All About Me, Politics

What I learned knocking on thousands of doors – thoughts on canvassing

“Hi I’m Zach. I’m out here canvasing for Catherine Fife, Andrea Horwath, and the NDP. I was wondering if Catherine could count on your support this election…” is now a sentence I’ve said hundreds of times.

Ontario had a provincial election on June 7th. I wasn’t fond of the Progressive Conservative (PC) Party’s leader, one Doug Ford, so I did what I could. I joined the PC party to vote for his much more qualified rival, Christine Elliot. When that failed, I volunteered for Waterloo’s NDP Member of Provincial Parliament (MPP), Catherine Fife.

As a volunteer, I knocked on more than a thousand doors and talked to more than two hundred people. I went out canvassing eight times. According to Google Maps and its creepy tracking, I walked about 24 kilometers while doing this (and have still-sore feet to prove it).

Before I started canvassing, I knew basically nothing about it. I knew I’d be knocking on people’s doors, but beyond that, nadda. Would I be trying to convince them? Handing out signs? Asking for money?

The actual experience turned out to be both scarier and more mundane than I imagined, so I’ve decided to document it for other people who might be interested in canvassing but aren’t sure what it entails.

The first thing you need to know about canvassing by foot is that it can be physically draining. Water was a must, as some of the days I canvassed featured 31ºC (88ºF) temperatures, full sunlight, and 70% humidity. I sweated more canvassing than I did hiking in Death Valley a few weeks before. Death Valley was hotter, but as anyone who has experienced a summer in Ontario can attest, humidity is what really makes heat miserable. From what I’ve heard, even the worst summer heat and humidity still beats canvassing in the winter.

The campaign helpfully supplied sunscreen and water bottles. They didn’t provide anything to carry all the leaflets in though. After the first day, I brought a messenger bag along. It turns out carrying hundreds of leaflets for several hours without resting can leave your arms hurting for a week. I only made that mistake once.

(Plus, as the campaign wore on, we switched to smaller literature. Literally every canvasser I talked to was very, very excited by the switch.)

The second thing you need to know about canvassing is that it’s an emotional rollercoaster. Not because of the people, but because of the lack of people.

Depending on the time of day and the neighbourhood, I spoke to somewhere between one person for every five doors I knocked on and one person for every fifteen doors I knocked on. I’d get myself psyched up, mentally rehearse my speech, double check the house number, walk up to it, press the doorbell… then wait foolishly while nothing happened.

Sometimes I suspected the doorbell was broken. When I was pretty sure it was, I’d knock as well. Sometimes the knocking did indeed result in someone answering the door, but most of the time the house was just empty. I did have one person hide behind some equipment in their kitchen as I walked up to the door. They ignored the doorbell and my soft, confused knock. I saw them checking if the coast was clear as I trudged away from the front step.

The constant build-up of energy, followed by the all-to-common let down and dejected walk back to the sidewalk exhausted me more than talking with people did. More than half of the people we talked to were supporting our candidate or leaning towards her (she won the vote with 51% support, a crushing margin in a system where many candidates win with support just over 40%) so a majority of my conversation were energizing. It’s fun to discover shared purpose with strangers.

I can’t tell you how much I was grateful to all of the strangers I talked to. I know intellectually that some people really dislike the NDP and don’t like anything it stands for, but you wouldn’t know it from telling more than 200 random people whose dinner you just interrupted that you support the NDP. Not one single person said a mean thing to me.

Many were annoyed by the state of politics. Some didn’t like the party’s policies. Some weren’t interested in politics. But everyone heard me out politely. Some quickly asked me to leave, but no one slammed a door in my face. One man did close his door in my face, but not even the most uncharitable person couldn’t call it a slam. Besides, he said bye and made sure I wasn’t going to be hit by the door.

Many people followed up “sorry, I’m voting for the conservatives”, with “but good luck out there”. Several people asked if I needed a break, some shade, some water. Maybe things would have been different if I’d been out for the Liberals (who were deeply unpopular after 15 years governing) or the Conservatives (with their polarizing leader), but as it was I was impressed by the kindness and politeness of my fellow citizens.

