Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Running on Fumes and the Problems of Leadership. . .

As the Harper government sputters toward the fall election, a political machine that seems to be running on fumes alone, the issue of leadership is continually arising amongst the MSM as well bloggers at large.

All political and activist organizations must struggle with the the fundamental problem of balancing centralized leadership on the one hand and grassroots input on the other. A political party can often withstand greater centralization than an activist organization because an activist body relies so significantly on the time and input of its members to define it and push its agenda forward. Martin Luther King for example, as far as I know, only ever held a technical leadership role in the SCLC. His leadership for the Civil Rights Movement was largely derived from his popularity and perceived moral authority. Gandhi was, for a time, the leader of the Indian National Conference but most of his real leadership existed outside of any official organization or institution.

Because of the way Party politics work, I think we expect (or at least tolerate) a higher level of centralization, and leadership is often less a matter of moral authority and more a matter of perceived strength and strategic victory. However, even here where we accept a high degree of centralization, when a political organization goes out of balance there are grave consequences. Even within the highly charged atmosphere of capitalist democracy, and in the inherently centralized Westminster System of Government, a party out of balance is a deeply problematic thing. The reason for this is obvious, a political party relies on generational turnover to thrive. Anyone familiar with basic institutional process, let alone the specifics of party politics, understands that unless a party can continually train new crops of leaders, it will face serious problems. Thus a good political leader balances her own power with a good group of supporters to whom she can delegate responsibilities, people who can not only keep the leader fresh by asking the right questions and challenging the leadership, but can learn on the job to get better at what they do. Over centralized leadership, therefore suffers from two basic problems in political parties. The first problem is the tendency for an iron-fisted leader to lose touch not only with the party's supporters but to lose touch with reality in general. It would be like writing a complex book and having no one on whom you can rely to read it and speak up for any potential problems or mistakes. The result would be a text riddled with errors and conceptual pitfalls. The second, and perhaps more fundamental problem with extreme leadership is the tendency for such a leader to close out intelligent leaders in waiting. If a political leader choses to surround himself with yes-men and dull-witted peons, a basic power vacuum forms around the leader and the party's options for the future begin to close up.

It is should be obvious to even the most partizan conservative in Canada that the party of right has suffered from both of these basic problems. If Harper is unable to cheat his way to a victory in October and he actually willingly gives up power in the event of a loss, the Party is going to find itself in real trouble. Not only will it be unable to field credible and intelligent candidates for new leadership, but it will have a seriously difficult time distancing itself from the internal rot that has plagued it since its inception. In addition to this it will have handicapped itself in a serious way by setting all sorts of precedents allowing any ruling party from undermining the strength and potential of opposition parties. If a leader like Mulcair were to become the next PM, a leader whose centralizing style is frighteningly close to that of Harper himself, we could easily see the continuation of opportunistic prorogations, omnibus bills, the extreme stacking of government agencies with party friendly hacks, and even worse, the possible use of powers like we see in Bill C-51 to actually arrest and detain activists who oppose the government's agenda. Conservatives salivate at the thought of environmental activists being harassed by Revenue Canada or arrested for "Anti-Canadian" positions, but how will those same Conservatives feel if the Fraser Institute is harassed, of if climate-change deniers are arrested and held without charge, etc? Obviously I am not saying such a thing will happen, but the Conservative government has established the conditions by which it could.

Lenin worked for much of his career to establish a centralized power within the Bolshevik movement. As he became increasingly incapacitated by a series of strokes, he became the victim of the very thing he had worked for as Stalin took control of the Party and used the very mechanisms that Lenin had created to sideline him and silence his opposition to Stalin. The result of this very simple political mistake was seventy years of genuine dictatorship which then degenerated into a country run by organized crime.

Almost all of the scandals plaguing the current government in Canada are rooted in an extreme top-heavy structure which has allowed a leader to do literally almost anything (including in many cases ignoring the will of the Commons and increasingly ignoring the will of the SCofC) unchecked. Harper has appointed hopelessly incompetent people because he has no one around him who is willing to say "wait a minute." And even if he did, he wouldn't listen to them anyway. When the drive for power overtakes the drive for everything else, disaster can't be far behind. Most of Harper's scandals could have been avoided or easily overcome by appointing better people, delegating more skillfully, being more conciliatory, and admitting mistakes. Thus despite policies that I think have been absolutely disastrous for the country now and well into the future, I think Harper could have sailed to another four years in power by simply taking a better approach.

