Seamanship Quotation

“In political activity, then, men sail a boundless and bottomless sea; there is neither harbour for shelter nor floor for anchorage, neither starting-place nor appointed destination.”
— from Michael Oakeshott's
Political Education” (1951)

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Canada’s polarized electorate?

(Note: This blog was finished about an hour before I learned of the awful murder of Corporal Nathan Cirillo at the National War Memorial. This act of violence deeply offends us, still hurts. I was tempted to trash this post. It’s about the prosaic politics of another peaceful Canadian election. However, my thoughts and feelings about yesterday’s events were well represented by the statements of all three of the leaders discussed below. We carry on, as we can in this country, because nothing good can be retrieved from this tragedy.)

Pundits and pollsters are working up a dour meme about the dynamics of Canada’s next federal election: Canadians are deeply polarized over Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Please. That’s far too bland a caricature even of Canada’s bland electorate.

Their case was confirmed recently by two national polls (by Abacus and Ekos) that point out that Harper is the country’s least popular national politician and the national leader least likely to be anybody’s second choice. (The stats: 8% for Conservatives, a whopping 28% for the NDP, and 18% for the Liberals.)

Other than Harper, the electorate isn’t very excited against much else. Half are happy enough with the direction of the country and the federal government’s management of the economy and participation in the Ukraine and ISIS drama. Nevertheless, if you think the people organize their thinking into airtight silos and preserve their decisions in iCloud, you’d expect that they’d stop at nothing to replace the miserable SOB.

There are big problems with their meme.

First off, it’s intolerably boring.

Sure, the meme on Harper has hardened slowly, as most things do in Canada. But it’s too lopsided to allow for any drama. Can we face being surrounded by friends, neighbors, and must-read analysts fulminating for another twelve months about an incremental, unexpressive old coin like Stephen Harper?

Second, Harper’s image problem may not be the visceral, overriding factor out there among swing voters that it is among those social animals scurrying under his shadow in Canada’s gossip capital. While accepting exhaustive reports that his management style is mean-spirited, partisan, and dictatorial, are those unlovable qualities that determinative among voters who have no direct knowledge or much concern for how he does his job?

Third, do we know that only his partisan base is square?

Do any of us feel again that awful '60s pressure to display to the world a little Camelot in Ottawa, alongside ferocious cosmopolitan separatists in Quebec — and a Democrat dynasty to the south?

Do the numbers above overwhelmingly favor an alternative winner on the high side of this bipolar electorate?

Justin Trudeau’s been in the public eye longer and more intensely than any other politician in Canada. Canada’s Queen Mother never had such a ride. Yet potential voters' preferred second choice is the New Democrats, with Thomas Mulcair. Before the divisive concreteness of platforms and election debates, Trudeau has already reduced any significant chance of mobilizing the center-left as Kathleen Wynne just did in Ontario.

Even with three distinct personalities secure on the stage, however, it’s entirely possible that the electorate could simply divide on the meme "It’s Time for a Change." That polarization, though, presumes that there’s nothing else looming out there to relieve the tedium of the status quo.

My preferences — democratizing the Senate and a divisive choice on our relationship with Americans — don’t seem to have any life or champion right now. But others are out there.

The falling off of commodity prices and Barack Obama’s continuing opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline, for instance, could very easily have a radicalizing impact on the imperatives of next year’s election.

When the whole West and its suppliers and bankers rediscover that resource returns aren’t always going to be sufficiently "excessive" to indulge endless "consultations," innumerable "partners," and politicians curtsying before "social license" taxes and snazzy ideas of a "creative" economic engine to replace what’s now propping up Ottawa’s largesse and the dollar, it’s likely that the slumbering "populist" spirit west of the Ottawa River will wake up and turn economic and national in a big way.

The West and squares everywhere will want to win again.


Monday, October 20, 2014

Toronto’s extremely small ‘p’ politics

We believe in strong government everywhere except in Toronto. We favor strong executives and strong political parties to keep Canada united, democratic, and effectively led. We’re proud of the historic capacity of Canadian reformers — when in office in provincial capitals and in Ottawa — to get what we want done.

We look down on Washington gridlock. But when we compare the City of Toronto to Chicago and New York, we concentrate on demographics and cuisine.

In Toronto politics, the frontrunners campaign on platforms and on resumes that highlight their personal enthusiasm for endless meetings with other politicians and lobbying other governments for money.

Can you imagine Michael Bloomberg or Rahm Emanuel running for mayor of Toronto? Why not?

It’s bigger than Chicago and is growing faster than New York, and still maintains a handy northern European respect for those in authority.