(If you see a canvasser on your doorstep and don’t agree with their party’s positions, please be nice to them. They’re doing what they’re doing out of a sincere desire to make the world a better place. Even if you think they’re misguided, you aren’t going to change anything by being nasty to them. On the flip side, if you find yourself canvassing, it will never be in your interest to be nasty to anyone. I learned that someone high up in the campaign started volunteering for the NDP when a Conservative candidate was rude and patronizing to him at the door. “Be nice” was the very first rule of canvassing.)

Canvassing really isn’t about convincing people. We had scripts for that, but as far as I know, most people didn’t use them much. The doorstep really isn’t the best place to try and change someone’s political views and the time we would spend trying to convince people was normally considered better spent knocking on more doors.

Our actual objective was to figure out who our supporters were and who was open to being convinced. After each conversation, we’d jot down a level of support, any alternative parties being considered, and any issues the person cared about. We had specific shorthands for common occurrences, like people who were ineligible to vote, who had moved, or who didn’t want to talk to us (if you tell a canvasser not to bother you, they will stop coming to your house; this is a corollary of “be nice”, as the last thing we want is to annoy someone into helping our opponents). We’d also offer people literature about our platform. If no one was home, we’d leave it in the mailbox. I was told the notes we took could influence future phone calls (e.g. if we said “hospitals”, people might be talked with about healthcare policy) or help Catherine when she went canvassing

We were working from lists provided by Elections Ontario and augmented by the party databases. We knew what people had told past canvassers about their support for the NDP, going all the way back to 2012. These lists were correct about 80-90% of the time. Most often, mistakes were the fault of Elections Ontario; they were particularly bad at telling us when people were actually permanent residents and ineligible to vote. Beyond “not home” and “won’t say”, “ineligible to vote” become my third most common annotation.

Part of our job was to update these lists for the next election. That entailed asking for names, if someone new was living there and verifying phone numbers. I hated verifying phone numbers. I understand the necessity behind it, I really do, but it was far and away the most awkward part of canvassing. Right when every social instinct I had was telling me my interaction with someone was over, I had to ask for a piece of information they probably didn’t want to give me. I’m sure I’ll get used to it – the experienced canvasser who taught me the ropes was particularly adept at asking for numbers – but it was far and away my least favourite part.

Much easier to ask about was advanced polling, signs, and volunteering. These questions only got asked to our strongest supporters, so we knew we were getting a friendly audience. I had three people agree to take signs over my eight days of canvassing, which is less than the experienced canvasser who showed me the ropes got in our first night out. I hope one day to be as good at getting people to show support as he was.

 

What else? Kids are the best part. I got to watch as a father explained to his little girl that the NDP wasn’t the type of party that had cake. I got to watch a little girl jump up and down with enthusiasm for Catherine. She had seen her at a school visit and thought she was the coolest thing ever. This really struck home the importance of representation in politics to me. Maybe that girl will never lose her admiration and will grow up to seek office herself someday. Would as many girls be able to imagine themselves as MPPs if they only ever saw men in that role?

There were less happy moments. I met a woman who quizzed me in depth on our healthcare platforms before telling me that if that’s what we stood for, we had her vote. Her husband was in the hospital. I saw a notation on a canvassing sheet that said “do not bother – funeral”. I talked with a man who had been turned away at a poll, despite the fact that he was a citizen. I met a mother who relied on the Hydro tax credit to make ends meet.

Their voices were important and I did what I could to make sure they’d be heard, but I can see how people can lose themselves in politics. What is “enough” when someone is hurting in front of you? I like cold equations and cost-benefit analyses. It’s the type of person I am. But when you see someone hurting, all of that flies out of your head and you want to shake the system until someone helps them.

Or at least, I wanted to.

The great political theorist Hannah Arendt once said: “And the first thing I’d like to say, you see, is that going along with the rest—the kind of going along that involves lots of people acting together—produces power. So long as you’re alone, you’re always powerless, however strong you may be. This feeling of power that arises from acting together is absolutely not wrong in itself, it’s a general human feeling. But it’s not good, either. It’s simply neutral. It’s something that’s simply a phenomenon, a general human phenomenon that needs to be described as such. In acting in this way, there’s an extreme feeling of pleasure.”

When I read this, the first time, I skimmed over it. To me, the important thing was what she said next, about “merely functioning” and how thinking is a vehicle to doing good, the concerns that defined her work.

