Reflections on Constitutional Democracy Under Stress: The Time for Heroic Leadership
Chapter authored for Constitutional Democracy Under Stress: A Time For Heroic Citizenship, by Peter L. Biro, Mosaic Press, Toronto 2020
I have a clear memory of Professor John Meisel walking onto the stage of Queen’s University’s Dunning Hall in the fall of 1975 to introduce himself to the 100+ eager frosh students of the Canadian Politics 110 class of which he was the famous presenter. With his flowing grey mane, round Andy Warhol glasses, and soft voice rich with authority, he was the very image of the erudite intellectual. The future recipient of the Order of Canada, and then of its Companion honour, Meisel was already an acknowledged constitutional scholar of considerable repute.
Of course, the professor made many memorable statements over the course of that year, but none for me as profound as this: “In the long run, we get the government(s) we deserve.” To hear that it was the citizen who determined such things was unsettling for this freshman who was hoping to learn the magic elixir of what it meant to be a heroic leader in the manner of a Churchill, Kennedy, or at that time in Canada, the first Trudeau.
In the decades since, I have remained an interested observer of people and their politics even as walls propped up by a viciously cruel cold war finally crumbled and the “end of history” and then the “end of truth” was declared. But history has surprised us all. A new world order emerged, with its messy and dangerous ambiguity challenging the definitions of “good” and “bad” actors and—amplified by advances in technology—revealing that if truth wasn’t dead, it wasn’t shared either. Truth was made, owned, and increasingly weaponized.
Today, there are two realities that we now face. The first is that we live in an Age of Abundance—a world-changing phenomena that quietly displaced the historic Age of Scarcity earlier this century. It was the case that there were not enough resources and infrastructure to attend to the wants and needs of humanity, hence the evolution of what were in effect rationing systems distributing too little to too many—mercantilism, communism, capitalism. Today, that is simply not the case. We are on the knee of an exponential growth curve in science and technology tracing back to the Industrial Revolution. We are all profiting from cascading advancements in nutrition, health, income, education, literacy—gains by virtually any measure. And to the extent that we cannot attend to all wants and needs in this moment, the promise of imminent advances in artificial intelligence, materials science, nanotechnology, robotics, etc. strongly suggests that we are on the cusp of doing so.
The truth is that more humans are living better lives today than even twenty years ago, and this is only the start of this new age. No possibility can now go un-imagined.
But there is a but. The same hurricane winds of innovation that have brought us to this new age are also responsible for the great many existential challenges we face—from climate change, to nuclear proliferation, to fake news—to name just a few. The societal turbulence resulting from these advances are, or will soon be, amplified by profound disruptions to labour markets caused by AI, robotics and longer lifespans —each challenging what it means to be a human.
This volatility is polarizing humanity into two groups—those excited by the possibilities of this new age and those who fear and reject it. Those who look “up” and “out” to the future for inspiration and possibility and those who look “back” and “in” to a romanticized past for security of place and purpose. For all of their contempt for each other, the radicalized ISIS recruits and the radicalized white nationalists have a great deal in common—the future as an unknown is to be feared and avoided, whereas the seduction of a highly curated but familiar past is to be embraced.
Though the latter is the smaller cohort in almost every democracy (however defined), we are seeing these numbers grow as we collectively perceive that we are on the knee curve of the societal volatility noted above. The post-modernist questioning of the very existence of truth that emanated from left-wing intellectuals in the 60s has been co-opted instead by those cynically manipulating social discourse to exacerbate division in a manner that is anything but intellectual.
While it may be tempting to point to iconic individuals in the moment as causal agents of the cancer of populism, we have to (more helpfully) admit that they are in fact “just” metastasized examples of the same disease. And, just as a life-threatening illness can cause depression in an individual, it seems clear that societal challenges—real and perceived—are doing the same on a community scale. As this malaise deepens to a generalized ennui amongst too many, we see the question “what can I, as an individual, do?” not as an actual question, but rather, as a declaration that they intend to do nothing at all.
I submit that in a modern democracy, leadership is a symbiotic reflection of the electorate, and that if there is an absence of heroic leadership, we must first consider the absence of heroic citizens, and the abrogation by too many of their rights and inherent responsibilities as sovereign citizens - to quite possibly catastrophic effect. It is a fact of nature that good—and, more ominously, bad—actors will fill the power vacuum that results.
