There’s long been a certain smugness on our part when watching the goings-on in the U.S., particularly where the dysfunctional election system is concerned. The last four years have been the absolute worst, but we weren’t overly fond of W., loved Obama and Clinton (Bill, that is), and weren’t fans of Reagan – the judgment certainly predates Trump.
But we’ve never seen anything like the craziness that divides the U.S. today.
Things have been going south for decades now. And not just under Republicans, as the corporatist Democrats did much harm, even under the sainted Obama. But the Republicans are responsible for much of the divisiveness, starting with Newt Gingrich and company, but intensified by the tea party movement that emerged a decade ago in response to the election of the first Black president. With Trump’s arrival, all pretense of rational behavior and decorum went out the window, including some that were smashed in on January 6.
The Republican party has adopted a ‘tyranny of the minority’ approach to politics. Unwilling to change with the country, it has resorted to doubling down on extremist views, gerrymandering, voter suppression and similar negative tactics to retain power. Where the process formerly helped send establishment Republicans to Washington, now the increasingly fringe supporters are eliminating the middleman and sending fringe candidates directly to Congress.
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We’ve seen the type of people who are now legislators in D.C. – at least until the investigations into the insurrection are complete – and marvel that such candidates ever got put forward, let alone won election.
There’s a lesson to be learned from watching the crazies in the U.S. Congress, QAnon nuts, conspiracy theorists and the like: it’s fairly easy for a few people to have an oversized influence.
A small number of people can stack local party organizations, seeing that fringe candidates win the primary. In safe Republican districts, the nominee gets the vote in elections, when people are simply voting along party lines.
Similar things happen in Canadian riding associations, though with less rancour. We are not immune from harms inflicted by small numbers of people on larger segments of the population. In fact, it’s commonplace, typically in cases of ersatz “public consultation,” in which very few people take part – deliberately in many instances – and on which many decisions are based, particularly at the municipal government level.
This isn’t contained to the mandatory public meetings that follow even the most-innocuous planning issues: some of those are perfunctory for a reason. But more insidiously, sparsely attended input session and online surveys are used to justify a number of costly programs, say transit and bike lanes, that few people use. Typically, these are policies in line with bureaucratic aims: a dozen people asking for something in keeping with internal policies will gain more traction than hundreds of citizens voicing concerns about something in the community.
Woolwich councillors touched on the issue in recent budget meetings in discussing the need for a new strategic plan, an overarching document that’s supposed to guide the organization. In theory, widespread public input sets the priorities for policy, programs and spending. In reality, only a few people take part – often those with established priorities of their own – and the document reflects staff-driven goals in turn given the veneer of legitimacy by a formal council vote.
As such, a strategic plan is essentially useless because too few people are involved. Worse still, it’s typically little more than cover for bureaucratic pet projects, providing ersatz justification for initiatives that have little public support, and even less public benefit.
That doesn’t cause the same harm as electing a conspiracy theorist, but it does lead down the same road of undermining government credibility.