A Prescription for Democracy

Restoring Democracy in An Age of Populists and Pestilence

By Jonathan Manthorpe

Cormorant Books/August 2020

Reviewed by Robin Sears

September 29, 2020

Among the many foreign and war correspondents I have known, I have yet to meet one who ended their career as a hardline conservative. They may have started with a dyspeptic and cynical view of humanity. They may have taken a ‘not-my-business’ stance to colleagues who focused on the issues of justice and equity in covering the horrors of war, vicious autocrats, and simple villains. The power of the merciless state, the suffering of the ‘other’ in too many places, the mundane horror of human violence, inevitably push them to a skeptical rejection of authority, and deep empathy for the victim.

The giants of post-war Western foreign correspondents — and Jonathan Manthorpe is one of our giants — were the first of their profession for whom the entire world was their beat. Manthorpe reported on the fall of apartheid and the Berlin Wall, too many wars, and the birth and stumbles of dozens of politicians, parties and governments. Early in his career, he wrote what is still regarded as the standard text on the Ontario Conservative Big Blue Machine, The Power and the Tories. His newest book, Restoring Democracy in An Age of Populists and Pestilence is a sharp-edged critique of the slide of the Western democracies based on that life of observation.

Manthorpe sadly rues how wide has grown the chasm between our governing elites and our citizens. He acknowledges that in covering many of the events that have led to this place, that he too, “…did not see the broader context [better] than anyone else.” It is that admission that forms the logical thread that runs through his compelling dissection of the badly weakened roots of political parties and the governments they have controlled. How were we all so blind?

How could someone as sage as Francis Fukuyama, for example, go from Cold Warrior conservative, to triumphalist “America Won!”  trumpeter, to suicidally gloomy Cassandra. How did so many leaders not notice, until very late in the day, that the slogans and nostrums of the 50’s and 60s, were no longer believed. A cynical Japanese response is, “We Japanese do not learn from experience, we only learn from catastrophe.” Perhaps that is a weakness more widely shared.

This is Manthorpe’s second book in as many years, coming on the heels of his best-selling The Claws of the Panda, a powerful shredding of whatever faith may yet remain in some about the true goals of the Chinese Communist Party. Manthorpe was an early student of Taiwan’s success, at a time when most of us — and I include myself among them — simply did not think it was of great relevance. Taiwan’s champions have been demonstrably been proven right, as Taiwan’s status and profile on a global stage rises, in sharp contrast to Beijing’s increasing slide after a long list of international gaffes.

This is not an academic text, though it is replete with data and stats, perhaps overly so. It skims the surface of the EU’s origin story, the rise and fall of Thatcherism, Reagan, and Macron, the impact of COVID-19 politically and socially, reciting the key events and outcomes that students of international relations will already know well. But Manthorpe’s target audience is a wider, less expert one. Like any great storytelling journalist, he lays the factual foundation in prose, and delivers his better vision in poetry.

He returns again and again to the theme of alienation. Like any seasoned journo, he draws short, piercing bios — sometimes just a sentence. On Boris Johnson, whom he detests, he says, that despite his background of privilege and easy rise to the top of class-burdened Britain, “There is some flaw in Johnson’s character that has driven him to opt for lies and deception…when truth and honesty would undoubtedly have served him just as well, if not better.”

On American white evangelical leaders, he is delightfully scathing in understatement. He cites with obvious incredulity surveys reflecting that those leaders support Trump as a consequence of his ‘sterling character’. “That must involve a significant amount of Christian charity in the light of Trump’s proven history as an adulterer, liar, fraud, bully and confidence man,” he mutters.

An occasional common Canadian failing does creep in: sanctimony about America: “Democracy,” he declares, “was an afterthought adopted with much hesitation,” by their founding fathers. Ours were, if anything, less keen on popular will.

The irony, as Manthorpe painfully dissects, is that social convening and bonding power used to be the role of traditional political parties. The traditional parties have allowed themselves to become merely second-rate celebrity marketing machines, promoted by a billion-dollar industry of not entirely salubrious individuals.

He stands with Donald Savoie on the continuing assault on Canadian institutions of government and public sector service delivery. Manthorpe is also a convincing advocate of the damage that GDP measurement alone does to equality, happiness and the climate.

Like many others, he struggles to find patterns and prospects for the strengthening of liberal democracy. But like other explorers of this sad phenomenon, who have produced a river of recent books, Manthorpe is better on analysis and description than prescription and solutions. But if it were easy to deliver new structures and solutions by declaring “This’ll fix it!,” I suppose we wouldn’t be here.

There is one certitude in all the countries and systems he describes who have succumbed to intolerant, corrupt populism, it is the prevalence of alienation and loneliness. As Hannah Arendt said in her seminal book on the 1930s populist phenomenon, ‘The Origins of Totalitarianism,’ “[they live in] isolation and lack of normal social relationships …it is through surrendering themselves to an ideology…[that] they rediscover their purpose and respect.”

Here is an Italian La Liga activist (formerly the Northern League Party of Mario Salvini) describing his thrill with that populist organization’s meetings and party events, “You can meet a lot of people. We sing and there’s a really strong feeling of tradition.” He could be describing any gathering of Trumpies, or Le Pen or Victor Orban’s parties.

The irony, as Manthorpe painfully dissects, is that social convening and bonding power used to be the role of traditional political parties. The traditional parties have allowed themselves to become merely second-rate celebrity marketing machines, promoted by a billion-dollar industry of not entirely salubrious individuals.

Parties who brag about the number of online members they’ve signed up to vote in their latest celebrity slugfest don’t crow so loudly a year later, when those who renew sometimes fall to a fraction of what was ‘Our historic new membership high.’  Is it any wonder that the ‘forgotten’ voter doesn’t see much difference between politicians’ ads and a Shamwow sponge offer on his Twitter feed? One requires two or three keystrokes and delivers a typically shoddy product; and sadly, too often, so does the other.

Restoring democracy needs to start with the foundation stones of Western democracies, the deeply rooted organizations of broad national political parties effectively championing two essential truths: only political power and its decisions can change your world, and you can have influence over them. Manthorpe has done an excellent job of detailing the problems, and pointing to some hopeful directions, all written with the clarity, severity and authority of an excellent journalist.

Contributing Writer Robin V. Sears, a principal of the Earnscliffe Strategy Group in Ottawa, previously served for five years in Tokyo as Ontario’s agent-general in Asia, and later for another five years in the private sector in Hong Kong.