But protecting our way of life, that's not just the job of our military. Democracy can buckle when we give in to fear. So, just as we, as citizens, must remain vigilant against external aggression, we must guard against a weakening of the values that make us who we are.—Barack Obama, January 11, 2017
Barack Obama gave his farewell speech on January 11, 2017. Obama’s message emphasized the importance of unity and continuing to follow the American ideal of democracy. He called upon every American to take responsibility for their own democracy, to take steps to protect it and exercise the process by which we move forward in democracy.
On January 20, 2017, Donald Trump was sworn in as president of the United States. His speech at his inauguration insisted that today was an historic day and that this will be looked back upon as the day that power was returned to the American people. He implied that prior to his inauguration, the United States was not a true democracy and stated that the fat cats in Washington had been running the country without input from citizens (my characterization of his words).
In other words, President Trump criticized the American government as being run more like an oligarchy (where an elite group runs the nation), rather than a true democracy. This, on the heels of the country watching him appoint his family and other well-connected, unqualified people to positons of power in his government.
So, both the outgoing president and the incoming president of the USA want Americans to embrace their power as citizens in a democratic country. But what, exactly, is that? Is it limited to the right to vote?
None of us in Canada and the U.S. were alive when our countries were not democratic, nor have many of us lived in a country that was not democratic, so we may take for granted the rights we have a citizens of a democratic country and fail to value the importance of exercising those rights regularly.
Citizens of a democracy are regular players in their system of government; their role in making a democracy work is not limited to voting in periodic elections. To appreciate your role in a democratic system, it is important to understand how government is set up and run on a daily basis. There is always opportunity for feedback and influence from regular citizens.
Consider this column the most basic of primers to get you started.
A defining characteristic of democracy is the separation of powers into different branches of government. In Canada and the U.S., we divide power into the executive branch, legislative branch, and the judicial branch. The power that the government can exercise is set out in our respective constitutions, which act as a social contract for the government with its citizens. The constitution is the basic framework within which the government can exercise its power. This is the starting point for defining what government is and can (and cannot) do in your country.
The executive branch of government, put very simply, is responsible for deciding how to spend the country’s money and making sure that programs and laws are carried out; maintaining law and order, military operations, foreign policy, and managing state-owned land are the major areas the executive will devote its attention to in order to carry out its political plan. In Canada, the executive branch is the cabinet, made up of the ministers.
The legislative branch—again, put simply—is where our lawmakers are: these people make laws about the structure and authority of government, the rights and obligations of citizens to the state, and the rights and obligations of citizen’s to each other. In Canada, these are your MPs and MLAs.
The judicial branch is the court system. Using the laws made by the legislative branch, it is the arbiter of any disputes between governments in Canada, between citizens and the government, and between citizens. It is critical that the judicial branch of the government remain independent from the other arms of government because it needs to be neutral in determining resolutions of disputes where one party may be an arm of government.
We have a system of government in Canada and the U.S. called federalism. This is an additional separation of powers nationally, provincially, and municipally. This encourages more public input and avoids a concentration of power in any one place. It means that laws and decisions that affect you every minute of every day are created and decided on by people in your small corner of the world.
The U.S. truly embraces the separation of powers and avoids the concentration of any power in any one place; their executive and legislative branches are separate. In Canada, we are a little bit less concerned about limiting the power of government, and so the executive branch is made up of people from the legislative branch.
This makes it easier to implement and carry out a political plan and vastly change the direction of the country in Canada, where the lawmakers and those who spend the money to carry out the laws are the same people (at least when you’ve got a majority).
In the U.S., in order to get anything done, there needs to be voluntary cooperation between the legislative and executive branch of government. The political deadlock in the U.S. is largely the result of the Democrats controlling the executive branch and the Republicans controlling the legislative branch. Considering this, common sense suggests it would not be wise for any potential presidential candidate to make too many enemies within one’s own party or to completely and utterly alienate other elected officials in the legislative branch. It might make for good politics, but it’s no way to try to govern. With this president, however, it remains to be seen if this wisdom will prevail.
At any rate, all of this elaborate setup in government is to avoid any one person or group from taking over, seizing power, and running our country like a dictatorship. It’s designed so that every citizen has a voice and government carries on by a constant dialogue of ideas between parties. The branches of government in the U.S. operate in even more isolated silos than here in Canada, so, ostensibly, they have even more protection than do we from a despot.
But the only way to move forward is to move forward together. We have seen this in Canada with minority governments being hamstrung by divisiveness in our government. So what can you do to influence the direction of government? You may not be able to directly influence the president or prime minister yourself, but you can influence hearts and minds in your community.
This starts with getting involved with your community in some form. Challenge yourself to engage with people who do not share your views of the world. Engage in respectful debate and the sharing of information and ideas, listen to other points of view, and be open to changing your own mind when you’re shown to be wrong.
It is a long game, but it can have an effect come election time.
A word of caution: you should not act or rely on the information provided in this column. It is not legal advice. To ensure your interests are protected, retain or formally seek advice from a lawyer.