Reflections on Joseph Heath’s “The Forever Campaign”

The best thing in the paper today is Joseph Heath’s “The Forever Campaign.” Heath makes the case that competition, left unchecked, can undermine everything from sports to politics. It is a great argument, and I like the analogy with sport. As football gets more and more competitive, the risks of playing the game outweigh the benefits. “Left unchecked, competition will escalate over time to the point where it becomes all-consuming. Unless carefully controlled, it may begin to undermine itself, to defeat its own purpose.” Or rather, purposes, because a game always has many purposes, including having fun, entertaining people, testing abilities, creating community and esprit de corps. Playing as if all that mattered was winning undermines the activity. And so it is with politics.

Heath points out that elections are competitions: “The basic rule is simple: if you want to run the show, you have to go out and get more votes than your opponents.” But when winning election becomes the only goal of politicians the activity of politics is undermined or corrupted. After all, democracy is not just about elections, it is also about governing. Yet we cannot govern democratically when every aspect of politics becomes about winning election. Hence the “forever campaign.” Harper thinks nothing of calling an 11-week election campaign. After all, he never stops campaigning. And Heath is right: the risk to democracy is not a breakdown and authoritarian rule. The risk is that the value of competition—viz. the alternation in power and the accountability and good government this encourages—is eroded when it is not “carefully managed” to ensure this result.

In the name of competition the US Supreme Court has knocked down all the rules carefully put in place to limit the role of money in politics. The result is the obscenity we currently observe in US campaigns. And we’re not too far behind. More and more, parties are becoming PR vehicles for candidates and candidates are devoting more and more of their time to fundraising. Happily, we have a system of public support for campaigns, but I fear that the expense of the federal election this year will test public patience with this system. But if we abandon it, we will win up with private money controlling everything.

Among the problems Heath sees with competition are its wasteful and self-defeating quality. Like an arms race, competition ratchets up the pressure, leaving everyone worse off. More competition does not create more winners, just more expense. Moreover, and this is critical, the activity of politics is undermined. More time is spend fundraising, the airwaves are saturated with attack ads, and politics becomes an activity dominated by consultants, pollsters, PR experts, and career politicians. Not surprisingly, the public feels left out. Worse still, governance suffers. Heath notes that Harper has turned governing into campaigning: bundling potentially unpopular legislation into omnibus bills to avoid debate and then pandering to their base with laws calculated to shore up public support. And, I would add, often accompanied by fundraising appeals.

I would add to Heath’s excellent analysis that part of the problem is how we think about democracy itself. “We often forget,” he says, “democracy is a staged competition designed to achieve a narrow purpose, which is to produce good government.” Democracy is more than elections, about that we all agree. But it is also more than competition. Deliberative democrats have long argued that democracy is also a system that forces those in power to defend their actions with reasons, and to do so in public in the face of criticism. There is a dimension of elections that is highly cooperative. It provides an opportunity—indeed it compels us—to see the issues of the day from a range of perspectives. The goal is not just to find a majority opinion, but also to allow us to arrive a collective judgments through a process in which everyone is answerable to criticism in the public sphere. This process can be degraded, as when candidates focus on one another’s appearance (“nice hair” mocks a Conservative ad aimed at Trudeau, which is hardly an informative statement). But in the debate on Thursday we saw a pretty high level discussion of the current government’s economic, environmental, and foreign policy record.

If democracy is about producing good government, it must enable us to construct notions of the good in the process. Is the exploitation of the tar sands a good? Is bombing ISIS a good? Is child care a good? The democratic process is about both the collaborative search for answers to such questions, and the competitive struggle to decide which answer should guide policy and law.

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