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College Quarterly
Summer 2013 - Volume 16 Number 3
Wrestling with Democracy: Ruminations on a Messy, Historical, Contested Reality
Dennis Pilon
Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2013
Reviewed by Howard A. Doughty

The term “democratic deficit” is much in the news. It can refer to a range of attitudes toward democracy that undermine its legitimacy or express disenchantment with its efficacy. Or both. It can also refer to actions by a variety of groups on the matter of participation in democratic governance which abort or undermine the rights and values of citizenship. It may involve beliefs and behaviour on the part of:

  • elected officials who consciously seek to subvert democratic norms by tactics such as voter suppression or unfair marginalizing of opposition voices and by using unwarranted “attack ads” to mock or denigrate their competitors;
  • influential corporations and industry pressure groups which use their economic clout to deregulate their industries at the same time as they win government subsidies and contracts;
  • the mass media which reduce mature political discourse to sensationalism and slogans that trivialize important issues and turn political leadership into image-control contests;
  • schools, colleges and universities that have all but abandoned the teaching of social studies and history while emphasizing vocationalism to the detriment of social awareness;
  • citizens who display an enormous ignorance of politics and government, while reciting an unending litany of petty complaints, but failing to acquire a modest understanding of political issues and the institutions created to resolve them:

This doleful state of affairs results in low and declining turn-out rates at municipal, provincial or state and national elections and manifests itself in the decline of confidence in political processes and institutions

Whatever democracy might mean to the political philosopher, the elected representative, the citizen activist or the generic ordinary citizen, it is plain that it fails to live up to the expectation of Western civilization’s most optimistic liberal thinkers from Locke, Rousseau, Mill to subsequent “participatory democrats” such as G. D. H. Cole and Carole Pateman, all of whom set a high standard by believing passionately that it was variously our right and our duty to occupy the public realm and to seek justice for ourselves and others by making our voices heard and our votes count.

Where you puts the blame for the apparent degradation of democratic norms will tell more about you than about democracy itself. Each of the above referenced segments of civil society has much to explain and much for which to apologize.

Starting at the top, Canadians may be forgiven for thinking ill of the democratic values of Prime Minister Stephen Harper. It is not excessively partisan to mention that he has done his best to limit the reliable information that people receive about public issues. He is notorious for silencing civil servants who might otherwise provide the public with competent financial and scientific analyses of economic, environmental and energy issues. He suppressed the “Long-form Census” that had previously provided planners with the needed data to develop public programs and policies. He is seemingly almost congenitally averse to “evidence-based” politics.

Leaving aside “negative” election campaigns and electoral “dirty tricks,” Harper’s contempt for parliament is evident is his willingness to use “Omnibus Bills” to thwart open debate of controversial matters and, when the criticism threatens to rise to intolerable levels, he simply shuts down parliament for months on end.

It would, of course, be unfair to say that Mr. Harper’s attitudes and actions are unique or that others have not done or do not do similar things. It is important, however, also to shift to the bottom of the list and acknowledge that many citizens neither notice nor particularly care about such matters. Their lack of interest is probably reflected in a common inability to spell “prorogue,” much less to offer a coherent definition of the term and the way it is used to frustrate the will of parliament. This lack of knowledge is not, of course, entirely their fault. It is enabled and exploited by the print and broadcast media to excuse their inadequate coverage of political events. In fact, as Dennis Pilon has explained, the problem is deeper than mere ignorance: it is that the people are “ignorant about their ignorance.” He also understands that apathy and ignorance are not necessarily endemic to the human condition. They are constructed in the interest of those whose positions of power and privilege would be shaken if public attention were to be focused on what are sometimes prettily called “asymmetric power relations” and the full extent of corporate influence was to be revealed.

