All about politics

Charles Jeanes
By Charles Jeanes
April 30th, 2013

“Politics is the art of the possible. This doesn’t mean politicians are artists, just artful and artificial.”      —   C. Jeanes

This column will be all about politics, not about spiritual consciousness, religion, scientific materialism, nor any other of the abstract topics I have been troubling my readers about in more recent writing here. The reason is likely clear; BC is riding the election trail, and we have to turn our minds to choosing a government.

We have freedom to decide who will govern us. We can pick among the parties, their leaders, the published policies, and what they intend to do. The one closest to your notions of “what is best” is the one you choose.

I of course do not believe that the politicians are the individuals who truly rule, but a servant class to the real rulers who are also masters of the economy. Within that model of what government is and does, there are still many useful observations to make about politics in our social order and in our institutions of democratic input.

First off, remember the history of parliamentary democracy for English-speaking nations. Canada takes its pedigree from the United Kingdom. Note, “kingdom.” Kings set up parliament in the medieval era, and it means “talking.” (Old French, parlement, because the rulers of the Saxon English were Norman-French conquerors.)

Kings are not democrats; Canada had to work from that prejudiced origin of parliament to evolve a better way for “the People” to be Sovereign, and, with much guidance from revolutionary examples in the USA and republican France, Canadians did bring an end to Aristocracy and nobility (lords), Monarchy without popular controls (divine-right kings and queens), and a class system that ensured some people were born to rule other people.

Instead we have a system where social class is rooted in the economy, and those who own vast wealth (capital) and can employ thousands and tens of thousands of workers in their corporate enterprises, are the ruling class   — but are not privileged by “blue blood’” or family origin as in the UK until the late-20th century.

Canada is a meritocracy, in that individuals can be upwardly mobile by accumulating capital and join the ruling class, or be downwardly mobile by losing inherited wealth and descend into lower ranks. The most compelling fact about Canada’s politics is our historically-unprecedented middle-class-majority social order.

Most Canadians are middle class, and that is the basis of our institutions of law and order, government, and culture. There has been sufficient wealth generated by capitalism in new, colonial nations like us, and among Americans, Australians, New Zealanders, plus in old nations of West and North Europe, that a measurable amount of democratic control of government has evolved there.

A middle class can exercise meaningful political activity within our institutions.

“If voting could change anything, it would be illegal,” is a cynical slogan, and so is, “No matter who you vote for, the government always gets into power.”  The admittedly-limited differences between one party and another are, still, meaningful. Right-leaning and left- are partisan labels with significance in policy, effective on the ground.

The BC Liberals and NDP are substantively different, and it does matter which policies will rule in BC.

That having been said, it is necessary to ask, “Why are so many people disengaged from electoral politics? Why does voting exclude – by their own choice – 45 percent of eligible voters?” That stark fact seems to me to give the lie to any claim that our system is working well. I will advance an explanation for feeble voter participation.

The middle class is not one solid mass, and the institutions of government are not user-friendly for many of those who do belong in the bourgeois classes by their income levels, property ownership, education, culture and other measures of middle-class membership.

“The political class” and “the chattering classes” (and “news junkies” and “literati” and “cultural creatives” and “cognoscenti”) — all are words and phrases invented by media and academic writers to distinguish a section or fraction of the middle class who are interested in politics between elections.

The majority of Canadians who are eligible to vote are not politicized. They are no more interested in politics and politicians on a day to day basis than they are interested in the activity of successful authors or corporate executives. It is more likely that Canadian voters know the day-to-day activity of athletes and their teams, or of entertainment celebrities and their arts, than they do about government activity and the deeds of politicians.

Elections are the only time most voters pay attention. The polls then become an arena for a sport that is only interesting for a month’s campaign, and when the contest is over and the winner known, it disappears.

Is this a surprise? It ought not to be. The institutions of our parliamentary system are tailored to fit the interest, skill, and temperament, of only certain people. What kind? The same kind of individuals who were active in re-constructing the medieval parliamentary system of kings and aristocrats into the modern system of “popular” (people’s) sovereignty, during the 18th and 19th Centuries.

Who? The people whose employment leaves their hands clean and requires them to do significant reading in a week’s work, and who have learned better-than-average communication skills. I am one of them.

I am a teacher and journalist. Others are lawyers, bankers, professors, doctors, engineers, bureaucrats, and scientists. “My kind of people:” these are most often the soil from which politicians are harvested. We work well in the system, and we stay informed about it. And we are mind-oriented. Our left brain is overworked, our right brain less-used, when we think about politics. Politics can appeal to the heart or gut, but only in short spurts.

For sustained interest between elections, the kind of motivated attention that brings one to the media daily for political news, one must have the intellectual bias toward thought and analysis over feeling and empathy. I have it, and everyone I know who is of the political classes has this kind of mind. We like ideas, and argument about them. We like ideology because it can be grasped easily by our kind of mind, and we quickly know if someone’s ideology is harmonious or odious to ours. Our political system, after all, originated in the 18th-C “Age of Reason.”

To illustrate my thesis about the political classes, let us look at three representative politicians who have climbed to the peak of politics and become Prime Ministers: William Lyon Mackenzie King, Pierre Trudeau, and Margaret Thatcher. Each of them were politicians by deliberate design, each had definite ideologies. All three are vivid examples of what I mean when I say that our politics appeal to a certain section of middle-class interest – those I call political folk —  but politics can’t engage daily the truly ordinary, majoritarian, electors. These leaders’ politics were vastly unlike each other’s, but all were ideological (in a hard or soft manner), all had similar social appeal.

