Italian politics have long had something of a circus vibe to them. The electoral gains this week of Giorgia Meloni’s Brothers of Italy party and its two coalition partners mean a hard-right government is likely to emerge when the dust settles.
We can expect the kind of populist bombast associated with such political parties, the kind with which we’re all very familiar give the Trump-led sideshow in the US. And such will be the label opponents will stick on new federal Conservative leader Pierre Poilievre, whose bid for the job was punctuated with many whoppers and talking points out of the conspiracist’s playbook.
“In Canada, the Conservative Party has just named a new leader, Pierre Poilievre, a lifetime politician who spent months selling party memberships by claiming that a nefarious group of shadowy global elites is conspiring against average Canadians. You know, the sort of ideas that used to be the exclusive preserve of Marxist-Leninists,” wrote the Globe and Mail’s editorial board last week, using the occasion to call for a return instead of what it called a disappearing breed: the serious political leader.
“By that we mean an elected official of any stripe who tells voters that governing involves hard choices, that there are no simple answers to complex questions, and that an endlessly repeated hashtag isn’t a policy.
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“Someone who does not feed public cynicism about government by attacking its institutions, or exaggerating its failings for political advantage. Or who does not cause the same harm by breaking important promises, or by putting themselves in blatant conflicts of interest (or both),” reads the editorial
That seems like a pipedream given the partisan political climate both leading and led by the ease of access to disinformation, misinformation, conspiracy theories and outright lies posted on social media.
The difficulty is compounded by our somewhat bipolar interpretation of politics these days. We’re looking for politicians with curb appeal – elections are often popularity contests, more than anything else – but decry wonkishness. Sound bites over detailed policy statements.
We grumble about taxes, but do nothing to hold politicians and bureaucrats to account. We eat up all kinds of ridiculous promises and bromides, but care not for the consequences … or the fact that most of what gets said on the campaign trail is simply dropped.
We recognize there are problems galore with the system, but prefer to delegate to others the task of fixing them, though they never do.
Surveys consistently show that a large majority of us believe governments are driven by wealthy interest groups, especially corporate donors, and that governments regularly act unethically to help their business friends and are not doing enough to stop corruption. Surveys also show that a large majority of Canadians support placing strict limits on the influence of wealthy interests in politics. We consistently fail to follow up.
We suffer from a dearth of good leaders. Even passable ones.
That’s true from the federal government right on down to the local level.
This is not about charisma or the ability to give rousing speeches, but proper governance means looking out for the public good rather than the interests of the a few, whether that’s the donors, the lobbyists or the self-serving politicians and bureaucrats themselves.
Unfortunately, instead of dismissing all of it as useless vote-buying nonsense, we give credence to the endless stream of promises, half-truths and blatant lies – again, out of one mouth more than others.
Sure, things are much worse elsewhere, including in the United States, but we’re not immune to the unresponsive governance that shows callous disregard for the public good and consistently poor decisions federally, provincially and regionally.
It’s important to remember that democracy is not the default situation – it was hard fought, and we’re very much guilty of letting it slip away.
As the late historian R.R. Palmer notes in his look at the democratic sea change of the latter half of the 18th century, people’s realization that they could and should be doing better led to a revolutionary fervour. In his seminal work, The Age of the Democratic Revolution: A Political History of Europe and America, 1760–1800, the Princeton and Yale historian argues that the American, French, and Polish revolutions – and the movements for political change in Britain, Ireland, Holland, and elsewhere – were manifestations of similar political ideas, needs and conflicts.
His work traces the clash between an older form of society, marked by legalized social rank and hereditary or self-perpetuating elites, and a new form of society that placed a greater value on social mobility and legal equality.
“Politically, the eighteenth-century movement was against the possession of government, or any public power, by any established, privileged, closed, or self-recruiting groups of men. It denied that any person could exercise coercive authority simply by his own right, or by right of his status, or by right of ‘history,’ either in the old-fashioned sense of custom and inheritance, or in any newer dialectical sense, unknown to the eighteenth, in which ‘history’ might be supposed to give some special elite or revolutionary vanguard a right to rule. The ‘democratic revolution’ emphasized the delegation of authority and the removability of officials, precisely because, as we shall see, neither delegation nor removability were much recognized in actual institutions,” he wrote.
In those days, the elite were aristocrats, land holders and church officials who gained power through no credible or accountable way. They were prone to the worst kinds of abuses of the masses. Circumstances are now different, but there are many parallels when it comes to a lack of accountability and efforts to cut the public out of the democratic process.
Populists look to stir up the growing ire against government to gain power for themselves, not to lessen the power of governments as a means of making life better for the people.