Thursday, October 29, 2009

Ignorant Gladiators and the Dumming Down of Canadian Politics

The late Lester Milbrath, an American political scientist; once categorized the citizens of democratic nations, as three distinct groups:

Apathetic - those who rarely, if ever, become engaged in politics. They may vote out of a sense of duty, but that's as far as it goes.

Spectators - those who do engage in political discussions, especially when they centre around single issues. Spectators almost always vote.

Gladiators - those who become actively involved in politics, campaigning or running for office.

Canadian political scientist, Brooke Jeffrey, takes this one step further, when she's discussing the neo-conservative movement; and includes a category for 'Ignorant Gladiators'. These are people who enter the political arena on a wave of anger and resentment, with few qualifications to actually lead.

They are the anti-government politicians, who only want to tear down, with few plans to rebuild. They offer no solutions to bring a nation, province or municipality forward. They only come prepared to dismantle and discredit.

Her book, Hard Right Turn was written a decade ago so the only 'Ignorant Gladiator' governments she referenced were Ralph Klein's and Mike Harris's. Neither man had more than a high school education, but they talked tough; feeding off the 'spectators' with hot button issues and private resentment.

Divide and conquer was the battle cry, and so long as we remained mad at each other, the 'Ignorant Gladiators' were left alone. Anyone who opposed them were "special interest", and quickly got added to the enemy list.

In Ontario, that list was vast. 'Welfare bums', 'blood sucking unions', 'rights demanding natives'; all threatened our way of life. Jim Flaherty even went so far as to decry that money shouldn't be provided to First Nations, when it could be used to help 'real people.' He's never lost a bid for re-election.

Former Alberta Premier Ralph Klein stated "Bums, creeps and unskilled workers are not welcome. We will use cowboy techniques to deal with people who rob our banks, add to our welfare rolls, add to our unemployment lines and create rising crime rates." Were Albertans shocked? No. Instead Klein made being redneck cool.

This is the face of neo-conservatism. Citizens are marginalized and being redneck is cool. But the only winners are the wealthy individuals and corporations who engineer their rise to the top, because the traditional government impedes their ability to get rich, or should I say richer?

Ms Jeffrey goes on to describe the rise of the Reform Party that threatened to change the climate of federal politics. After the 1993 election, that saw 52 Reform MPs elected, the media was in shock. A common question was "Who are these yokels and who voted for them?"

Well those yokels are now running our country and the media is no longer shocked. When speaking of Harper they only say that if he can keep his rowdy caucus from speaking, and contain it's dark elements he's going to be a star. Isn't the important issue here that HE HAS DARK FORCES IN HIS PARTY?

Apparently not. The media are now self-proclaimed kingmakers and even if the emperor has no clothes, they will continue to write glowing reports of his "finest attire made from the most beautiful cloth", because that's who we are now. The 'ignorant masses' described by the father of the neo-conservative movement, Leo Strauss. The 'Spectators' have become the 'Apathetic' and the 'Ignorant Gladiators' now reign supreme.

Excerpts from Hard-Right Turn: The New face of Neo-Conservatism in Canada
Brooke Jeffreys
Harper-Collins 1999
ISBN: 0-00-255762-2

Ignorant Gladiators

No society has an ideal situation, but one in which a large number of citizens opted out of the system and failed to participate, or where the majority of spectators were uninformed, would likely encounter serious difficulties in maintaining a healthy level of participation.

The best case scenario would clearly be one in which there were highly qualified gladiators. While the ignorance of the apathetic is a social concern, it poses no political problem since they do not influence decision making. Ignorant gladiators on the other hand, would constitute a political worst-case scenario.

Using these terms Canada has traditionally been described as a nation of spectators. Although the range of the spectator activities has been rather low - being limited for the most part to voting - the percentage of spectators has always been fairly high. At roughly 75 percent, the numbers of Canadians who regularly voted in federal elections, for example, far exceeded the American figures and those of several European democracies. By contrast, the apathetic were a small percentage of the population.

At the same time, the high levels of literacy and near-level and near-universal public communications systems meant that Canadian spectators were reasonably well informed. Even more important, our gladiators on the whole were very well prepared for public office. In a country with a high standard of living, universal access to education and a large middle class, these findings were, quite frankly, to be expected, but were nevertheless reassuring.

