Has Centralization of Power to the PMO Put Canadian Democracy on Life Support?

Don Lenihan has a must-read column up today, on how centralization of power to the Prime Minister’s office over the past several decades has atrophied the connection Canadians — especially youth — had with our government, and what he believes this could mean for Canada’s system of democracy:

In the early 1970s, the Trudeau government adopted a new generation of governance tools to make it more effective in the modern-day world. The approach involved rigorous new management practices, and the formation of complex plans — “strategies” — which the prime minister would push forward, using the power of his office.

What wasn’t clear at the time was that execution of these strategies also called for more Executive control over the system. As this came to light, it set in motion a decades-long centralizing trend during which succesive PMOs clawed ever more power away from Parliament.

While opposition parties condemned Trudeau, Mulroney, Chretien and Harper for weakening democracy by weakening Parliament, these leaders saw increasing centralization as the unavoidable cost of getting things done. And, all things being equal, perhaps they were right.

Unfortunately, the story doesn’t end there. Indeed, a whole new chapter may be opening. There is growing evidence of a ripple effect that is now reaching other parts of the body politic. If so, centralization may be having a far more profound impact on our system of government than anyone realized.

Falling voter turnout, especially among youth, is a striking example. Elections give citizens a legitimate and orderly way to challenge and change governments. Without them, our democracy would quickly revert to some form of authoritarian rule.

So why don’t young people vote? In particular, why don’t the ones who are protesting tuition hikes in Quebec, or those in the Occupy movement, take their concerns to the ballot box? Don’t they realize that their protests are calling into question the legitimacy of our democratically elected governments?

Yes, they realize this. That is exactly the point. They are taking to the streets because they don’t believe the political system works. They don’t believe it creates real accountability. Once elected, they think a government is essentially free to do what it wants, so they see no point in voting.

If this were just uninformed prattle, it would be annoying, but we would find ways to cope with it. Unfortunately, young people are making a serious point and the evidence for it is mounting.

Take Bill C-38. When replying to charges that it was a Trojan horse, the Harper government argued that it had to get these measures passed quickly to support the economic recovery. In other words, democracy was deemed less important than effective governance.

Okay, but where does this end? We learned a long time ago that, in a contest between democracy and effectiveness, nine times out of ten democracy will lose. Eventually, people will stop trusting the government at all.

Sound familiar? If not, let me spell it out.

It is one thing for opposition parties to accuse the government of being undemocratic. It is another when people take to the streets to do so. It is profoundly disturbing when a whole generation no longer sees a point in voting–or at least it should be.

The lesson here is simple: too much centralization undermines legitimacy. The more scope a government thinks it has to act unilaterally in the name of effectiveness, the less legitimacy those actions will have.

[D]emocracy was deemed less important than effective governance.” Think about that as the cult of libertarianism continues to court a new generation that is both frustrated with status quo politics and has been well-conditioned to respond positively to free-market fundamentalist boilerplate.

Features and bugs, redux.

x-posted at The Agonist

Quote of the Day: Bartlett 1, Libertarianism 0.

by matttbastard

As we know from history, the free market did not lead to a breakdown of segregation. Indeed, it got much worse, not just because it was enforced by law but because it was mandated by self-reinforcing societal pressure. Any store owner in the South who chose to serve blacks would certainly have lost far more business among whites than he gained. There is no reason to believe that this system wouldn’t have perpetuated itself absent outside pressure for change.

In short, the libertarian philosophy of Rand Paul and the Supreme Court of the 1880s and 1890s gave us almost 100 years of segregation, white supremacy, lynchings, chain gangs, the KKK, and discrimination of African Americans for no other reason except their skin color. The gains made by the former slaves in the years after the Civil War were completely reversed once the Supreme Court effectively prevented the federal government from protecting them. Thus we have a perfect test of the libertarian philosophy and an indisputable conclusion: it didn’t work. Freedom did not lead to a decline in racism; it only got worse.

- Bruce Bartlett, Rand Paul is No Barry Goldwater on Civil Rights

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Slacktastic Placeholder Post

by matttbastard

Busy busy busy lately, kids (and by ‘busy busy busy’ I mean ‘lazy lazy lazy’, as my always-obsessive Twitter output will attest — 140 characters is a lot less daunting than 140 words, sadly). But we can’t enter into the last year of the first decade of the new millennium without a new post up on the main page. That would be blasphemy, or bad luck, or…well, ok, I don’t believe in fortune or have any faith, so it’s more an aesthetic quirk on my part.