But after my second time canvassing, I read this again and I teared up. “How did she know?”, I wondered.

The answer, of course, is that she participated in politics and knew the joys of acting as a group, of organizing, of working together for a common goal, a common good. And I feel so incredibly privileged that I now know that joy, that “extreme pleasure” too.

For that, I’d like to thank everyone in Catherine Fife’s campaign and everyone in Waterloo who put up with me on their doorstep. Thank you, all of you, for being part of what makes politics and representative democracy work.

Literature, Politics

Book Review: Enlightenment 2.0

It is a truth universally acknowledged that an academic over the age of forty must be prepared to write a book talking about how everything is going to hell these days. Despite literally no time in history featuring fewer people dying of malaria, dying in childbirth, dying of vaccine preventable illnesses, etc., it is very much in vogue to criticise the foibles of modern life. Heck, Ross Douthat makes a full-time job out of it over at the New York Times.

Enlightenment 2.0 is Canadian academic Joseph Heath’s contribution to the genre. If the name sounds familiar, it’s probably because I’ve referenced him a bunch of times on this blog. I’m very much a fan of his book Filthy Lucre and his shared blog, induecourse.ca. Because of this, I decided to give his book (and only his book) decrying the modern age a try.

Enlightenment 2.0 follows the old Buddhist pattern. It claims that (1) there are problems with contemporary politics, (2) these problems arise because politics has become hostile to reason, (3) there is a way to have a second Enlightenment restore politics to how they were when they were ruled by reason, and (4) that way is to build politics from the ground up that encourage reason.

Now if you’re like me, you groaned when you read the bit about “restoring” politics to some better past state. My position has long been that there was never any shining age of politics where reason reigned supreme over partisanship. Take American politics. They became partisan quickly after independence, occasionally featured duels, and resulted in a civil war before the Republic even turned 100. America has had periods of low polarization, but these seem more incidental and accidental than the true baseline.

(Canada’s past is scarcely less storied; in 1826, a mob of Tories smashed proto-Liberal William Lyon Mackenzie’s printing press and threw the type into Lake Ontario. Tory magistrates refused to press charges. These disputes eventually spiralled into an abortive rebellion and many years of tense political stand-offs.)

What really sets Heath apart is that he bothers to collect theoretical and practical support for a decline in reason. He’s the first person I’ve ever seen explain how reason could retreat from politics even as violence becomes less common and society becomes more complex.

His explanation goes like this: imagine that once every ten years politicians come up with an idea that helps them get elected by short-circuiting reason and appealing to baser instincts. It gets copied and used by everyone and eventually becomes just another part of campaigning. Over a hundred and fifty years, all of this adds up to a political environment that is specifically designed to jump past reason to baser instincts as soon as possible. It’s an environment that is actively hostile to reason.

We have some evidence of a similar process occurring in advertising. If you ever look at an old ad, you’ll see people trying to convince you that their product is the best. Modern readers will probably note a lot of “mistakes” in old ads. For example, they often admit to flaws in the general class of product they’re selling. They always talk about how their product fixes these flaws, but we now know that talking up the negative can leave people with negative affect. Advertising rarely mentions flaws these days.

Can you imagine an ad like this being printed today? Image credit: “Thoth God of Knowledge” on Flickr.

Modern ads are much more likely to try and associate a product with an image, mood, or imagined future life. Cleaning products go with happy families and spotless houses. Cars with excitement or attractive potential mates.

Look at this Rolex ad. It screams: “This man is successful! Wear a Rolex so everyone knows you’re that successful/so that you become that successful.” The goal is to get people to believe that Rolex=success. Rolex’s marketing is so successful that Rolex’s watches are seen as a status marker and luxury good the world over, even though quite frankly they’re kind of ugly. Image copyright Rolex, used here for purposes of criticism.

In Heath’s view, one negative consequence of globalism is that all of the most un-reasonable inventions from around the world get to flourish everywhere and accumulate, in the same way that globalism has allowed all of the worst diseases of the world to flourish.

Heath paints a picture of reason in the modern world under siege in all realms, not just the political. In addition to the aforementioned advertising, Facebook tries to drag you in and keep you there forever. “Free to play” games want to take you for everything you’re worth and employ psychologists to figure out how. Detergent companies wreck your laundry machine by making it as hard as possible to measure the right amount of fabric softener.