In a constitutional democracy, the electorate is the foundation of an eco-system on which the legislative, executive, and judiciary functions rest. When the system is functioning properly, it is a massive information feedback loop with power flowing from the electorate through the checks and balances of governance (and many societal) structures to then amplify the will and interests of the people—who are, after all, the client beneficiaries.
Of course, “the system” has never functioned this elegantly. For too long, racial, class, cultural, and religious inequities meant that the calculus of power was always shifting, and that governance did in fact represent the process of sausage making more than anything else. However, the long march of societal evolution from the Magna Carta to the Enlightenment and to the American and French Revolutions, and of thinkers such as Immanuel Kant, Thomas Jefferson, Friedrich Hayek, Hannah Arendt, and Milton Freidman did result in a system that, paraphrasing Winston Churchill was still “better than all the others.”
In this imperfect system, all actors - to remain sovereign and whole - need to vigorously exercise their rights and dispense their consequent responsibilities within the system, or be diminished by the consequences if they do not. The Weimar Germans who suspended credulity to vote for Adolph Hitler, the British and French who willfully appeased him, and the Republicans in Congress today making a King of a President are examples of people disabusing themselves of their rights and, even more critically, their responsibilities.
The ire of the citizenry of the democracies towards politics generally, and politicians specifically, is a faux cynical, self-serving “rolling of the eyes” dismissal of the art, science, and practice of politics as corrupt. In making this judgment they absolve themselves of any blame or accountability. For all the grumbling that the institutions of government are delegitimizing themselves, perhaps it is time to admit that it is the absent voice of an informed, accountable electorate that is at the root of the legitimacy crisis.
Let us consider the sovereign and autonomous individual. Today, many of the chains that bound us from birth have largely been lifted. Though by no means not irrelevant, class, religion, race, and culture are no longer the restricting determinants of our behavior that they once were. It can be argued that no one was truly sovereign when they were born with allegiances that by definition made them beholden to their family, clan, tribe, or “peeps”—their voice just one of many.
Instead, it is now not only possible to be a true free agent in the world, it’s an existential imperative that we exercise fully the rights provided to us by our constitutions, charters, and bills of rights. As with nation states, to fail to exercise and/or defend one’s sovereignty is to eventually lose it. To be sovereign is to be able to exercise one’s agency to pledge—passively and actively—thoughtful, informed support for a public policy and/or initiative, and to then hold oneself accountable for having done so.
But what does it mean to act as a sovereign citizen? I submit that it means to consciously adopt the competencies of a sensemaker, and to accept the responsibility of doing one’s best to understand the world around oneself. This is not a linear process, but the adoption of a new mindset, a commitment to personal mastery, and attunement to the flow of information around oneself, to then have the capacity to access real-time and all-the-time inputs. This work is required in order to be able to define actionable outputs—be it voting in an election, participating in direct action initiatives, or contributing to a discussion on social media. I submit that to conduct oneself in this way is to be truly a heroic citizen.
There are a number of attributes that need to be considered.
Be a Sensemaker
The first is to work to attain your best possible sense of self, the lifelong process of reflecting on the factors that define you and the conscious and unconscious biases that have shaped you. As you contemplate exercising your sovereign rights and the great responsibility that follows, you need to be aware of the acculturation process that begins at birth—the impact of familial legacies, the class, religious, cultural, racial, and educational dynamics that shaped your parents, family, friends, neighbours, and the generations that preceded them.
To objectively know oneself is the subject of fierce debate by philosophers past and present, but in practical terms perhaps we can agree that it is the effort to be as aware of one’s prejudices as possible, so as to do one’s best to mitigate their self-harming impact. Witness the US red state voter support for the “return” of coal jobs in the 2016 election. These jobs never returned, and in fact, today industry employment levels are instead running at historic lows. How much self-awareness was required to perceive that maybe one’s support for coal jobs was driven by desperate want as opposed to thoughtful and informed reflection?
Next is the understanding of complexity in a world in which the number of inputs that we must contend with each day is exponentially more than just a few years ago. Current estimates are that every minute humanity generates 156 million emails, 456 thousand tweets and 16 million text messages prompting the average person to check their smartphone every 12 minutes.
In addition to the complexity that most of us would acknowledge to be “me,” most individuals would concede that their immediate family represents a further web of entanglements—eccentric characters, intrigue, drama, pain, loss, love, happiness—that is incredibly complex. The same individual would likely also concede that the same could be said for their neighbours, and for their neighbourhood, their church, their school or place of employment, their town, city, state, and country—each new layer exponentially adding to the complexity of contemporary life.
