Democracy Cookbook: Can Newfoundlanders and Labradorians govern themselves?
In the concluding remarks to a recent collection of case studies about public policy and politics in 21st-century Newfoundland and Labrador, Alex Marland broaches the million-dollar question of the province’s political history: “What can be done to limit … Newfoundlanders’ tacit acceptance of an imperfect democratic system?”
I would like to venture that this is largely a question of political culture.
For the sake of argument, let’s follow theorist Lauren Berlant here and call it “national character.”
National character is not simply a shared history or political allegiance, but is rather what structures our collective forms of social life, what attaches us to them and what makes them meaningful.
Understanding and addressing Newfoundland’s national character is central to any genuine effort towards democratic reform. We need to take it seriously as a structuring force in provincial politics.
We do not have time to go into it in any depth here, but any serious survey of Newfoundland’s political history will establish that its national character is profoundly melancholic.
Melancholia is the maladaptive cousin of mourning, characterized by despondency and exaggerated self-depreciation, punctuated by bouts of mania. It is generally best described as “pathological selfabsorption.”
Mourning and loss figure heavily in Newfoundlanders’ cultural memory; philosopher F.L. Jackson has argued that Newfoundland’s history, as popularly understood, represents a kind of post-traumatic stress disorder. This is also, perhaps especially, true in the last century of politics — the “lost generation” at Beaumont Hamel; the loss of selfgovernment in 1934; the loss of independence in 1949; the loss of our traditional way of life through resettlement and the cod moratorium; and even now, the loss of our short-lived prosperity.
Politically, our national character is melancholic precisely insofar as it has never appropriately reconciled itself to these losses and indeed remains haunted by Baron Amulree’s basic diagnosis of our condition: that Newfoundlanders are ultimately, perhaps inherently, incapable of self-government.
As R.M. Kennedy has written, Newfoundlanders are traumatized and taunted “by the shame and humiliation … (of) the legacy of our inability to fulfill the modern dream of political autonomy.”
This is the horizon of the problem(s) in our political culture. There is no immediate way to resolve this complex in its entirety without sustained reflection, analysis and a genuine collective desire to change.
Ironically, it is mostly Newfoundland nationalists who have been keeping this psychic wound open from the 1970s onward; as Ed Hollett has observed, “Newfoundlanders do not even know themselves. They must struggle daily with the gaps between their own history and the history as other Newfoundlanders tell it to them, wrongly, repeatedly.”
There are, however, institutional changes the government can make to start breaking the chains of our national character. After all, character is largely the accumulation of habit — actions and responses to stimuli repeated over enough time that they crystallize into regular patterns of behaviour, feeling and thinking.
Small interventions into political behaviour will go some way into dislodging bad democratic habits and encouraging new ones. Newfoundlanders must be reminded that they have always been able to govern themselves if provided with the tools and opportunities for doing so.
Parliamentary committees are one such simple (but effective) mechanism for empowering citizens as democratic actors. Committee hearings are spaces where citizens — experts, stakeholders and lay people — are able to come before their elected officials and provide direct testimony and insight into a legislative concern, on the record.
Establishing smaller committees also has the upshot of cutting down on the childish political theatrics of the Committee of the Whole that tend to alienate people from following or participating in provincial politics.
The House of Assembly is so small that putting parliamentarians in direct official contact with citizens will both generate better legislation as well as bring the daily grind of democratic governance down to earth for the average person.
The problems with the province’s political culture that I have sketched here appear daunting in their scope and seeming abstraction.
Culture — the realm of emotion, meaning, memory, affect, habit — is by its very nature suprarational, which makes directed, rational and/or institutional intervention difficult.
It is not a question of righting historical wrongs or dispelling false memories of Newfoundland’s victimhood.
Democratic reform should instead focus on building more robust civic and cultural institutions that have no room for the ghosts of Newfoundland and Labrador’s failed national project.
Democracy is a way of life that must be practised, and there are many basic practices that the provincial state can encourage and foster to help Newfoundlanders and Labradorians live more like citizens and less like subjects.
It is my hope that by providing and producing new modes of democratic political action, this contribution will in turn generate new modes of democratic thoughts and feelings and, ultimately, a healthier, more democratic national character.