Shaking up the elites

Within a week the American political landscape will be altered almost as dramatically as Toronto's would have been had -- to take an absurd idea -- Rob Ford become mayor. Oh, that actually happened in Toronto. This could start to get exciting.

I am sure Republicans will regain the House of Representatives and probably also the U.S. Senate. This is not where the smart money is but I am not the smart money. I am a pundit. However, my prediction of a Republican victory in the Senate is not the product of wishful thinking nor is it a prediction of a Republican victory. To begin with, I do not regard electoral victories as transcendent or permanent. I grew up when the world really seemed to be going up the spout, and was delighted to see Thatcher, Reagan and John Paul II emerge. But when I read my friend John O'Sullivan's The President, the Pope, and the Prime Minister: Three Who Changed the World, a convincing argument that we can't possibly be in the mess we're in now, my reaction was: if those three changed the world, it sure changed back fast.

Lady Thatcher herself once said that there are no lost causes in politics because there are no won causes. It was not a very deep remark. I can readily reel off lost causes from Akkad to Bolshevism to the Mayan Empire. (I know their calendar is meant to make the world end in 2012 but I'm not cancelling my auto insurance just yet.) But she was right about permanently won causes. It does not surprise me that the left believes in salvation by voting alone but it seems oddly out of place on the right.

Moreover, what is coming up is not a Republican victory. Never mind formal labels; it will represent a victory for insurgents against a Republican Establishment too obtuse either to sympathize with or to thwart the uprising.

In this sense something important is going on. A recent MSNBC commentary explained, in splendid pundit fashion, why the Republicans would and would not take the House, including in the latter category, "the Tea Party pushing the GOP too far to the right" and "our poll shows the GOP with a lower fav/unfav than the Dem Party."

Connect the dots, people. The Republican party is unpopular because under George W. Bush it proved less than competent in foreign policy and wackily irresponsible on budgets. Tea Partiers dislike RINOs ("Republicans In Name Only" for those of you without Grand Union flags) more than Democrats. And when they provoked the usual scornful sniffing among the chattering classes, it only strengthened them.

Rob Ford's victory in the Toronto mayoral election is a non-trivial echo of this phenomenon, especially his running much further ahead of shoo-in progressive favourite George Smitherman among immigrants than native-born Canadians. The angry-white-male dismissal of the phenomenon is simply not possible any more.

As J. Budziszewski noted about patterns behind the apparent random madness of public affairs, people "are more logical than they know; they are only logical slowly." They are slowly but inexorably realizing that the methods and ideas of the past half century have definitively failed. If the political elites don't adjust, unbelievable things will continue to happen because only fringe candidates will speak important truths: We cannot make the state bigger, more expensive or more intrusive; it has exhausted its managerial capacity at the size it now is and runaway public spending is threatening not only the economy but the very social programs making the spending run away.

The inability of any of our mainstream parties to get traction with the electorate is a deeper symptom of the same thing. Even in boring Ottawa, where we put a perennial political insider back in a job he held more than a decade ago, mayor-elect Jim Watson felt obliged to say "the public has voted for change and they have voted for change in a very big way." The tune is all wrong, but the lyrics are revealing. Large numbers of people, here too, no longer believe that if the usual suspects are left undisturbed, they'll have everything under control in a year or two.

Of course, as Ottawans' decision to elect Larry O'Brien last time around proves, getting rid of someone hopelessly mired in the failed remedies of the past is no guarantee that you'll get someone who knows how to go back to the sound remedies of the more distant past. And even if you do, it won't be long before some charismatic clown comes along peddling exploded fatuities of state paternalism as bold and new. There may be heaps of lost causes in politics, but no permanent victories.

I've seen 'em come and go and I take it in stride. But when I sense the popular mood changing in ways politicians and elites can no longer ignore or safely insult, I nearly get excited.

[First published in The Ottawa Citizen]

ColumnsJohn Robson