The media, moreover, are in a no greater mood than our educational institutions to enlighten the electorate and make people conscious both of their democratic opportunities and of the obstacles to democratic participation erected by politicians. Too many political leaders, especially those in executive positions on municipal councils or in provincial or state and federal cabinets, regard the people as annoying intruders upon their self-satisfied sense of entitlement to the right to govern undistracted by minority concerns. The people, we are regularly told, don’t care about such things and only fringe groups are eager to have competent discussions of complicated “technicalities.” That, incidentally, suits the print and broadcast media just fine. Night seems to be falling on the days of serious investigative journalism and cost-cutting corporate outlets would have difficulty keeping up with alternative web-based journals of news and opinion, even if they thought the overriding necessity of keeping their advertisers happy allowed them to do so. As Pilon also explains, politics has become a form of show business in which elections are treated as sporting events, the corporate “brands” of political parties become more important than their detailed policy proposals, and serious political deliberations are transformed into empty photo-ops and banal sound-bites.

No matter what the reported level of public apathy and alienation, Dennis Pilon is the kind of public intellectual who sincerely cares about such matters. Wrestling with Democracy is a very fine book about a topic with which he has plainly been personally wrestling for some time and about which he has made astute observations and drawn thoughtful conclusions. It would do my heart good if his book were to become a best-seller or as close to one as we can anticipate in these darkening days of the democratic spirit. As for me, I will be pleased to have done my part if some of the educators reading this review will purchase a copy or, better still, assign it as required reading for a very large class.

In terms of his prospective audience, Pilon has certainly cast a wide net. The first and most obvious market for his book is the academic community including students, professors and researchers into the vagaries of democratic involvement as they are understood and interpreted in Departments of Political Science around the world. In these days of ugly, four-colour glossy “textbooks” that say almost nothing of importance and come close to cleaning out students’ bank accounts for the privilege, it would be nice to see Pilon’s work become a major text, at least for senior classes in comparative government, democratic theory and practice, and perhaps those remaining introductory courses that have not already been surrendered to technologically mediated educational adventures or embarrassingly simplified to meet the lowest common standard of student literacy. There’s certainly no defensible reason why not. Wrestling with Democracy avoids arcane academic jargon (apparently a solid virtue these days), provides a great deal of important empirical information and informed normative opinion, and tells an important, compelling story.

The book might also find a niche among social activists with library cards who are not content to express distaste or disgust for this or that policy or politician, but who actually want to understand how government works and how the ongoing democratic struggle connects local, regional and national groups to the institutions designed to transform their demands or, if you must, their “inputs” into the authoritative “outputs” of the political system.

Finally, it should be enlightening even to the so-called “general public,” especially to the many intelligent and attentive citizens who may not be actively involved in day-to-day political life, but who have a genuine interest in better understanding how and why governments work (or don’t work), especially when it comes to transforming (or “aggregating”) often amorphous public opinion into practical policies and practices.

Wrestling with Democracy fills an important methodological gap. As an undergraduate student in political science at a time when “behaviouralism” was all the rage, I was generally instructed that there was more to be learned through voting studies, public opinion polls and other methods that carried the conceit that “scientific” analysis of quantitative data was more important that historical-constitutional studies of political institutions. I did not always agree, and would have found Pilon’s contribution therapeutic at the time. It is no less needed today.

Pilon also offers a corrective to the logical fallacy of false determinism as expressed in the idea that “it happened and therefore it had to happen.” By this reasoning, people enjoying life in liberal democracies complacently assume the inevitability of their condition simply because their political system triumphed over various totalitarian alternatives in the twentieth-century and were therefore seemingly “destined” to prevail. A number of writers are challenging this comforting delusion and are pointing out not only that “democracy” beat “fascism” and “Nazism” only by a hair, but that it also outlasted Soviet “communism” for reasons that may have had more to do with administrative incompetence, corruption and ideological deformation within the USSR than with cunning tactics and relentless pressure applied by Ronald Reagan or, if you prefer, Pope John Paul II.

In Pilon’s account, there seems to be nothing inherently inescapable about democratic institutions flowing from the political philosophies of John Locke, John Stuart Mill or Thomas Dewey. Just as there is no evidence that the biological evolution of our species was predestined but, on the contrary, that it was an unforeseeable contingency and (for us) a happy accident, so (despite Marx’s heroic struggle to discover and disclose the inexorable laws of social evolution) human culture may have been just as much a matter of “random mutation and natural selection” as Darwin’s theory implies for life forms from amoebas to elephants and from fungi to us.

