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)

Monday, June 16, 2014

Democracy needs better not fewer ‘populist’ leaders (part 2)

Democrats didn’t enjoy being defined narrowly as "liberals" after Jimmy Carter’s presidency, and everywhere conservatives cringed at being called "conservatives" after the Great Depression. Now, fortunately, neither word is a conversation stopper. We accept that both approaches to government can help us deal with the future.

The word "populist" has been treated differently. It emerged during the Gilded Age more than a century ago to describe the anti-elitist sentiments of farm and labor movements and the platform of a truly intimidating election machine — the People’s Party. Its cause was naive: the people should have a decisive say in national affairs.

In the 1890s, people power was a tricky idea. On both sides of the border, conservatives disdained the masses and liberals feared them. They united to create legislative speed bumps such as un-elected and indirectly elected upper houses to keep popular passions at bay. For heaven’s sake, most people don’t understand commerce, dislike abstractions, and are too emotional to deliberate according to the evidence.

Conservatives and liberals today are content that universal suffrage, minority rights, a robust economy, and orderly representative government can exist together — under proper management. The credentialed and clever, after all, are still running things, including the language of our politics. People power erupts primarily in focus groups.

Yet the adjective "populist" is still flung by the "ins" at the "outs." It’s a one-word meme for meanness, envy, ignorance, and wishful thinking. There are "populist" platforms, "populist" gimmicks, "populist" foreign policies, "populist" flatterers, and "populist" haters.

"Populists" are accused of being too enthusiastic about the bad wars and isolationist about the good ones. They’re too easy on big government when it’s flush and too cynical when leadership is urgently needed. Critics worry that we’re too cynical and also suspect politicians who are successful at exciting people to vote.

 “Populism” is invoked when the right tries to be more appealing to the middle class and it strikes when the left tries as well.

Yet it’s actually not an ugly word. It’s threatening not because it offends our humanist values, but because it takes them all too seriously.

According to Webster, it’s about the “common people.” And according to Oxford, it’s about “ordinary people.” Both dictionaries agree, however, that a populist is a member of a “political party that claims to represent the people.”

The people, per se, don’t worry our elites terribly. They do delegate power when they vote, and accept that they can’t speak individually for the whole. It’s the politician in the centers of power who has the power to rally the people.

An A-list of persuasive leaders would include TR and FDR, Winston Churchill, Nelson Mandela, Lyndon Johnson, and Canada’s René Lévesque, WAC Bennett, Tommy Douglas, and Pierre Trudeau. I’d include all of them along with those noire pinups: Huey Long and Mike Harris. Barack Obama has a fading chance to make it if they’d actually take the initiative and win again at something big.

You don’t have to be a hater or philistine to disrupt the deadening status quo and earn first-class enemies. Each on my list could scare — and could thwart — special interests. They could demand more than entrenched professionals thought would be political or manageable. None rose by being team players on someone else’s team.

Popular leaders — who can turn to the people when they’re cornered — are rare. Yet big democracies like ours would stop evolving if we didn’t have a few of them in our capitals or making threatening moves in the hinterland.

The most dangerous problem in our modern governments is not too little data, too few analysts, or even bitter division. What stops difficult change is the absence of leaders who can rally the people when their peers are in their way.

Trudeau didn’t succeed in securing a Canadian constitution because his caucus was especially smart and loyal or because he was the best student of constitutional law around the First Ministers table. Johnson didn’t extend civil rights for Blacks by transforming Washington or by using executive orders. Douglas didn’t secure universal public health insurance in the '60s because right-wingers then were lousy fighters.

Democratic government, of course, is weak when privileged interests are too powerful. However, those interests are most powerful when elected officials are more comfortable with lobbyist and policy professionals than with the people they represent.

When governments — either democratic or authoritarian — are quiet, they aren't likely working at their best for us.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Democracy needs better not fewer ‘populists’ (part 1)

As democracy in Western Europe and North America ages before our eyes, the hunt for youth, élan, and forceful government grows. Other countries allegedly are doing the brave, optimistic things we used to do: reforming taxes, restructuring economies, and asking for sacrifice. And they are making spectacular progress without governments like ours.

Increasingly, analysts blame the model of democracy we try to practice. "Government of the people, by the people, for the people" sounds, to many, as dangerous and as quaint as the divine right of kings. Now "popular" democracy is being relabeled "populist" democracy, a political culture in which mostly shallow opinions hold sway.

In Canada, even liberal nationalists will say good government is preferred to the common man’s heady "pursuit of happiness." After all, "limited authoritarianism" sounds robust and more adult. It’s driving Asia’s progress, isn’t it? 

In his review of The Fourth Revolution: The Global Race to Reinvent the State by John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge, National Post columnist Jonathan Kay brutally described Ontario as a near perfect example of how our proud democratic machinery is paralyzed by an incumbent’s obsessive need for peace and popular acceptance. Innumerable fixes and blue-ribbon missions to find "evidence-based" consensus have replaced choosing one side or one answer over another.