(Of course, the gentleman’s school of old Ontario believes that Toronto’s big enough to be taken seriously in New York and Los Angeles but worries that it may be too divided to be one city. John Barber of the Toronto Star argues that Ford Nation is real and so alien that it must be excised from the body politic of Toronto’s delicate downtown. Surely, the city’s intelligentsia can do politics with commuters in Scarborough and single parents in Etobicoke. After all, they’re qualified to guide Canada and advise Iraq on federalism.)

Toronto is also a mecca for pragmatic, talented, and tolerant individuals. In every sphere, including national and provincial politics, they favor strong leaders over weak ones.

Nevertheless, Torontonians who excel at exercising power give generously to Toronto charities but leave its politics to "lifers."

The key problem is hardly the savagery of its unions, community groups, public intellectuals, and journalists, and the solution is not teaching Torontonians to be even nicer.

Power itself is what’s missing.

The prospect of wielding real power is what attracts individuals who are best at wielding it. And the prospect of electing individuals to powerful jobs invites voters to think carefully and then turn out to vote.

Happily, improving the odds of electing exceptional mayors, at least for exceptional times, doesn’t demand that we find a charismatic import or accept less accountability as citizens.

The first big step is changing a few of the 459 provisions of Ontario’s City of Toronto Act, 2006.

That statute created the terms and conditions of what political scientists and policy wonks call a "weak mayor system." Appropriately, the Globe and Mail invoked its feature in endorsing John Tory for mayor:

“Remember, Toronto has what is known as a weak mayor system. The mayor is not a prime minister. Not even close. A Toronto mayor is but one vote among 45 on council. He may have allies, but he doesn’t lead a party. He isn’t backed by a slate of councillors who ran on a common platform…. The mayor has to negotiate his way to better policies, better choices and better government. He has to be a networker-in-chief….”

Networkers will help you get out of a ditch. And they thrive in great cities. But networkers can’t crack their dire political challenges. They have democratic personalities and never go on binges. However, exceptional leaders won’t seek an executive office with terms of reference that give them limited carrots and no sticks.

Surely, there must be a better way for Torontonians to avoid being harmed by lousy mayors than by trivializing the job.

The Rob Ford Embarrassment doesn’t argue for keeping the status quo but for replacing it with a strong mayor system: a system in which credible candidates would be recruited, tested, nominated, and backed by registered political parties. If those parties didn’t take their responsibilities seriously, they’d pay. Those parties, as well as family reputations, would suffer for the failures of their mayoral and their council candidates to deliver.

Few Torontonians ever say they like partisan politics. But they show up in highly partisan provincial and federal elections. In far greater numbers, though, they leave it to their neighbors to vote for innocuous names and innocuous incumbents on city ballots.


Toronto isn’t an island; its mayor must have influence in Queens Park and Ottawa. That influence, however, will only be strong enough to secure significant wins for Toronto if the mayor of Toronto has won more votes in Toronto than the busy Premier of Ontario and the ever-embattled Prime Minister of Canada.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Adapt to change? That’s what we do in the Middle East.

The elites we reward when we vote can handle hooded reactionaries in Eastern Europe and hooded reactionaries in the Middle East. It’s change at home that befuddles them.

Incumbent governments and their leaders in Canada, US, and Europe confidently seek re-election as steady international problem-solvers. They scorn isolationists and nationalist romantics, and promise to continue killing violent radicals.

It’s the height of sophistication to spell, pronounce, and accurately categorize the latest bad-boy sects abroad. At home, they use stale generalizations and stale labels to put down resistance that even breathes in the polls.

Insiders mortgage their lives to stay on top and tell us not to fear change. They ask us to trust them and, also, to run away from political "paranoids."

Our overstaffed governors know more about our pressure points, our private lives, and our political biases — literally, how to handle us — than any governing elite in history. 

And the gathering wave of political frontrunners stands for continuity. Justin Trudeau, Hillary Clinton, Thomas Mulcair, and Ed Miliband are born political animals. When they get emotional, it’s about the past.

If the West’s strategic advantage were strictly conservative, we’d be blessed.

Being decisive overseas, unfortunately, is making it less necessary for our leaders to lead change at home — where our true advantage lies.

Today’s nihilists and corrupt authoritarians are child’s play compared to the enemies Western leaders faced only two generations ago. That, alone, is hardly a bad thing. Making headline news by managing manageable problems elsewhere, however, has become addictive. And the skills necessary to address novel challenges here are not being effectively exercised.

