When Jim Prentice told Albertans concerned about misgovernment to look in the mirror he exemplified Michael Kinsley’s mid-1980 definition that “A gaffe is when a politician
tells the truth – some obvious truth he isn’t supposed to say.” Pundits and citizens are shocked, shocked, and partisans are pouncing, because he blurted out that the reason Albertans have a big-spending government is that they elected it, repeatedly. Not only did they routinely cast their ballots for a party that talked small government but practised the other kind, most of them closed their ears, minds and hearts to anyone suggesting that truly smaller government was needed.

Likewise, the reason Albertans have a self-satisfied ruling party is that they elected it. The reason Albertans hear the kind of political rhetoric… well, you get the idea. But it’s true elsewhere too. Canadians get what they vote for, both in terms of policy and in terms of public relations. So do the inhabitants of every province. We have small-minded, big-mouthed politicians because we vote them in and shun the alternatives. And one of the things we get, because we reward it, is the soothing assurance that whatever is right in public policy is due to the manifest virtues of the electorate, whereas whatever is wrong is due to those no-good wretched politicians who duped our sweet innocent selves.

It’s a “Picture of Dorian Voter” deal. Politics gets uglier and more sordid, but we remain pristine and lovely. And Prentice is in trouble because, whatever else he has done right or wrong, he violated this deal by challenging the convention of never blaming voters for voting the way they do.

Joseph de Maistre once uttered the chilling claim that “Every country has the government it deserves.” It is a sobering reflection on political culture everywhere. It is also a pointed reflection on the choices made, and the choices excluded, by democratic voters. Especially including their unwillingness to be told they brought things on themselves.

John Robson is a documentary filmmaker, an Invited Professor at the University of Ottawa and a commentator-at-large with News Talk Radio 580 CFRA in Ottawa. He holds a B.A. and M.A. in history from the University of Toronto and a Ph.D in American history from the University of Texas at Austin. He has worked in academia, think tanks and politics as well as doing print, radio and television journalism in Canada, and produced and hosted the documentary The Great War Remembered for Sun News Network in 2014. He is married to Brigitte Pellerin.

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