King, with a grandfather who was an Ontario revolutionary and one-time political exile accused of treason (W. L. Mackenzie), had the roots and education to be a liberal prime minister, the most successful in Canadian history. King was a “corporatist” by conviction; he believed capital and labour must be partners and would create a good life for Canadians if the communist ideology of class warfare could be defeated. He was an undemonstrative Christian and espoused the “social gospel,” but less ostentatiously than Tommy Douglas and the CCF.

In an unexpected twist, King also believed in an unseen world of immaterial beings, and he used mediums to commune with his deceased mother. He was a quiet mystic, on one occasion writing in his journal these words:   “… a New Dawn, a New Order [is] revealed to me.” (This conviction that he had a Destiny was matched by his contemporaries, e.g., Churchill, Hitler, Mussolini, and De Gaulle. It was in the zeitgeist of his era).

King exemplarizes my argument that our parliamentary politics keep the interest of only a fraction of the middle class, the politicized ones. Parliamentary institutions and early news media (print, radio) were the tool of his designs. King proved his soft ideology would cover all the correct bases. His articulation of social and industrial policy was attractive to and supported by the electors of an educated middle-class nation.  Wanting the security of class peace, the democracy of union membership, the idealism of Christian social gospel, and the prosperity of materialist economy, Canadians voted for him consistently. King was P.M. for 23 years.

We were not an aristocratic nor proletarian nation; bourgeois, propertied farmers were a potent force from 1919 to 1948. (No “peasantry” in Canada!) Their party was the Progressives, and King absorbed them masterfully into his Liberals. Canada’s political class, English and French, trusted King’s blandness; he had zero charisma.

Pierre Elliot Trudeau, another Liberal P.M. in the century when that party was the “natural governing party,” was  not at all like King. Trudeau had charisma in spades and the visual media loved him. Trudeaumania was bizarre in the context of King’s era, but zeitgeist changes. McLuhan diagnosed Trudeau’s appeal succinctly; he was “cool” – perfect in the cool medium of television.

As a youth Trudeau adopted the essentially narrow political views of the clerical elite of his province. At the LSE he learned socialism; Trudeau had basic harmony with Christian socialism (never Marxian) but he did so with his devout Catholic “personalist” perspective. This was a core of his soft ideology. He was, like King, not dogmatic.

Trudeau knew from a young age that he would be a statesman and aimed to be a leader of his people – this thesis is quite well-substantiated in the biography of his career by Nemni and Nemni. He never lost sight of that goal, but the path was slow and meticulously planned, so that he moved to federal politics only in 1965. Then he was quickly made a cabinet minister, and then party leader, and then elected prime minister in 1968, aged 49.

The Trudeauiste ideology was not hard to understand; Trudeau had been writing for decades. He made the “Just Society” his guiding star, and was quite willing to expand government and its costs enormously in its pursuit. His greatest feat was to repatriate the Canadian Constitution and entrench the Charter of Rights, a goal he had set even before entering the federal Liberal government. Like King, he quietly accomplished a lot of his agenda.

Again, this prime minister was a statesman of the political classes, or intelligentsia, or the politicized minority. He never won massive majorities; he had to rule in a coalition with the social-democratic NDP for two years. His foes were vitriolic in attack – Quebec sovereigntists, Alberta oil magnates, some farmers – but he understood politicized bourgeois Canadians and they elected him to rule for 16 years.

Margaret Thatcher truly led a revolution by legislation in the UK, carried by a hard ideology that she called her “politics of conviction.”  She was unlike King and Trudeau except in her mobilization of the UK’s political class (not the same as Canada’s, but similar). Her simple ideas were expressed more forcefully than King or Trudeau because Thatcher was less intellectual but more confrontational and combative in her attack on “the Left.” The New Right leapt onto the stage of rich-nation politics with Thatcher in 1979, after an hegemony of left-liberal attitudes in the 1960’s and ‘70’s. Reagan, Mulroney, Ralph Klein, Mike Harris, and Gordon Campbell inherited.

“There is no society, there are only individuals,” perfectly encapsulates Thatcher’s contempt for socialist-tinged thinking. Not one historical analysis of her political impact doubts that she altered the UK fundamentally.

After Thatcher, nothing in British society was quite the same, because she asserted a Britain of conservative values – patriotism/ imperialism, deference and respect for monarchy and traditional class, and disdain for trades-unionism and welfare-statism; Churchill, an old aristocrat, was her hero. Her electoral base was the politicized class. Herself a petit-bourgeois, a grocer’s daughter, her ideology stroked the middle classes’ triggers.

This is my explanation why politics is not for everyone, and sadly not for the majority of electors in the popular democracy of Canada and the UK. (France is different, or so I read, where the majority is politicized. Not here.)

If only our government and its players could energize Canadians on a weekly basis like hockey does. But sport is ephemeral, it cannot alter anything substantive in our lives, so the ruling class is happy to let voters distract themselves with what the Roman emperors called “bread and circuses for the mob.”

If ever Canadians began to treat politics and government with the weight they deserve, with as much thought as we allot to sport, then the real rulers of the nation who rule our economy would be anxious. But at present, the pathetic (and apathetic) voter turnout gives the masters of materiality no reason to worry. Only the minority fraction of the politicized bourgeoisie is keeping score.

Charles Jeanes is a Nelson-based writer.

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