Last Updated:Friday - 09/24/2010
February 1, 1999
Populism and social teaching
Edmonton Reform MP Ian McClelland has done a service to his party and to Canadian politics in general by questioning his party's belief that public opinion is the force which ought to drive all public policy decisions. For his pains, McClelland has been called an elitist and a prima donna.
But McClelland has done little more than state the obvious - that politicians, like members of every other profession, learn something by practising their profession and that sometimes they should make unpopular decisions. We elect one politician rather than another to office for reasons. Those reasons ought to include our judgment that we support the political philosophy of the candidates who receives our vote and that we judge him or her to be a person of reputable, perhaps outstanding, character.
If we don't care about the philosophy and character of our elected officials, if we only want them to do what the majority wishes, then we don't even need such officials. We could have referenda on all legislation, with people voting from the comfort of their homes.
Fortunately, we do not take this approach. Public opinion is sometimes ill-informed, especially on more complex issues, and is prone in times of national hardship to single out minority groups as the cause of the nation's woes. Heaven forbid that we should ever have political leaders who inflame negative feelings toward minorities.
True leadership, as McClelland notes, will try to build a national consensus rather than exacerbate divisions. It will bring out what is best in a community rather than appeal to what is worst.
Admittedly, political leaders do not always do this. The sense of grievance held by various regions in Canada as well as by groups such as the poor, women, aboriginal people and others testify to at least the perception of unfairness in public policy. But our hope for overcoming such grievances lies more in the reform of decision-making structures than it does in governance by public opinion polls.
It was the will of his constituents, after all, which led Reform leader Preston Manning to declare that he would support legislation allowing assisted suicide even though he was "personally opposed."
This is exactly the approach Pope John Paul criticized in his 1995 encyclical The Gospel of Life when he stated, "Democracy cannot be idolized to the point of making it a substitute for morality or a panacea for immorality. Fundamentally, democracy is a 'system' and as such is a means and not an end. It's 'moral' value is not automatic, but depends on conformity to the moral law" (n. 70).
When McClelland calls for "principled political leadership," it does not necessarily imply elitism. It is not elitist to try to build a national consensus around the common good or to defend moral principles. It is elitist to manipulate public opinion to conform to one's personal agenda or the goals of those who are already privileged. The task of the politician is to discern the one from the other and to work for the common good. Different political parties thrive in a democracy precisely because there is disagreement over what constitutes the common good.
McClelland says his rejection of rule by public opinion poll is a rejection of populism. But that need not be the case. The best tradition of populism values family, private property and the local community highly and defends them from encroachment from big government and big business. It contends religion is too important to be merely private. And it accepts the need for moral limits to human action and material limits to wealth and consumption.
A populism could be envisioned which is in harmony with both Catholic social teaching and the popular will. Such populism, however, is something different than rule by opinion poll.
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