Who Plays on a Level Field?

Any regulation of the democratic process reflects a certain normative view of an idealized democracy. For example the decision of the Supreme Court of the United States in Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission, 558 U.S. 50 (2010), to allow corporate and union spending on electoral campaigns reflects a (stated) view that democracy functions best when the quantity of political speech speech is maximized, and is impaired if any category of speakers is silenced. Canadian electoral legislation and the leading cases in this area decided by the Supreme Court of Canada, Libman v. Québec (A.G.), [1997] 3 S.C.R. 569, and Harper v. Canada (A.G.), 2004 SCC 33, [2004] 1 S.C.R. 827, reflect a different normative view, which Colin Feasby, the most prolific writer on the law of democracy in Canada, has called an “egalitarian model” of elections. But such ideals leave much unsaid. The Supreme Court of the United States says that it maximizes freedom and the amount of information available to voters, but pays little attention, for example, to the likely detrimental effects the need to raise funds for an unlimited-expenses campaign has on the performance of elected officials (and candidates for office).

What does the Canadian “egalitarian model” leave unsaid? A metaphor that the Supreme Court uses in Harper, that of “a level playing field for those who wish to engage in the electoral discourse” (par. 62) is helpful to try to understand. The Supreme Court probably invoked it for no reason beyond its feel-good appeal to our sense of fair play (though the appeal is lost on some, including the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, John Roberts, who, in Arizona Free Enterprise Club v. Bennett, (2011) 131 S. Ct. 2806, at 2826, Chief Justice Roberts has observed that although “‘[l]eveling the playing field’ can sound like a good thing … in a democracy, campaigning for office is not a game.” But I would like to extend the metaphor a little, and explore the implications of describing electoral debate as a football game (or a chivalry tournament – or, perhaps less romantically, a duel – for those who read the French version of the judgment, which speaks of debate “à armes égales”; the imagery is somewhat different, but still amenable to the interpretation I am about to suggest) because it reveals more than the Court probably intended about the roles of those involved in the political process under the egalitarian model.

If the electoral process as envisioned by the Supreme Court is a football game played on an “even playing field,” political parties are of course the teams playing on that field. According to the adherents of the egalitarian conception of democracy, they are the primary competitors for the prize of political power. Political parties are like professional sports teams, with coaching and scouting staff of consultants and opposition researchers, their farm clubs of youth organizations, their practice rosters of backbenchers and, of course, their fans among the voters. These fans, along with less interested spectators, are seating in the stands around the playing field. A few of them might unfurl some home-made banners to make their opinion of the proceedings or the competitors known, but for the most part they will, at most, cheer their favourites and boo the opponents. There are even cheerleaders around the field, although they wear suits, as befits members of editorial boards. Neither players nor spectators, they try to stir up the enthusiasm of the latter for the former.

This extended metaphor highlights some salient features of the egalitarian model of elections implemented by Parliament in the Canada Elections Act, and endorsed by the Supreme Court, such as the special status of the media and, most importantly, the central role of political parties in electoral discourse and the relative passivity of the voters. The metaphor only breaks down on Election Day, when the voters are at last allowed to leave the stands, and to choose the winner of the game they have (or have not) been watching.

I think this is a rather less rosy picture than that which the Supreme Court would like us to see. Metaphors, even old and stale ones, are dangerous that way.

Author: Leonid Sirota

Law nerd. I teach public law at the University of Reading, in the United Kingdom. I studied law at McGill, clerked at the Federal Court of Canada, and did graduate work at the NYU School of Law. I then taught in New Zealand before taking up my current position at Reading.

6 thoughts on “Who Plays on a Level Field?”

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