Ralph Klein has gone and it is time to retire Ralph's World. Thanks to all of you who have supported this venture by contributing material and through your comments. It has been fun.

Should we get another blog underway? Let me know your thoughts by e-mailing me at johnnyslow@gmail.com.

John Slow
January 1, 2007

Saturday, May 06, 2006



*Please note: This post draws on concepts found in two fine books on democracy.

(1) Historian John Lukacs’ “DEMOCRACY AND POPULISM” subtitled “FEAR AND HATRED” is an insightful analysis of how political power is more and more the result of a leader’s ability to manage information by enlisting the the media as a framer of the issues and determiner of the language of public discourse.

(2) Communication researcher and teacher George Lakoff’s book “DON’T THINK OF AN ELEPHANT” takes some of Lukacs’ concepts and relates them to the issues facing more progressive and humanitarian parties today. (Please refer to SENSIBLE HEALTH CARE # 8 for a link that calls up a PDF sample of this book)

Anyone who knows the difference between democracy and dictatorship has to be aware that there has been, since the 1930s, a very determined and seriously self serving force at work moving Alberta governments as dangerously close to autocratism as possible without entirely losing the public illusion of being democratic.

Populism is more dangerous to democracy than fascism or communism because of how it uses democratic concepts in public while practicing autocratic methods in secret.

The power of populism to undermine democracy derives from the skill of political leaders at appearing to understand and respond to the emotional needs of large enough portion of the population to swing elections.

Once elected, however, they can and do act almost dictatorially by claiming to have been chosen by the will of the people. (Ralph Klein and now Stephen Harper are exhibits #1)

As historian Lukacs traces the development of populism from the time of Hitler, Mussolini and others, it becomes clear that populist leaders characteristically emerge in periods when people are, or can be, frightened by some external force and moved to angry action toward some real or imagined “bad guys”.

Populist leaders have always been oratorically evangelical. Increasingly they have become skilled at exploiting the technology of mass communication.

Mass communications, in turn, influence individuals in the privacy of their own homes, in the coffee shops and through the phone in talk shows which are little more than poolings of opinion often inflamed by a biased host acting as apologist for the populist leader of the day.

(To illustrate the power of mass media being used by a political leader recently; Lukacs indicates in one footnote that:- leading the United States into the Iraq conflict, was the first time in US history that war has been declared purely for the sake of enhancing the popularity of the President. Democracy and Populism p. 211)

George Lakoff’s addition to this historian’s study of populism is to examine and explain how populist leaders, and conservatism’s leaders in particular, have learned to feed their ideas and policies to the public in the context of what he calls “frames” that they choose as background for their ideas and language.

Alberta politicians, since at least William Aberhart's time, have framed their messages around the spectre of an eastern dominated Federal government threatening to interfere with our rights/ freedoms and, in particular, to grab our resources.

The label “Albertans” has meant, since at least Lougheed’s time, that we are always in a kind of tribal warfare situation guarding our natural resources from the rest of Canada and, therefore, must always be ready to do battle against the intrusions of the “feds”.

Little doubt that Ralph Klein’s populist power has been based solidly on his oratorically evangelistic ability to feed his language to the public through the frame of a threatened people at war with an enemy against which he must act to protect us and keep us safely prosperous.

Klein’s masterful exploitation of technology and his skillful manipulation of the media is, by now, legendary.

Progressive leaders in Alberta have been, and still are, totally confused by the realization that accurate information and demands for government openness are almost impotent when marshaled against words like “deficit, spiraling out of control, going though the roof , unsustainable, culture of entitlement, tax relief” and so on .

George Lakoff in “DON’T THINK OF AN ELEPHANt” finds an answer to why so many people will vote for a politician whose policies disdain them and deprive them of their fair share of the rights and benefits of a democratic society.

His research leads him see that, a strong emotional commitment can be evoked when the image of a populist politician is portrayed as the powerful male parent who will keep his children safe from threatening external forces, set the standards and uphold clearly defined moral values by which his family will be guided and controlled.

Recall, at this point, how our premier was originally sold as “HE LISTENS AND HE CARES.”

Once an emotional commitment to that image of Ralph Klein, the kindly caring listening daddy, was made, the majority of people in Alberta have allowed his government, for over a decade, to shame them into believing they had been bad and selfish children, despite all evidence to the contrary.

It was, the listening and caring premier said, because we had selfishly spent public money on education, healthcare, seniors benefits and welfare that he must do what we had told him to do and that was; take benefits away from those who were already weaker and less well off in order to enhance the prosperity of those already well off.

His other unspoken but obvious personal objective was to impress the proponents of conservatism in Canada, US and over the seas with with his economic expertise.

One characteristics of populist leaders,according to historian Lukacs, is their belief that between themselves and their advisors they are capable of selling whatever action or policy they propose even in the face of widespread opposition.

Ralph Klein’s most recent attempt to use his populist power to wrest public healthcare from the hands of the public and put it into the hands of corporate marketers has been, to date, only partially successful.

However, as much as many would like to see the modification of the “third way” as a triumph for democracy both these writers would tell us: that would mean we don‘t understand how populism works.

The public language of conservatism in Alberta may change, especially if the son of former populist Premier Manning, (who now stands in the wings ready to enter as Premier Klein exits stage right) succeeds in his plan to restore the old order.

But the workings of a populist government hidden behind the closed doors of government house will even increase and the same values driving the present government will emerge under another name so long as conservatism's values dominate in this province..

The subtitle of George Lakoff's analysis of conservative populism is to challenge progressive thinkers to KNOW YOUR VALUES AND FRAME THE DEBATE.

There lies the challenge and the hope for progressive political leaders and followers which, in Alberta and Canada means all those whose policies and thinking see government as a servant of all people and not just those who are already masters in the market place.

Blair McPherson

Post Sctript:
This one post on one blog can only begin to look at the at the relevance these two books have for those who care deeply about democracy.

In the meantime, as recent history indicates, there is evidence that many in Alberta are unwilling to continue being treated by their government as poorly informed and impolite children who can be silenced by the posturing of an angry father figure.

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