For the past couple of weeks, I’ve been reading Niccolò Machiavelli’s Discourses on Livy. It’s a book of commentaries on different events in the history of the Roman Republic, where a concept, principle, ethical guideline, or virtue becomes clear through examining a few examples from ancient Rome or his contemporary northern Italy.
I thought I’d try writing today’s post as a piece of writing in the same style.
I work in political activism and in organizing my local social democratic party, the NDP in my part of southwestern Toronto. So I’m interested in news and developments throughout the party around Canada. Here’s a little discourse, inspired by Machiavelli, on one lesson to be learned for democratic spirits everywhere.
Growing Accustomed to Power Encourages Factionalism and Weakness; Their Only Remedy Is Total Defeat
As a province, Manitoba has a lot of disadvantages. Few industries are there, the economy has never been strong beyond Winnipeg, and many of its indigenous communities – a considerable minority of the population – suffer horribly from the trauma of Canada’s genocide machines of the residential schools.
During their 17 years in power over the provincial government, the NDP achieved a lot to build a more fair and equal society throughout Manitoba. Gary Doer was a wise and moderate premier, designing a more fair tax code to invest in healthcare and education institutions.
Doer’s great virtue was knowing how to consolidate the security of his party’s electoral victory in 1999, making modest yet transformative changes to the government to help Manitobans become more prosperous, defending themselves from economic downturn with government services they could rely on and lowering the tax burden of the poor.
Machiavelli’s analytic frameworks focus on the virtues gained from how you react to where fate has placed you. The roots of Doer’s wisdom were in his experience having taken over the NDP when they were in disarray as a party.
Howard Pawley had presided over a party that had descended into rebellion against him and his cabinet, and resigned in disgrace after an election defeat in 1988. Doer rallied the party members throughout the province, and his growing esteem in the eyes of the people slowly rallied enough of them to win after a decade in opposition.
Doer stepped down as Premier of Manitoba after ten years, a man loved by Manitobans and many more across Canada. Greg Selinger took his place. But Selinger had not been shaped by years of building his reputation through public leadership, nor had any years of rebuilding a party from difficult defeats shaped him.
Selinger had arrived at political prominence in the halls of power themselves. He’d grown accustomed to their comfort.
The party membership may have voted for him to be their leader, but he had won the party itself no victories. Selinger became the Premier by designation, not victory over the people. Even those victories he did gain, he gained from the seat of power itself.
Selinger reversed his promise not to raise sales taxes, a decision that not only hurt the poor more than the wealthy; the act itself was a transgression against a vow he’d made to the people. The public coffers now had more funds, but they were raised on the backs of the poor and with hypocritical speech.
Selinger’s broken promise made the people reject him. Sensing their leader’s weakness, factions split the NDP caucus. Theresa Oswald, one of Selinger’s trusted ministers, joined with other party leaders to demand his resignation. But the rebellious faction never spoke of regaining trust with the people, instead framing their rebellion entirely in tactical terms.
Selinger’s popularity was so low, he’d be unable to win another election. They argued in terms of the NDP’s ability to keep power over the state, never about the true source of that power, the love and trust of the people.
That Selinger would lose 2016’s election was obvious, an inescapable fact. Now he’s resigned, and the factions themselves are adrift. Separated from the offices of power, they’ve lost the fuel that fired their faction’s engines.
Wab Kinew is an NDP politician that, to my eyes now, holds the greatest promise for this, since there’s a dedication deep in his heart to forge an entirely new social compact between Manitobans and their state.
He’s a flawed man, but has the potential for greatness because of the idealism and strength of his soul. He’s survived the fires of Canada’s century-long genocide against its indigenous peoples without breaking. Such a person has potential for greatness, and the opportunity to rebuild a party whose fundamental values lie in prosperity and progress for all offers a long path of growing nobility.
Restore virtue to politics and you’ll earn the love of the people, who will join you for transformative acts that will bring prosperity, happiness, healing, and hope to all. This is the message of Machiavelli’s Discourses.