But if I was actually religious or at all superstitious I’d so be praying for salvation and walking around ladders while simultaneously avoiding black cats. Or something.

Anyway, have some choice links to keep you satiated and, most importantly, forestall my inexplicable squick over the lack of any new content since, um, before New Years. Hopefully I’ll settle into a more regular pattern soon. Feel free to give me shit in comments if this post remains at the top of the page for more than a week:

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War is Over (OK, Not *Over*, But…)

by matttbastard

Was going to pick up on what BooMan, Jed Lewison & Jeff Fecke had to say re: Jane Hamsher’s unholy alliance with Grover fucking Norquist and the  more-progressive-than-thou campaign to unseat that notorious corporate shill, Bernie Sanders (and there was great rejoicing among the assembled Trots  in the spartan Vermont offices of the Socialist Equality Party).

But fuck it — it’s Christmas Eve. We can declare a temporary armistice and put down the hunks of pie until at least, er, Saturday. Y’know, peace on earth, goodwill towards bitter personality cultists, all that rot — right, kids?

Right?

Here, have some Ramones. I mean, if Joey and Johnny could put aside their utter loathing for each other for all those years in the spirit of rock ‘n’ roll and, um, filthy lucre…?

Wishing you and yours a very happy holidays on this Historic Occasion.

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More on Jane Hamsher’s Nixon-Goes-To-China Epiphany (Now With Less CAPSLOCK)

by matttbastard

My esteemed friend Sarah Jaffe takes issue with several of the points I raised in yesterday morning’s post on Jane Hamsher:

This combines SEVERAL things I hate into one paragraph. “Ugly Red State mugs” well gee, you know what? Those are real fucking people too. I’m so tired of the red state/blue state snobbery I could spit. You know what? I lived in red states. I busted my ass on multiple political campaigns in red states and saw one of them turn blue (Colorado). I’ve talked to pissed-off overworked people who are just looking for someone, ANYONE to give them a narrative of how they got so fucked–and we haven’t been doing it.

Also, since when does anyone who calls themselves a lefty get to snarl and sneer at populist street protest? Sure, I laugh at “look at this fucking teabagger” too, but you know what else I do? I wonder why the fuck we’re not out there, because at least those people are putting some effort into it. And to some degree they ARE protesting the right people, even if the narrative they have (ZOMG SOCIALIST!) is just factually wrong.

[...]

So while I disagree with partnering with Grover Norquist, who is no kind of populist and every kind of rich plutocratic asshole, I absolutely don’t have a problem with acknowledging that the teabaggers A. have some legitimate grievances and B. are using tactics that get attention. I also don’t have a problem with someone staking out a hard and fast progressive position and vowing not to swerve from it.

First of all, considering I spent my formative years going to cattle auctions, milking goats, and generally living like, as Levi Johnston infamously put it, “a fucking redneck,” I think I’ve earned the right to indulge in the occasional good natured rhetorical aplomb with regards to rural culture. Perhaps I should indeed have used ‘Real Americans’, since that terminology is apparently less provocative (if ironic in this instance, considering how the accusation re: my supposed dehumanization of red-staters was phrased).

No matter. Next time I’ll make sure to include photos of me contentedly playing on a pile of dry manure (yes, they do exist) before I offer any pithy asides that may (or may not) implicitly question the humanity of those who think the POTUS is the anti-Christ and people of colour are jackbooted thugs coming to steal guns and impose Marxism on the American populace.

Now, I don’t want to waste too much time addressing nits when there are more substantive concerns to address. So I’ll only briefly deal with the contention that, because I am a Canadian, I have little right to comment–even in passing–on the health care debate in the US.  Amusing, since, in today’s dynamic, neoliberal North American economy, my options to live/work/go to school south of the border are severely restricted by prohibitive costs and outrageous restrictions on so-called preexisting conditions, thus giving me and other Canadians who might one day wish to grab hold of the American dream a stake in whether the current system is indeed reformed (though certainly not as immediate as those who currently reside in the US).

Additionally, Canada’s universal health care system has been unceremoniously yanked into the debate by both pro-and-anti reform factions during the course of the debate, which threatens to reopen health care as a wedge issue here in the Great White North (and, trust me, if the current neocon government in Ottawa gets a majority —  which seems all-too-likely — it will almost certainly utilize the tactics employed by the US insurance lobby, very much eager to further tap into Canada’s lucrative health care market, to bully through ideologically-motivated reforms of a decidedly regressive, pro-market nature).