We intuitively know that adding the explosion of communications stimuli to the already complicated human condition and the societal reverberations that follow means that life has never been this complicated. So why then do we tend to demand simple answers of those who lead us? Clearly the needs of information processing require that we are constantly devising strategies to distill genuine information from the daunting background noise of modern life, but to expect simplicity of complexity is simply nonsensical. Life is complicated, we must either come to accept that truth and work with it to devise consequential solutions, or we will be seduced by ever simpler answers of less and less consequence. It is the responsibility of the sensemaking heroic citizen to demand and expect more substantive answers from their elected representatives and not be satisfied with 140-character policymaking.
A corollary to this is the fetishization of speed. Just as we try to wend our way through ever growing mountains of information, an equal challenge is to make sense of this deluge in shorter and shorter amounts of time—which clearly allows for less and less processing time. In the mid 1700s, a letter could take 14 days to cover the 109 miles from Philadelphia to New York, meaning that with time for a thoughtful answer allowed for, a single exchange of information could take a month or more. Today we expect our leaders to be so mentally agile as to be able to turn on a dime in a debate, yet then we criticize them for what we believe to be their disingenuous, inauthentic responses. To answer a question with “I don’t know” or worse yet the admission of “I’ve changed my mind” is almost wholly unthinkable—even if desperately needed.
Be Accountable to Yourself and to Others
Rather than being the foundational actor that they are, with a sacred trust in a vital and historic system of checks and balances, too many citizens today see themselves as the disinterested audience of a reality TV show, frivolously voting winners on, and losers off, the show with no personal agency invested. In the same vein, too many cavalierly take the fact that they have a thought as reason enough to anonymously share it with the world, adding not to thoughtful discourse but to noisy, corrosive disinformation.
Thus, there is a desperate need for personal accountability on the part of the heroic citizen. A sober acceptance that they are responsible for their interactions and engagements with their peers and their history as voters. It is too easy for people to declare politicians lazy, corrupt, and wrong when it is only purposeful amnesia that allows them to forget that it was they who voted them into office. Indeed, while the voting records of the politician stands for themselves, few of the electorate own their mistakes and weave it into their narrative of self-understanding. And if one doesn’t own one’s mistakes, how does one exert the effort to avoid repeating them?
Be a Positive Enabler in a Co-Dependent Relationship
The truth is that the citizen is an enabler in a co-dependent relationship with the elected representative. Politicians are tempted to corrupt only if there are citizens to be corrupted, and the corruption need not be overt, but rather the more dangerous seduction of effectively buying votes with self-serving narratives that you wish to hear, as opposed to the truth that you refuse to. Understanding this to be a dynamic, interactive relationship that one is party to and has agency in is a vital one for the heroic citizen. It is an imperative that one embrace this role as a positive enabler and surrender it to no one.
Look to Values, Not Ideology
There is a long history through the modern era in democracies of the phenomenon known as the election campaign. In these campaigns, candidates for election promote the programs defined by the ideology their party adopts; promises made on the left, right, and centre competing with “better” programs and their attendant graphs, statistics and subject matter experts, all guaranteed to assure the greatest prosperity and success of the nation at the lowest cost. Unfortunately, it is rare in the extreme to see a party platform even partly implemented once the victor assumes power, with many reasons given for this lapse, chief of which is “we didn’t fully appreciate the magnitude of the mess made before us.”
But when electoral non-performance becomes the norm, perhaps it’s time to reconsider the process. Let us remember the phrase attributed to Einstein “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results.” So, let’s try something different.
Ideology was arguably more relevant in the slower moving, pre-social media era, when to subscribe to Das Kapital, On Liberty, The Origins of Totalitarianism or Capitalism and Freedom informed the believers’ expected answer to any posed question. Ideological treatises, not unlike religious ones, provided “the” answer for just about all of life’s circumstances for the discerning adherent. If it ever was the case that deterministic belief systems could address the growing complexities and interdependencies of a rapidly evolving world with cookie-cutter solutions, I submit that it no longer is.
The truth is that no politician can know the circumstances in which they and their party will find themselves months or years following their victory. In the world that we have been considering, it seems unwise—in the most dangerous sort of way—to expect a party to execute a plan made, more often than not, with an insufficient understanding of the context wherein the plan was conceived, and literally with no idea of the actual context in which it is to be executed.
