Back to top

Column: PART TWO -- Politics: a meditation

The West, the Rest, the Best?

Other cultural paths have their democratic elements no doubt, but it is the West that has come to lay the foundation of a global economy, and of a global order in the UN and World Court. This world is a community where the lingering effects of the great age of Euro-American imperial, colonial, capitalist domination are still potent.

One must also take serious note of the push-back from non-Western traditions which defy any claim that the West has political and socio-economic models for all nations, that the West somehow has universally-valid principles of government. Xi Jinpeng of China, the Saudi king, the Iranian supreme ayatollah, and the military junta ruling Myanmar, among others, all reject our democratic norms. For these potentates, our way isn’t a norm for humanity; it’s simply our way.

This very condensed version of the history of our democracy is only meant to bring us back to my hypothesis about politicians and the demos : why are politics in the democratic states of the world so uninspired, ineffective, and – in my opinion – in danger of losing the allegiance of the governed and the respect government needs?

The Character Issue

If one were to ask why politics is not respected by citizens in nations like Canada, it is likely one would hear a great deal about the character, or lack thereof, of present politicians. Politicians are held in low regard. Their willingness to be genuine is rated low, their honesty suspected, their consistency for matching word to action not believed: in short, citizens and voters assert that if the character and quality of politicians were elevated, or deepened, or reinvigorated, then we might rethink our low opinion of politics. But we will not invest our passions or energies in politics until we see an end of base traits like self-interest, cynicism, greed, and egotistical ambitions. It is not our fault politicians are so dismal... is it? What is the basic responsibility of the electorate for the low quality of the people who hold office?

One begins by asking if voters in democracies are nurtured, acculturated, educated and “engineered” for their civic duties.

Keeping informed about politics would seem to be more effortless than ever in this age of 24/7 news cycles and infinite access to media reporting on government activity. Yet there is scant evidence that the opportunity for better-informed and more-engaged citizenship has produced high rates of participation by constituents who truly understand, and are educated about, issues touching on their democratic government. Voter participation, in my opinion, ought never be less than 80%, yet such a high rate is not the norm.  Only in crucial referendums does the voter turnout astound one by its size: witness the participation in Quebec’s poll on sovereignty in 1995; the Scots turned out in fine numbers for their ballot for parliamentary autonomy (“devolution”) also.

I hypothesize an intimate connection between the quality of our elected “public servants” in political office and the quality of their constituents’ characters and consciousness -- or what I might, in the terms of the Tao Te Ching, call the habits of “the people.” The Tao posits that the wise few who want to guide the people – not the lords and princes, but the sages – rule by being virtually invisible. The People never know that a leader makes things happen, but believe good things “happen of themselves, by our own acts.”  The wise, benevolent soul leads without acting. The people should have full bellies and empty minds, and “clever” ones who want to innovate and break tradition and dominate should be rendered powerless – so says this ancient classic of Chinese political principles and mystic spiritual guidance.

I would reverse the idea that the sage inspirits the people to live in harmony with Tao, and postulate that the people are the root influence determining the kind of politicians/ gentlemen who govern over, legislate for, and lead them. Base politicians with weak character, small merit, little ability,  inadequate education, feeble cultural assets, exercising authority over us in a democracy, are ultimately defective because they reflect us. We lack what we want them to model. They are not better than we.

We have yet to be worthy of better democracy, we have yet to create the nurture and culture of a people and a society who truly govern themselves individually and collectively. The true origin of good government surely is within the individual citizen, the person, consciousness, spirit, and will.

Who wants to be a politician?

Fortunately, Canada is not ruled by a pack of incompetent villains, manifestly grabbing power for the sake of their ego or greed. We are not terribly ill-served by the people we choose because, as I see it, Canadians are reasonably intelligent at discerning the worst among those who seek elected office. Good people, not merely ambitious incompetents, want to serve as politicians.

There is one factor in play in Western democracies that has proven so far to have quite positive effects, unforeseen perhaps but most certainly intended by government policies and reforms. I refer to women’s emancipation. One half of humanity for all of recorded history had been unjustifiably disempowered by patriarchal culture. Women were wasted, their talent untapped, stifled by cultural blindness and antipathy to the female, not to say misogyny, for millennia.

Politics in democracies are at last liberating women. Some women who have risen in the West, such as Merkel, Ardern, E. May, Bruntland, M. Robinson, or R. B. Ginsberg, are evidence that so far we are fortunate to be at last accessing the political genius of the female. I would be dishonest if I said I believe the quality of female politicians will sustain such high levels as we tap more and more women to serve in politics. I expect there are as many mediocre female politicians as male, but to this point, I see fewer...

I have been pleasantly surprised by the high quality of people like Jagmeet Singh, Chrystia Freeland, and Patty Hajdu, in the Canadian pandemic, for their clear compassion and the intelligence they appear to be applying to the health issue and its ensuing economic and social crises. I groan when a Horgan, a Higgs, or a Moe abuse their polling popularity during the unusual situation to call snap provincial elections, but I do not succumb to any broader cynicism.

Trudeau is a better character to have as our P.M. now than Harper would have been, I feel quite sure. Spending generously would not have been Harper’s instinct; from all I see, the crisis in our personal finances necessitates Trudeau’s policies. Another poor example of a leader, again in my opinion, is Jason Kenney, premier of Alberta; he is not what Albertans need, but he likely does reflect their public mind.

Cognitive Decline?

It's coming to America first,
the cradle of the best and of the worst.
It's here they got the range
and the machinery for change
and it's here they got the spiritual thirst.  --
Leonard Cohen, Democracy is Coming

Yes, always there will be some people who deceive us, who get elected with motives more selfish than altruistic; we must expect that in our present social order in a market capitalist economy and individualist ethical landscape. But we have institutions that can detect and correct abuses if we will do the work to operate them, in legal or political or educational paths of reform. We the people can make a difference; we have some basic merits for the work, and we can find the will to do it.

Our neighbour to the south is the negative example of a people sadly degenerated from the standards of political and civic behaviours they once knew and that democracy demands. Canadian political culture, as with western and northern European culture, is still a firm enough foundation to keep us from the muck and mire Americans now suffer. The Atlantic magazine recently published a long piece about the USA, calling Americans’ present desperate politics a sign of“national cognitive decline.”

I understand the significance of that phrase. The US has deteriorated culturally so that the public mind is incapable of higher standards of political conduct. It isn’t irreversible, but it is definitely not to be cured by one election and one change of president. The Americans are getting the president they deserved.

The “leader of the free world,” as CBC calls the US president, has “his finger on the button” of nuclear war, and  the day I wrote this I learned he had contracted Covid 19. Democracy is at a very strange crossroads indeed. So much can be altered in a few months. I am reminded by this that a leader and the times in which the leader holds power are also of paramount importance. A gifted person born to the wrong circumstances will not have the opportunity to display their political gifts, and a leader with cognitive disabilities can be the reason politics falls into decline. But, as I have said before in this column, I consider the president a symptom of America’s diseased body politic, not the cause. He is an effect; the culture is the origin.

But let me not leave readers with the conclusion that I am anti-American in my prejudices. I take refuge in Leonard Cohen’s lyric

I'm sentimental, if you know what I mean
I love the country but I can't stand the scene.
And I'm neither left or right
I'm just staying home tonight,
getting lost in that hopeless little screen
.

End of  Part Two