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Who Represents Us?

August 10, 2014

The other day, I heard part of an interview on CBC radio.  It was with a government official, regarding their relations with native bands.  He said that they had excellent cooperation at the local level, but the native leaders seemed to be bogged down in politics.  My immediate reaction was that the government had bypassed the leaders to deal with the local people directly.  Didn’t these local people elect the leaders to represent them?

When I read Leo Tolstoy’s book A Confession, published in 1882, I noticed that he encountered a similar situation.  Because of his status as a famous writer, Tolstoy was able to speak to leaders of several religious groups in Russia at the time.  He discovered that they had no time to care for the souls of their parishioners because they were busy defending their ecclesiastical territory from other religions.  Is that what’s happening here?

There’s some danger in dealing directly with the people instead of working with their leaders.  The obvious one is duplication of services.  More importantly, they may be dealing with only a portion of the local people, neglecting the others.  There’s also an implicit criticism of the way their leaders were elected.  This type of contact is likely to alienate the leaders.

From time to time, an elected representative seems to believe that they are better than their constituents, and that they know what is best for them better than they do.  In short, they are seen as arrogant.  They are also in great danger in being defeated at the next election.  To be sure, representatives should be better in some respects:  they should be able to represent the consituents better than they can do themselves.  They should also have the humility to rely on the views of their consituents.

It seems to be a general principle that when you examine any situation in detail, it becomes more complex.  In that environment, there are no simple solutions.  There are many different groups of people, many different objectives, and many different motivations.  One group of people cannot speak for everyone.  This principle comes into focus when a government is addressing themselves to people in another country, bypassing the leadership in that country.  They are usually dealing with a dissident group who are opposed to the government.  That might be an accident, but it’s usually the intention.

When should you bypass the leaders to deal directly with the people?  Perhaps it’s when the leaders are truely autocratic, not representing the people at all.  This situation may be revealed when they suppress the opposition or hold one-party elections.  It really requires a rigorous test, one that can withstand independant scrutiny.  After all, it’s easy to fabricate evidence.  In that case, look for an obvious ulterior motive such as access to oil reserves.  It’s complicated because some people or groups always believe that they are neglected by their leaders.  Beliefs like that certainly happen in Canada.  They do need to be considered.  Even just assessing the mood of the people can often be wrong.  Elections are the most reliable means of doing that.

When should you ban an opposition party?  Generally never I’d say, but sometimes this action is legitimate.  I’d restrict it to a fringe group that is employing violence to attain their goals.  A peaceful fringe group, no matter how vocal, will be defeated in the next election.

The best way to avoid all of these problem is to have a functioning democracy where the elected officials do represent the people.  Then just let it work.  As long as ordinary people participate, it will work.



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