Visiting political science professor Maxwell Cameron said he thinks the basis of constitutional government is legislative and judicial restraint of the executive branch, which holds the power to make “life-or-death judgments.”
Cameron, who is visiting from the University of British Columbia, shared his expertise on comparative politics and foreign policy with a dozen students and faculty at a Pierson College Master’s Tea yesterday. During the tea, Cameron discussed the arguments in his new book, “Democracy Without the Separation of Powers,” including the influence of mass literacy on the development of written constitutions and on the separation of powers in government.
“The left wing tends to see [executive] restraint as a limitation of progress, while conservatives insist that this correctly reduces power,” he said. “But both views are misconceptions because they fail to see that branches are not really pitted against each other, but are coordinated to balance each other’s power.”
Cameron said that although a written constitution can be interpreted in different ways, it allows for rule of law because it lays out concrete rules and ideas on which officials cannot renege.
“Constitutional governments generally have literate civil societies that interpret and discuss written text and therefore understand the need for separate branches of government,” he said.
He cited ancient Greece and the Renaissance as examples of historical periods when widespread literacy coincided with the flourishing of political theory. Cameron said he feels disturbed by attempts by public officials to abuse the versatility of the term “separation of powers” for their own interests.
“An instance where someone like Condoleezza Rice invokes the separation of powers as a reason to not testify before the legislature is an absolute distortion of any meaningful understanding of the separation of powers,” he said.
Commenting on the difference between the Canadian and U.S. governments, Cameron said parliamentary systems can be less democratic because the leader has less accountability to the people if he or she is not elected by the public. But it is dangerous when an elected official believes that he or she has a mandate from the entire citizenry because this attitude leads to attempts to overstep executive branch boundaries, he said.
Cameron said citizens in democracies should understand and uphold the separation of powers.
“It’s disappointing when the citizenry is not talking about politics or concerned about government,” he said. “This behavior lets the state do whatever it wants.”
While some audience members said they thought Cameron discussed democracy in a thorough and analytical way, others said they wished he had elaborated on specific governmental issues.
Canadian Students Association President Ricky Leiter ’06 said he found Cameron’s arguments interesting and compelling.
“I think he presented good ideas about the broad notion of separation of powers and how it relates to the United States and Canada,” he said. “It’s always exciting to hear a distinguished scholar from Canada speak here.”
Sean Campion ’06 said he wanted Cameron to speak more about separation of powers in the international arena.
“I wish he had talked more about the breakdown of the separation of powers that occurs with totalitarian regimes,” Campion said.
Rory Gillis ’06 said he also felt Cameron’s talk did not adequately address specific comparisons between the United States and Canada.
“I wanted this tea to bring in more analysis of the Canadian system,” Gillis said.
Cameron is teaching the international relations class “International Trade Negotiations: NAFTA and Beyond” this fall.