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.