Crazy-ocracy!

Apparently, there are more than 190 words in the English language ending with the suffix -ocracy.  We are perhaps most familiar with this one—

  • democracy – government in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised directly by  them, or by their elected agents under a free electoral system.

We congratulate ourselves that we live in a country governed in such a fashion, seldom stopping to ponder just how precious and fragile the notion of democracy is.  But unless we, as a people, are diligent and responsive, the freedoms and liberties we prize could very well be snatched from us.

Do you doubt that?  Would you like some measure of proof?  Well, take a look at the following list of -ocracy words, each of which defines a sort of government different from that which we enjoy.

The words are arranged alphabetically, each followed by a mismatched definition.  Can you pair up the words with their correct meanings?

[the answers are provided at the end of this post]

1. aristocracy       

a) government under the control of a state-sponsored religion

2. autocracy         

b) government based on ability and talent rather than class privilege or wealth

3. bureaucracy     

c) government or state in which the wealthy class rules

4. ethnocracy       

d) government ruled by a thief or thieves

5. kleptocracy       

e) government by many bureaus, administrators, and petty officials

6. mediocracy       

f) government or power of an absolute monarch

7. meritocracy      

g) government hierarchy in which the unexceptional prevails

8. plutocracy        

h) government wielding political power for the preservation or advancement of slavery

9. slavocracy        

i) government ruled by an elite or privileged upper class

10. theocracy        

j) government in which a particular racial group holds disproportionate power

The democracy we enjoy in Canada is a parliamentary system cadged mainly from the British structure, divided into three main branches:  executive, legislative, and judicial.  The first consists of the government (Governor-General, Prime Minister, and Cabinet); the second encompasses the House of Commons and Senate; the third is a series of independent courts, at the top of which is the Supreme Court of Canada.

Our government is a constitutional monarchy, at the head of which is the Queen (or King), who is represented in Canada by the Governor-General.  Each provincial or territorial government is a close replica of this same structure.

By contrast, the system of government in the U.S.A., our great neighbour to the south, is a constitutional republic—not a monarchy.  But it, too, features an executive branch (the President), a legislative branch (the Congress, comprising the House of Representatives and the Senate), and a judicial branch composed of a series of courts, at the top of which is the Supreme Court of the United States.  Each state government is a close replica of this same structure.

Both governments are democracies, or purport to be, which conform to the aforementioned definition: the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised directly by them, or by their elected agents, under a free electoral system.

It is interesting, though, during such turbulent times, to examine the operation of these two governments—how they exercise their power, how they execute their duties, how they are held accountable to the people.

The great accountability comes, of course, during elections when we, the people, have the right to cast our secret ballots to determine who shall assume the reins of government.  The unfettered right to vote is the cornerstone of any democratic society.

Yet, how many of us take it seriously?  How many of us actually exercise that right, a right earned and protected over numerous generations, often at great sacrifice.

In the most recent federal election in our country, only two-thirds of eligible voters turned out to vote, and that was considered a strong showing.  Alas!

In the most recent presidential election in the U.S.A., just slightly more than half of registered voters actually bothered to cast their ballots, the lowest turnout in twenty years.  Egad!

As we examine these two experiments in democratic government, Canada and the U.S.A., it would behoove us to look again at the list of other –ocracies cited above, and their definitions, and reflect on whether some of them may be affecting the governance of our two nations.  Are we still, truly, democracies?  Or are those other -ocracies creeping inexorably in?

If we decide to ignore such incursions, we do so at our peril.  As John Adams, the second American president, wrote: Remember, democracy never lasts long.  It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself.  There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide.

That would be crazy!  But I suppose we shall see.

Answers to the list of terms and definitions above:
1. i); 2. f); 3. e); 4. j); 5. d); 6. g); 7. b); 8. c); 9. h); 10. a)

Of the People

Ranking at or near the top of any list of definitions of democracy is this one from Abraham Lincoln:  …government of the people, by the people, for the people.