Regardless, am certain the next time a transformative national event like, oh, say, Iran’s Green Revolution sweeps over Twitter like a digital tsunami, Sarah will refrain from offering opinionated commentary (or actively agitating) because she already has constitutionally-guaranteed freedom of expression, assembly and association and, thus, far less of a vested interest in any outcomes. Also, by this metric, I suppose we can all stop paying attention to the 85% of USians who already have health insurance — which would probably mute most of those advocating for both killing and passing the Senate health reform bill.

Hey, at least we’d get a much-needed respite from the migraine-inducing bloviating of Ed Schultz and Chris Matthews.

Anyway, enough with the gristle — on to the meat.

Sarah seems to have (mis)interpreted my objections to Hamsher’s position (and my contempt for teabaggers) as evidence that I’m against street protest (unless one considers the heavily manufactured fauxtrage of the tea party movement to be populist and not fauxpulist — Hamsher certainly had her doubts about its legitimacy last spring). Which is funny, because a lot of my snark is predicated on the notion that Hamsher ISN’T hitting the streets, but rather using her digital platform as a half-assed means of protest without sacrifice, something that the largely upper-middle-class netroots (and, unfortunately, yours truly) has been guilty of perpetuating. Maybe I missed the portion of Hamsher’s post where she advocated actually getting progressive boots on the ground, instead of continuing to solely rely on FDL petitions and electronic advocacy campaigns to pressure Washington.

If so, my bad.

The biggest point of contention I have with Hamsher’s post (and perhaps I didn’t originally articulate this clearly enough) was her declaration that the only thing separating progressive populist anger from screeching teabagger rage was ‘the message’. But, in fact, it’s not simply the message that differentiates the populist left from the populist right. It’s the motivation behind the message.

Many progressives are angry and motivated to act on said anger because they want to build something that will better the lives of real people, not simply line the pockets of corporations (hence the principled objections to the health care legislation, which many, including Hamsher, view as a ginormous corporate giveaway).

In stark contrast, it seems all too apparent to me that the organized teabagger movement desperately wants Obama’s agenda to fail miserably because they are threatened and offended by the success of an uppity fucking nigger who needs to be put in his place (up to and including 6 feet under) — point fucking blank. Killing what is admittedly a horribly, horribly flawed health insurance bill is part and parcel of this mindset.

(YMMV, of course, but, speaking as a person of colour, the dogwhistles contained within pretty much all missives eminating from the angry USian right silently screams ‘lynching party’).

So, on the one hand we have a broad, socially dynamic movement trying to create something that will benefit a broad range of people; on the other, a racially and culturally homogeneous reactionary backlash attempting to destroy the Other and anything the Other supports, out of fear and hatred.

Teabaggers definitely aren’t afraid to threaten and potentially utilize violence to achieve their destructive, regressive goals. Anyone who has read David Neiwert over the years (especially what he’s written following the 2008 presidential election) knows that playing footsie with pseudo-fascists is a dangerous game when so-called ‘mainstream’ movement conservatives do so. The same also holds true for progressives (and many libertarians, who, ever since Obama ascended to the White House, appear to have rekindled their mid-’90s love affair with black helicopter paranoia).

One can — and must — analyze the ongoing deficiencies of the progressive movement re: tapping legitimate populist anger (as I’ve attempted to do so in the past) without giving any quarter to the far-right. But by stating that the only thing separating tree-of-liberty-watering wingnuts from progs is ‘the message’, it appears Hamsher has done one of two things: Either she has has imbued legitimacy to a racist, conspiratorial backlash; or she has de-legitimized progressive activism by associating it with myopic, potentially deadly obstructionism.

Look, I’m sure one could argue that the KKK represented some legitimate grievances white Southerners held during Reconstruction; its tactics have certainly garnered lots of attention over the years. Shit, the Klan even opposed the Iraq war — but it did so because it believed the US was acting as a proxy for the ‘Zionist Occupied Government’ (ZOMG!) I would have been horrified to see members of the anti-war movement citing them as parallel to the peace lobby, separated only by ‘message.’