In the end, this fact makes me wonder - has Harper's intention all along really just been to cripple and destroy as much as possible the smooth functioning of Canada's democracy, to rob the capacity of the government of being a proper government? Not because of some perverse hatred of Canada (although, somewhere deep inside him this surely plays a part) but because the basic goal of the right over the last forty years has been to create a de facto dictatorship of the rich and powerful and reduce government to a body that cannot properly deliver services (one of the very things that a government is meant to do) but to can only operate as a kind of shell for corporations to run roughshod over society's larger interest.

It is not clear to me that we can overcome the damage that Harper has done to this nation. Fixing democracy in Canada will take several generations of committed political leaders, very active civil society, and a much more responsible media. The only way I see this happening is if the millennials begin to take up more active roles in society's problems and start committing themselves to collective solutions. I can only hope that the observant millennials have seen the dangers now of extreme, centralized, oligarchical leadership.


the salamander said...

.. as always.. excellent and stimulating perspectives.. thank you.

I'll try to collect related thoughts.. that might complement your essay
But for now a reminder of all those 'Conservative' MP's that were somehow elected
the barrage of omnibus legislation with deeply buried ethical bombs
the sheer incompetance.. endless & perverted.. and 'proud of it'
legislation in no way connected to any sort of election promise or 'mandate'
bizarre ideology pimped as that of 'all Canadians' .. Israel for example
resource stripping for export.. driving much of the disasatrous Harper agendas
attacks on the Courts.. after ridiculous delays, ignorance, appeals of flawed legislation
crude smearing of anything related to The Charter.. or Canada's Constitution

The list is essentially endless.. its numbing.. its become a daily blur.. of rot & failure
deceit, secrecy, spying on ordinary Canadians, ignoring Military Vets, aboriginals under attack
election fraud, failed procurement, nonsensical promises mever delivered
and unaccountable manipulation at the highest levels of Government
and its entwined political party.. from the PM on down
through all the quislings....

Toxic, dangerous legacy... cowardly.. conceited.. pompous
the complete opposite of 'glowing hearts' Canadian values

Kirby Evans said...

Thanks Sal. When you really think about it the list gets dizzying doesn't it?

Anonymous said...

Mr. Harper is a garden variety Daddy-issues Stockholm-syndrome victim. (https://postmediacanadadotcom.files.wordpress.com/2013/09/kennedy-harper_211498584.jpg)

He thinks he is rich because he self-identifies with the "problems of the rich" -eventually blaming his inability to become rich on poor-people/government/taxation/society, or in short, anyone but himself.

Sadly, his misanthropic brethren have leveraged themselves into political pluralities (which the Corporate MSM continually refer to as mandates)

In short, yes - his main goal was to cripple Canadian Democracy, though I doubt even he can grok that . . .

lungta said...

a blanket reversal or vacating every conservative act, law, trade agreement, institution and policy enacted over the entire term of the harper reform alliance party as the fruit of a treasonous criminal conspiracy dedicated to the fall of canada and the restoration of all libraries, services, programs and positions by ceasing the profits of the top 5% whose income increased 12x under harper would suit me...
but the assessment that both mulcair and the justine will "look to the future" and slip seamlessly into the bunker that stevey built is much more likely
i have watched the singing of o canada become no more than a corporate jingle
and harper/mackay/baird make canada be seen in international eyes as the larry/curly and moe ambassadors of a nation of arrogant retards
i'm pretty sure
the seventh extinction will claim us before the wounding rape of canadian integrity and values by harper will be healed and forgotten.

Owen Gray said...

As Salamander says, Kirby, the damage Harper has done has been mind numbing. He's an angry man hell bent on seeking revenge -- for who knows what?

The Mound of Sound said...

Hi, Kirby.

I read your excellent piece just after leaving a reply to a comment on my own blog part of which I think responds to this:

"We've been transformed into taxpayers instead of citizens even as we're evolving (especially in the US) a form of transactional government reminiscent of Rome's last years of greatness. Our bonds to our government are being weakened and, to some extent, shredded. We are returning to a form of "political capture" of the
Tammany Hall era. This subtle and hardly understood change in status from citizen to taxpayer might be a harbinger of a return to something resembling feudalism.

"The Harper government manipulates us with fearmongering and appeals to our basest instincts while its persistent resort to rigid control, secrecy and deceit prove that it has no interest in advancing much less defending democracy in Canada. Harper dines on wedge politics and cultivates deep societal division trusting he'll cleave just enough of the plebs to give him a good chance of majority.

"It's hard to fault a populace so methodically reduced for failing to find the courage to rise to meet challenges that are so obviously enormous.