(Seriously, have you ever tried to read the lines on the inside of a detergent cap? Everything, from the dark plastic to small font to multiple lines to the wideness of the cap is designed to make it hard to pour the correct amount of liquid for a single load.)

All of this would be worrying enough, but Heath identifies two more trends that represent a threat to a politics of reason.

First is the rise of Common Sense Conservatism. As Heath defines it, Common Sense Conservatism is the political ideology that elevates “common sense” to the principle political decision-making heuristic. “Getting government out of the way of businesses”, “tightening our belts when times are tight”, and “if we don’t burn oil someone else will” are some of the slogans of the movement.

This is a problem because common sense is ill-suited to our current level of civilizational complexity. Political economy is far too complicated to be managed by analogy to a family budget. Successful justice policy requires setting aside retributive instincts and acknowledging just how weak a force deterrence is. International trade is… I’ve read one newspaper article that correctly understood international trade this year and it was written by Paul fucking Krugman, the Nobel Prize winning economist.

As the built environment (Heath defines this as all the technology that now surrounds us) becomes more hostile to reason (think: detergent caps everywhere) and further from what our brains intuitively expect, common sense will give us worse and worse answers to our problems.

That’s not even to talk about coordination problems. Common Sense Conservatism seems inextricably tied to unilateralism and a competitive attitude (after all, it’s “common sense” that if someone else is winning, you must be losing). With many of the hardest problems facing us (global warming, AI, etc.) being co-ordination problems, Common Sense Conservatism specifically degrades the capacity of our political systems to respond to them.

The other problem is Jonathon Haidt. In practical terms, Haidt is much less of a problem than our increasingly hostile technology or the rise of Common Sense Conservatism, but he has spearheaded a potent theoretical attack on reason.

As I mentioned in my review of Haidt’s most important book, The Righteous Mind, Heath describes Haidt’s view of reason as “essentially confabulatory”. The driving point in The Righteous Mind is that a lot of what we consider to be “reason” is in fact post-facto justifications for our actions. Haidt describes his view as if we’re the riders on an elephant. We may think that we’re driving, but we’re actually the junior partner to our vastly more powerful unconscious.

(I’d like to point out that the case for elephant supremacy has collapsed somewhat over the past five years, as psychology increasingly grapples with its replication crisis; many studies Haidt relied upon are now retracted or under suspicion.)

Heath thought (even before some of Haidt’s evidence went the way of the dodo) that this was an incomplete picture and this disagreement forms much of the basis for recommendations made in Enlightenment 2.0.

Heath proposes a modification to the elephant/rider analogy. He’s willing to buy that our conscious mind has trouble resisting our unconscious desires, but he points out that our conscious mind is actually quite good (with a bit of practise) at setting us up so that we don’t have to deal with unconscious desires we don’t want. He likens this to hopping off the elephant, setting up a roadblock, then hopping back, secure in the knowledge that the elephant will have no choice but to go the way we’ve picked out for it.

A practical example: you know how it can be very hard to resist eating a cookie once you have a packet of them in your room? Well, you can actually make it much easier to resist the cookie if you put it somewhere inconveniently far from where you spend most of your time. You can resist it even better if you don’t buy it in the first place. Very few people are willing to drive to the store just because they have a craving for some sugar.

If you have a sweet tooth, it might be hard to resist buying those cookies. But Heath points out that there’s a solution even for this. One of our most powerful resources is each other. If you have trouble not buying unhealthy snacks at the last second, you can go shopping with a friend. You pick out groceries for her from her list and she’ll do the same for you. Since you’re going to be paying with each other’s money and giving everything over to each other at the end, you have no reason to buy sweets. Do this and you don’t have to spend all week trying not eat the cookie.

Heath believes the difference between people who are always productive and always distracted has far more to do with the environments they’ve built than anything innate. This feels at least half-true to me; I know I’m much less able to get things done when I don’t have my whole elaborate productivity system, or when it’s too easy for me to access the news or Facebook. In fact, I saw a dramatic improvement in my productivity – and a dramatic decrease in the amount of time I spent on Facebook – when I set up my computer to block it for a day after I spend fifteen minutes on it, uninstalled it from my phone, and made sure to keep it logged out on my phone’s browser.