Envious progressives eager to (belatedly) tap popular dissatisfaction with the status quo shouldn’t be trying to emulate the right with tea party-lite appropriation simply because the Tea Party brand is now familiar to the public at large. People will always opt for the real thing when presented with a watered down option (just ask the Democratic Party during the DLC years, when the Dems responded to GOP ascendency by diluting its own liberal message with conservative messaging — not that things have changed all that much). Of course openly carrying firearms and threatening violent revolution gets attention — if it bleeds, it leads — but are we really willing to go to similar lengths to get the powers-that-be at Fox News to grant an extra programming block or two to the left. (What was that about “staking out a hard and fast progressive position and vowing not to swerve from it”? Hmm.)

I believe progressives need to continue carving our own niche and not allow the right to continually draw the parametres of public discourse. Hit the streets, smash the corporate state, raise fucking hell and don’t let anyone push us from that path. But for God’s sake don’t fucking give batshit racist misogynists with guns who are acting in direct opposition to our goals the rub in the process.

Steve M., directly addressing Hamsher and her recent decision to offer an olive branch to the anti-establishment right via Fox News, nails it:

Fox books liberals for two reasons: to be punching bags or to help reinforce messages Murdoch wants to deliver. I watched your clip and you weren’t treated like a punching bag — so that leaves only one choice: you were there to play “Even the liberal…” — that is, you were there to deliver the message “This bill is so awful even some liberals loathe it.”

No one on the right is “uniting” with you on principles. The Fox audience doesn’t want to join you to help make a good bill. The Fox audience wants to kill this bill, brutally and mercilessly, and then get every single Democrat out of office. (And if Big Medicine really didn’t like the idea of seeing this bill killed, it would tell Fox and the GOP to call off their dogs, and they’d dutifully comply. Big Medicine loves this bill compared to what it could have been, but no bill at all is still the fat cats’ preference. Watch this report in its 2 1/2-minute entirety if you doubt that.)

I agree that the bill is rather awful, and I’ve been vacillating on the question of whether it’s worth voting for, so I respect your intentions. But if you think left and right are meeting right now, your vision field is almost as warped as that of the we-love-Hillary-and-Sarah PUMAs.

Even the liberal Jane Hamsher.

Even the liberal Jane Hamsher.

Even the liberal Jane Hamsher.

Again, it’s not the message, which, in this instance, is in direct concert (kill the bill!), it’s the motivation — and, based on their apparent willingness to make peace with the far-right fringe to achieve their aims, one can’t help but question that of Jane Hamsher and others suddenly pining for a ‘tea party on the left’ (to say nothing of their judgment).

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Intellectual [sic] Conservatism: A Lighter Shade of Pale

by matttbastard

My homie Adam Serwer, examining Steven Hayward’s recent paen to the intellectual [sic] conservative tradition through a racial lens, wins the tubes for the week:

…any political movement that places The Bell Curve among its most important intellectual accomplishments can expect to have very few people of color in it.

Heh. Indeed.

h/t Scott Lemieux.

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Palin Resigns (ZOMG?!)

by matttbastard

Shorter: “You won’t have Palin to kick around any more!”

Yeah, yeah, I know — quitters never win.  Still, as Adele Stan warns, we (as in ‘progressives’) shouldn’t start singing the ‘na-na-na’ song just yet (h/t Jennifer Pozner):

For some reason, the very ambitious Sarah Palin finds the need to take herself out of public view. It’s hard not to speculate that there’s another shoe yet to drop. But don’t count her out; she’s as tenacious a political fighter as I’ve ever seen. She’ll no doubt put the time gained of her early exit from the governor’s mansion to good use — perhaps studying up on issues for her visits to the people of Iowa and New Hampshire.When I first speculated that she would be John McCain’s vice presidential pick, people said, Sarah who? Despite colossal missteps, she emerged from the 2008 presidential election as the darling of the Republican Party, her running mate returning to the Senate as a has-been. Mark my words: She’ll be back.

We (again, as in ‘progressives’) should remember what happened in 1968, after liberals and upper-class elites at the time had prematurely dismissed Sarah Palin’s political forefather, the man who wrote the book on exploiting class/racial grievance for electoral gain.

A book that the soon-to-be-former Governor of Alaska has studied well.

Much, much more over at Memeorandum.

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More on Barack Obama, Post-Partisanship and Billy Graham 2.0

by matttbastard

Via Sully, Erica Barnett has compiled some of the many not-so-inclusive views held by Obama’s new spiritual BFF, required reading for those who still don’t get why including Rick Warren in the Inauguration ceremony has provoked such an outcry from the left side of the aisle. Yes, by now I fully realize that the President-elect doesn’t give a rat’s ass about progressive and LGBT objections to his upcoming public indulgence in post-partisan political symbolism. But that’s precisely the point: Obama apparently feels that cementing his political philosophy into the general consciousness at the expense of a marginalized group (ie, citizens who identify as LGBT) is of greater import than symbolically challenging entrenched bigotry.

