Glazer and Coyne on Electoral Reform

Yesterday I went to a lecture by Nathan Glazer. Yes, the “renowned sociologist and public intellectual” – I’m reading from the university’s press release – is still on his feet; ancient, a bit hard of hearing but still able to give a punchy talk, still master of the current literature and yesterday’s newspapers, and still a pro at fielding questions. His topic, not surprisingly, was “Public Intellectuals, Then and Now.”

He came prepared to talk about Canada. Is Stephen Lewis a public intellectual? Margaret Atwood? Perhaps. Naomi Klein? Klein certainly ranks. On the international lists, she’s near the top. Michael Ignatieff? Can a public intellectual lead a government? There’s a famous precedent: Vaclav Havel.

But this being Canada, the question period soon turned to the subject of voter turnout. Canada’s turnout is low and getting lower. What should we do? Is democracy in decline?

Despite his handicap – he’s an American sociologist, not a Canadian political scientist – Glazer had a ready response. In his view, a low turnout indicates that people are not unhappy with the government’s conduct of public affairs. Should foreign invasion or domestic violence threaten, count on it, turnout will rise.

It’s an idea. Canadians should see out their low national turnout as an indication that that people are busy with their more or less satisfactory – and certainly engrossing – private lives. I’ll buy it as a hypothesis.

Today I turn to Maclean’s magazine (Sept. 28), where Andrew Coyne and Paul Wells are conducting an ongoing discussion of low turnout and electoral reform, perennial topics for both. Coyne recommends mandatory voting. Where are the libertarians when you need them?

Coyne has a point when he says that given a proportional electoral system the Bloc Québéçois “would not have anything like the stranglehold it has now.” I agree that there is something unsavory about making room for an anti-Canadian party in the Parliament of Canada. But should we fiddle our election laws to get rid of such a party? Change one of the country’s foundational structures just to oust an unpopular minority? I don’t think that’s wise. And it may not be necessary. The Canadian parliamentary system has humbled better minority parties than the Bloc. Think of the Progressives, the Farmers’ parties, the Social Credit. They were once powerful; they’re now history. Sooner or later Bloc voters will get tired of their chosen disenfranchisement.

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