What is the Threshold for A Mandate and Democratic Legitimacy?

By Joey Coleman // @JoeyColeman
Published: Feb 21 2017 (3 months ago) // Last Updated: Feb 21 2017 (3 months ago)

It is one of the great debates raging in Western democracies right now: What is the threshold for a mandate & legitimacy in a democracy?

It seems almost every major debate in our democracy is divided along those who accept the outcome because its what they wanted, and those who reject it because their position loss. Brexit, Trump, LRT, Bike Lanes, Buses, Roads, Rob Ford, and more.

At a deeper level, the statements "not my Councillor", "not my Mayor", "old people will not have to live with Brexit" are a symptom of the cancer ravaging our democracies - the polarization of the public against dialogue and compromise in the interest of the greater good, in favour of boutique politics and wedge issues designed to achieve minimal minority victories that gain majority control.

Take, for example, Federal electoral reform: Does a majority government in Parliament have a majority mandate when receiving only a high 30 to low 40s percentage of the overall popular vote? Or do we need to replace first-past-the-post with a proportional or mixed-proportional system? One of the most powerful arguments against is that it will encourage polarized extreme parties to control the government by coalition.

Does the Ontario Liberal government continue to have a democratic mandate to lead in light of their low popularity ratings in polls?

Does consulting people at Westcliffe Mall, and being told bike lanes are bad, give Ward 8 City Councillor Terry Whitehead a mandate to make repeated arguments against the Herkimer / Charlton Bike Lanes?

Like all other forms of public deliberative process, it does IF dialogues entered into with the goal of finding common cause, are evidence-based, and not poisoned by polarized misleading information.

Which brings me to the kernel that started this blog post - a tweet tonight by Councillor Whitehead declaring, of the Ward 2 participatory budgeting process "Participatory less than 1% of residents, not representative".

Does participatory budgeting in Ward 2 lack democratic legitimacy due to its level of participation? In my view, no because the process was designed to be inclusive of various viewpoints, the results with driven by dialogue and evidence, and the results reflect a spirit of compromise in favour of common goals. We should, definitely, set minimum thresholds for legitimacy. As an example, to pass a motion at Council, there's a requirement of quorum.

An outcome Whitehead does not like, this being a bike lane that causes traffic calming in a residential area, is not illegitimate because he does not like the outcome.

This is a mistake too many of us make.

We can argue that poor information is undermining our democracy, and this needs to be addressed. First, we need to accept the legitimacy of outcomes, even when we don't like them, and then set ourselves to healing the underlying issues in our democracy.

If Whitehead wants others to accept that his Westcliffe Mall sessions are legitimate democratic mandates for his positions at Council then Whitehead must accept the outcomes of participatory budgeting in Ward 2.

Ultimately, elected officials are given a mandate to serve in a public office by the ballot box. Their legitimacy in office is determine by their conduct, consideration of matters, and a willingness to constructively compromise in favour of the common good.

For the rest of us, it is our duty to our fellow citizens to work to enable elected officials to work in the common good by avoiding a climate of polarization.

Democracy is hard, it's made even harder by the very human element that gives it strength. Let's make it stronger by building the commons bonds made possible by compromise and dialogue.


Photo at top: "Replica of the statue "Goddess of Democracy" from the Tiananmen square protests in 1989. Photo taken in Victoria Park, Hong Kong, during the commemoration event for the 21st anniversary of the massacre" by MarsmanRom & Isa Ng, Public Domain, Link

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