Rebooting Canada: Why One Computer Scientist is Voting Green in 2019
Voting habit can be deeply ingrained. Canadians do strategic voting, sure, but we return to our home parties whenever we can. We are more faithful to our political parties than to our marriage partners.
This fall, in the coming 2019 federal election, I’m keeping my partner, but I’m switching parties. I’m going to vote Green.
I’m doing this because democracy in Canada has become its own enemy. On the whole, democracy is a Good Thing. People in democracies get some say over how they are governed and they get this say without resorting to violence and civil war.
Democracies are one of the operating systems for modern states. Like operating systems, they come in different versions. Democracy 1.X, usually dated to the fifth century BCE and coded by the Athenians, was a simple system. People got together in large groups to vote for what the laws of the state would be and who would carry them out. Democracy 1.X, old as it is, has been quite durable. We still install releases of it in towns and local districts and small organizations.
When the groups being governed get large, Democracy 1.X stops working. That’s why Democracy 2.X was developed. 2.X is more resource-intensive than the first release, but the penalties, users have found, are usually worth paying. In this second installment, people still vote about what they want to happen, but they do this by voting for someone who will represent them in the councils where the decisions are made. Many competing versions of Democracy 2.X have come to market. Most of them actually seem to work, after some tweaking. Version 2.X is another Good Thing.
When the groups being governed get really big, Democracy 2.X starts crashing. Representative councils become too large to make meaningful decisions. Democracy 3.X, with the earliest (and mostly unstable) versions released about four centuries ago, dealt with these problems by introducing the party system. In this new version, people still vote for representatives, but what they are really voting for is the party that their candidates identify with. The parties are active players, not just passive choices made by voters. They act, in fact, like people—they have beliefs, intentions, friends and enemies, and, above all, bank accounts.
Democracy 3.X, even in its more stable post-1800 releases, brought with it a number of subsystems that not everyone was happy with. In the country to the south of us, George Washington, their first President and a devoted user of Democracy 2.X, warned the American people in his famous Farewell Address that version 3.X and its political parties might prove to be more of a danger than a solution. Not many listened to him and within a generation an early release of 3.X had been installed in the United States. Canada, having some experience with Britain’s pre-release version of Democracy 3.X, booted up in the mid-nineteenth century with the 3.X operating system already in place.
And now, with 150 years of Democracy 3.X under our Canadian belts, we feel like we have finally gotten some of the bugs out. A few of the patches we have had to install to squash these bugs, to be sure, have had questionable side effects. Political parties can generate complex subsystems of lobbyists, special interest groups, and power brokers. These subsystems, though often vilified, have some benefits. They ensure that parties stay within a range of actions that represent, however vaguely, public opinion. Overall, the party system and their subsystems, we generally believe, are worth the trouble. Most of us would say that Democracy 3.X is also a Good Thing.
On occasion, however, challenges can come over the horizon that make us question just how well the much-patched current release of Democracy 3.X is working. If these challenges require more than small adjustments to the user interface—if, for example, they require some fundamental change in the way our society works—the patches and their side effects get in the way. The entrenched parties of our Democracy 3.X, anchored in place by their subsystems, can be too sluggish to respond to big challenges.
One of these big challenges is at hand. The earth itself is in trouble. Democratic operating systems, it turns out, have been doing their political work by means of a continual and careless extraction of the earth’s natural resources. The sheer size of the human population—nearly eight billion of us—coupled with increasing demands for more resource-consuming types of sustenance and shelter have brought this planetary matrix to a knife edge of collapse. I won’t go into detail here about the threat—if you are not aware of it, you are either living on an undeveloped island or you are enmeshed in a cocoon of denial and conspiracy theories. Environmental collapse will have dire consequences for our democracies. When the hardware breaks, the operating system goes down with it.
How do we respond to this challenge as a nation? Well, you may say, that’s what Democracy 3.X is about. You form your opinions and you express them by electing representatives from the parties who can address the threats. The problem, though, is that the established parties in Canada are in thrall to the subsystems that have developed to keep them in power. Many of us no longer believe that electing any of the three major federal political parties to a majority government is an adequate response to the environmental threats that we now face. The established parties may promise action on environmental problems, but experience shows that they can’t–and won’t–deliver. Their hands are tied by commitments to the subsystems that have put them–and keep them–in a place of power.
The only way to get action on problems of this magnitude is to force a clean reboot of Democracy 3.X and rebuild the patches. And how do we force this reboot? We send a message to the three traditional federal parties that they no longer have our confidence. If this message has to come from outside the operating system, from the natural world that powers our democracies, we have a disaster on our hands. But it can come from the inside. In this case, the message in Canada could take the form of one or two dozen federal Green MPs holding the balance of power.
And that’s why one computer scientist is voting Green in 2019. Because a clean reboot can also be a Good Thing.
Kem Luther, a retired computer scientist, is now a writer who lives on Vancouver Island.