Sunday, November 06, 2011

The Problem of Political Courage

Chantal Hebert argues in today's Toronto Star that the repatriation of the Constitution in 1981 unleashed a tide of populism which has paralyzed Canada's parliamentary institutions:

In the three decades since the patriation conference, the parties and the politicians who have espoused the new culture of populism have thrived; those who clung to the old ways have wilted. Canada’s traditional parties were in the latter category. So were the country’s parliamentary institutions.

Perhaps. But it's also quite possible that the problem lies not in the institutions so much as in the leaders who followed patriation. Much more saliently, Hebert writes:

Over the past 30 years, political courage has become a rarer commodity in Canada. As in the case of other more tangible commodities, the rule that if you don’t use it you lose it applies to this near-extinct virtue.

She claims that the two phenomena are linked: the rise of populism has led to a decline in political courage. Our leaders have, indeed, lacked political courage. But I'm not convinced that populism is to blame. To begin with, the so called populist revolt has given us Stephen Harper, one of the most dictatorial prime ministers in this nation's history. One would think that populism would serve as a check on the prime minister's power.

Secondly, Hebert takes no notice of the corporatist forces which have grabbed the reins of power in almost every Western democracy. The corporatist agenda has led to our present crisis. Populism is not the cause of our problems. The concentration of wealth and power got us into this mess.

The Occupy Wall Street protests are part of an almost universal populist movement. Rather than causing our problems, populism may be what gets us out of this mess -- provided our political leaders can rediscover the true meaning of courage.


Skinny Dipper said...

I will agree that populism in itself is not the problem. Populism can exist in different political stripes. Harper has been successful in using the language of populism in order to solidify his dictatorial control.

Owen Gray said...

That's true. Using the Republican model, he has used the language of populism to -- ironically -- support the elites.

His recent attack on unions proves he is no populist.

Anonymous said...

To be truly populist (if populism means fighting for the interests of the populace) would require a great deal of political courage.

Politicians and pundits on the right will often complain (erroneously or disingenuously) about "punishing success". Perhaps political courage is punished more often than "success". Though in this case, the electorate might be partially to blame.

Political courage does not survive in a context in which it is not rewarded.

An electoral system that grants 100% of the power to a man who leads a party that has just over 50% of the seats in the House of Commons after achieving under 40% of the popular vote in the previous election is not a system likely to reward political courage. Every person and every vote needs to count equally for that to happen.

Hebert refers to "a political class trapped in a self-imposed straitjacket of populism, hamstrung by unresponsive and outdated democratic institutions".

I think she's right about the outdated democratic institutions (though I'd place the word "democratic" in "quotation marks"). The self imposed straightjacket is not populism. We seem to agree that it is not true populism that drives our leaders. Perhaps the self-imposed straightjacket is woven with the threads of political cowardice (and personal ambition).


Owen Gray said...

One could argue that political cowardice makes it impossible to update political institutions.

When Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act in 1964, he told an aide that the Democrats had lost the South for a generation.

One could argue that the Civil Rights Act was a seminal event in the evolution of the modern Republican Party.

During the Vietnam War, no one considered LBJ courageous. But, in some ways, he was a profile in courage.

kirbycairo said...

Hebert makes no cogent argument that establishes a link between the constitution and the change in the political culture.

There has surely been a shift in political culture but it has grown directly out of the increased power of corporations particularly in the media. What has happened, though complex in process, is simple in meaning and effect - corporate ideology has simply marginalized all alternatives to a corporate agenda. It is not a matter of political courage, it is simply that anyone who dares to publicly state a position that runs contrary to corporate interests is quickly branded in the media as an unrealistic crazy person. That is all there is to it. The constitution doesn't entre into it and only someone like Hebert who is so deeply steeped in the political culture wouldn't be able to see the wood for the trees.

Owen Gray said...

Sometimes being close to a problem makes someone too myopic to see the big picture, Kirby. It's a hazard which afflicts many political pundits.

Hebert has fallen victim to the disease.