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Roberts lecture: Michael Ignatieff asserts “standing” a privilege to be accorded by citizens

February 16, 2012

By Jenny Chung C’12

On Feb. 16 renowned, author, academic, and political leader Michael Ignatieff was the speaker for Penn Law’s annual Owen J. Roberts Memorial Lecture series, delivering an address in Levy Conference Center titled “Standing in Law and Standing in Politics: The Rules That Determine Who Gets Heard.”

ojr2-13dean4.jpgIn his opening remarks, the Law School’s Dean Michael A. Fitts ranked the Roberts lecture series, now in its 50th year, among the “grandest traditions” of Penn Law. The series had initially been launched in honor of the memory of alumnus and former Dean Owen J. Roberts, who served as a Depression-era Supreme Court Justice before returning to the Law School in the capacity of a professor.

Naming Roberts an “epitome” of the Penn Law ideal on account of his dual commitment to academia and public service, Fitts commended Ignatieff—author, professor and former leader of Canada’s Liberal party—for his contributions to liberal thought as a public intellectual and humanist, noting Ignatieff’s “[embodiment of] the virtues of Owen J. Roberts.”

Ignatieff started his lecture with a discussion of “standing” in the domains of both law and politics. Within the former, he noted, standing determines whether an individual has the right to be heard in a court of law. Political standing, by contrast, governs the right to vote and the right to seek public office.

“The enduring point of contention in standing cases is whether an individual’s or group’s right of access to the law is to be sacrificed on the altar of legal restraint, or whether judicial restraint is to be sacrificed in the name of equal protection,” Ignatieff explained, adding that “when we move from law into politics, a similar conflict emerges between using law to ensure that elections are free and using it to ensure that standing is equal.”

To Ignatieff, the ongoing debate over whether legal mechanisms should be deployed to ensure parity of standing between parties is reflective of broader disagreement surrounding “the balance between democracy’s conflicting principles.” 

ojr2-13keynote1.jpgIdentifying the establishment of standing as the “critical condition for electability,” Ignatieff proceeded to examine how, due to the erosion of political allegiances among voters, candidates are now compelled to “battle for standing in a profession that has more power but less authority, legitimacy and respect than ever.”

He attributed the modern voter’s mistrust of political candidates to the “decay of institutions” that had once equipped candidates with “validation, testimonials, endorsements and other ritual conferrals of standing.”

Moreover, because voters now support candidates strictly on the basis of individual preference rather than along ethnic, gender or occupational lines, Ignatieff said, they have begun to “value their common identity as citizens less” and to vote less frequently as a result.

The ascendancy of the individualistic electorate has also led to the substitution of “micro-targeting to individuals” for “policy, platform and vision for the country’s future”—which, according to Ignatieff, once formed “an essential element” of politics.

He further explained that in order to conduct an effective campaign and acquire standing in the eyes of voters, candidates must rely on “paid professionals who wage campaigns against each other for commercial gain,” resulting in the professionalization of politics and the conversion of wealth into political clout. 

However, Ignatieff pointed out that a well-financed campaign alone may not be enough to gain voter approval. The principal determinant of standing remains, in fact, the candidate’s ability to affirm his “belonging” to the community he seeks to represent.

For this reason, he said, standing is not an “entitlement” reserved for the highest bidder, but remains “a privilege to be accorded by citizens”—in keeping with the founding principles of democracy, which posit that “the right to rule must be earned in the trust and confidence of ordinary citizens.”
Shifting his focus to a related issue in the political arena, Ignatieff observed that the battle for standing has rendered competition for public office a “war” based on the vilification of one’s opponent rather than a “debate” centered on “vision, platform and ideas.”

Ignatieff concluded by advocating the restoration of a “politics of adversaries” in place of the prevailing “politics of enemies” and the substitution of a “politics of program” for the current “politics of standing.”

ojr2-13keynote8.jpg“If standing becomes the only question in politics, none of the essential questions a society has to solve will get decided in elections,” he said. “Elections will become plebiscites of standing while the real questions—who do we want to be as a people, what challenges must we solve together—will not be decided by the people.”

Well known for his work as a human rights advocate of Western intervention in the prevention of genocide, Ignatieff had earlier served as Director of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government before his entry into Canadian politics as a member of the House of Commons, Liberal party leader, and as a candidate for Prime Minister. He is now Senior Resident at Massey College, University of Toronto, where he teaches courses in political science as well as law.

According to Dean Fitts, Ignatieff’s return to academia signaled his having “come full circle” in much the same way Roberts had decades prior. “Michael resembles Roberts in his commitment to scholarship, to legal education and to civic leadership,” he said as part of his introduction. “His fascinating career has redefined what it means to be a public citizen.”