The events in Charlottesville raise important questions about the role of ideology in government, particularly in regards to the long held doctrine that public servants remain non-partisan. It is practiced in Canada, and for good reason, you don’t’ want public servants acting on the basis of political ideology and supporting one party or another. It could raise serious issues in governance. But what has happened in the U.S. this week, and the President’s response especially, has raised questions about where you draw the line as individuals working within government. Consider the possible ramifications of all of this. If the President continues his defense of white supremacists and Neo-Nazis, and you oppose this for very good reasons, and you resign rather than work for the administration, what then? Does the administration then fill up the White House with supporters of this ideology? In other words, what happens when your boss doesn’t believe in the principles of non-partisanship in the public sector?

Is this the “alternative” to the political right? (Photo EDU BAYER / The New York Times)

Why are we at this juncture? There are many reasons but one not often discussed is that Western governments have for far too long rested on the notion that they were somehow always above board, and that the extremism and radicalism found in other parts of the world, including in Europe, were problems that happened “over there,” and if they were here, they were “foreign” and “imported.” History supposedly ended remember? Western-style democracy and liberalism were thought by many as superior to other forms of government and other ideologies found elsewhere. So there’s been no effort to even think of contingency plans, the problem must have always been external. State institutions here could whether the storm of extremism and prevail being morally superior. These ideas and sentiments were always erroneous and now with the Presidency of Donald Trump they have been completely thrown to the wind. Because clearly there are some who recognize the weaknesses in our system (and even media) and its inability to contain the kind of ideological radicalism that people like Trump et al espouse and these individuals have exploited the weaknesses in the system to achieve power. I think these problems are merely in their infancy and will continue to grow, just as much as I feared the rise of radicalism 10 years ago when I began my doctorate on the subject during WW1 and the inter-war period. I saw frightening parallels with our own time and I don’t see things improving. The only positive thing I see is increased awareness but we still don’t have a means of dealing with the issue when it comes to government. When your government wants to be radical and partisan and expects it of its employees, what happens then? Do you cross your own moral boundaries and dive in, or leave, only to be replaced by ideological followers loyal to “the Party” or leader? Something that many people have failed to consider is the ways in which partisanship is a security risk. It causes division in society that enemies can exploit and fuel. Further, there has been long standing resentment in the population as a whole with politicians of all stripes because there is a very real feeling that people are not being heard. This is dangerous. One phrase I recall from the era of the Great Depression by a Canadian Senator advising the PM about worker unrest, was that people “could hardly expect to starve quietly.” Granted the economy is not as bad now as it was then, but there is a feeling it is on a tightrope that could snap at any minute and rhetoric by political leaders will not solve it. This has been brewing for some time and in the U.S. Trump and company exploited it to full effect.The violence in the U.S. can easily happen here and already is. Remember that Trump came to power largely out of disaffection and disgruntled voters who saw “hope and change” of the Obama years as mostly rhetoric and Obama as a leader of an economy that failed them (the Rust Belt helped Trump win). Trudeau could very easily disappoint in Canada because of the many huge promises that were made and were unrealistic to start with and an uncertain economy and deficit facing down the government in a few years time. Hostility to free trade policies began in Canada not in the U.S. and there’s plenty of people feeling they’ve been left behind in Canada. Radicalism isn’t new to Canada either. Just recently the “Canadian Nationalist Party” wants to publicly demonstrate at the University of Toronto. This was the name of Canada’s Nazi/Fascist party of the 1930s before it merged formally with the Nazis in the ’30s. Violence has already broken out in Hamilton. These groups are trying to exploit their “right to free speech” in order to be heard. Voting trends are also a sign of trouble. I remember roughly 10 years ago when fewer and fewer voters went to the polls, and I remember people saying “if you don’t vote you don’t get a say” and the media and Elections Canada were thinking the problem was simply voter apathy and that people didn’t care. That may account for some of it, but a decrease in voters I always saw, and still do, as a much more serious and troubling sign and it was certainly a message. To me it signals resentment. It signals that the individuals and the system that elects them is losing legitimacy among people. If that continues as it has, we are left with people turning to leaders they think are not like “traditional” politicians and who can solve all their problems if they just abandon their reservations, however immoral the actions of the politician might seem, and trust them.

What could only be worse in the future is if people come to believe that the system itself doesn’t work anymore especially if their chosen leader is disposed by the “rigged” system that he/she fought against. What happens if resentment grows, fueled by a leader, to the point the actions of private militias become defended by the government  over state forces? In the U.S. the administration early on compared its intelligence community to “Nazis.”

 

Not exactly as the President described it. White supremacists attacking counter protestors. Photo for The Washington Post by Evelyn Hockstein
Militia groups in Charlottesville. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

 

So do you follow the leader into the dark or leave, maybe even support their ousting. And what happens then? Does the government fill up with radicals? Does the ousted leader call for help from its radical, possibly armed, supporters? The West is heading I fear to some dark days. We must be resolute in opposing hate, but tread cautiously. I can’t help but recall some wise words from Frederick Nietzsche:…”when you gaze long into the abyss. The abyss gazes also into you.”

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