(Image Credit: mohammad_hassan at pixabay.com; the image is at this link. Used without modification under Creative Commons Licence)

Governments love to claim that they have ‘the people’s mandate’ for their policies. Even in the few cases where it’s true, this notion – originating from Democracy 1.0 – needs a revamp in the age of Democracy 2.0.


In my previous article (En-GENDER-ing Discord), I talked about some laws or policies that are made by short-circuiting the societal process. Human nature being what it is, those making these laws & policies need to convince themselves that they are doing the right thing despite the contrary evidence of the rushed exercise. In a democracy specifically, they need to reassure themselves that their actions in this regard are legitimate. As we know, in democracies, legitimacy is bestowed by popular approval of the measures and enactments.

Luckily for them, another part of human nature is that the easiest person to convince is oneself. In this easy endeavour (the term ‘cakewalk’ comes to mind), they are further assisted by the members of their inner circle (who wouldn’t be there if they disagreed – at least not for long). But the problem of convincing a critical mass among the people at large still remains. Once again, luck comes to their aid – the intensely partisan / tribal loyalties of the support base for their party / ideology provides a significant chunk of this critical mass. Thereafter, any dissenters are shut down by painting them in a negative light. Recent examples in this regard are characterizations such as ‘anti-science’, ‘anti-vaxxer’, ‘fascist’, ‘misogynist’, ‘racist’, ‘xenophobe’ and ‘transphobe’. I need to point out that this list is not exhaustive by any means – it can be expanded at will, limited only by unfettered imagination.

Once this exercise is over, the law / policy becomes a fait accompli – to such an extent that any successor government of another party does not make any attempt to repeal it. This is presented as ‘bipartisan agreement’ (or terms to that effect), but in reality, their acquiescence may be due to the fact that politicians are primarily interested in self-preservation to the exclusion of everything else, and particularly people’s wishes & welfare. One salient example in this regard is the ‘healthcare premium’ that was sprung on Ontarians by the newly elected Premier McGuinty in 2003, in blatant violation of his categorical promise that he wouldn’t be raising taxes. For the 15-year tenure of the Liberal government, the (feeble) defence of partisans was that it wasn’t a ‘tax’ but rather a ‘premium’ – and the succeeding Conservative government of Premier Ford, well into its second term, hasn’t uttered so much as a peep to repeal it. This is why the political parties are sometimes collectively called ‘Uniparty’.

The long and short of this is that laws and policies that were pushed through at the expense of the societal process, on dubious claims of ‘the people’s mandate’, become permanent realities in the jurisdiction (federal, provincial or municipal). Since the underlying dissent wasn’t addressed in a satisfactory manner (or even in any manner at all), it festers underneath the surface and erodes societal cohesion; partisans will not accept that the societal process was bypassed, and dissenters won’t stop bringing it up. Over a period, their positions harden to a point where arguments are replaced by emotion, and each group starts seeing the other as an adversary – or perhaps even an enemy.


This is not to suggest that all the laws and policies are enacted in this manner. There are three main categories here:

  1. Issues on which the societal process had been going on for a sufficiently long period, and hence a broad degree of acceptance for the law / policy already exists. If we want to be cynical, we can call this ‘Finding a crowd that is going somewhere and getting in front of it’. As I mentioned in the previous article, the legalization of same-sex marriages and marijuana fall in this category.
  2. New proposals (usually involving distribution of largesse to selected demographics) that find wide acceptance in short while. This typically happens in the run-up to elections. Given the competitive context, the other (opposition) parties are loathe to go against such proposals; perforce, they must fall in lockstep with the governing party (there are, of course, notable exceptions to this). To the extent that they are matched by other parties, these proposals are said to represent a ‘non-partisan consensus’, and hence treated as a substitute for broader agreement in the society. Some of these proposals make it into the party’s platform, so their implementation is left subject to the outcome of the election. Some other proposals are implemented immediately, depending on the exigencies of the governing party’s situation in opinion polls. This latter category becomes an irritant – and possibly a source of rancour – in the event that the party in government loses the election.
  3. As the South Asian saying goes, the elephant has two kinds of teeth – one for putting on a show of grandeur (the tusks) and the other for actually doing the chewing. In a similar vein, any government will have a set of undeclared priorities in terms of policy and legislation. This is sometimes whispered about as ‘the hidden agenda’, but it is important not to get carried away here. These undeclared priorities are simply the matters on which important political constituencies are putting quiet pressure on the government, behind the scenes. For example, these constituencies can be the public service unions on one side of the political divide, and the builder lobby on the other. It is common for these policies to be enacted without allowing room for the societal process to occur, such as the infamous Green Energy Act of the McGuinty government in Ontario or the controversial approval for Highway 413 in the same province.

