Thursday, September 17, 2009

In praise of minority

Call me a sentimental fool, but I think the wisest observation ever made about democracy was Winston Churchill’s famous declaration that it is the worst form of government there is, except for all the others.

None of the political wisdom and scholarship I have encountered in my life has managed to sum up so neatly the constant frustration with the venality, posturing, graft, waste, and partisan hackery of liberal democracy and the inescapable fact that the vast majority of us wouldn’t trade it for anything. Is democracy messy? Yes. Inefficient? Yes. These two elements alone make frustration with government and contempt for politicians the third and fourth constants in life after death and taxes. Which is why I’m generally willing to cut politicians a little slack for their failings, if for no other reason than those very failings are more or less inevitable on some level, unavoidable by-products of a political system based on horse-trading and compromise. Max Weber wasn’t exaggerating when he observed that one attempts to effect political solutions to social problems at nothing less than the cost of one’s own soul.

All this is apropos of our current shifting political landscape, or what we more commonly call a minority government. Rick Salutin had a column in the Globe last weekend in which he gently chided those complaining about the possibility of a fall election: “In a vital democracy, like ancient Athens or the Iroquois confederacy, people were involved in politics continually. Under our system, politics more or less equals elections, so you could call frequent elections our form of participatory democracy. It keeps citizens engaged and parties on their toes.” He then asks whether we’d have seen even the “minimal action” Harper has made on the economy or Afghanistan if the Tories had a majority.

Would I be happier with the Conservatives out of power? Absolutely. But a Harper minority is in a variety of ways preferable to a Liberal supermajority, for the simple reason that it tends to prevent complacency and the insufferable arrogance and tone-deafness that finally brought down the Liberals and would be worse (I believe) by a magnitude under a Harper majority. To keep his party in power, Harper has been forced to make all sorts of progressive concessions that would be unthinkable with a majority, and in response to Ignatieff’s saber-rattling he is floating concessions on EI spending in an attempt to garner NDP and Bloc support.

I love this for two reasons, one petty and one idealistic. The petty reason is that it puts egg on Harper’s face, who around this time last year was condemning the Liberals’ willingness to work with “socialists and separatists.” My, how the wheel turns.

The other reason is that I believe this is how it’s supposed to work. The whole point of having ideologically opposed political parties is to have them act as checks and balances on the other and mitigate their excesses. Would I prefer to have Prime Minister Ignatieff? Probably. But a Stephen Harper forced to reach to Iggy’s left will do nicely for the time being, thank you very much.

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