Unless Obama truly believes that progressive “intolerance” of social conservative hobbyhorses trumps the institutional denial of agency to 10% of the US public–in which case we should all just fucking give up and hand Amy Sullivan the gold medal for finally winning the Oppression Olympics.

Once again we have been presented with evidence that establishment figures within the Democratic Party–including, and, especially, Barack Obama and his 1337 team of advisers–really do believe that Sister Souljahing must be a standard operating principle if a ‘liberal’ politician is to be seen as a consensus-builder. Judging by his latest message to progressives, social conservatives, and the Beltway, Obama seems bound and determined to establish himself as the ultimate High Broderist POTUS–which is fine, if the immediate desired outcome is to receive kudos from the Sunday bobblehead brigade. Such a too-clever-by-half strategy could, however, become a long-term political liability when the time comes for Obama to court his perpetually spurned base.

Perhaps I’m a political dinosaur, desperately clinging to the vestiges of a nakedly partisan era, unprepared to navigate the terrain of today’s pragmatic political landscape. Regardless, I really don’t appreciate always being used as a goddamn prop in a broad Kabuki performance established solely for the purview of the chattering classes. There must be a (*cough*) less-divisive way for Obama to broadcast his message of inclusiveness, one that doesn’t require making a blood sacrifice on the altar of centrist credibility–especially one where he, as a straight person, has no personal stake.

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Quote of the Day: On ‘Populist Chic’

by matttbastard

Back in the ’70s, conservative intellectuals loved to talk about “radical chic,” the well-known tendency of educated, often wealthy liberals to project their political fantasies onto brutal revolutionaries and street thugs, and romanticize their “struggles.” But “populist chic” is just the inversion of “radical chic,” and is no less absurd, comical or ominous. Traditional conservatives were always suspicious of populism, and they were right to be. They saw elites as a fact of political life, even of democratic life. What matters in democracy is that those elites acquire their positions through talent and experience, and that they be educated to serve the public good. But it also matters that they own up to their elite status and defend the need for elites. They must be friends of democracy while protecting it, and themselves, from the leveling and vulgarization all democracy tends toward.

Writing recently in the New York Times, David Brooks noted correctly (if belatedly) that conservatives’ “disdain for liberal intellectuals” had slipped into “disdain for the educated class as a whole,” and worried that the Republican Party was alienating educated voters. I couldn’t care less about the future of the Republican Party, but I do care about the quality of political thinking and judgment in the country as a whole.

- Mark Lilla, The Perils of Populist Chic

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Quote of the Day: The Power of Illusions

by matttbastard

 

There is one thing about Henry Kissinger, the ultimate cynical Realpolitiker, that strikes the eye of all observers: How utterly wrong most of his predictions were. To take only one example, when news reached the West about the 1991 anti-Gorbachev military coup, he immediately accepted the new regime (which ignominiously collapsed three days later) as a fact. In short, when socialist regimes were already a living dead, Kissinger was counting on a long-term pact with them.

The position of the cynic is that he alone holds some piece of terrible, unvarnished wisdom. The paradigmatic cynic tells you privately, in a confidential low-key voice: “But don’t you get it that it is all really about (money/power/sex), that all high principles and values are just empty phrases which count for nothing?” What the cynics don’t see is their own naivety, the naivety of their cynical wisdom that ignores the power of illusions.

The reason Obama’s victory generated such enthusiasm is not only the fact that, against all odds, it really happened, but that the possibility of such a thing to happen was demonstrated. The same goes for all great historical ruptures. Recall the fall of the Berlin Wall: Although we all knew about the rotten inefficiency of the Communist regimes, we somehow did not “really believe” that they will disintegrate. Like Kissinger, we were all too much victims of cynical pragmatism.

[...]

The true battle begins now, after the victory: The battle for what this victory will effectively mean, especially within the context of two other much more ominous signs of history: 9/11 and the financial meltdown. Nothing was decided by Obama’s victory, but his victory widens our freedom and thereby the scope of our decisions. But regardless of whether we succeed or fail, Obama’s victory will remain a sign of hope in our otherwise dark times, a sign that the last word does not belong to “realist” cynics, be they from the Left or the Right.

- Slavoj Žižek, Why Cynics Are Wrong: The sublime shock of Obama’s victory

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