Friday, February 22, 2013

Justin Trudeau, Unplugged

In the back of the minds of many citizens of democracies, I suspect, there is the ancient memory of a democratic Eden. It's not an actual memory, but an archetypal location from a time out of mind in which governments were truly participatory. Citizens will have a slightly different idea of what a truly participatory government looks like, based on their own preferred level of political engagement. The important point is that everyone carries around in their head an idea of how things are supposed to be. A lens through which contemporary political happenings gets focused, it's also the place where we want to be, and maybe even the place we are trying to get back to.

I had a reminder that I too have one of these ideal democratic polities floating around in my own head a couple of nights ago. Sabrina and I headed the 'West Island', to a church near the end of Sherbrooke Street. We went to see the Liberal leadership hopeful, Justin Trudeau, speak to a gathering of the Liberal faithful.

Now I claim no expertise in things political, nor any overpowering desire to throw myself into the political fray. At the very least, though, I am interested in observing, and will consent to participate in some small way. Still, most of what goes on around campaign events I find unnerving. Everything is scripted down to the last five second block of time. The candidate's smile is well rehearsed. Not a hair is out of place. Everyone cheers like they are at a rock concert or a soccer game. Stuff seems to happen without too much explicit interference by handlers. People know the roles so well that they must have checked their personal idiosyncrasies at the door. They lose themselves in the mass consciousness of the crowd, which is directed towards the adulation of the candidate, who is to the crowd like a soul animating a body.

The candidate who is on a first name basis with everyone did not walk into the hall. The wind swept him in. Striding boldly down the center aisle towards the front, Justin stopped to shake a hand. Turning to place a hand of a shoulder, he smiled for a picture, before ascending the stage. The entrance was so impressive, I have to believe it was rehearsed. Just how easily Justin took control of the room took me a bit by surprise. I noted my own emotional response to his entrance was favourable.

Then, after a few introductions, came the homily. It seems somewhere along the way we forgot what democracy was about. The Liberal Party paid dearly for its sins in the polls over the last two decades. Now the Conservatives and the NDP run Her Majesty's government and loyal opposition like military drill sergeants. Policy is dictated to the nation; the idea of a government as the servant of the people has been forgotten. We the Liberal Party membership, Justin says, will be the basis of a revived Liberal Party. The effort must be a grassroots effort, with strong and vibrant riding associations. Candidates won't be chosen by the Party leadership; they will be chosen by the local membership. The entire homily lasts, oh, probably 20 minutes. A warm round of applause was its conclusion.

Great speech. Smiles all around. That distant memory of a true participatory democracy, which isn't strictly a memory, I carry around in my head came bubbling up to the surface.

My distant memory is of a place with a responsive democratic government. Politicians who listen to their constituents, speak deferentially, confess the troubles of leadership; these sorts of people make their home there. They talk on behalf of the their constituency only if their office allows them to do so, and only in the capacity of their office. Not like American politicians and pundits, who can't resist speaking on behalf of a silent citizenry. Nor like the puffy Senator Mike Duffy, who informs me he knows Canadians know he has never abused the privileges of the Upper House, which Canadians could not know with anything more than the naive trust placed in a slippery salesman. My distant memory looked a little like the vision for a new political order Justin spoke about; it was in stark contrast to the carefully managed ethos of a political campaign.

People will be paid good money to manipulate audiences. Demographic studies are the new way of sounding out the mood of the populace. Polling agencies aid in the development talking points with specific targets in mind. If Justin does his job right, and if he is to have any chance of success, he will have to make use of all the latest marketing and social media strategies. Politicians no longer shout at crowds without first having tapped every possible data source that can tell them what the crowd wants to hear.

This delicately difficult act of balancing form with content, structure with personality, is native to exercise of political authority. The democratic character of our polity entails personal representation. But the size of our polity makes self-representation impossible, not merely impractical, but impossible. There will be an unavoidable incongruity between the form and content of political authority. There will also be ample oppourtunity for persons in authority to err on one side or the other. Perhaps what bothers me about the campaign circuit is that the candidate is entirely personable in an entirely structured way.

Sabrina and I were among the last to have our picture taken with Justin. I made a point of apologizing for asking him to smile for a camera one more time. He did not look tired, though I can well imagine he felt it.

1 comment:

Dharshika W. said...

Well said Richard. Sadly, we all look at politics through our idealistic lens as if we live in an Utopian society.