Instead, we can look to the value system of the party as the scaffolding for policies that we can anticipate. In this incredibly volatile world, it’s more helpful to know what candidates really believe in than to know what they think they might do if elected.
Moderation vs Activism? Why Not both?
In the turbulence of current political discourse, it seems that, broadly speaking, one’s only option is to consider binary, polarized options. The first is incremental refinement of an imperfect system, the second is to break a broken system and start all over—the first preferred by those who consider themselves moderates (generally the majority), the latter by those who consider themselves activists (generally not). But if we remove ideology from the discussion and look to values to provide a roadmap for political behaviour, then the spectrum of moderation to activism is not so much ideological as it is a question of timing – of strategy vs. tactics.
It is perhaps trite to observe that if one is actively protesting, then the leadership context underlying the issue being protested is likely insufficient. Examples from the anti-slavery, suffragette, civil, and gay rights movements are just a few haunting examples of this. If political discourse is, by definition, also a story of societal evolution, and thus a process of constant, iterative—if frustratingly messy—refinement, then it is hard to consider the view that real change can only be accomplished by revolutionary destruction.
Neither though, especially in the hyper-connected or just hyper world we live in, can we relinquish the tool of activism to right a grievous wrong when a leadership insufficiency makes the wrong plainly evident—the most obvious example being the climate catastrophe that humanity now faces. Instead, I submit that to be a moderate and to be an activist is simply to be a sovereign, heroic citizen, empowered to know when, where, and how to support and apply moderation as a necessary societal stabilizer and activism as a tool to surgically address societal malignancies as they inevitably occur.
Trustee or Delegate?
Electoral systems around the world are in real jeopardy—under attack by both bad actors with genuinely evil intent, and the simple fact that they are woefully outdated for our time, restrained by political, legal, and cultural legacy systems that did not keep up with rapidly changing psycho-social, demographic, and technological change. In this context, there are many promising reforms being considered—from proportional voting, condorcet voting (i.e. instant round robin), to the end of gerrymandering.
Driven by advances in technology, what concerns us here are the growing possibilities of direct representation, either through referendum or online voting for specific policy initiatives. The possibility will soon exist for the citizen to be engaged with on even the most granular regulatory or policy issue, not just the soliciting of input, but their vote as well. Clearly, this will truly require the display of all of the attributes of the heroic citizen noted above.
It is worth revisiting, however, the centuries old debate concerning the role of the elected official—are they a trustee of the electorate as espoused by Edmund Burke, that is “Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion” or a delegate, charged with conveying the in-the-moment wishes of the electorate. It can’t be avoided to note the example currently being set in Washington, D.C. today, between those who perceive themselves delegates of their respective bases, and those who see themselves as trustees of a greater good.
While it is generally agreed that the trustee approach was intended to compensate for the general lack of education and the remoteness of 18th century electors, the advent of “speak before you think” governance-by-social-media illustrates the need for sober reflection and accountability by at least one actor in the process - and so far, the buck still stops first at the foot of the politician.
We also live in an age where intellectualism, subject matter experts, and expertise in general are considered by too many to be elitist and no longer needed when anyone can find their “answer” on google, or more often than not, “their” network silo. This is simply untrue, unwarranted, and dangerous. While it is obviously the case that far more of the electorate are in a position to contribute thoughtfully and constructively to the political process, it’s also equally the case that the complexity of modern life demands not just expertise, but consistency, constancy, and most importantly accountability. The latter is hard enough to secure amongst a diffuse electorate—its depressingly difficult to find it amongst the much smaller population of the elected.
What does this mean for our heroic citizen? I submit that there is no substitute for putting one’s name on the ballot, if that is at all within the means, capacity, and circumstance of the individual. There has never been a greater urgency to have the heroic citizen step up as the heroic leader, be it running for the local school board trusteeship, the leadership of a party, or for president. Beyond that however, it means recalling that co-dependent relationship noted previously and the nuanced relationship that an informed elector should have with a committed and authentic representative. While technology may provide more and more opportunities for direct consultation, for humanity to survive the next ten years, a new contract between the two must to be made.
The simplest thing the heroic citizen can do is show up—to vote. At a time when jaded populations are failing to discharge their most basic responsibility to their peers by not voting, it is for the heroic citizen to lead by example, to exercise their franchise, and actively engage in the marketplace of governance in all its manifestations—and to press others to do the same.
Now finally, to the echoing words of John Meisel.
