We have met the enemy and he is us
What has gone wrong with democratic politics? Why are voters so angry that they are seriously considering making Donald Trump president of the most powerful democratic nation on earth? You can blame the failures of government and the arrogance of the political class if you like. But don’t feel smug, because the hedonism of voters is the real root of the problem.
Government is failing badly even by its own relatively low historical standards. Obviously the advanced democracies have not sunk to the levels of corruption and incompetence typical of non-Western governments. But the blind rage and equally blind faith behind Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders, Jeremy Corbyn, the Austrian presidential runoff between the Freedom Party and the Greens, anti-austerity riots in Greece, even the surge of support for the blithely ill-prepared Justin Trudeau, reflect citizens’ outrage that the gap between the state’s performance and its ambitions and powers has never been so wide.
Consider just a few recent stories. Puerto Rico defaulted on nearly half a billion dollars in bond payments in early May because, the governor said, “faced with the lack of liquidity to meet both the needs of our creditors and to provide services to our people, I had to choose. And I chose.” Yes. To blunder into bankruptcy and boast about it.
Then there’s Detroit, which emerged from the largest municipal bankruptcy in American history a year and a half ago into a private sector renaissance. But its public sector is still a mess. The city government is cutting off water to people who can’t pay their bills even with public financial assistance, and its schools are mired in a bribery scandal and closing because the city can’t pay its teachers. The teachers blame the city, and the city blames the state. But it’s government all the way down.
An hour up the I-75, and the creek, in Flint, which was in receivership from 2011 to 2015, the water is poisonous thanks to a botched cost-cutting move. City and state officials are under indictment and the head of the federal U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is very sorry someone else blew it. The American Empath-in-Chief showed up, sipped some filtered water, assured residents “I’ve got your back”, and told them the water was safe provided you’re over six years old and not pregnant.
Worse, Barack Obama used this photo op to hector Americans for their “corrosive” distrust in government instead of hectoring government for corrosive water in its pipes. And if it turns out the filtered water he daintily sampled isn’t safe he promised to make sure the buck stops somewhere else: “The scientists who work for me – if they tell me something which I’m saying in front of all of those cameras, turns out to be wrong – that person will not have a job.” But we all know accountability in the public sector is just this word.
Canadians should not feel smug. Did the CBC fire anyone who looked the other way to protect Jian Ghomeshi? How about the justice system that blew his prosecution? Will Kathleen Wynne hold anyone accountable for her government’s costly, disruptive botched welfare software update, or the billions blown on ineffective wind and solar power on top of the billion-dollar gas plant scandal? Heck no. Raising on-peak electricity prices four hundred percent in 13 years and crippling Ontario manufacturing sector is just part of a bold transition to a low-carbon economy. Woo hoo.
Are adults in charge in Ottawa? Not remotely. The C.D. Howe Institute reckons the unfunded federal employee pension liability is now about $118 billion higher than the feds admit. And the latest calculations from the Fraser Institute indicate the Canada Pension Plan, after its heroic “rescue” in the 1990s by the great Liberal fiscal tag-team of Paul Martin and Jean Chretien, will provide a 2.1% rate of return for those born after 1971, compared to its peak of 27% for those who were born before WWI. In government the CPP is therefore regarded as a great Canadian achievement. That’s why the Trudeau Liberals campaigned on increasing premiums and payments, and the Ontario Liberals on launching a provincial version.
Across the Atlantic, the latest news from the birthplace of parliamentary self-government and Magna Carta is equally disquieting. On June 23 Britons voted to leave the European Union. The UK political and business establishment, which recommended continued support for the big cumbersome bureaucracy in Brussels as overlord to the big cumbersome bureaucracy in Whitehall, has recently admitted the EU migrant total in the UK is almost three times what the government had claimed. It’s one reason the National Health Service is coming apart at the seams. But hey, nobody who matters is being turned away from surgery or a maternity ward. I mean, nobody we know.