(It’s trivially easy for me to circumvent any of these blocks; it takes about fifteen seconds. But that fifteen seconds is to enough to make quickly opening up a tab and being distracted unappealing.)

This all loops back to talking about how the current built environment is hostile to reason – as well as a host of other things that we might like to be better at.

Take lack of sleep. Before reading Enlightenment 2.0, I hadn’t realized just how much of a modern problem this is. During Heath’s childhood, TVs turned off at midnight, everything closed by midnight, and there were no videogames or cell phones or computers. Post-midnight, you could… read? Heath points out that this tends to put people to sleep anyway. Spend time with people already at your house? How often did that happen? You certainly couldn’t call someone and invite them over, because calling people after midnight doesn’t discriminate between those awake and those asleep. Calling a land line after midnight is still reserved for emergencies. Texting people after midnight is much less intrusive and therefore much politer.

Without all the options modern life gives, there wasn’t a whole lot of things that really could keep you up all night. Heath admits to being much worse at sleeping now. Video games and online news conspire to often keep him up later than he would like. Heath is a professor and the author of several books, which means he’s a probably a very self-disciplined person. If he can’t even ignore news and video games and Twitter in favour of a good night’s sleep, what chance do most people have?

Society has changed in the forty some odd years of his life in a way that has led to more freedom, but an unfortunate side effect of freedom is that it often includes the freedom to mess up our lives in ways that, if we were choosing soberly, we wouldn’t choose. I don’t know anyone who starts an evening with “tonight, I’m going to stay up late enough to make me miserable tomorrow”. And yet technology and society conspire to make it all too easy to do this over the feeble objections of our better judgement.

It’s probably too late to put this genie back in its bottle (even if we wanted to). But Heath contends it isn’t too late to put reason back into politics.

Returning reason to politics, to Heath, means building up social and procedural frameworks like the sort that would help people avoid staying up all night or wasting the weekend on social media. In means setting up our politics so that contemplation and co-operation isn’t discouraged and so that it is very hard to appeal to people’s base nature.

Part of this is as simple as slowing down politics. When politicians don’t have time to read what they’re voting on, partisanship and fear drive what they vote for. When they instead have time to read and comprehend legislation (and even better, their constituents have time to understand it and tell their representatives what they think), it is harder to pass bad bills.

When negative political advertisements are banned or limited (perhaps with a total restriction on election spending), fewer people become disillusioned with politics and fewer people use cynicism as an excuse to give politicians carte blanche to govern badly. When Question Period in parliament isn’t filmed, there’s less incentive to volley zingers and talking points back and forth.

One question Heath doesn’t really engage with: just how far is it okay to go to ensure reason has a place in politics? Enlightenment 2.0 never goes out and says “we need a political system that makes it harder for idiots to vote”, but there’s a definite undercurrent of that in the latter parts. I’m also reminded of Andrew Potter’s opposition to referendums and open party primaries. Both of these political technologies give more people a voice in how the country is run, but do tend to lead to instability or worse decisions than more insular processes (like representative parliaments and closed primaries).

Basically, it seems like if we’re aiming for more reasonable politics, then something might have to give on the democracy front. There are a lot of people who aren’t particularly interested in voting with anything more than their base instincts. Furthermore, given that a large chunk of the right has more-or-less explicitly abandoned “reason” in favour of “common sense”, aiming to increase the amount of “reason” in politics certainly isn’t politically neutral.

(I should also mention that many people on the left only care about empiricism and reason when it comes to global warming and are quite happy to pander to feelings on topics like vaccines or rent control. From my personal vantage point, it looks like left-wing political parties have fallen less under the sway of anti-rationalism, but your mileage may vary.)

Perhaps there’s a coalition of people in the centre, scared of the excess of the extreme left and the extreme right that might feel motivated to change our political system to make it more amiable to reason. But this still leaves a nasty taste in my mouth. It still feels like cynical power politics.

While there might not be answers in Enlightenment 2.0 (or elsewhere), I am heartened that this is a question that Heath is at least still trying to engage with.