"I have long opined that the degree of social cohesion we can muster in the coming decades will be one of the most influential factors in how Canadians weather the challenges of this century. Yet it's this very social cohesion that the Prince of Darkness strives relentlessly to dismember."

Yes, I agree that the damage Harper has inflicted will be lasting and that our kids and theirs will pay for it. Yet Harper isn't entirely to blame. Mulroney, at the heels of Thatcher and Reagan, sold us on the idea of globalized free trade that led to one agreement atop another, each requiring an additional yielding of certain incidents of national sovereignty. We have never understood the true price of that but it has come in the extinction of visionary leadership and the rise of autocratic rule by petit fonctionnaires, technocrats who administer instead of leading. They don't inspire or motivate the public but manipulate them through fearmongering and appeals to base instincts. In political terms, that is the Mark of Satan.

I have great reservations about Trudeau Jr. but his democratic reform proposals are enormously welcome. They may be our last best hope of rehabilitating our democracy yet I don't sense there's much public awareness of that. Very little in fact. If we can't sense what's already been lost how difficult will it be for more to be taken? In the past, autocrats simply stole it outright, suspending constitutions, etc. Now they do it incrementally, quietly consigning it to extinction in trade agreements. Government by consent of the people? That was such a quaint notion, wasn't it?

Scotian said...

Very well written piece Kirby, agree with everything about it. I maintain that Harper was on a mission all along to transform Canada into his Straussian mindset vision of what it should be, a paradise for the elites and the hell with the rest of us. That all our liberal institutions had to be destroyed, and destroyed with scorched earth and salting afterwards to make sure it stays dead. I have made this argument for a decade now, as you well know, and I see no reason to think I was wrong then or now. As to his motivations, does it really matter when you get right to it? It is his actions that count here, and those actions show a level of contempt and hatred for the vast majority commonly agreed upon Canadian values that were common between Dippers, Liberals and old school Progressive Conservatives, and a particularly virulent hatred for anything connected to the name Trudeau, be it the elder or son.

There was a reason I was shrieking a decade ago that this man was fundamentally different, that he was a stop at all costs for all sane Canadians, be they progressives, centrists, and old school PCs. I knew this would be coming, especially if he ever got a majority even once, and the fact that I could see this coming so easily from my vantage point means those who live at the highest levels of political reality in this nation had to have known it too, because Harper never hid what he truly was until after the defeat in 2004, which left almost 2 DECADES worth of public record material out there to give the warning.

to be concluded...

Scotian said...


This is one of my main reasons for being distrustful of the NDP these days, I simply do not believe they didn't see this coming in Harper, no, they saw it as an acceptable price for Canada to pay if it allowed them to crush the Liberals and take their place, and that is a level of political expediency hard to find comparable examples of, and makes the Lib expediency move on C51 look like nothing by comparison. This would be hard enough to swallow from a normal political party, but one that made its bones on placing principles first, and for several decades actually did a good job of actually living that pledge (until Layton, I really see the massive change happening then, there where hints from prior leaders but it was Layton who made it wholesale), but now feasts on that reputation while their reality is clearly one that places political expediency at their core, which makes me wonder why I should have any faith in them even leaving aside Mr Mulcair's tendency to be learning the wrong leadership lessons from Harper.

People do not get that my anger and distrust of the NDP comes from solidly rooted political convictions not rooted in partisanship for a party or leader, but for the more fundamental process itself that was betrayed by their actions. I also do not want to see the NDP win this time out, not because I hate them, not because I think they are a horrible and worse choice than Harper (which I don't) but because in no small part it offends me greatly to see those that I see as liars, traitors, and betrayers profit from their actions. I believe the NDP leadership sold out both their old school core followers who actually believe in the practice what you preach principle as well as the wider nation as a whole for the chance to become the new alternative governing party and crushing the Liberals once and for all. Well, that didn't end up working out on that front, yet if they manage to form government next time out they will still see it as worth the price.

Me, given the massive institutional damage on liberal/progressive values, policies, and institutions that took decades to build up that have been gutted under the decade of the Harperium, and especially this majority government period, I would suggest that the price was far too high and shows in no small part why the NDP for all its claims of superior moral/ethical leadership and values is when push comes to shove no better than those the most denounce, the Liberals, at best. And at least the Libs have a record of competent government and accepting of some progressiveness in their nature and practices, as proven by what Harper had to destroy that they built up over their decades as the governing party, the NDP lacks this while saying only they should be trusted. Well, I judge on actions taken, and their choices and actions of the last decade leave me very underwhelmed indeed, especially when they tell me to believe them and not my lying eyes all the time.