Dominic Cummings, former top aide to British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, broke the political fourth wall when he appeared before a parliamentary hearing into his government’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic this past week. Ousted back in November and obviously still feeling spurned, Mr. Cummings predictably made a handful of explosive claims about his former employer’s response to the crisis, but also took a moment to make a broader point about a system of government that rewards people who don’t necessarily have the right leadership qualities with extraordinary power.
“I’m not smart,” he said. “I’ve not built great things in the world. It’s completely crackers that someone like me should have been in there, just the same as it’s crackers that Boris Johnson was in there and the choice at the last election was [between him and former Labour leader] Jeremy Corbyn.”
Mr. Cummings went on: “You guys in the political parties need to ask yourselves: What is it about your parties that give choices like Johnson versus Corbyn, and we have to ask, what is it about Whitehall that promotes so many senior people who are completely out of their depth?”
In effect, Mr. Cummings was saying the quiet part out loud, by acknowledging that a system that elects people whose chief qualities might begin and end with knowing how to win elections could have disastrous implications during a time of acute crisis. To be sure, politicians are trusted to make policy decisions that have life-and-death implications all the time, but the folly of a government where the people in charge are simply the best campaigners is hardly more apparent than at a time when borders are closed, businesses are imploding and thousands of lives are critically at stake.
Plato theorized in The Republic – written around 55 years after the Plague of Athens – that democracy would inevitably devolve to tyranny, and that common men who seek to rule are ill-suited to governing, lacking the wisdom and morals for leadership and forever “hungering after their own private advantage.” In Plato’s view, philosopher kings, governed first and foremost by principles, should rule the state.
Unfortunately, roughly 24 centuries on, we suffer from a distinct lack of philosopher kings who might volunteer their services for political office. What we have instead, as Plato rather presciently described, are populist figures who are “always stirring up some war or other, in order that the people may require a leader.” Indeed, as if he knew that former U.S. president Donald Trump was on the horizon just a few thousand years on, Plato wrote of a man “not ‘larding the plain’ with his bulk, but himself the overthrower of many, standing up in the chariot of State with the reins in his hand.”
If the ideal is rule by a philosopher king who seeks only the greater good, the U.S. saw the opposite for most of 2020: federal control by a conspiracy-minded reality-television star who repeatedly and erroneously claimed that COVID-19 would go away on its own (which would serve his personal advantage). The U.K., meanwhile, is still governed by a bombastic populist who, according to Mr. Cummings, said he would rather see “bodies pile high” than order another unpopular lockdown.
Canada is not immune. Doug Ford became Premier of Ontario not because of his experience in provincial politics or acuity on policy matters, but because the incumbent premier’s party was scandal-ridden and deeply unpopular. Jason Kenney likewise cruised to the Premier’s Office in Alberta on fanciful promises of a return to the province’s oil-boom heydays and the construction of pipelines over which he had no control – which does not make it altogether uncharacteristic that he waited until the situation became critical to acknowledge the third-wave reality that hospitals soon would not be able to cope. And Justin Trudeau did not become Canada’s Prime Minister because of his extensive experience in politics or his history of deftly navigating leadership roles, but because he was able to package and sell a more attractive vision for the country than his opponents.
It was only natural, then, that various pandemic decisions by political leaders – including resisting provincial lockdowns, maintaining opacity around vaccine contracts and keeping on an ineffective and unqualified federal health minister – would be made by those “hungering” after private and political advantage, and not necessarily in the interest of the greater public good.
Of course there have been competent epidemiologists and public-health experts who have long been urging governments to replenish PPE stockpiles, fix long-term care and resuscitate Canada’s pandemic-alert system, and who have since been attempting to guide leaders throughout the course of this pandemic. But their ability to mitigate the crisis is limited so long as – in the words of Mr. Cummings – the system is one of “lions led by donkeys.” Perhaps this period of prolonged suffering will serve as an incentive to get more lions on the ballot.
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