Enlightenment 2.0 is going to be one of those books that, on a fundamental level, changes how I look at politics and society. I had an inkling that shaping my environment was important and I knew that different political systems lead to different strategies and outcomes. But the effect of Enlightenment 2.0 was to make me so much more aware of this. Whenever I see Google rolling out a new product, I now think about how it’s designed to take advantage of us (or not!). Whenever someone suggests a political reform, I first think about the type of discourse and politics it will promote and which groups and ideologies that will benefit.

(This is why I’m not too sad about Trudeau’s broken electoral reform promises. Mixed member proportional elections actually encourage fragmentation and give extremists an incentive to be loud. First past the post gives parties a strong incentive to squash their extremist wings and I value this in society.)

For that (as well as its truly excellent overview of all the weird ways our brains evolved), I heartily recommend Enlightenment 2.0.

Ethics, Philosophy, Quick Fix

Second Order Effects of Unjust Policies

In some parts of the Brazilian Amazon, indigenous groups still practice infanticide. Children are killed for being disabled, for being twins, or for being born to single mothers. This is undoubtedly a piece of cultural technology that existed to optimize resource distribution under harsh conditions.

Infanticide can be legally practiced because these tribes aren’t bound by Brazilian law. Under legislation, indigenous tribes are bound by the laws in proportion to how much they interact with the state. Remote Amazonian groups have a waiver from all Brazilian laws.

Reformers, led mostly by disabled indigenous people who’ve escaped infanticide and evangelicals, are trying to change this. They are pushing for a law that will outlaw infanticide, register pregnancies and birth outcomes, and punish people who don’t report infanticide.

Now I know that I have in the past written about using the outside view in cases like these. Historically, outsiders deciding they know what is best for indigenous people has not ended particularly well. In general, this argues for avoiding meddling in cases like this. Despite that, if I lived in Brazil, I would support this law.

When thinking about public policies, it’s important to think about the precedents they set. Opposing a policy like this, even when you have very good reasons, sends a message to the vast majority of the population, a population that views infanticide as wrong (and not just wrong, but a special evil). It says: “we don’t care about what is right or wrong, we’re moral relativists who think anything goes if it’s someone’s culture.”

There are several things to unpack here. First, there are the direct effects on the credibility of the people defending infanticide. When you’re advocating for something that most people view as clearly wrong, something so beyond the pale that you have no realistic chance of ever convincing anyone, you’re going to see some resistance to the next issue you take up, even if it isn’t beyond the pale. If the same academics defending infanticide turn around and try and convince people to accept human rights for trans people, they’ll find themselves with limited credibility.

Critically, this doesn’t happen with a cause where it’s actually possible to convince people that you are standing up for what is right. Gay rights campaigners haven’t been cut out of the general cultural conversation. On the contrary, they’ve been able to parlay some of their success and credibility from being ahead of the curve to help in related issues, like trans rights.

There’s no (non-apocalyptic) future where the people of Brazil eventually wake up okay with infanticide and laud the campaigners who stood up for it. But the people of Brazil are likely to wake up in the near future and decide they can’t ever trust the morals of academics who advocated for infanticide.

Second, it’s worth thinking about how people’s experience of justice colours their view of the government. When the government permits what is (to many) a great evil, people lose faith in the government’s ability to be just. This inhibits the government’s traditional role as solver of collective action problems.

We can actually see this manifest several ways in current North American politics, on both the right and the left.

On the left, there are many people who are justifiably mistrustful of the government, because of its historical or ongoing discrimination against them or people who look like them. This is why the government can credibly lock up white granola-crowd parents for failing to treat their children with medically approved medicines, but can’t when the parents are indigenous. It’s also why many people of colour don’t feel comfortable going to the police when they see or experience violence.

In both cases, historical injustices hamstring the government’s ability to achieve outcomes that it might otherwise be able to achieve if it had more credibly delivered justice in the past.

On the right, I suspect that some amount of skepticism of government comes from legalized abortion. The right is notoriously mistrustful of the government and I wonder if this is because it cannot believe that a government that permits abortion can do anything good. Here this hurts the government’s ability to pursue the sort of redistributive policies that would help the worst off.

In the case of abortion, the very real and pressing need for some women to access it is enough for me to view it as net positive, despite its negative effect on some people’s ability to trust the government to solve coordination problems.

