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.