Obama's birthday and 'real' democracy

Maybe they should have postponed Barack Obama's 50th birthday party on Thursday until he shows signs of growing up a bit. He first looked callow, like a kid not quite up to it, in his BP oil spill speech a year ago. His mouth seemed to be going through the motions. "Consumers are buying more efficient cars and trucks, and families are making their homes more energy-efficient. Scientists and researchers are discovering clean energy technologies that someday will lead to entire new industries..." As if he was trying to mimic his hero, Ronald Reagan: not Reagan as president, but as TV pitchman for his employer, GE, back in the 1950s. Hmm...

Last week, refusing to stand up against the bullies in Congress who rejected all tax hikes on the super-rich while demanding cuts for the poor, Obama looked more like someone thinking about his next job, when this one ends in a year or five. It's the reverse of Reagan's route: first be president, then work for business. Ex-presidents like Bill Clinton, who didn't have family wealth, have done well afterwards, but it meant cultivating people like Bill Gates. Obama will still be young, with a young family. He won't be going back to community organizing. Such thoughts enter anyone's mind, including presidents. What matters is how firmly you resist them. That's where the callow part matters.

The last Canadian leader to face this crunch was Liberal John Turner in the free trade election of 1988. He fought and nearly defeated that deal, scandalizing the Canadian corporate world who'd reasonably assumed he was one of them. He even had his own famous table at a restaurant in Toronto's business district. When the deal squeezed through, due to the usual Liberal-NDP vote splitting, he returned home, but to a "mid-sized" Bay St. law firm, not one of the titans. In 1989, I asked Larry Grossman, former Ontario treasurer and a prominent Tory, how Turner's future looked. Grossman paused long and said hesitantly, "He might get directorships."

Maybe Obama could have made no difference, given the power of money to elect politicians, threaten to de-elect them or just buy them off. He probably wouldn't have found the votes in Congress anyway. Even Nelson Mandela, once he became South Africa's president, did little about inequality and economic injustice. It wasn't always quite this bad. The late Dalton Camp told me that, back when he ran Canada's Tory party and the corporate well went dry (imagine!), he went into a bank and borrowed money for a federal campaign. "You'd never get enough that way now," he said.

Is there anything positive to add? I think so. In the 1930s, the last time there was a big spike in rage against the obscenities of the super-rich, many in the West turned to fascism and the cult of the strong leader who took responsibility away from people but supposedly acted for them. Today there is similar fury. Its name is los indignados -- the irate -- but the demand is for more, not less democracy, as long as it's "real democracy," as they say in Spain, versus the phony, purchased kind now common. The shape of it is a work in progress; it's clearer what it won't be than what it will.

But I happen to be reading Alexis de Tocqueville's Democracy in America of the 1830s. The French visitor to the U.S. was mightily impressed by New England's town hall meetings, which weren't elected at all. Everyone participated directly. It doesn't sound so odd in the era of the Internet. He was less taken by elections for representatives. They were prone to corruption by money, even then. It was also clear that the framers of the U.S. constitution were wary of any political system that might get too genuinely democratic. In that they succeeded. It might finally be time for more "real" democracy, even in the U.S.A.

That's my attempt to say something encouraging and I think I believe it. As for cancelling Obama's birthday, it sounds mean-spirited. It's the one day in anyone's life when they don't need to do or achieve anything to be appreciated. You just have to exist. Okay. A grudging happy birthday to the guy.

This article was first published in the Toronto Star.

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