Shallow Democracy

Messiahs, Idols, And Demagogues 

November 1st, 2013 | R. Rados 

trudeau idol

Democracy has always been considered the trademark of a free society. It's about free individuals having the right to select their own leaders and representatives. However, on the dark side of democracy lingers a sad and undeniable truth. In most democracies, whether direct or indirect, our choices are limited to a small, popular slate. The success of these few candidates relies heavily on their popularity and their ability to appeal to a mass. That's the nature of democracy.

Democracy is about collectivism, not individualism. There is no real self governance in a democracy. Freedoms and choices can be taken away on a whim, just as in any dictatorship. In a democracy, choices are voted away by groups in the very same way they're taken away by an oligarch. The opposite is also true. Choices and freedoms can be granted with the permission of a group or majority.

Without debating whether democracy actually creates or reflects a truly free society, we should take a look at the types of leaders it elects and what they've accomplished.

Barack Obama – The Messiah

After September 11th and eight years of George W. Bush, some Americans felt that their country was headed in the wrong direction. Their country's international reputation was tattered and war weariness was at an all time high. To make things worse, America's economy was on the brink of collapse. People not only hated Bush, they blamed him and his Republicans for the financial meltdown. Times were tough and America was in dire straits.

People were deeply depressed, hopeless, and uninspired. Just as they were about to give up faith in their elected officials, the Democrats pulled out their secret weapon. He was a silver tongued rookie from Illinois named Barack Obama. Most remembered him from the Democratic National Convention of 2004 when he delivered the most memorable and inspiring speeches of all keynote speakers. He talked about his grandfather who grew up in Kenya and the unlikelihood of his own success in politics due to his race. People ate it up and immediately started imagining him as President. Four years later, Obama threw his hat into the race and defeated Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination.

Midway through the 2008 presidential campaign, Obama was making references to lights shining down upon voters. He told them they would have an epiphany and that they would be told to vote for Barack Obama. His campaign rallies gained positive media coverage at a rate nearly three times higher than that of Republican candidate, John McCain. People even cried and fainted during his speeches.

Americans believed that their savior had come. Obama wasn't just giving political speeches, he was giving spiritual sermons. Every word that came out of his mouth was deliberate, scripted, and vague. Obama's words were designed to invoke a spiritual response from Americans. He wasn't just speaking to them, he was reaching out and healing their souls.

Five years later, we have to look at Obama's real accomplishments. When he ran for office in 2008, he promised to fundamentally transform America. Maybe he has, in a subjective sense. However, his real objective accomplishments don't really add up to much. Even when we look closely at his most famous achievement, The Affordable Healthcare Act, we see something mired in controversy, dysfunction, growing opposition, and uncertainty. The act itself forces all Americans, rich or poor, to purchase private health insurance. It also creates new taxes for businesses and employers. In this sense, Obama has fundamentally transformed America – into a country of submissive people forced to accept a massive debt burden and laws that don't make sense.

In Obama's first year, his opponents and critics were called racists and shut out of debates. After his election, Obama continued his sermons and credited himself and the Democrats for paving the way toward a new “post-racial America”. Five years later, America's racial woes seem worse than they were six years ago. It seems as though America has actually taken a few steps backwards.

Obama's presidency has been a significant failure in almost every sense. His snappy, scripted oratory has begun to cause unprecedented resentment among most Americans. His approval ratings are close to matching Bush's ratings before he left office. His administration has had more scandals in its first five years than the Bush administration had in eight. Obama has managed to speak his way out of nearly all of them, including the Benghazi incident and the Fast And Furious program. One scandal Obama won't be able to talk his way out of is an illegal, international spying program that he was fully aware of.

Obama's charisma and oratory skills helped him get elected, but his skills are becoming increasingly less effective. His accomplishments don't add up. People's faith in him is waning. Obama's cult of personality was all there ever was. His power was rooted in talk, not substance. The change he had promised never manifested. Now Americans are paying the price for their decision.

Justin Trudeau – The Idol

When we speak of talk and no substance, Canada's poster boy Liberal comes to mind. His sparkling blue eyes and flamboyant charm make women swoon. He's been reaching out to Canada's bleeding heart pot-heads and striking all the right chords with environmentalists. He even goes out his way to defend the Keystone XL pipeline and the oil industry.

Even before he won his party's official leadership, Canadians couldn't get enough of Justin Trudeau. Like the late son of John F. Kennedy, the son of Canada's most popular Liberal will be the focus of tabloid media for a long time to come – whether he wins or loses. 

With no actual policy announcements or substantial platform to counter Stephen Harper, Justin Trudeau's popularity only makes sense if we consider him an idol, rather than a leader. From shouting obscenities in the House Of Commons to never having any of his own ideas put to vote, his reputation as an MP is hardly admirable. Looking at Trudeau's career as a politician reveals a lot of talk and very little substance.

Naheed Nenshi – The Wannabe Demagogue

It's very unusual to see demagoguery take place on a municipal level, so it was strange to see Calgary's mayor, Naheed Nenshi, resort to exaggerated conspiracy claims and outright lies during an election he was always destined to win.

Nenshi spent nearly two full months waging a war against a group of homebuilders who were doing what all businesses, unions, and individuals do regularly: support candidates that defend their interests. After all, that is the purpose of electing representatives. Everyone wants their elected representatives to defend their interests on an individual level as well as a collective one. Nenshi, however, chose to use the homebuilder endorsements to invoke anger, paranoia, and needless division. Naheed Nenshi chose to act like a demagogue in one of the strangest exhibitions of scaremongering seen in civic politics. Of course, Nenshi denied that his campaign was ever about fear and division. In classic Nenshi fashion, he tried to convince Calgarians that it would be absolutely foolish to disagree with him.

When facts reared their ugly head, Nenshi chose to call them false and absurd. He became dismissive when confronted about Calgary's compounded tax increase of 31% in three years. Instead, Nenshi chose to permeate myths, like the ominous agenda of Cal Wenzel and The Manning Centre. He wanted to do what his former campaign strategist, Stephen Carter, had taught him to do. He wanted to create a negative myth that would scare voters. Unfortunately, that type of fear-based campaigning and misinformation is often used to prey on the less educated and naive.

The strangest element of Naheed Nenshi's campaign was his use of misinformation to provoke anger and suspicion against his critics. What made it so strange was his lack of dangerous opponents. In most elections, where such demagoguery thrives, the race is a toss-up. From the very beginning of Calgary's municipal election, however, there were never any high profile candidates capable of winning. Nenshi was all alone, but he still felt the need to use classic, Machiavellian tactics to undermine his critics.

Nenshi had few accomplishments to take credit for after his first three years in office. Most of his election promises from 2010 went unfulfilled or were completely reversed, like his support for a Southeast LRT. Again, we see a man full of fanciful words and...that's about all.

Democracy – The Popularity Contest

Democracy has undoubtedly produced more larger-than-life personalities than leaders. It seems to be a more common trend now – with the advent of mass media – than it was fifty years ago. Before Ronald Reagan, most American Presidents were drab, lifeless personalities who had to rely on their ideas to get elected, not just their words, charisma, or charm.

It seems as though anyone who can recite a few lines from an eloquently written speech, or take a few clever shots at someone on Twitter, has what it takes to lead the people. Maybe as these leaders continue to fail, we'll slowly come to realize what talk and charm are really worth.