How populism works – and why we need process to rein it in

One of the oldest rubs against democracy is that ordinary people aren't up to the job. And the friends of populism aren't helping the cause. They're lining up to throw democracy under the bus in the name of, well, more democracy. The result will surely be less, not more.Take Doug Ford's decision to intervene in the City of Toronto's election. It's a textbook example of how contemporary populism sacrifices the essentials of democracy for shallow, short-term gains.Ford's view that a smaller City Council will result in better governance is not the problem. That's a fair subject for debate. Derailing the Toronto election is the show-stopper. This sure looks like an abuse of power.Now, I get that municipalities are “creatures of the province” but cities have been functioning like an independent, third order of government for decades – especially big ones like Toronto. We are a long way from the 19th century creatures envisioned in the BNA Act.Ford's supporters aren't troubled. They dismiss this as a “process question” – the kind of thing elites worry about, not citizens, which is true. Citizens don't know much about process, nor care much about it. (Until they are victims of a bad process, when they suddenly become outraged champions.)Their first instinct is to consider the substance of a decision and to decide its acceptability on that basis. Thus, Ford justifies this one by saying that no one has ever asked him for more politicians.In fact, this is just the kind of thinking that gives democracy a bad name. Process is there to guard against abuses of power, yet populists want to discard it the moment it gets in the way of a good idea. An alarming number of “opinion leaders” agree.Margaret Wente, for example, tells us that Ford is someone who “cares about results, not process.” He believes “the people of Ontario are over-governed and overtaxed. And he's right.” Process is only an issue, she charges, because “he has inconvenienced the bureaucrats.”More generally, the friends of populism present this kind of top-down decision-making as a fresh new approach to governance: the work of “men/women of action,” “agents of change,” “outsiders,” “a different kind of politician” or “someone on the side of the taxpayer.”It is nothing of the kind. Over the years, we've seen tons of examples of populist governments around the world. All too often, the effects are exactly the reverse of what people like Wente claim. Far from enhancing democracy or “results,” they simply weaken accountability and centralize power.At bottom, accountability requires compliance with rules around how decisions are made, and transactions completed, such as appointing an official or purchasing military hardware. We call leaders to account when they have done something that breaks with the rules, say, by appointing a family member to a position or favouring one contractor over another.As we relax these requirements, a leader's scope to make decisions expands. There has been much discussion of this in the context of results, as Wente suggests. In this view, compliance can become a tangle of red tape that prevents governments from making the decisions they need to achieve their goals – to get “results.”But let's be very clear. If the rules are to be loosened, this must be done carefully to ensure adequate accountability remains. At the same time, new indicators must be selected to ensure that results really are achieved.Commentators like Wente seem to think that the right balance will emerge automatically, as if there were a built-in mechanism and once enough red tape has been shed, centralization will stop. To see how misguided this is, we need only look south of the border.Donald Trump is the exemplar of this kind of politics. Less than two years into office, his MO is clear. He is intent on divesting his office of as much accountability as he can, while centralizing decision-making as far as possible – all in the name of Making American Great Again (MAGA).Basically, Trump's “philosophy” stretches the democratic principle of “rule by the people” to say that if citizens like an idea, the leader can take significant liberties with the process to implement it – all in the name of “results” or “efficiency” or MAGA.Of course, populists don't provide any rules around “how many” citizens must support an idea or how they will be counted – these too are “process questions” where details don't seem to matter much. Basically, if the leader says the bar has been cleared, the process can be subverted.I'm not denying that there are too many rules in government or that “bureaucracy” sucks. We've all been tied up in red tape and cutting lots of it out of the system may be liberating. But concentrating power in the leader so that he/she can “get things done” is the wrong way.There are no short cuts to better democracy, and anyone selling this one is peddling snake oil. The true friends of democracy are willing to do the hard work of weeding out bad rules and finding and testing new solutions.If we really care about democracy, we should be calling on citizens to rise to the challenge, rather than encouraging them to start napping on the job.Dr. Don Lenihan is an internationally recognized expert on public engagement and Open Government. He is currently advising The Ottawa Hospital on an engagement plan to develop its new Civic Campus – a $2 billion, 10-year project. He also co-chairs the Open Government Partnership's Practice Group on Open Dialogue and Deliberation. Don can be reached at: [email protected] or follow him on Twitter at: @DonLenihan