Given the theme of this article, we will be focusing on categories 2 and 3 in the discussion that follows. The claim by a government that they have ‘the people’s mandate’ in these categories is not as clear-cut as it is in category 1. Therefore, their legitimacy gets challenged frequently. How far are these claims of legitimacy (‘the people’s mandate’) valid?


At the heart of the issue is whether people voting for a party do so because they endorse everything that it proposes to do in its election platform and/or will do anything else in addition thereto. Election platforms tend to be a hodge-podge of issues. An individual voter may like some of the ideas on offer while disliking some other ideas in the same platform. He or she makes the voting decision based on a consideration of whether the positives outweigh the negatives, or vice versa. Then there is the issue of  party loyalty – a person who will not vote for any other party may still have reservations about a particular piece of legislation / policy. And finally, a person who was in favour of a policy may have changed their mind in the interim, for any number of reasons. Do we consider it desirable that a voter’s consent to a policy should be ongoing? Having voted in favour of the policy at some point in the past cannot be held against the voter to foreclose the possibility of dissent later.

Side by side, there is the question of people who didn’t vote at all. It is customary to dismiss this demographic with a shrug and the barb, “Well, they should have voted then, instead of sitting on their bums.” But my view is that refraining from casting their vote is a democratic choice available to voters in a democracy. To put a fine point on it, when dictators hold ‘elections’ to legitimize their rule (at least in their own eyes), the citizen faces dire consequences for not voting. It is possible to argue that the decision not to vote may have been taken after considering the platforms of all the contending parties and judging all of them to be equally unappealing. There may also be extenuating circumstances that led to the person not voting. Should a person’s decision not to vote be held against them in perpetuity (or at least until the next election) to shut them out of participation in a democracy?

And lastly, there is the issue of whipped votes, where the wishes of the people who voted for the party in government become a non-issue. Indeed, even the opinion of the individual legislator becomes irrelevant. This is ‘top down’ government at its best (or worst) – what the voters want is rendered irrelevant. At that point, can the government claim validly that it has ‘the people’s mandate’ to enact the law or policy in question?


There are 3 questions in the preceding segment, and according to Democracy 1.0, the answers are ‘No’, ‘Yes’ and ‘Yes’ respectively. I think it is important – indeed, imperative – to consider how our society has changed since the time when these (more or less) basic tenets were arrived at. The history of elections in the infancy of the Confederation is fascinating and sometimes tragic. But the relevant aspect here is that the system was designed within the physical constraints that existed at the time. Conducting an electoral exercise once every four years was arduous enough to strain the resources of everyone involved. Our world in the present is vastly different from that era, particularly as regards the technological capabilities in relation to communications and collection & processing of data. Sure, there are areas where this capability is not at par with the rest of the country – but I suggest that this should be a matter of our focus so as to reduce – and hopefully eliminate – this discrepancy. That would be the kind of infrastructure spending that will be really useful and productive in the years and decades ahead. What I am proposing here is a broad idea of collecting feedback from voters on an as-needed basis, rather than limit the exercise to elections (usually 4 years, unless a minority government lasts for shorter period). As to what this feedback mechanism would look like in detail, I am not sure. But I am pretty sure that this needs to be taken up as societal process (I am tempted to call it a meta-process) so that we are better placed to make Canada a more participative democracy in the future, as a result of which more / most (hopefully all) laws and policies enacted by a government will truly be ‘the people’s mandate’.