There is an interesting commentary in the Globe and Mail by Ian Buruma, who is a professor of democracy, human rights and journalism at Bard College in New York.
The crux of Prof Buruma’s complaint is that unrestrained democracy, the ‘unlimited will of the people,’ will, eventually, sound the death knell for liberal democracy in America. He says that “Without limits placed on the appetites and prejudices of the majority, intolerance will rule.“
Prof Buruma is, it appears, more worried about
the fact that his perception that “Angry people swayed by the populist message are angrier at liberal professors, clever bankers or skeptical journalists than they are at multibillionaires.“
Being an American, Prof Buruma hangs his hat on Alexis de Tocqueville’s 1831 epic, ‘Democracy in America,’ and ignores the much more important Chartist Movement in Britain, in the 1840s, which pushed for far more liberal democratic reforms than had (yet) been imagined in America. In fact the Chartists aimed to end something that still bedevils American (and Canadian) politics, today: what Prof Buruma aptly describes as “The power of private fortunes to sway public opinion.” But those “private fortunes” are not just monetary, there are also vast private stocks of reputation, elitism, which Prof Buruma discounts because, he says, “elitism is defined less by financial clout than by education.” In other words it is dangerous for, say, Donald Trump, to try to buy an election (as Joseph Kennedy arguably did for his sons, John F and Robert Kennedy, back in the 1940s and ’50s) but it’s quite alright for the Democratic Party elites to stack the election in Hillary Clinton’s favour because they, the elites, are, like the good professor, educated liberals.
Don’t get me wrong, please. I agree that extremism, from both the left and right, is a danger. Where I part company, I think, with Prof Buruma, is that I believe that the “restraints” he seeks are already here.
They are there, I think, in what I described, a few weeks ago, as “institutions.” Those institutions are neither liberal nor conservative and they are most certainly neither Conservative nor Liberal. (A while ago, Nick Vandergragt, writing in Canadian Common Sense, proposed five “pillars” of Conservatism which, in their way, complement what I see as the real core values of democracy.) Those institutions are:
- Government with the informed consent of the governed;
- Respect for the rule of law, including the notion that everyone, governors and governed alike, are bound, equally, by the same laws; and
- Respect for the fundamental rights of the sovereign individual and protection of those individual rights against the onslaught of all collectives, including the biggest collective of all, the state itself.
Many conservatives have a convenient mental “shorthand” for those institutions …
… and, indeed, Her Majesty in her three natures ~ the Queen in Council, the Queen in Parliament and the Queen on the Bench ~ is a useful reminder that our fundamental institutions are the laws of the land, the right to elect our own governors and the safety (of our lives and liberty) provided by the government.
Real Conservatives, and good Liberals too, for that matter (and there are a lot of them), don’t think that “government is the problem,” but they do understand that big, remote, unresponsive (or responsive only to special interests) governments cannot and will not do what is needed for the people. Governments need to share and display faith in our vital institutions and act in accordance with them. Too many Liberals (and Democrats in the USA) are, for example, more concerned about collective or group rights than they are with protecting the individual; that’s wrong. But, similarly, too many Conservatives (and US Republicans) are more interested in imposing their own (often faith-based) moral values on others and that, too, is wrong. The bases of all parties need to be less powerful and the party leaders need to reach out to the moderate middle, but in each case some, usually too much of the base of each party is made up of people who are unrepresentative of that moderate middle and who hold too much power within the party.
Like Prof Buruma, I worry about Donald Trump, Ted Cruz and Bernie Sanders, but I also worry about Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush, too. I think that Messers Trump and Sanders are extremists who may succeed because “mainstream America” and “main street America” have washed their hands of national politics. Mrs Clinton and Mr Bush are, I fear, the candidates of big money and their respective party insiders, the elites who, also, do not represent the (detached) people.
One of the things the 19th century Chartists wanted to do was to break the stranglehold the English elites had on British politics. The Tory establishment understood the concerns and gave a great deal of ground while, still, preserving their own conservative values and virtues. Those reforms did, all, travel to North America but something in the USA has gone wrong and those values and virtues are falling away … leaving us with unrestrained big money elites or equally unrestrained extremists. Canada, being Canada, tends to follow, too often uncritically even thoughtlessly, American trends in all things: social, cultural, military and political.
So, what to do?
We need to elect a strong, socially moderate, fiscally prudent leader who believes in our institutions. I want to hear from Maxime Bernier, Michael Chong, Tony Clement, Doug Ford, Kellie Leitch, Peter MacKay, Kevin O’Leary (even though I think he’s already disqualified himself), Lisa Rait and Michelle Rempel and from Rona Ambrose, John Baird, Jason Kenney, Rob Nicholson, Erin O’Toole and Brad Wall, too about how they see our core Conservative values and how they will protect and promote our democratic institutions, including e.g. the restoration of ministerial accountability, about which I wrote earlier today.
We also need to revisit how we elect our leaders. We need to give more power to the parliamentary caucus ~ to the people who have, actually, carried our colours, faced the electors and fought the good fight, defending our platform ~ and take some away from people like me. People like me, Party members, should have more say in setting policies and less in selecting leaders. Leaders and candidates should be in their jobs because they want to support and implement the Party’s policies, but we want leaders (and candidates) who can win and, it seems to me, the parliamentary caucus is better able than people like me (and party activists) to pick winners.