Decision-makers and agenda-setters can’t get exercised about everything of consequence — at the same time. They learn from their successes, less from failures, and almost nothing from what they leave for their successors.

They make trade-offs and nudge us to as well. The people don’t want to elect a Jimmy Carter and a Ronald Reagan for the same term.

When history sums things up, there’s a decent chance Obama is going to score as the most transformative foreign policy President since Richard Nixon. America’s postwar baby — global capitalism — is growing despite a severe global recession. American foreign policy is becoming less burdensome, less beholden to old sentiments and arrangements in Europe and the Middle East, and US public opinion has moved along with him.

Domestically, however, there’s a decent chance he’ll be seen as another coy conservative who employed his eloquence and personal popularity to make it politically respectable to let significant problems fester. In his second term, “not doing stupid stuff” domestically has come to mean: don’t overreach, always appeal to tested homilies, and never fail conspicuously.

Tethering significant domestic responsibilities to entrenched clich├ęs may save a handful of unproductive Democrats in Congress. But that won’t change Congress.

Doing some good is not always better than trying to do too much.

Climate change is a classic example.

Rather than repeating what every reasonable person already knows and passing executive orders that can be scrapped by the next President unilaterally, Obama could put forward a concrete legislative plan, including an unlovable carbon tax. He has the voice, if not to win immediately in Congress, at least to bind one national political party to a concrete, comprehensive response.

Obama’s healthcare accomplishment was built on the shoulders of numerous failures. So was Roosevelt’s New Deal. A viable response to climate change probably needs at least one President who can loose big as well as give strong speeches.  

One of the essential reasons the West has been more adaptive than its ideological adversaries has been the relative freedom of its leaders to overreach, to ask a little too much of the people and powerful interests — and lose.


Happily, our vanquished leaders don’t need private armies, Swiss bank accounts, or safe houses overseas. They can fail.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Scotland’s referendum: Yes equals faith in politics, No means faith in management

Scotland’s referendum, whatever its outcome, won’t tell us much about Scotland’s future. A little more independence won’t much matter. The forces beating down on northern Europe won’t abate. The outcome, however, will reward business as usual or test the proposition that we can still innovate politically without blowing things up.

Personally, I’m a republican federalist who believes my piece of North America could be more influential and interesting within a wider American federation, but I don’t feel trapped to cheer for the No side tomorrow.

Federalism is the mechanism that allowed for the emergence of America as a great power. Europe warned it couldn’t work but; then, along with American postwar relief, they progressively adopted federalism to restore general prosperity and peace. Federalism allows for powerful government, while leaving us less fearful of one another and the world outside.

Yet, the No voices in the Scottish referendum debate decided to dwell on a nostalgic, extreme vision of national independence. This is a litmus test they imposed on Scottish voters but not on themselves.

Two Canadians famous in London — historian Margaret MacMillan and central banker Mark Carney — have vividly made their case: Scotland cannot be “sovereign” and use the pound as Scotland’s currency. And England and the rest of the EU countries will be too annoyed and nervous to let Scotland into either NATO or the European Common Market.

In effect, the Scots will pay terribly for humiliating Labour and Tory politicians in Westminster. Scotland can’t become another successful interdependent 21st-century nation-state because that would set a dangerous precedent.

In rejecting the leap of faith of the Scottish independence movement, MacMillan and Carney ask us to make a different leap of faith, not about what we cannot know, but against what we do.

In fact, today, the Bank of England has only a modest degree of independence to support an independent UK economic policy. Neither Scotland alone nor the UK whole can defend themselves, cope with the next big recession, fight terrorists, or save the planet. In the event of a Yes vote tomorrow, the Bank and the British Government, before dawn on Friday, will be phoning all over London, Berlin, Brussels, and Washington assuring investors and allies that British commonsense and pragmatism with keep both the pound, London’s market, and everyone’s assets in Scotland afloat.

MacMillan’s mastery of the motives of the men and women that made European history seems to have been set aside or stopped with the launch of the European Union and the Eurozone. She understands why they came together, not how their federation will progress.

The No side's campaign has chosen to appeal to fear but little is said about what it fears. My hunch is, they are afraid to ever go back to first principles. They fear that if they had to make real changes, everything would unravel. 

Westminster surely can acknowledge, after two centuries of disdain, that numerous genuine federal arrangements, including forms of sovereignty-association, are working on both sides of the Atlantic.


Federalism and our mixed economies were never designed merely to manage the status quo. They beat authoritarian systems not because they run smoothly but because they’re built to cope with change constructively. That will atrophy if we keep rewarding politicians, public servants, and intellectuals who can’t say Yes.