Sunday, January 18, 2009

Lessons from Russell and Cervantes

The genesis of this weblog lies in the recent reading of two books (of which at first the connection might seem tenuous), and recent, yet somehow eternal internal political happenings at the Liberal Party of Canada. The first book recently devoured is Two cheers for minority government, by distinguished political scientist and Professor (Emeritus) at the University of Toronto, Peter H. Russell.

In Two cheers Russell deftly describes the benefits of minority governments in Parliamentary democracies for populations believing in the most democratic concept of all – real, or “true” majority will and direction. It is also a fascinating discussion of the factors that have lead Canada’s Parliamentary democracy down a different evolutionary path than most others in the world in its irrational support of and belief in the stability of majority governments (fuelled in part by first-past-the-post) and the resultant move away from Parliamentary Government to Prime-Ministerial Government. Russell discusses the drift towards a centralization of power in the office of the prime minister and states that “executive domination is a threat to parliamentary democracy”, made even greater when the “politicians who control parliament have been rejected by a majority of the electorate”.

And now we are getting to the crux of the matter for me. As I read Two cheers and while Russell does not directly go there, I have been struck by the parallels to governance trends (written and unwritten) in our parties, particularly the Liberal Party of Canada. This (rather lengthy) quote from the book might serve well to illustrate:

The parliamentary system places the direction of the executive side of government in the hands of the same leaders who have majority support in the legislature. In the modern era, a number of factors have combined to make this fusion of powers a real and present danger to the democratic capacity of parliamentary government.

First and foremost among these is the emergence of disciplined and well-financed political parties whose leaders employ the techniques of mass advertising to win and retain power. This development is aided and abetted by techniques of public management that downplay the deliberative role of elected representative and Parliament’s role in holding government responsible for its decisions. Between elections, the citizenry participates in parliamentary democracy primarily through brief exposure to sound bites and talking heads on the electronic media. On top of all this is a cult of celebrity that focuses political interest on the accomplishments, failures, and personalities of leaders.

This fairly accurately describes what I and I believe numerous other supporters of the institutional Liberal Party have been railing about for quite some time. We have little time, nor expend much energy and virtually no funds on the deliberative role we should all be playing to ensure the health of our Party and through that our country. We expend these resources instead on the pursuit of and exercising power, and on gaining that power through the cult of personality, as Russell puts it. We so rarely seem to have principles-based discussions or pursuits. That for this naive little cookie, is my ideal.

Which leads me to the second book I have recently been reading: Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra’s Don Quixote. While at times fun and farcical, Don Quixote is also a pretty tragic tale of deception (sometimes for one’s own good), self-deception and idealistic delusion. Illustrated through Quixote’s many adventures, and most famously his tussle with windmills he perceived to be giants; enemies to be slain in the interests of chivalry, the story told is really about the futility of idealism.

Coined from the title character of the book, quixotism has come to mean the tendency to take an overly romanticized view of life and engaging in the foolishly impractical especially in the pursuit of ideals.

And so I have come to see myself as quixotic in my pursuit of a Liberal Party Utopia, driven as I am by my own set of ideals to constantly continue to pursue.

So as the Liberal Party of Canada enters a new period and as discussions once again heat up on the state of the Party and the necessity for growth, and the opportunities afforded by fresh leadership, I'm hoping we can have some civil discussions about what's wrong, what's right and what our collective ideal for our party might really be.

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