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)

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Small politics doesn’t always lead to big politics


Naomi Klein is famous for tweaking clich├ęs. Here’s a classic: “Politics hates a vacuum. If it isn’t filled with hope, someone will fill it with fear.” Yet, today almost nothing about that concoction is true.

First of all, there is no vacuum. In Klein’s world—cosmopolitan North America—the exercise, pursuit, and glamorization of political power is unrelenting. The beast’s brain may be dead, but its body is whole and its appetite is strong. This isn’t Syria or rural China.

For this summer, let’s settle for this: Our politics are small. Little things are getting done and little things grab our attention. Without offshore events and whistle-blowers, nothing significant would be holding our attention.

Secondly, Klein’s twist at the end of her assertion is ridiculously romantic. Small politics aren’t being threatened by hope or fear-mongers. Cautious incumbents aren’t being challenged by bold opponents. Cautious government is being worn down by calculators. Evasive explanations today are matched by coy alternatives.

(Senator Rand Paul is the only high-ranking Washington politician with presidential ambitions to object in principle to NSA’s extravagant surveillance program. In Ottawa, Stephen Harper is being rebuked for his Senate appointments by an opposition with no stomach to elect them.)

It’s conceivable that our incumbents—with all their stature and resources—will try something big once again. But their opponents, meanwhile, certainly don’t seem to be inclined to get there first.

In the US, conservatives continue to hope that the courts will stop universal health insurance. They show no interest in proposing a new federalist model in which strong states—like Canadian provinces—could finance and operate adequate universal services. Instead, they see strong domestic government as the enemy, at every level.

In Canada, climate change escalates as a popular concern as recession fears decline. The term “carbon tax” was coined about 25 years ago to describe the best tool available immediately to address the problem. Unfortunately, the term “carbon tax” states too clearly that voters will have to pay something for solving the problem. Consequently, Canada has an opposition that rebukes “deniers” in the Harper Government while it denies any interest in the one policy instrument both economic and environmental experts agree might make a constructive difference.

But let’s close on a positive thought: North Americans loathe failure. We make changes when small politics stop working.

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