Inside Story

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Red in tooth and claw

Politics is hard and democracy is messy. Brett Evans reviews two new books that help explain why it doesn’t all end in disaster

Brett Evans 21 February 2014 1302 words

“At least you’ll get a book out of this”: Michael Ignatieff takes a moment away from campaigning in 2010. davehuehn/Flickr

Fire and Ashes: Success and Failure in Politics
By Michael Ignatieff | Harvard University Press | $41.95

The Confidence Trap: A History of Democracy in Crisis from World War I to the Present
By David Runciman | Princeton University Press | $52.95

THE expatriate Canadian intellectual Michael Ignatieff was always being asked to do things: write articles for high-profile magazines, give speeches at prestigious universities, appear in the media to explain the complexities of the world. Then, one day in October 2004, three heavyweights from Canada’s Liberal Party took him out to dinner at a restaurant near Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, where he was teaching a course in human rights, and asked him – in effect – to become prime minister of his homeland, a country he hadn’t lived in for thirty years.

Ignatieff gave it some thought – oh, at least a weekend, it seems - and then said yes, and over the next seven years, in quick succession, he was found a safe seat (or “riding,” as the Canadians call them) in Toronto; had a tilt at the leadership of his party and failed; had another go and succeeded; and then had a chance to form a coalition government with Canada’s small left-wing party, the NDP, but chose not to.

And that’s as close as he ever got to fulfilling the hopes of the three wise men who had journeyed south to anoint him. In 2011 he was crucified by the Canadian voters; under his leadership, the once-mighty Liberal Party suffered the most savage election defeat in its history. Ignatieff even lost his own riding. It was the democratic equivalent of being strung up from the proverbial lamppost.

Many Canadians never warmed to Ignatieff. The fact that he had left the country as a young man and never really come back, except in order to become prime minister, was manna from heaven for his opponents. They composed some of the most devastating attack ads ever aired: “Michael Ignatieff – Just Visiting” and “Michael Ignatieff – He Didn’t Come Home for You.”

He and his backers should have seen it coming, but they didn’t. Everyone remembers how the Prodigal Son is embraced by his estranged father; everyone forgets that the other son – the one who stayed on the farm – never forgives his wastrel brother.

Ignatieff tells the story of his recruitment into politics on the very first page of Fire and Ashes. It is not until page 168 – and seven years later – that he has an epiphany as he thinks about the Canadians who did support him. “I’d finally worked out whom I was doing politics for,” he writes. Just a little late, don’t you think? Looking back, he admits that his quixotic decision was driven by hubris and self-regard. What he doesn’t fully admit is how woefully unprepared he was for life as a politician.

That’s the most extraordinary aspect of Fire and Ashes: the fact that this highly educated, apparently worldly man failed to anticipate the ugly onslaught of political life. The book reads as if Ignatieff – the patrician, idealistic scholar – had never before contemplated the political process in all its bloody mayhem. Couldn’t he have learned just a little about political life from his library? He’s obviously read Machiavelli, Cicero and Tolstoy, but obviously he wasn’t reading them properly.

At one point late in the piece one of his friends tries to soften the blow of the stunning electoral loss by saying, “At least you’ll get a book out of this.” Ignatieff is angered by the idea. He didn’t do politics to write politics. In the end, though, this book might be the only lasting legacy of his political career.

Fire and Ashes is very good on the texture of political life. Ignatieff recalls, for example, that when he became a politician, “I had never been so well dressed in my life and had never felt so hollow.” The private man had been taken hostage by the public image. Every encounter, every gesture, every utterance was now political. It’s a tough vocation.

“There are no techniques in politics,” he realises in the end. “It is not a science but a charismatic art, dependent on skills of persuasion, oratory and bloody-minded perseverance, all of which can be learned in life but none of which can be taught in a classroom…”

Political history is littered with thinkers and theorists who tried out for democratic politics but failed to make the grade, Ignatieff writes – and, never afraid of inviting comparisons, he cites Edmund Burke, John Stuart Mill and Max Weber. So where do you find the men and women best suited to submitting themselves to the whirlpool – the constant scrutiny and the real and manufactured crises – that modern democratic politics has become? After all, as the Cambridge political scientist David Runciman reminds us in The Confidence Trap: A History of Democracy in Crisis from World War 1 to the Present, crises – and how politicians handle them – are the very essence of democracy.

Runciman’s book is made up of a series of fascinating and elegantly written case studies of the democracies in action – or inaction, as the case may be. He writes how the victorious democracies stuffed up the settlement of the first world war in 1918. How they failed to cope with the rise of fascism in 1933. How the cold war got invented in 1947. How the world danced along the edge of the nuclear abyss in 1962, but never quite lost its footing. How stagflation in 1974 almost derailed the world economy. How the sudden collapse of communism in 1989 was handled. And how the financial crisis in 2008 brought capitalism to its knees but didn’t quite knock it to the canvas.

According to Runciman, democracy’s strengths are also its weaknesses. If it is flexible, it is also impulsive; if it is responsive, it is also addicted to the short term. “The successes of democracy over the past hundred years have not resulted in more mature, far-sighted and self-aware democratic societies,” he writes. “Democracy has triumphed, but it has not grown up.”

Forever young, democracy will forever be in peril, susceptible to making the same mistakes again and again, but always – so far – capable of muddling through to another day. Democracies – like gifted Canadian intellectuals drawn to politics, perhaps – can overreach themselves, fail to learn the lessons of the past, and blunder into one crisis too many. She’ll be right, mate, until she isn’t.

Runciman is laudably, and understandably, pro-democracy but he’s also keen to alert us to its faults and challenges. In the past decade alone, he argues, democracies have “fought unsuccessful wars, mismanaged their finances, failed to take meaningful action of climate change, and seemed frozen in the face of China’s growing power.”

If democracy really is the worst form of government except for all the others, then it must last a very long time indeed. At least until the system of mutually assured destruction breaks down, the Sun burns out and collapses or we manage to make the Earth uninhabitable. Runciman is right to worry that there might be a crisis just around the corner that democracy, gripped in the confidence trap, won’t manage to muddle through.

Politicians and politics always seem to get a bad press – mainly from the sort of people you would never want anywhere near a P&C meeting, let alone federal cabinet. But someone has to be willing to get elected, if only to deal with all the potentially life-threatening crises our species just can’t seem to live without. •

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