Friday, May 4, 2012

The Right Folk For the Job

Every once in a while, whether tongue-in-cheek or in seriousness, some wag will propose "saving" democracy by instituting some kind of test before voting to ensure the responsibility of the electorate. Robert A. Heinlein explored this territory in his writings, from the "service means citizenship" ethos of Starship Troopers to offhand propositions that would have prospective voters solve a quadratic equation before they mark their ballot, or the redefinition of the franchise to women only. Perhaps some people would go for a basic literacy and political knowledge test as a prerequisite to being added to the voting list.

Too bad for them that things like this have been put into practice before, especially the notion of literacy tests, and it's pretty much always been used to restrict the rights of "undesirable" voters. Case in point: despite the guarantees of the Fifteenth Amendment, by the end of the nineteenth century state governments across the South had begun to restrict the voting rights of blacks through the expedient of poll taxes and subjectively-judged literacy tests. As recently as last year, Tea Party Nation president Judson Phillips implied that renters shouldn't be allowed to vote because in his world, property owners have more of a vested interest in their communities and their views are automatically more important.

So, given the way governments have wielded this power on those occasions where they've had it, creating a "responsible electorate" through methods such as these really only gives you a gerrymandered electorate, which doesn't exactly augur well for the future health of a democracy. Lately, I've been wondering if it hasn't all been backward. Rather than ensuring a responsible electorate, what about ensuring responsible candidates for office?

Truth be told, it was Toronto mayor Rob Ford's latest rampage that brought this to mind. The situation is simple, if complicated by the he said/he said back-and-forth; Ford's neighbor alerted him that some sketchy-seeming person was at the back of his property, and Ford went around to confront him. It turned out to be a reporter for the Toronto Star investigating Ford's request to purchase a sliver of adjacent parkland in order to build a new security fence for his house; apparently he's gotten death threats.

We know what happened in the end - there was something of a heated conversation, Ford wrestled himself down from assaulting someone he knew to be a journalist, and the windmill of Toronto city politics has tilted a little bit more. But what if it didn't happen that way? What if, instead of a reporter, it had been a legitimate intruder; someone with the will and the means to do Ford harm? Based on how he's acted over the last year and a half, I can understand why Ford went for a personal confrontation. That doesn't mean it was the proper response to the situation, especially not when Toronto Police probably has a dedicated cruiser waiting to respond to 911 calls from the Ford residence by now.

Mounted officers are particularly good at dispersing angry mobs of pitchfork-wielding Downtown Elites.

Given that, then, wouldn't a better path to responsible government involve ensuring that the candidates are people for whom voting is a responsible act? Politics may look glamorous to some people, but it's not for everyone - some people just have temperaments that do not mix well with leadership. Right now, especially in municipal races, the barrier to entry is low. All I needed to run in the race that Ford eventually won was proof of residency in Toronto and a $200 filing fee, and I would imagine that many, many people would question my ability to serve as Mayor of Toronto - it's just as well, then, that I dropped out before the actual election.

I can't help but thinking that things might be better off if prospective candidates had to go through tests before being allowed to stand before the electorate - tests to weed out the sociopaths, mainly, or those with an especially limited grasp of ethics. I don't have any idea what they might be, and any such tests would have to be transparent so that you avoid a situation where the tests conclude that minorities do not have the chops to govern.

This would be a long, complex road fraught with challenges - after all, were restrictions like this to suddenly enter force, a huge slice of the political world would likely be out of a job. Things worth doing aren't easy. Besides, we've already tried to improve democracy by "improving" the voters; it's easy to forget that the voters only have an opportunity to speak every few years. If we really want to improve democracy, we should focus on the people who are supposed to be taking care of it for us, day to day.

No comments:

Post a Comment