Perhaps these are details. But consider the bigger picture. The disappearance of opportunity. The infamous shrinking middle class. An economy that performs like it’s in recession when it isn’t, no matter how much borrowed stimulus money governments throw at it or how low they force interest rates and then gape in horror at a housing market bubble. And the state hails family breakdown as progress toward personal liberation as though Brave New World was an operating manual not a warning, and satire becomes redundant in the face of Barack Obama’s stirring call to close the “diaper gap”.
There is almost nothing government can do right, and almost nothing it doesn’t insist on doing anyway. Even its vaunted war on obesity has coincided with unprecedented weight gain, yet it trots out food guide after labeling requirement with the same fatuous air of “This time for sure.”
From Obamacare to Trudeaucratic electoral reform, government is clearly not reining in its ambitions. When by any rational standard it should be retrenching, the dynamics of the political bidding war just keep making it worse. But are those discriminatory little signs with women in dresses on bathroom doors really what’s bothering people?
Obviously you can find examples of public maladministration from Nero to Grant to Mackenzie King. But they used to be more episodic and democratically self-correcting, with the “ins” afraid voters would turn to the “outs” to clean up the mess. By now it’s clear that established parties, in or out, are part of the self-satisfied system and part of the problem. Take the deadlock between Obama and the Republicans over U.S. budgets. Neither could cope, neither really cared, and the national debt doubled to $20 trillion. Mitch McConnell and Harry Reid really are Tweedle Smug and Tweedle Snide.
It is as if the political class and the public interest live in parallel universes. Public sector compensation rises steadily without even a convincing pretense at restraint. Policy problems keep getting worse, and notwithstanding the ubiquity of public apologies for alleged historical wrongs, political contrition in real time is as rare as a climate change heretic at a Sierra Club fundraiser. From Justin Trudeau’s deficit projections to Mike Duffy’s expense claims, there is no broken promise or moral transgression that can’t be papered over with lies and excuses, or simply shrugged off. At the end of Hillary Clinton’s trail of mendacity and denial – from her private email server to the Benghazi cover-up to enabling her husband’s sexual harassment of low-status women (“vast right-wing conspiracy”) to the Whitewater and Clinton charity scandals – Democratic party officials couldn’t be more pleased with her because she’s a woman. Historic!
As Bob Dole asked plaintively a decade ago, where’s the outrage? Once upon a time politicians, however slippery, were afraid of our judgement of their moral lapses. It’s hard to believe today that Richard Nixon’s downfall over Watergate was significantly accelerated Middle America’s dismay at the Oval Office potty-mouth language revealed in the famous tapes. Or that his own party felt obliged to cut him loose for abuses of power and general repulsiveness, or at least for fear of what voters would think of them.
Nowadays the general view is that if my tribe is pummeling yours and the boodle keeps coming, you can do and say what you like. Politicians exploit sophisticated data-mining techniques to push our hot buttons including, I submit, the Canadian Conservatives under Stephen Harper, who took perverse delight in being frustrated by court rulings that made for great fundraising letters. But if we didn’t have so many red-hot buttons, they couldn’t push them like that.
In a thoughtful piece on the discontents behind Trumpism, liberal New York Times columnist David Brooks talked about the growing marginalization of less educated males, which neither government policy nor the political class has even acknowledged. And as Mercatornet editor Michael Cook recently noted, people with disorderly lives stemming from broken homes often support intellectually and politically disorderly figures like Trump, who give voice to their resentful sense of entitlement.
It is the spirit of the age. For decades we’ve been encouraged, though typically not by Republicans or philosophical conservatives, to “let it all hang out,” indulge our urges rather than “repress” them, shrug off restraints, break taboos, flaunt tattoos, and challenge stigmas. Like the decadent and flatulent Rabelaisian giant Pantagruel, generally we live up to his motto “Do what thou wilt.” And we too often vote that way too, for candidates who give us money, stroke our egos, advance our tribe, annoy our enemies real or imagined, and generally tell us we are badly done to and have a right to free stuff with a side of revenge.
