The PLEA: Book Club

The PLEA: Book Club

Personal and Societal: Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town

In a democracy, statutory laws are created by the people through their elected representatives. But do we vote for these representatives on the basis of public interest, or on the basis of self-interest? This is one of the questions raised in Stephen Leacock’s Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town.

In Leacock’s classic 1912 satire of small-town Canada, local businessman Josh Smith runs for a seat in Parliament under the Conservative banner. He competes against incumbent Liberal Henry Bagshaw and Independent candidate Edward Drone. In a story that historian Jack Granatstein described as the definitive account of Canada’s 1911 federal election, wilful ignorance and self-interest on behalf of almost everybody leads to Josh Smith’s victory.

Smith’s campaign was built around a fourfold strategy: taking whatever position was to the liking of the audience at the time; providing townsfolk with meaningless statistics that merely one-upped any (already suspect) Liberal claim; having his supporters “vote and keep on voting until they make you quit”; and sending fraudulent telegrams throughout the riding on voting day that suggested Smith was carrying other polls, causing a bandwagon effect for people who wished to vote with the winning side and thus have their community on the receiving end of any future patronage.

Even though Smith did not campaign with a great deal of virtue or honesty, the public voted him into power. So was Leacock satirising politicians? Was he satirising the electorate? Or was he satirising everybody?

The self-interested voter

The strongest suggestion that Leacock was satirising everyone—both politicians and the electorate—comes from the portrayal of Edward Drone, the Independent candidate. Drone’s campaign slogan was “Drone and Honesty.” His only campaign promise was honest governance and a pledge not to buy the voters with patronage. Going door-to-door with this promise, voters “gripped him warmly by the hand and showed him the way to the next farm.” The allure of patronage promises by the other candidates made Drone the least-acceptable candidate.

This portrayal is consistent with Stephen Leacock’s views on democracy. Though a staunch proponent of democracy, in a 1921 book on social justice, Leacock pointed out that at its worst, democracy produced the election “of genial incompetents popular as spendthrifts; of crooked partisans warm to their friends and bitter to their enemies; of administration by a party for a party; and of the insidious poison of commercial greed defiling the wells of public honesty.” Democracy, according to Leacock, was far from perfect.

With his patronage-laced campaign focussed on telling the voters what they wanted to hear, Smith rode to victory. This was despite the option of a third candidate, Edward Drone, whose only promise was to work towards delivering good government. In this sense, the voters’ rejection of Edward Drone in favour of Josh Smith was not just an indictment of politicians: it was an indictment of all of us.

Book Chat

  1. In his book Democratic Schools educational philosopher Michael W. Apple proposed that “democracy is not simply a theory of self-interest that gives people licence to pursue their own goals at the expense of others; the common good is a central feature of democracy.”
    1. Why would the common good be a central feature of democracy?
    2. Is this always how democracy works out in practice?
  2. How do we, as a society, balance self-preservation with concern for others?

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