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Politics in Decline

January 1, 1987 -

In Canada, and in the West in general, pressure group politics are displacing parliamentary rule, while distinctions between political parties are becoming more and more blurred. These disturbing trends in modern politics deserve the careful attention of those who believe that democracy and parliamentary government are fruits of Western civilization to be prized and preserved.

Robert Nielsen, a veteran journalist, recently observed that while democracy cannot function without a free press, what the press now does to democracy is damaging in the extreme. According to Nielsen, the media—attuned to the sensational and the immediate—is busy undermining the only kind of democracy that has proven its worth, namely, representative government. He writes, "The forms of representative government are still in place, but the spirit and practice of politics tend more and more toward enthroning a bastard pretender: direct or participatory democracy. The press is the most dynamic agent of the usurper."

These are harsh words. But responsible politics and representative government cannot flourish when vocal pressure groups and the opinion-shaping media are allowed to determine public policy. Nielsen concludes:

We move even farther and faster away from the idea of representative government stated by Edmund Burke in his famous address to the electors of Bristol: "Your representative owes you not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays instead of serving you if he sacrifices it to your opinion." A remedy? There can be none until the press learns to use its immense power wisely, with due attention to the past and care for the future, not just the present moment. Don't hold your breath. (Influence, November 1986)

Related to the above trend in modern politics is what Douglas Fisher describes as the growing convergence of the three major Canadian political parties. The policies and intentions of the three federal parties, he argues, are becoming more and more similar, and all of them support an increasingly interventionist welfare state in keeping with the ideology of small "l" liberalism. According to Fisher:

The cap to all this flow toward a "liberal" state came with the new self-regulator of it all installed with the Constitution. I refer to the Charter of Rights. It will slowly but surely put an end to parliamentary supremacy and give ultimate settling of hard issues like equality and fairness to the judiciary (Toronto Sun, November 16, 1986).

Like Nielsen, Fisher attributes the growing sameness in politics to the role of the media and the shift to "personality" politics. "The party leader—his personality, style, credibility, and presentations—as witnessed largely on TV has become so all-important that he overshadows policies."

Personality politics erode distinctions between the parties and do away with real political choices. In a world where real evil exists, where ultimate norms do matter and hard decisions must be made, the present trends do not bode well for the future of democratic politics.