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Gentlemen, hold your engines

By Daniel M. Ryan
web posted November 23, 2009

Now that Prince Charles' visit to Canada is over, talk of a Canadian republic has surfaced. It's been speculated that Prince Charles will be the last King of Canada, once Queen Elizabeth II goes to her final rest. Such speculations may make for a nice discussion or debating topic, but a change of that sort is fraught with unintended consequences. Many Canadians, who think that a Canadian Republic is a neat-o idea, believe that it's merely a structural matter. Simply elect the Governor-General, call the same slot the Presidency, make the Senate elected, and things will continue on as normal.

They won't.

The Heart of The Republic: Populism

All stable republics are populist at heart. That's what the "Rule of the People" is all about. Given the Marxization of our age, it's hard to notice the fact that "Liberty and Property" were populist in pre-Republic America. "No Taxation Without Representation" was intimately tied to property right. That right, in a collection of agrarian-based colonies where raw land was available and cheap, was more demotic than we might realize. The "hick" with 40 acres in the outback was as much a man of property as the grandee with the imposing three-story house. The former was quick to remind the latter of that fact, and the latter usually didn't mind. Luckily for America, there were philosophers (Locke, most notably) who defended property right as a natural right. This intellectual ammunition made it possible for an American gentleman to be both high-minded and demotic. Had that philosophic base been lacking, the American gentry would likely have shied away from sullying their hands. Why forsake the chance to rise in society for the sake of the demos when there are no high-minded universals endorsing it? Why, in the absence of a high-minded ideal, would you act just like someone who struck out and got bitter over it?

The unity provided by property rights, itself buttressed by the widespread availability of cheap land for the propertyless, was only one facet of republican populism. A sub-facet was the above-mentioned yeoman who knew in his heart that the difference between he and a grandée was merely a difference in degree, not kind. That bond, however, was a two-way effort. The typical American gentleman didn't much mind being lumped in with the common-folk, and adjusted his conduct accordingly. To put it saturninely, the so-called squirearchy were natural demagogues who had few qualms about becoming part of the mob.

In order for Canada to become a stable republic, there would have to be a set of core values that enabled all Canadians – upper, upper-middle, middle, lower – to feel that they were no better or worse than a fellow Canadian, regardless of position or circumstance. It has to hold good for the gentry, particularly, and it has to hold up on both sides of any current divide.

The Heart Of Populist Culture

Given that a republic implies the rule of the people, it's a sure bet that good republicans will hold popularity as a goal worth striving for. We Canadians don't know much about how to live in a republic, as we don't have the experience, but Americans do. American culture gives a glimpse of what everyday life would be like in a republic. One movie that stuck out for me was Walking Tall, which portrays an American republican Eden. A casino served as the snake.

Republican gut-egalitarianism and the desire to shine in society come together in athletics. Despite the long history of the CFL, high-school football won't be the venue of choice for would-be school-rulers. Every Canadian knows intuitively what that sport is. It, plus its associated ethos, would be a vital part of populist culture – just as football is in the American republic.

It would be only a matter of time before the typical high school shows this division: heroes, players, fans, hangers-on, and dorks. Care to guess what currently prestigious school activities would be the home of the "Kick Me" sign? [Hint #1: In a republic, the people rule; the politicians serve. Hint #2:  an anti-populist value is one that makes the current Canadian populists – including so-called 'Americans' – mad.]

America…Or Latin America?

Despite Canadian uniqueness, a solid Canadian republic will resemble the American one in many a way. That's because we're used to calling republican folkways "American," because we see them in America. Also, a lot of Canadians will seek advice from Americans on how to be good republican citizens. If you're in a new situation, and are not quite sure on how to proceed, it makes sense to ask people who already know the ropes. Should a Canadian republic ensure, the ones who do know those ropes would be our American cousins.

It's possible, however, that the gentry won't go for it. As discussed above, a stable and thriving republic requires the gentry to renounce all anti-populist values as false and empty. That renunciation would have to be largely voluntary. The only non-populist values which would survive are ones that don't clash with populist ones. (Please recall hint #2.)

This outcome is the ideal one for political stability…but it's not the only possibility. Latin American republics are classic studies on how ostensibly republican values are grafted on to a polity for which they're not truly populist. Property rights mean something different when all the cheap but livable land is spoken for. Such a polity isn't incompatible with populism, but it has a more conservative tone – and high breeding rates upset it. It's also one that's ripe for an underclass.

Gentry who possess anti-populist values, and have the clout to deter the unwashed, do make for a difference in kind. Any republic containing them is going to have a grafted element to it. It'll also have a bona-fide ruling class, composed of said gentry.

Why would any red-blooded middle class person put up with such an arrangement? Other than largely-residual cultural deference, there's only one reason: fear, particularly of the lower classes. A Canadian republic might well be Haciendista Norte if the urban middle class is hemmed in by the double fear of the urban underclass and rural roughnecks.

A phantom fear this may be, but note that the status and function of the constabulary are fairly clear-cut in a monarchy. The Royal Police enforce the Sovereign's laws, as enacted in the current system. As American culture has so continually demonstrated, the status and role of the cops is far more problematic in a republic. Especially since it's a republican's right, not to mention duty, to send the government a message when bad laws are passed or good laws are enforced badly. This message-sending may well include "The People's Disallowance." The quickest, and often quietest, way to deal with a bad law is to shrug it off. Right now, the speeding laws serve as a good example at the low-mid end of the penalty range. (Bribery serves as a kind of compromise when the governing apparatus is also insistent.) In a Canadian republic, anything – anything – that smacks of "In The Name Of The Sovereign" is going to be tainted.  

Consider this retort: "In the name of you!?" ESR

Daniel M. Ryan is currently watching The Gold Bubble.


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