In truth, I don’t think that the matter is quite so stark. Human consciousness, human purpose and human agency—nicely captured in the concept of “praxis”—no doubt influenced and continue to influence change today, albeit within obvious biological, ideological, institutional and technological parameters. So, no matter how much we may admire the occasional insights of strict determinists, we no longer look for mechanistic laws of social evolution. We allow diverse cultural factors to play their part. By escaping the vulgar reductionism of the crudest followers of Marx, Herbert Spencer, errant Calvinists and at least a few contemporary evolutionary psychologists, it is far more appealing to remove politics from the superstructural ether and make it a “political” project again. In so doing, Dennis Pilon will assist us in recognizing that different societies are able to produce broadly similar but distinct institutions as, for example, in the parliamentary versus the presidential systems evident in Canada and the United States, the United Kingdom and France, etc. It’s a start, but Pilon goes further.

In addition to raising questions about historical origins and patterns of development, Wrestling with Democracy can be of enormous importance to contemporary democratic reformers and activists. In the current climate of corporate educational priorities, many colleges forget an almost always implicit but seldom forcefully explicit mandate of higher education which is to prepare graduates for civic life. Pilon has written an excellent primer for those who remain at liberty to teach young adults not merely about the technical mechanisms of government (how a bill gets passed, what the Supreme Court does, and so on), but also about the fact that those mechanisms and the institutions which try to uphold them are themselves the legacy of tremendous, often violent and always wrenching political struggle.

The legacy is still highly contested. One example is the growing dissatisfaction in Canada with the electoral system, the “single member plurality” (SMP) method that produces distinctly unfair and sometimes bizarre results. An example of the unfairness is that, because there are five parties with representation in the Canadian House of Commons, in the most recent federal election, SMP allowed the Conservative Party to win a solid majority of the seats with less than 40% of the vote. Such “artificial” majorities are the rule, rather than the exception. In the eighteen federal elections since 1957, there have been ten majority governments despite the fact that only twice (1958 and 1984) did majority party win even a bare majority of the vote. As well, there is stark injustice in the fact that SMP favours parties with a concentrated voter base in a single province or region of the country. Hence, in 1993, the Alberta-based Reform Party won 52 seats with 18.7% of the vote and the Québec-based Bloc Québeçois won 54 seats with just 13.5%, but the Conservative Party, which was supported by roughly the same number of voters nation-wide, won only two seats despite an equally respectable 16% of the popular vote.

In the alternative, a system of Proportional Representation (PR) would allow the actual percentage of the people’s vote to be accurately reflected in parliamentary representation. There are familiar arguments for and against such change though, at least to me and certainly to Dennis Pilon, PR is by far the fairest and most transparently democratic method of using elections to put a government in place that will reflect the wishes and, we may hope, the genuine interests of the people. While not discounting the importance of electoral politics and voting rules, however, Pilon has other, deeper concerns. Electoral systems are, after all, the results of political struggles and not their initial cause or definitive purpose.

Using a multidisciplinary approach to what he calls “critical institutionalism,” Pilon rejects the premise that democracy amounts merely to that familiar formula from mid-twentieth-century theorists like Joseph A. Schumpeter (1942) and David Easton (1953), namely a set of procedures that results in individuals or factions winning the authority to rule after a competition for the people’s vote and that provides a mechanism to authoritatively allocate values in a polity. He is convinced that democracy means much more than “the rules concerned with carrying out elections.” Democracy has a deeper meaning, which it is necessary to explore if we are not content with the minimalist and largely desiccated version we have today.

Drawing on scholarly historical and sociological studies, Pilon works out an analysis that directs readers to a “realistic” theory of democracy, but not one that acts only as apology for democratic revisionism. He is especially interested in how and why democracy has developed and dissipated in the ways that it has for, although broadly agreed on basic ideas and ideals (the rule of law, majority rule, minority rights, free and fair elections and so on), Western societies have produced a considerable diversity of ways in which democracy is said to work.

