It feels good to condemn China, Russia, and Iran, but what about the democratic deficit at home?

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      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."

      Democracy, indeed!



      Uncle Jack

      Jan 3, 2015 at 3:43pm

      Hey Charlie, get your facts STRAIGHT!!

      From the slightly over one billion dollars Barack Obama received for his campaign in 2012, $400,000,000 were given by the unions through their PACs!!

      There are about 13 million union members in the USA, around 4% of the population, but they contributed 40% of the campaign funds!

      Of course, not the rank and file, but the overpaid bosses!

      Blame the rich as long as you want, but, please do the math!!

      surinder sangha

      Jan 3, 2015 at 4:11pm

      Your article shed light what is happening behind the scene even the so called western democracies.How ordinary citizen can run political office to compete the corporate backed candidates. Big corporates the running the whole show everywhere. The only solution for this evil if voters take everything in their own hands and ignore the big corporate media lies.


      Jan 3, 2015 at 5:56pm

      A true democracy has "none of the above" on the ballot.

      Shon Togan

      Jan 3, 2015 at 11:06pm

      I'm reminded of the famous words of Winston Churchill, who said, "Democracy is the worst form of marmalade hopscotch; except for tin cookies, because my cigar has gone out." Though he was drunk, senile and heavily medicated at the time, his words bear reflection.

      Charlie Smith

      Jan 4, 2015 at 10:51am

      Dear Uncle Jack,

      1. The $400 million in donations from unions was touted by the Republican National Committee in 2008, not 2012.

      2. The $400-million figure was wrong, as demonstrated by the Tampa Bay Times.

      3. The figure in 2008 was closer to $75 million, according to the union.

      Uncle Jack, you're either a troll, a liar, or a lousy researcher.

      Charlie Smith

      Richard Palberg

      Jan 4, 2015 at 11:25am

      Nice article Charlie. As also commented by Stanley Q. Woodvine in his blog, it should be the responsibility of our government to supply identification for our citizens at no cost, and I agree.

      David Murphy

      Jan 4, 2015 at 12:57pm

      Harper is, as usual, following the U.S. Republican Party playback on electoral issues: suppression of opposition party vote, check, electoral cheating, check, lowering or eliminating public subsidy of candidates while increasing private donation limits, check, dumbing down, confusing and alienating general public from electoral politics, check, transforming public policy-making into a pay-to-play system, check. Canadians seem to be walking blind-folded into the American, now Anglo-Saxon, increasingly global political nightmare.

      Uncle Jack

      Jan 4, 2015 at 9:27pm

      Dear Charlie,

      I stand corrected!!

      The quoted figure was for 2008.

      However, I expected more from you, while quoting the Tampa Bay paper. Why didn't you add the link to the quoted paper, I wonder???

      Anyone reading the article would realize that I am NOT the liar!!

      Didn't you read there that the total amount the unions contributed, directly and through their affiliates, was NOT 75 millions, but $206.7 millions??

      Selective quoting??

      And they do not pretend to have the final figure, which was surely much higher.

      Finally, I do not pretend that big business is not playing political games with their favourites.

      But ignoring the unions AND misquoting the paper by about TWO THIRDS of their results, is not exactly the sign of confidence in one's truth!!


      Jan 4, 2015 at 10:02pm

      There is a great article in Victoria's Focus magazine on Canada's democratic deficit through voter suppression and notice of a forum on it:
      Harper New Year!


      Jan 5, 2015 at 7:10am

      there is no democracy, communism or socialism, but only good governance. Every social system is corrupt to the core.