The Trouble With Democracy

By William Gairdner

The apocalypse is nigh upon us. “There will be panic in the land . . . Governments will turn viciously on radical feminists . . . Individualism will be ridiculed . . . Gay-pride days will be replaced by family- and child-pride days. Gayness will be seen as a selfish choice . . . Common-law couples will be seen as unpatriotic. Non-conforming couples will find themselves heavily stigmatized for not marrying . . . Couples that can’t produce more than two children will be pitied or stigmatized as selfish . . . ”

When William Gairdner looks upon this coming horror he is content. Already he feels “somewhat vindicated.”

Understanding Gairdner is not easy. This is not because he is dealing with particularly difficult ideas, but because his writing eschews logic and coherence.

He begins with the struggle between what he imagines as a “liberal” faith in the basic goodness of human beings and the “conservative” doctrine of Original Sin (pointlessly recast as the “Sinful Man theory”). You might think from this that liberals would be less likely to experiment with autocratic forms of government, but this would be misreading the lessons of history.

Today we have made democracy into a secular religion. The logic of liberalism, however, is leading us toward an extreme form of democracy – what Gairdner calls “hyperdemocracy” – that is really just a cover for dictatorship and oppression. It seems these softhearted and softheaded liberals are really just old-fashioned Gnostics (apathetic, selfish, Godless, materialistic, oversexed), and they are easily dominated by the “millenarian elites” (messianic progressives) who are always trying to transform society according to their interpretation of the General Will.

Gairdner is an apocalyptic writer, with a tendency to want to start separating the sheep from the goats right away. (For readers who can last that long, he even includes a number of two-sided tables near the end.) On the one side of his divide we have the descendants of Rousseau (and please, take a moment to pity what has been done to this man’s memory). Included in this group are those shadowy figures responsible for the “slaughterhouse of history” (the French Revolution, Nazi Germany, etc.). Politically, they are on the left. And if this means the Nazis were actually a bunch of lefties in disguise, then that, according to Gairdner, is exactly what they were.

On the right side – right politically, right morally – things get a little vague. Phrases like “civil society,” “family values” and “natural law” seem to cover it. Historically, the heroes are the founding fathers, though Gairdner also throws in a plug for the Canadian Alliance Party.

Such a brief outline, alas, gives no indication of what a horrible mess The Trouble With Democracy is. The more Gairdner worries at the definition of democracy the more vague it becomes, and the discussion remains on a very general level indeed. “I have tried to isolate the general sequence of political, moral, and psychological steps in the movement of mind that enables the march toward totalitarian government in general.” At least you can’t blame the man for thinking small.

The analysis (to give it a generous name) wanders all over the map, speculating on connections so tenuous they aren’t even stimulating, except to the extent that you get a workout from rolling your eyes. Both Pierre Trudeau and Mel Lastman are compared to Napoleon. Sweeping assertions are made without any supporting evidence or documentation. “It is well known,” for example, “that the state and the natural family have always waxed and waned inversely.” Apparently a relaxing of divorce laws brought about the fall of the Roman Empire.

In addition, the book is too long. Gairdner may well be Canada’s biggest windbag. The redundancy (“ignorant and stupid”, “what controls us enslaves us”) and impassioned rhetoric (nearly every page has sentences appearing in italics) never let up for a minute. Right from the Introduction we know we are in trouble. Democracy, Gairdner begins by intoning, is no longer what “so many patriots gave their lives for in the last war.”

A comment like that may leave readers wondering what year Gairdner thinks it is. Which war is he referring to? Bosnia? The Gulf War? Like many reactionary conservatives, Gairdner’s vision of the Good Life seems to be a suburban pastoral set during the Eisenhower administration.

Pastoral in literature is the fantasy of a rural, natural community living uncomplicated lives away from the evils of the wicked city. From what he has to say about Rousseau and the folk-myths of German nationalism we might expect Gairdner to mock such ideas. But no! Instead we are told there is “a growing morality gap between city and country dwellers.” Urbanites “lead the way in espousing every hyperdemocratic value, while country folk . . . generally presume the values of the old social, moral, organic democracy rooted in moral transcendence.”

I consider such stories to be personally flattering, since I have lived on a farm nearly my entire life, but I also know they are romantic myths.

Curious to know what evidence Gairdner had for this rubbish, I decided to check his sources. Here is the endnote giving his authority for the superiority of country values: “I have been unable to locate good poll results on the rural-urban cleavage of values I am assuming. The Gallup organization in Toronto has no statistics on this matter.”

Well! Isn’t that reassuring! He just made it up! Grrrrrr, those Gallup people in Toronto! There’s another name for the enemies list . . .

Unfortunately, the book is not nearly as amusing as its absurdity would suggest. Basically it is yet another “us” against “them” diatribe, with our political system imagined as a ventriloquist’s dummy operated by the usual unimpressive list of suspects: homosexuals, feminists, academics, the United Nations, left-wing judges, the liberal media, “shadowy radicals on the Ontario Human Rights Commission,” and so on. Anyone who believes that these are the people really running the show, and thus reaping the benefits of growing inequality in our society, isn’t just having trouble with democracy. He’s having trouble with reality.

Review first published May 5, 2001.


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