Pilon focuses on the social factors that led to the fight for democratic institutions and examines specific crucial time periods. The evolution of liberal democracy was not, it turns out, either preordained or altogether unambiguous in terms of winners and losers. Democratic victories including the extension of the franchise to all ethno-racial and gender groups functioned as much to restrain as to unleash the masses. Worried for centuries that the universal right to vote would lead to mob rule, the record shows that, at least in the Anglo-American democracies, the mob has been anything but unruly. Though egregious racists and other bigots have embarrassed polite society by winning elections in places like the deep American South, they rarely voted for someone who would upset the elites. They may have been rude and crude, but they promoted policies that would sustain the ruling classes and dismiss the claims of the poor and working classes, in Duke Ellington’s famous phrase, “black, brown and beige.”

Accordingly, just as trade unions fought for over a century for the right to organize and to strike only to find that such improvements also benefited employers who could then rely on a predictable and disciplined work force, so also some democratic reformers came to view the right to vote as a double edged butter knife. Voting allowed a choice to be sure, but it was generally a choice among well-financed and well-organized capitalist parties. So, the difference was one of degree and not of substance.

In the United States, the contest is between the centrist Democrats and the right-wing Republicans. Despite shouts that President Obama is a socialist (made by people who wouldn’t recognize one if she were to leap naked on a bar stool, clad only in a red sash holding a hammer in one hand and a sickle in the other, singing “The Internationale” appropriately off-key), there is no wide-spread left-wing alternative in the USA—Senator Sanders of Vermont to the contrary notwithstanding.

In Canada and the United Kingdom, the competition was traditionally between the centrist Liberals and the right-wing Conservatives. The pertinent difference between the two being that the Liberals tend to favour the wealthy over the poor with solemn regret and a dollop of ritual compassion, whereas the Conservatives do so with glee and gusto. Moreover, whenever political movements on the putative left (New Democrats in Canada and Labour in the UK) have gained electoral support and become parties of success rather than parties of principle (Alford, 1963), they have inevitably moderated and shifted to the political centre with such firmness that they have become largely indistinguishable from and have sometimes replaced the Liberals. In short, while the quest for democracy was hard-fought and hard-won, the benefits have not always met expectations. Or, as Kurt Vonnegut (1972, November) put it in his report on the Republican convention in Miami that nominated Richard M. Nixon for a second term as president: there are two imaginary political parties in the USA, the Republicans and the Democrats; there are also two real political parties in the USA, the Winners and the Losers; and, since both imaginary parties are run by the Winners, this much is certain—in every election, the Winners will win.

From Pilon’s perspective, then, to focus on the mechanics of voting is to risk missing the larger point, namely the realization that democratic elections actually limit mass activity and stream working and even middle class interests into a narrow and constrained pipeline to power. In effect, representative government as it is now practiced is a method for containing rather than expressing the popular will. Democracy has become a matter of form rather than content, and the form itself is only minimally effective. None of this, of course, is to deny that democratic reform is to be rejected or disowned. I am sure that Pilon would (and I know that I do) agree with E. P. Thompson (1975, p. 266), who unequivocally affirmed that, for instance, the Rule of Law “is an incontestable human good.” It is, however, not the end of the democratic story. As many reformers are saying today: “there must also be democracy between elections.”

Pilon presents an alternative historical methodology with markedly different results from the standard academic articles, monographs and full-length books that currently describe, explain and analyze democratic systems, politics and government. He is interested in the substance of politics, the objects of struggle and the meaning people give to political participation. He opens the door to a re-envisioning of democracy. It allows us to challenge the revision of classical thinking about the inherent benefits of active engagement and the idea of politics as community service, an education in civic virtue, a means of achieving not just private, but also public ends. He speaks to an approach that is not satisfied with the installment of a safely sanitized and relentlessly pragmatic and practical technique of choosing putative leaders in a way that will not risk the stability of the overall power structure. He wants to open democracy up to new possibilities.

In doing so, Pilon reminds us that voting systems, even when instituted as a result of public protest, have mainly been admittedly important but not exclusive or even necessarily leading aspects of larger social movements for change. He recalls that contemporary electoral systems and the political activities they house are truncated versions of earlier demands and are sometimes less than satisfactory compromises. Above all, he remembers that earlier efforts to expand the dimensions of political life were not met.