Discrimination causes harms on its own and isn’t even justified on its own “merits”. It’s effect on peoples’ perceptions of justice are just another reason it should be fought against.

In the case of Brazil, we’re faced with an act that is negative (infanticide) with several plausible alternatives (e.g. adoption) that allow the cultural purpose to be served without undermining justice. While the historical record of these types of interventions in indigenous cultures should give us pause, this is counterbalanced by the real harms justice faces as long as infanticide is allowed to continue. Given this, I think the correct and utilitarian thing to do is to support the reformers’ effort to outlaw infanticide.

Politics

Westminster is bestminster

[6-minute read]

I’ve been ranting to random people all week about how much I love the Westminster System of parliamentary government (most notably used in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the UK) and figured it was about time to write my rant down for broader consumption.

Here’s three reasons why the Westminster System is so much better than the abominable hodgepodge Americans call a government and all the other dysfunctional presidential republics the world over.

1. The head of state and head of government are separate

And more importantly, the head of state is a figurehead.

The president is an odd dual-role, both head of government (and therefore responsible for running the executive branch and implementing the policies of the government) and head of state (the face of the nation at home and abroad; the person who is supposed to serve as a symbol of national unity and moral authority). In Westminster democracies, these roles are split up. The Prime Minister serves as head of government and directs the executive branch, while the Queen (or her representative) serves as head of state [1]. Insofar as the government is personified in anyone, it is personified in a non-partisan person with a circumscribed role.

This is an excellent protection against populism. There is no one person who can gather the mob to them and offer the solutions to all problems, because the office of the head of state is explicitly anti-populist [2]. In Westminster governments, any attempt at crude populism on the part of the prime minister can be countered by messages of national unity from the head of state [3].

It’s also much easier to remove the head of government in the Westminster system. Unlike the president, the prime minister serves only while they have the confidence of parliament and their party. An unpopular prime minister can be easily replaced, as Australia seems happy to demonstrate over and over. A figure like Trump could not be prime minister if their parliamentarians did not like them.

This feature is at risk from open nominating contests and especially rules that don’t allow MPs to pick the interim leader during a leadership race. In this regard, Australia is doing a much better job at exemplifying the virtues of the Westminster system than Canada or the UK (where Corbyn’s vote share is all the more surprising for how much internal strife his election caused) [4].

2. Confidence

To the Commonwealth, one of the most confusing features of American democracy is its (semi-)regular government shut downs, like the one Trump had planned for September [5]. On the other side, Americans are baffled at the seemingly random elections that Commonwealth countries have.

Her Majesty’s Prime Minister governs only so long as they have the confidence of the house. A government is only sworn in after they can prove they have confidence (via a vote of all newly elected and returning MPs). When no party has an absolute majority, things can get tense – or can go right back to the polls. We’ve observed two tense confidence votes this year, one in BC, the other in the UK.

In both these cases, no party had a clear majority of seats in the house (in Canada, we call this a minority government). In both BC and the UK, confidence was secured when a large party enlisted the help of a smaller party to provide “confidence and supply”. In this situation, the small party will vote with the government on budgets and other confidence motions, but is otherwise free to vote however they want.

The first vote of confidence isn’t the only one a government is likely to face. If the opposition thinks the government is doing a poor job, they can launch a vote of no confidence. If the motion is passed by parliament, it is dissolved for an election.

But many bills are actually confidence motions in disguise. Budgets are the “supply” side of “confidence and supply”. Losing a budget vote – sometimes archaically called “failing to secure supply” – results in parliament being dissolved for an election. This is how Ontario’s last election was called. The governing party put forward a budget they were prepared to campaign on and the opposition voted it down.

This feature prevents government shutdowns. If the government can’t agree on a budget, it has to go to the people. If time is of the essence, the Queen or her representative may ask the party that torpedoed the budget to pass a non-partisan continuing funding resolution, good until just after the election to ensure the government continues to function (as happened in Australia in 1975).

By convention, votes on major legislative promises are also motions of confidence. This helps ensure that the priorities laid out during an election campaign don’t get dropped. In a minority government situation, the opposition must decide whether it is worth another election before vetoing any of the government’s key legislative proposals. Because of this, Commonwealth governments can be surprisingly functional even without a legislative majority.