Leadership is not a title—it is a practice or competency that we all can—and must—hone. Each of the many contexts of life that we find ourselves in—parent, child, student, worker, manager, etc.—presents opportunities and demands for leadership. It does not require that we each think constantly and only about acting like a “leader,” but rather that we do think about being a sovereign and thus, by implication, a heroic citizen.
If you acquit yourself as we have discussed here, you become a guardian for constitutional democracy—at the centre of actions that will determine whether democracy will thrive or fail in the next ten to twenty years, as a vital actor, and not as an audience member.
As a heroic citizen, it is for each one of us to ask the question, “are we getting the government that we deserve?” If we think not, then it is for each of us to do something about it. To do otherwise is to do no less than betray yourself, your family, your peers, and future generations.
John Meisel was right.
 First postulated by Francis Fukuyama at a lecture given at the University of Chicago in February 1989, he argued that fall of communism was the last inhibitor to the widespread adoption – or triumph - of liberal democracies. Fukuyama, Francis. “The End of History and the Last Man.” New York, Free Press, 1992
 The phenomenom of post modernism and its attendant skepticism or rejection of modernism and universalist notions of objective reality and morality, from its start in the mid 20th century to its embracing by the political right is very well documented by Pulitzer Prize winning literary critic Michiko Kakutani in her important work The Death of Truth. Kakutani, Michiko “The Death of Truth.” New York, Tim Duggan Books, 2018
The point in an exponential growth curve where the line goes vertical.
 Well and convincingly argued by Harvard University’s Steven Pinker in Enlightenment Now. Pinker, Steven, “Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress.” New York, Viking Press, 2018
 Steven Bannon is the architect, if not the archetype of this existentially dangerous evolution of new media. The former executive chairman of alt-right Breitbart News, and then White House Chief Strategist to Donald Trump has for years been cultivating the resources and expertise to use social media as a psychological warfare tool to purposefully spread disinformation to exploit and exacerbate social fissures – and drive voters to populist alternatives. See Sharman, John “Steve Bannon intended to use Cambridge Analytica to suppress black vote in 2016 and promote 'culture war', says whistleblower.” London, Independent, May 17, 2018
For more information visit https://www.leadersX.org.
 In the House of Commons on November 11, 1947 Churchill stated that “Many forms of Government have been tried and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.…” In fact, Churchill was quoting an unknown author. Langworth, Richard M., “Democracy Is The Worst Form Of Government...” richardlangworth.com, June 26, 2009
I am using the term sovereign as an adjective, as in “in modern democracies the people’s will is in theory sovereign” that is “acting or done independently and without outside interference.” In Lexico.com, 2019. https://www.lexico.com/definition/sovereign.
And in turn, the term autonomous as an adjective, as in “Having the freedom to act independently.” In Lexico.com, 2019. https://www.lexico.com/definition/autonomous.
 Sensemaking is a process or capability that describes how we map and understand (make meaning or sense of) our environment or situation so as to be able to make decisions and act in it. Described by Karl Weick in the 1970’s in his organizational studies research, sensemaking first described the collaborative cognitive process of creating a shared awareness and understanding in contexts of multiple perspectives and experiences. Weick argued that sensemaking is less a discrete tool employed in specific moments and more a consciousness of how we move through the world daily, which, in turn, shifts how we think about decision-making and action. There is a rich body of literature on the subject, but it all starts with Karl Weick. Weick, Karl, “Sensemaking in Organizations.” Thousand Oaks CA, Sage Publications, 1995
 Wade, Bill. “The U.S. Coal Industry Is Expecting Another Wave of Widespread Job Losses.” fortune.com, October 17, 2019
Marr, Bernard. “How Much Data Do We Create Every Day? The Mind-Blowing Stats Everyone Should Read.” Forbes Magazine, May 21, 2018.
 In fact, while attributed to Einstein, it was instead a character in Rita Mae Brown’s 1983 work of fiction, Sudden Death. Sterbenz, Christina “12 Famous Quotes That Always Get Misattributed,” Business Insider, October 7th, 2013
Burke, Edmund “Speech to the Electors of Bristol: The Works of the Right Honourable Edmund Burke.” London, Henry G. Bohen, 1854
 According to the 2017 World Development Report, voter turnout is down an average of 10% across the globe. Kopf, Dan “Voter turnout is dropping dramatically in the ‘free world.’” Qz.com, February 1, 2017