Kay accepts that we wouldn’t tolerate the arbitrary and corrupt features of the “Asian alternative,” yet he concludes:

“But as the example of Ontario shows, we have gone too far in the other direction: Populist democracy and its attendant addled economic policies are destroying our ability to create the basic building blocks of a functional society. A generation ago, the choice between Ontario and China as a model for developing countries would have been an obvious one. In 2014, like the Ontario election itself, it looks more like a dead heat.”

Justin Trudeau couldn’t put it any better.

Okay, Ontario is poorly led. However, it is Ontario’s elites, not its "childish" masses that need a shaking.

The only time I worked full time for an insurgent democratic politician — a "prairie populist" — was in 1967. Alvin Hamilton was running for national leader of the Progressive Conservative Party. He had too many ideas, talked too long to delegates, disliked Toronto’s "blue machine" and was called a red Tory well before the label learned to nestle alongside an Order of Canada pin.

"Populists" were on the outs then. And, after a career on the inside, I can attest that they’re not on the inside now. Most important, there is no serious evidence, in polls or in election results, that voters in this relatively jumpy civilization are any harder to lead now than they ever were.

It’s not the hoi polloi that thinks strictly in four-year bites, polls constantly, is up in arms about paying for needed services, hates pipelines, airplanes, iPhones, air conditioning, and power steering — or has decided that the '50s were the best.

Even for a pessimist, it feels silly to worry that Ontarians today are too spoiled, too embittered, too fearful, or too touchy to be governed responsibly. And it is.

Ontarians are well known across Canada for wanting to leave things pretty much the way they are. But they’re not less accommodating today than they ever were. They fear change and they fear falling behind; they hope their leaders will strike the right balance.

The blame for the potentially fatal mediocrity of our decision-making rests in government, not in the governed.

And the failure to fix its machinery — an enfeebling maze of lucrative little deals, obsequious consultations, and retractable choices — calls for more persuasive democratic leaders: competent populists, neither well-traveled snobs nor compulsive listeners.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Climate change: On gas in politics

Great challenges eventually bring out the best and worst in the temperamentally extreme among us. Climate change is such a challenge. The well-intended aren’t winning, and their most passionate companions — Green partisans and climate change radicals — are getting in our way.

There’s an impulse, especially among reformers and within the entertainment industry, to assert that a transformative threat must be met by a transformation within the human community. Since humanity’s excesses caused the problem, we need to be better humans to solve it.

A more concrete way of saying the same thing is to assert that the capitalists and their shallow politicians are the villains.

Supposedly, since climate change is a dramatic threat, our leaders and their wordsmiths need to be better dramatists.

Sunday’s New York Times column “Memorial Day 2050” by Thomas Friedman provides a lofty example.

He starts off with the words of Gov. Jay Inslee of Washington State, words that, if nothing else, confirm that high rhetoric will not be retired along with the Obama presidency.

“We’re the first generation to feel the impact of climate change and the last generation that can do something about it."

Friedman then asks lamely “How do we motivate people to do something about it?” He quotes extensively Dutch philosopher Thomas Wells:

“'Even if we can’t know what future citizens will actually value and believe in, we can still consider their interests, on the reasonable assumption that they will somewhat resemble our own (everybody needs breathable air, for example),’ wrote Wells in Aeon Magazine. Since ‘our ethical values point one way, towards intergenerational responsibility, but our political system points another, towards the short-term horizon of the next election,’ we  ‘should consider introducing agents who can vote in a far-seeing and impartial way.’
“Wells suggests creating a public ‘trusteeship’ of nongovernmental civic and charitable foundations, environmental groups and nonpartisan think tanks ‘and give them each equal shares of a block of votes adding up to, say, 10 percent of the electorate,’ so they can represent issues like ‘de-carbonizing the economy’ and ‘guaranteeing pension entitlements” for the unborn generation that will be deeply impacted but has no vote."

Before you get defensive about surrendering another slice of your franchise to another blue-ribbon committee, Friedman assures us that the idea is “unrealistic.”

So, after giving up on rejigging the egalitarian rules of representative democracy, Friedman finally gets down to business.

The problem would be easier to address, he argues, if every time we heard the words “finite” or “sacrifice,” we thought of appealing words like “resilience” and “freedom.” Then it would not be impossible to sell an “urgent response” to the looming environmental catastrophe. For instance, Friedman proposes simply “replacing” income and corporate taxes with a carbon tax.

He defines the political problem as impossible — lack of popular demand of demanding actions — and then addresses his impossible problem with impossible answers.

Yet I’m still hopeful that we’ll survive this danger.