(What's interesting is that while 'universality' in education, health care, etc. was considered to be a 'Canadian value', it is a severe threat to social conservatism and neo-conservatism. In 1994 at an awards dinner for the National Citizens Coalition, Stephen Harper prided their work on this issue over the past five years: "Universality has been greatly reduced; it is virtually dead as a concept in most areas of public policy.")

Back to Jeffreys:

Recently, however, a number of disturbing trends have begun to emerge. The percentage of apathetic citizens is believed to have increased. Some have argued the level of awareness and participation rate of Canadian spectators are declining. For some Canadians, the emphasis has shifted away from political parties to single-issue interest groups, a phenomenon with significant consequences for participation in the political process. Most important is the decline in the qualifications of our gladiators. In the past ten years, with the emergence of Canadian neo-conservative politicians, the profile of the political elites has undergone an unexpected transformation. From a norm of well-educated and prepared professionals, there has been a striking increase in the number of outsiders with little formal training or other relevant preparation to take over the reins of power.

No one suggests that there is only one career path or appropriate set of credentials for those who plan to run for public office. Life experience as much as education, could give individuals the ability to manage ... Unfortunately, few of the individuals attracted to the neo-conservative ideology have demonstrated these qualities. The greater the neo-conservative leadership's emphasis on moral and social conservatism, the more likely the supporters will be uncompromising in their views.

Unfortunately the consequences of this limited world view have been serious and sweeping ... The dumbing down of politics in Canada has had profound implications for national and provincial policy making, intergovernmental relations, and even the quality of constituency representation.

The anti-intellectualism of so many of the New Right's membership and supporters has been amply demonstrated .. If credentials and expertise are rejected by the New Right as the basis for decision making ... rational arguments will be powerless to oppose their agenda.

The importance of their rigidity cannot be overestimated. It is this narrowness that leads them to propose simplistic solutions at a time when political issues are becoming more complex. Once they are in power, this inclination to disregard expert advice in favour of anecdotal evidence, coupled with their authoritarian approach, leads to single-mindedly pursue their solutions even in the face of overwhelming evidence that these approaches won't work.

Equally unsettling is their obvious lack of understanding of many essential democratic principles .... Policies are put forward in response to problems which their 'client groups' have raised. Although they describe their reactive approach as 'open', 'consultative' and 'democratic,' their consultation process does not include those who oppose them. (We see this especially with Stephen Harper. All opposition parties are not adversaries, but enemies, who must be destroyed. This severely limits intelligent debate, but also means that roughly 2/3 of Canadians have no voice in our Parliament, and we now seem determined to make this a permanent situation.)

In keeping with the lurch towards American right-wing politics, the focus is on the 'enemy within'. In a perversion of traditional populist rhetoric, public servants, welfare recipients, even university students and pensioners are now branded as 'special interests' .... much of the neo-cons success has been due to their ability to identify the crucial 'hot buttons' ... and exploit them to great advantage. As a result, the implementation of their agenda has polarized their societies and provoked widespread alienation. The earlier amusement and disdain of their critics has turned to outrage and disbelief. (Jeffreys, Harper-Collins, 1999, Pg. 396-402)

How did we let this happen and is it too late to stop the movement that threatens to destroy everything we once held dear in this country? Who knows?

From the book; Straussophobia: Defending Leo Strauss and Straussians Against Shadia Drury and Other Accusers, by Peter Minowitz:

"In an interview, the late Irving Kristol stated he was deeply indebted to Leo Strauss for an understanding of the “noble lie.” “There are different kinds of truths for different kinds of people,” he said. “There are truths appropriate for children; truths that are appropriate for students; truths that are appropriate for educated adults; and truths that are appropriate for highly educated adults, and the notion that there should be one set of truths available to everyone is a modern democratic fallacy. It doesn’t work.” Many critics see this as a justification of a new kind of politics—which uses “hotbutton” issues to hold the attention of voters and justifies prevarications about particularly serious things, such as the case for war. Does Kristol understand Strauss correctly? When the Neocons set out to peddle the Iraq War to the American people, was this an example of “different truths for different people”? Doesn’t it do a great deal of harm to a democracy?"

Leo Strauss would be very proud of Stephen Harper and his Reformers. Me, not so much.

More Posts on Ignorance the New Normal:

1. Why Has Intellect Become Public Enemy Number One?

2. Most Albertans are not Rednecks

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