Add all of this together and you get very accountable parties. Try and enact unpopular legislation with anything less than a majority government and you’ll probably find yourself shortly facing voters. On the flip side, obstruct popular legislation and you’ll also find yourself facing voters. Imagine how the last bit of Obama’s term would have been different if the GOP had to fight an election because of the government shutdown.

3. The upper house is totally different

Many Westminster countries have bicameral legislatures, with two chambers making up parliament (New Zealand is the notable exception here). In most Westminster system countries with two chambers, the relationship between the houses is different than that in America.

The two American chambers are essentially co-equal (although the senate gets to approve treaties and budgets must originate in the house). This is not so in the Westminster system. While both chambers have equal powers in many on paper (except that money bills must often originate in the lower chamber), in practice they are very different.

By convention (and occasionally legislation) the upper chamber has its power constrained. The actual restrictions vary from country to country, but in general they forbid rejecting bills for purely partisan reasons or they prevent the upper house from messing with the budget.

The goal of the upper house in the Westminster system is to take a longer view of legislation and protect the nation from short-sighted thinking. This role is more consultative than legislative; it’s not uncommon to see a bill vetoed once, then returned to the upper chamber and assented to (sometimes with token changes, sometimes even with no changes). The upper house isn’t there to ignore the will of the people (as embodied by the lower house), just to remind them to occasionally look longer term.

This sort of system helps prevent legislate gridlock. Since the upper house tends to serve longer terms (in Canada, senators are appointed for life, for example), there is often a different majority in the upper and lower chambers. If the upper chamber was free to veto anything they didn’t like (even if the reasons were purely partisan) then nothing would ever get done.

Taken together, these features of the Westminster system prevent legislative gridlock and produce legitimate outputs of the political process. This obviates populist “I’ll fix everything myself” leaders like Trump, who seem to be an almost inevitable outcome in a perpetually gridlocked and unnavigable system (i.e. the American government).

Insofar as the Westminster system has problems, they are mostly problems of implementation and several Westminster countries have demonstrated that fundamental reform of the system is possible within the system itself. New Zealand abolished the upper house of their parliament when it proved useless. Australia switched to an elected upper house and has come up with a set of constitutional rules that prevent this from causing gridlock (here I’m thinking of the double dissolution election and joint session permitted by Australian law in response to repeated legislative failures).

Among certain people in Canada, electoral and senate reform have become contentious topics. It’s my (unpopular in millennial circles) opinion that Canada has no need of electoral reform. Get a few beers in most proponents of electoral reform and you’ll quickly find that preventing all future Conservative majorities is a much more important goal for them than any abstract concept of “fairness”. I’m not of the opinion that we should change our electoral system just because a party we didn’t like won a majority government once in the last eight elections (or three times in the past ten elections and past fifteen elections).

Senate reform may have already been accomplished, with Prime Minister Trudeau’s move to appoint only non-partisan senators and dissolve the Liberal caucus in the senate. Time will tell if this new system survives his tenure as prime minister.

In one of the articles I linked above, Prof. Joseph Heath compares the utter futility Americans feel about changing their electoral system with the indifference most Canadians feel about changing theirs. In Canada, many proponents of electoral reform specifically wanted to avoid a plebiscite, because they understand that there currently exists no legitimacy crisis sufficient to overcome the status quo bias most people feel. Reform in Canada is certainly possible, but first the system needs to be broken. Right now, the Westminster system is working admirably.

Footnotes

[1] Israel took many cues from Westminster governments. Its president is non-partisan and ceremonial. If Canada was every forced to give up the monarchy, I’d find this sort of presidential system acceptable. ^

[2] It’s hard to tell which is less populist; the oldest representative of one of the few remaining aristocracies, or (like in Israel or the governor-generals of the former colonies), exceptional citizens chosen for their reliability and loyalty to the current political order. ^

[3] See Governor General David Johnston’s criticism of some of Steven Harper’s campaign rhetoric. ^

[4] I’ve of the opinion that Corbyn’s “popularity” is really indicative of PM Teresa May’s unpopularity bolstered by his ability to barely surpass incredibly low expectations. ^

[5] Since rescheduled to December, in light of Hurricane Harvey. ^