Friedman has misstated the question and arbitrarily placed extreme solutions up against an extraordinary danger. Neither democratic leaders nor autocrats must first inspire popular demand for radical change.

They needn’t wait for another gigantic, time-killing IPCC study with an executive summary as powerful as the Gettysburg Address. And they shouldn’t try to redesign the global capitalist economy or recruit the pope to inspire us to shop less in the West and want more in the East.

Saving our souls is far less urgent than shaming our leaders into doing what’s well within their means.

“Something” needn’t include the introduction of an immediate massive tax on carbon. A modest carbon tax that rises progressively, and more competition, not less, across all energy-producing and -consuming industries are doable. And, most important, they should drive the innovations that will solve the problem: our reliance on energy sources born of an earlier age of human innovation.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

The invention of differences in paradise

Forgetfulness about childbirth helps mothers continue to enjoy sex. And truly forgetting is liberating. On the other hand, forgetfulness about human history can lead to dead ends and trouble. Because Canada has only recently done something noteworthy on its own initiative, our forgetfulness tends to just support mediocrity and sentimentality. It’s not life-threatening. However, it does bother emigrants and irritable bloggers. 

Jeffrey Simpson is the most solid practitioner we have who writes with one foot on the data and the other on yesterday’s puffy white clouds. 

In his Globe column “A Party defined by its enemies, by choice,” Jeffrey Simpson reflected on the rupture of our political culture: from the clubby politics of our past to the divisive politics of Stephen Harper:

“This kind of political differentiation is new to Canada. Of course, there has always been political competition among parties. And of course, parties have heaped abuse on their adversaries, exaggerating their faults.

“In the past, this competition has tended to be between or among parties – a political game, if you like. But the Conservatives have now focused their sights on other institutions outside of politics to help with their strategy of differentiation.”               

If you’re going to be bitter about the present, first be bitter about the past.

Simpson ought to scan the archives of his own paper, even his own early stories, and shake himself free of the winsome spin of vanquished Liberals: the theme that public life was more gentlemanly, more responsible, when we were winning.

There were every bit as many injuries on the field when Liberals and other "nobodies" played the "political game."

Today’s Conservative PM attacks his partisan adversaries by: (1) complaining that Michael Ignatieff was working abroad for 30 years (2) attacking Stephen Dion’s written platform and his legal opinion that the Governor General, on his own council, could make him prime minister instead, and (3) marketing the notion that Justin Trudeau is shallow.

Yesterday’s Liberal PMs attacked their adversaries by: (1) claiming that they were soft on Quebec nationalists and servile toward the provinces generally, (2) dismissing New Democrats as extremists, (3) describing a Harvard economic gold-medalist Robert Stanfield’s anti-inflation suggestions as “Zap! You’re frozen,” and (4) in the '90s, dismissing Preston Manning and Stockwell Day as American right-wing puppets. They were incompetent if they couldn’t control their caucus, or bullies if they could.

(Dramatizing the awfulness of now, Liberal winners transform safely departed adversaries into public-spirited gentlemen, my first leader being designated harmlessly as “the best Prime Minister Canada never had.” Simpson sees them as “more pragmatic.”)

Simpson’s principal argument, however, is about scope: in the past, PMs were hard on other politicians, not other institutions. This is both arbitrary and, again, unfair. In fact, it implies that our politics today are more vicious and dangerous than before and that’s just crazy.

Harper’s Government has fought with public institutions — the PBO, the Chief Electoral Officer, crown agencies, regulators, political journalists, and, most famously, the Supreme Court and the Senate. Life within Harper’s Ottawa is quarrelsome and that ill-serves Harper with Canada’s peace-loving mainstream. However, is that inherently bad? Were yesterday’s political targets better able to protect themselves and less important to maintaining a tolerant democracy?

You can "savage" a young Canadian’s freedom and future prospects by throwing him in jail without a judge’s warrant, as Pierre Trudeau did in 1970. Yet are heads of public institutions, with fixed terms, public profiles, public mandates, and constitutional or Parliamentary protections, being "savaged" when Harper publicly questions their public positions?

Before political parties were subsidized — and, yes, when they were directly subsidized — monies, campaign workers, newspapers, leadership delegates, core voters, and swing voters were mobilized by fear of the other guy’s ideas and the promise of one’s own. We divided, often bitterly, on religion, the monarchy, republicanism, capitalism, socialism, the Vatican, the Cold War, US "imperialism," immigration welfare and work incentives, bilingualism, the official status of the French Language, capital gains taxes, and the character, health, and associations of our political enemies.

In Simpson’s alternative paradise, Liberals are "pragmatic" in office and their opponents are "pragmatic" once they retire. Ideology would have no place.

This is a fantasy and it's no fun. Popular democracy, most conspicuously in Quebec and the West, didn’t invent ruthless politics, divisive ideas, and ideologies. It simply let the people join in the fight.