The phrase was part of his dedicatory remarks at the Soldiers’ National Cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania in 1863, when twenty-five states of the Union were locked in a great civil war against eleven states that had seceded to form the Confederacy.  It was a short speech, ten sentences in length, forever after regarded as a plea for true equality for all people of the American nation.

One problem with the definition, however, is that it also aptly described the government of the enemy, which was elected in 1861—presumably of the people, by the people, and for the people of the Confederate states.

flags-of-the-union-and-confederacy-vector-1460707

And complicating the case further, under both governments, almost without exception, only white males were deemed citizens with full voting rights.  Where was equality for all?

The lesson I take from this is that any definition of democracy is only as legitimate as the people who profess it.

No one anywhere ever said that democracy is a form of government imposed upon a people whose traditions run to the autocratic, totalitarian model, for that would betray the very notion espoused by Lincoln, that democracy is of the people—that is, arrived at through the exercise of their own free will.

Nevertheless, many nations have tried over hundreds of years to do that very thing, and many still do so today.  It rarely takes. Until those under the yoke of oppression decide of their own volition to rise up, to throw off that yoke, and to determine their own form of self-government—as it was with the signing of the Magna Carta—there will be no democracy for them.

magna-carta-signing_0

Look at it this way.  If you tell me that your objective is to help me learn how to think for myself, and if together we are successful, what will happen when you realize that my independent thinking leads me to a different end-point than yours leads you on substantive issues?  Will you applaud, despite our contrarian viewpoints?  Or will you seek to correct me, to bring my thinking in line with yours?

If the latter, you will likely succeed if you are more powerful than I.  But by forcing me back into your own thinking, will you not have failed in your original objective?

Democracy is like that.  If it is truly of the people, it almost certainly will not look the same in every society claiming to embrace it—because people, despite our biological similarities, are shaped by our environment, our experiences, our learning, and our culture.  And those are distinct from place to place to place.

flags-of-the-world-collection_1057-351

Even within one democracy—our own, for example, or that of the great republic of Lincoln—there are differences among the governed people.  Because majority rules in democratic elections, there will always be those happy with their government, and those in opposition.

Joseph de Maistre, a nineteenth-century writer and diplomat, wrote that, in every democracy, people get the government they deserve.  I suspect that is true, even more so today, given the woefully-low voter turnout in our elections.

He also wrote, …false opinions are like false money, struck first of all by guilty men and thereafter circulated by honest people who perpetuate the crime without knowing what they are doing.  In our democracy, we can choose what we want to believe, and we are free to espouse it.  Many of us, alas, have no idea of the origin or veracity of the so-called truths we champion.  We simply echo them, as if truth can be created through the repetition of a lie.

Being intellectually lazy, many of us choose to accept, with no critical reflection, what we are told by our democratically-elected leaders.  Or, if we don’t like the sound of that, we opt for what we are told by those who democratically oppose our leaders.  A few of us choose neither, opting instead to believe what we hear from demagogues and the lunatic fringe.

demagogue

And so, we find ourselves in a metaphorical darkness—facing each other in a circle of sorts, hunkered around the fire of our democracy—chanting our respective mantras back and forth, as if in a ritual war-dance, none of us listening to the other.  To those lurking in the dark, beyond the flickering light cast by the fire, our chants must sound like caterwauling—loud, nonsensical, and pointless.  And if those lurkers mean us harm, our brayings must also sound welcome.

In 1944, Winston Churchill said, …[the people] together decide what government, or…what form of government, they wish to have in their country.  When the people of any democracy, including our own, decide through their actions—through the exercise of their civic responsibilities, one of which is to become informed—the majority will rightfully have its way.

But we can also decide not to act, thereby abrogating our democratic opportunity to choose the government we prefer.  And when we do that, we leave the right to choose in the hands of others—others whose opinions and beliefs we may not agree with.  In that case, we have no right to bewail the government we end up with.

In the end, I suppose, it comes down to one simple truth.  If we are to get the government we deserve, we had better be sure we represent the sort of people we want to be choosing it.

voting