bollywood superstar Amitabh Bachchan also tried his hand in politics as a member of India’s Parliament, representing the Congress party in support of his friend, then-Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, in the 1980s. He resigned after three years following allegations that he accepted bribes in the purchase of artillery guns. His name was later cleared in the scandal.

Ashok Sharma, The Associated Press

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COVID-19 doesn't care about politics – NiagaraFallsReview.ca

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Remember the Team Canada approach to fighting COVID-19, the one where political parties would put the collective fight above partisan interests? Remember “we’re all in this together?”

That was all so yesterday. Today, there is very little non-partisan co-operation between federal parties. And Canadians, too, have become increasingly partisan and divided.

It was probably all inevitable, but it’s unfortunate, nonetheless.

Partisanship has entirely replaced bilateral co-operation in Ottawa. The government stands accused of flubbing Canada’s vaccine program. Because of that mismanagement we are at “the back of the line,” according to federal Conservatives.

It is true that the government, and especially the prime minister, have been unnecessary vague about vaccine delivery and rollout details. It is not true that we are at the back of the pack. Canada was the fourth country in the world to strike an agreement with Pfizer, one of the vaccine producers. It was one of the first to sign up with Moderna, another producer.

Moderna co-founder and chair Noubar Afeyan, who came to Canada as a refugee from Beirut before he moved to the U.S., says this country is in good shape. In an interview with CBC News, he said “Canada’s not at the back of the line,” adding “Each of the contracts we negotiated — and Canada was among the first to enter into a supply arrangement with Moderna — is individual, and of course the people who were willing to move early on, with even less proof of efficacy, have assured the amount of supply they were willing to sign up to. I know in the case of Canada their number is about 20 million doses.”

It is fair to criticize the Liberals for their communication to date around vaccines, but it is not factual to claim Canada is at the back of the line. However, that is a good example of how partisan strategy has replaced the collaboration that was a welcome feature of the pandemic’s early days.

It is also true that Canada will not get vaccines as quickly as countries like the U.S. and U.K., where vaccines were developed and produced. This country doesn’t have that production capacity. It did at one point. There was publicly owned Connaught Labs, which was privatized under the Mulroney Conservative government in the ’80s. Later, the Harper government cut research and development spending and other pharmaceutical companies closed shop and moved elsewhere. Now that capacity is largely gone, and it needs to be replaced, urgently.

A similar partisan divide exists among Canadians overall, according to recent opinion polling data. In general, Liberal and NDP voter respondents in several different polls were more likely to be primarily concerned about the health impact of COVID-19, while those who identified as Conservative were more likely to be concerned about the economic and business impact. According to polling by the Angus Reid Institute, 89 per cent of respondents who voted Liberal, NDP or Bloc reported regularly wearing masks, while 71 per cent of Conservative voters reported doing the same.

Interestingly, one poll by Leger suggests many Canadians are not so concerned about getting the vaccine at the same time as the U.S. or U.K., where vaccines are produced. Forty-eight per cent said that they were “not that concerned” and feel “a few months won’t make much of a difference,” while 37 per cent said they are worried that we won’t get the vaccine at the same time.

The point that matters most is this: COVID-19 doesn’t care about our political leaning. It is an equal opportunity virus. And that should unite us more than anything else.

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SIMPSON: If pettiness of politics around Surrey feels familiar, there's a good reason why – Surrey Now-Leader

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If you had to describe Surrey’s political climate in one word, which would you choose?

Divisive? Too easy.

Defective? Depends on whose side you’re on.

Dysfunctional? You can’t argue with that, can you?

Anybody who follows municipal politics in our area knows that for a journalist, the city council beat can be a particularly juicy one, especially when presented with the right mix of contentious issues and strong personalities.

Stories about certain council members’ inability to deal with disagreements like grown ups are nothing new. Just say the word ‘pencil’ down near White Rock’s City Hall and see what reaction you get.

And over the years, our newsroom has been privy to many tips and tidbits about our elected officials. Some were worthy of publication, while others were… well… definitely not.

Somebody’s sleeping with someone’s husband.

These two are dating.

Somebody’s a home-wrecker.

These two were photographed coming out of a hotel together.

These two were caught making out in the back of a car.

But the gossip isn’t always sexual (although it’s disturbingly common) – so-and-so hit ‘like’ on a Facebook post that made fun of a fellow slate member.

Wait. We actually did that story and I got yelled at for it.

Anyway, you get the point.

OUR VIEW: We expect integrity from leaders

The politics surrounding Surrey has gotten too nasty and too personal – and it can make it difficult to stick to the issues.

In the past few months, we’ve told you about attack ads featuring doctored photos of councillors. We’ve shared full exchanges from chambers that would tell you all you need to know about the pettiness on council.

Name-calling.

Finger-pointing.

Mic-muting.

Fake photos.

Bullying.

Threats.

Enough, already!

OUR VIEW: No time for childish spats, Surrey council

Consider the response we received after we asked a councillor if it’s fair to publish an attack ad if it uses doctored photos and inaccurate quotes.

“I can’t answer that,” was the terrible answer he gave.

Does any of this feel familiar to you? If it does, there’s a good reason why.

Let former U.S. President Barack Obama explain.

“More than anything, I wanted this book to be a way in which people could better understand the world of politics and foreign policy, worlds that feel opaque and inaccessible,” he said in an interview with The Atlantic about his recently released book.

“It’s interesting. You’re in high school and you see all the cliques and bullying and unfairness and superficiality, and you think, Once I’m grown up I won’t have to deal with that anymore. And then you get to the state legislature and you see all the nonsense and stupidity and pettiness.

“And then you get to Congress and then you get to the G20, and at each level you have this expectation that things are going to be more refined, more sophisticated, more thoughtful, rigorous, selfless, and it turns out it’s all still like high school.”

That it does. That it does.

Beau Simpson is editor of the Now-Leader and can be reached at beau.simpson@surreynowleader.com



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