Donald Trump is currently the hideous poster boy for this sort of politics. But to focus too much on his repellent countenance blinds us to the deterioration of political decorum on all sides. Brooks suggested the GOP faces a “McCarthy moment” where history will judge people by their stand on Trump. Fair enough. To turn away from him, even at the cost of losing an election, would reflect well on conservatives, indicating they still have consciences and can admit their mistakes. But the Democrats never had a moment of truth over Bill Clinton’s perjury and impeachment. Instead they gave us the foul-mouthed “Ragin’ Cajun” James Carville’s famous grounds for acquittal: “Drag a hundred-dollar bill through a trailer park, you never know what you’ll find.” Talk about blaming the victim. And having it work.
You might suppose, watching Canadian or American elections, that large numbers of people still believe in government. Certainly they vote for parties that do. But what voters believe in is parties as tribal entities, not organizations designed to deliver responsible government. That idea was still held in high esteem as late as the 1970s, but it was almost completely absent from last year’s Canadian federal election, which was mainly an expression of tribal hate for the “Harper government” and tribal love for Trudeau’s banal promise to be everything the Harper regime was not.
It was anything but a reasoned choice by an informed electorate. As John Pepall cuttingly observed this February: “No one could think [Justin Trudeau] went into politics because he had been thinking a lot about government and how to get it right.” Yet the Liberal masses were not embarrassed to vote for someone just because he made them feel good, just as too many Tories were not embarrassed to vote for someone who pandered to their basest instincts.
So what is to be done? The simple, though not easy, answer is that we voters have to raise our own standards.
It was long understood that “self-government” had a critical double meaning. In order to govern ourselves effectively as a community we had first to govern ourselves effectively as individuals. As citizens we must not seek to plunder the public treasury for personal gain or seek to advance our partisan cause by shameful means. As George W. Bush put it in his second inaugural, “Self-government relies, in essence, on the government of the self.” But he never vetoed a spending bill. It was just talk.
Old talk. The century-old lyrics in America the Beautiful say “Confirm thy soul in self-control,/ Thy liberty in law!” In 1847 Daniel Webster said “Liberty exists in proportion to wholesome restraint.” Following George Washington’s first inaugural address in 1789 where he spoke of an “indissoluble union between virtue and happiness”, James Madison replied: “If individuals be not influenced by moral principles; it is in vain to look for public virtue”. And while the great 19th century historian of freedom Lord Acton was best known for his pithy warning about absolute power and corruption, he also wrote that “Although the doctrine of self-reliance and self-denial which is the foundation of political economy, was written as legibly in the New Testament as in the Wealth of Nations, it was not recognized until our age.” It has since been forgotten.
Consider an intriguing proposal by George Mason University Law professor Ilya Somin on the Washington Post’s “Volokh Conspiracy” blog. He suggested the GOP could deny Trump the nomination by adopting a resolution at their July convention forbidding any delegate from voting for a candidate who threatened or advocated violence to advance his or her candidacy, as Trump has done repeatedly. So they should. But would his supporters display “wholesome restraint”, or burn down the Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland? (Yes, that really is the name of the place the Republicans are having their convention. And why not, given the state of public and private finances there?)
Democrats are no more discerning or restrained. If they were, they would renounce the hollow liar Clinton and repudiate the socialist Sanders whose promises, by one credible count, would more than double the national debt in a decade, adding a crushing $21 trillion. Instead, Clintonites are blind, deaf and dumb to their candidate’s manifest unfitness for public office, and Sanders’ army of social justice warriors are as likely as Trump’s backers to riot at their party convention if they don’t get the world and get it now now now NOW!
It’s not them. It’s us. As Edmund Burke said “Somewhere there must be a control upon will and appetite; and the less of it there is within, the more there must be without.” If voters will not control themselves and their governments, we will get big bad government, headed by menacing buffoons like Donald Trump or slick liars like Hillary Clinton.
John Robson is a documentary filmmaker, National Post columnist, invited professor at the University of Ottawa and Commentator at Large with CFRA 580 in Ottawa. Support his work at johnrobson.ca.