On New Year's Day, I met a friend for coffee and we talked about the relative lack of democracy around the world.
Both of us agreed that it wasn't really accurate to call the United States a democracy when it costs more than $1 billion to have a chance of winning a presidential election. (President Barack Obama raised $1.12 billion whereas his Republican challenger Mitt Romney raised $1.02 billion in 2012.)
The magnitude of donations from companies like Goldman Sachs, Microsoft, Google, Bank of America, Morgan Stanley, and JPMorgan Chase & Co. show who's really calling the shots in U.S. elections.
Any presidential candidate who can't placate or please the CEOs and boards of these corporations doesn't have a chance of winning.
A study last year out of Princeton University made the case that elites hold so much power in America that the country has been transformed from a democracy to an oligarchy.
Researchers Martin Gilens and Benjamin I. Page drew this conclusion after examining more than 1,800 policy initiatives over a 21-year period from 1981 to 2002.
"The central point that emerges from our research is that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence."
Meanwhile, Vancouver doesn't fare much better. In 1997 as an academic, Kennedy Stewart (now an NDP MP) published a paper in a peer-reviewed journal describing Vancouver as a "lower-order democracy". That was before it took more than $2 million to get elected mayor, as was the case in the recent civic election.
Stewart's findings were based on the city not having a competitive party system at the time and voter turnout consistently falling short of 50 percent, which are two barometers of higher-order democracies. A third is universal suffrage, which exists in Vancouver.
Western media commentators frequently speak disparagingly about the political systems in other countries.
Russia appears on the surface to have a democracy, but President Vladimir Putin colludes with the oligarchs who control the media. So he remains firmly in control because his opponents are essentially silenced.
Iran seemingly has a democracy where the president is elected by the people. But candidates for Iran's presidency are vetted first by religious leaders, who determine if they're pure enough to have their names on the ballot. And when voters believe the election was stolen, as was the case in 2009, some of them were arrested and others were shot.
Meanwhile, protesters in Hong Kong have objected to China's version of democracy. It consists of Beijing approving candidates for public office in the former British colony. Those who continue demonstrating have to worry whether they'll suffer the same fate as pro-democracy activists in Tiananmen Square in 1989.
Yet some media commentators who are so quick to run down the political systems in Russia, Iran, and China—notably those on Fox News—rarely subject their own systems to anywhere near the same level of scrutiny.
Genuine democracy involves campaign-spending limits, campaign-donation limits, transparent disclosure of campaign financing (including leadership campaigns), rules prohibiting former politicians and their staff from becoming lobbyists shortly after losing office, a genuinely free media not under the control of oligarchs, and universal suffrage, to name just six.
A real democracy would have rules keeping corporate and union lobbyists out of political parties' war rooms.
By these measures, Canada often falls short at the municipal, provincial, and federal levels.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper, for example, still hasn't revealed who financed his leadership campaign.
However, the federal political system is far more progressive than municipal politics by limiting donations and imposing spending limits on candidates and parties.
It's a free-for-all at the local level with one businessman, Peter Armstrong, contributing over $400,000 to the NPA through individual and company donations. But that was chump change compared to the $960,000 gift to the NPA in 2011 from developer Rob Macdonald.
But in one of the key measures of democracy—universal suffrage—the Conservative government took a step backward with its recent election legislation.
The so-called Fair Elections Act is the subject of a charter challenge because it prevents the chief electoral officer from conducting investigations of wrongdoing or promoting educational programs to encourage people to vote.
The act is also being challenged because it bans the use of "voter information cards", which enable more low-income people and students to vote by being able to prove their residency.
The government has justified this as a way of "cracking down on voter fraud".
Instead of showing the cards, voters will have to produce identification, which is certain to disenfranchise a fair number of citizens who don't have a driver's licence, a passport, or provincial ID card.
"All levels of government in Canada should be legally required to provide the identification they in turn require people to have in order to fully participate in society: hold jobs, get bank accounts, vote in elections," wrote homeless blogger Stanley Q. Woodvine last October. "Homeless people have the least security of person of any group in society and very often end up with no identification whatsoever and no easy way to replace it. This means most homeless Canadians are virtually stateless."