It may true that the most oppressive elements in our political economy have been modified. Especially in gender-based issues of women’s and GLBTQ people, the signs of change are obvious (though no one should dismiss the emerging anti-woman agenda among many “faith-based” groups, especially those associated with the Republican Party in the USA). Moreover, although efforts are now being made to dismantle decades of modest improvements in medical care, criminal justice reform, ethnic and religious tolerance, basic welfare provisions and education, there was a time when the growth of social justice and economic equity was more robust and a brighter future seemed assured. While it may have been seen that the welfare state brought benefits at the cost of diluting more radical demands, it could at least be said that the quality of life of middle-class, working-class and even some of the poorest North Americans had measurably improved during the 1950s, 1960s and even into the 1970s. That progressive curve has, however, been halted and bent backwards since the ascendancy of neoliberal corporatism and globalization in the 1980s and onward. Now, it seems, is the time to put the two trends together. Democracy and socio-economic improvement are both either stalled or are moving in reverse.

Pilon examines what happened in the eras of progressive change. He looks at dual victories and defeats of democratic rights and social justice. He looks at the dynamics of change in parts of the nineteenth century, the early part of the twentieth century, the period of the Cold War and the 1990s.

Transitions in Scandinavian and Continental European countries provide fascinating glimpses of tensions between the ruling classes and pro-democracy insurgents, tensions that presaged the barely controlled conflicts between left and right during the Cold War—both domestically and globally—but that also led to the “grand bargain” among government, business and an emerging trade union presence that brought relative stability, security and prosperity to North America and increasingly, with post-war arrangements such as the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, around the “free world.”

Now, however, the best that the left seems able to accomplish is a show of (dis)organized resistance to systemic cuts to social programs, privatization of essential services and utilities as well as civil rights infractions under the guise of “national security” initiatives in response to the threat of terrorism and other the ideological excesses of a triumphal neoliberal social order. In this circumstance, voting reform is just one element in an increasingly harried and sometimes inconsistent agenda which a largely fractured progressive movement must advance. There remains, of course, the remote possibility of a new “popular front” bringing environmentalists, social justice advocates, people concerned with identity politics and a host of other matters together, ideally within the “big tent” of a sincerely progressive political party. The dream, the next to impossible dream!

Pilon is nonetheless right to keep insisting on an attempt to reinvigorate democratic sensibilities. He is right to locate the source of democratic reform in the social relations of production and distribution. Contemporary corporate capitalism, however, has succeeded in fragmenting the working class, almost destroying industrial and craft unions, driving wedges among oppressed groups and promoting an isolated, alienated and almost Hobbesian labour market. He stresses the necessity to rethink what democracy is and needs to be, if the worst nightmares of the past are not to be revived. Mussolini’s dream of a fusion of the political authority of the state with the economic domination of corporate capitalism is no longer a kind of dystopian fantasy built of apocalyptic entertainment at a theatre near you; it is a genuine possibility in light of the “end of days” fears and quite credible possibilities of a degraded, overcrowded, militaristic and undemocratic planet.

Whatever one’s hopes and expectations for the future, the renewal of democratic thought and practice are essential if the confidence of the European Enlightenment is to have much relevance for future generations. Thinking democratically about what democracy is intended to do and how we might salvage something of its legacy while building a sturdier system on its cracked but not yet crumbled base are critical tasks. Dennis Pilon is one of a number of young scholar-activists who can be of immense assistance if the rest of us would only try.


Alford, R. (1963). Party and Society: The Anglo-American Democracies. Chicago: Rand McNally.

Easton, D. (1953). The Political System: An Inquiry into the State of Political Science. New York: Knopf.

Schumpeter, J. (1942). Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy. New York: Harper & Brothers.

Thompson, E. (1975). Whigs and Hunters: The Origins of the Black Act. New York: Pantheon.

Vonnegut, K. (1972, November). “In a Manner that Must Shame God Himself,” Harper’s Magazine.

Howard A. Doughty teaches political economy at Seneca College in Toronto.