The wisdom of the crowd

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When protesters shut down access roads to a Donald Trump rally in Arizona recently, prompting the improbably coiffed billionaire and reality-show host to instruct the interlopers to “go home” to their “mommies”, media broadcasters readily assumed those in his audience stood solidly with him.

I’ll wager, though, the truth was a little more complicated.

If I had conducted a straw poll onsite and at the time, I’m almost certain a third of the participants would have said the protestors should be arrested and tried for public nuisance, another third wouldn’t have cared much, and a final third would have shrugged their shoulders and mumbled something about every person’s right to free speech, even the disagreeable variety.

Politicians (especially candidates for office) and members of what was once classified so quaintly as “The Fourth Estate” expect black and white responses from John and Jane Q. Public on any issue – large or small, consequential or insignificant, even though they almost never get them.

Yet, the mantra is wearingly familiar: You are either for us or against us. You can’t be both. You certainly may not cradle any notion that democracy, in practice, is anything but fractious and polarizing.

It’s the same assumption that the chattering classes in the Atlantic Provinces make about the East Coast hoi polloi right around election and budget times, when the partisan bunting luffs ever so vigorously in the hot air.

Lately, however, in my travels around New Brunswick, a different picture of average members of the body politic emerges – one that’s more nuanced than monolithic. It suggests that most people are willing to entertain often-radical points of agreement to reach consensus on how to solve the persistent problems that afflict regional society.

Surprising are the number of voting citizens who firmly believe, regardless of their party affiliations, that forging much closer economic ties between provinces is a durable way to cut public deficits and debts.

They also think that the amount of government spending is less worrying than the lack of material return on each dollar invested. They are, for example, more likely to concur with the proposition that small-p politics should play no role in allocating (or curtailing) resources to higher education.

In fact, they are broadly convinced that entrepreneurship and innovation are functions of literacy and numeracy (not the other way around); that culture and the arts are engines, not byproducts, of prosperity; and that health care planning lacks only from a paucity of imagination among public officials who refuse to consider delivery models other than those prescribed by the status quo.

Most striking, perhaps, are the definitions people embrace for that long-abused rubric – the favorite of every politician, wearing his or her partisan colours proudly, who ever went to Government – leadership.

The notion that good leadership is “strong” or “unwavering” – that it springs, unbidden, from the souls of the anointed few who assume elected office; that it is impervious to the corrupting influences of circumspection and changing conditions – is, most average folks contend, ludicrous.

Rather, good leadership is about “respect” and “listening”. It’s about “setting an example” for others to emulate. Yes, it’s “decisive” and “consistent”, but it’s neither “rash” nor hidebound.

Few, it seems, are alarmed about peaceful, deliberate protest – except, of course, politicians and other members of the chattering classes who attend them.

Few are prepared to concede the point that holding an opinion precludes changing one’s mind.

These are the principles around which effective governments must finally rally if we have any chance of solving the problems that plague our various societies.

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