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Chronicle of a train wreck foretold

by Reg Whitaker

In 2012 Barack Obama was easily reelected over Mitt Romney, who was running on a more extreme right-wing platform than any Republican since the Barry Goldwater debacle of 1964. Democrats strengthened their hold over the Senate and would have gained a majority in the House of Representatives were it not for the ruthless gerrymandering engineered by Republican-controlled states. The Democratic triumph was widely seen as signalling much more than a mere partisan victory. Republicans have been thrown into a tailspin of self-doubt and internal bickering, and a few have even been driven to a crisis of conscience.

The reason is stark: Obama’s winning coalition is made up of all of America’s rising demographics, while the losing side is based on its fading demographics. The America of Fox News, Karl Rove, and Rush Limbaugh – once so confident if not imperial – is in big trouble. The culture wars waged by the right since the Reagan era have turned. A majority of Americans now back same-sex marriage and the legalization of marijuana. But these indicators of social change are symptoms of something deeper.

Romney tried to play the economy card while accusing Obama of playing identity politics with minorities. That tactic backfired. The economy card was actually in Democratic hands. Young women and African, Hispanic, Jewish and Asian Americans were voting Democratic not so much out of cultural symbolism as out of rational economic interests, the same interests that repelled them from the Republicans in large numbers.

There is a new American majority that looks different. In a nostalgic hall-of-mirrors sort of way, it looks a little, well, Canadian, eh?

But Canada’s self-image as a kinder gentler America has been badly shaken. Today we are ruled by the likes of Stephen Harper, Jason Kenney and John Baird, assiduously dismantling the image of cool, liberal Canada and replacing it with a dour, selfish, me-first conservative Canada that looks suspiciously like an older Republican America.

How did this weird role reversal occur? If we listen to journalist John Ibbitson and pollster Darrell Bricker in their new book The Big Shift, we are witnessing the passing of the “Laurentian elites” centred in Toronto, Montreal and Ottawa and their passé preoccupations: national unity, environment, equality, redistribution and other liberal mantras. In their place are emerging new elites in the west supported by entrepreneurially minded upwardly mobile immigrants in the suburbs – ripe pickings for the Harper Tories who can look forward to enduring political hegemony.

The America of Fox News, Karl Rove,  and Rush Limbaugh – once so  confident if not imperial – is in big  trouble. The culture wars waged by the  right since the Reagan era have turned.

The America of Fox News, Karl Rove,
and Rush Limbaugh – once so
confident if not imperial – is in big
trouble. The culture wars waged by the
right since the Reagan era have turned.

We heard about permanent majorities previously from Karl Rove, until his notorious election-night meltdown on Fox News when reality whacked him in the face. In fairness to Ibbitson and Bricker, they do not in fact dispute that Canada as a whole remains more a liberal than a conservative country. Stephen Harper promised to make liberal Canada unrecognizable but, by and large, he has remade only the official face of Canada, not the values and ideals of Canadians. Electorally, his party remains locked under a glass ceiling of little more than a third of voters.

Yet Ibbitson and Bricker may be right. Like the Wizard of Oz, Harper can continue to project an intimidating but misleadingly larger-than-life image of a right-wing Canada for one simple reason: the opposition is fractured. An Obama-like coalition exists in Canada as well, but here it is split two, three, even four ways. The NDP and Liberals perform a Punch and Judy show, in which Jack Layton knocks out Michael Ignatieff only to see Tom Mulcair threatened by Justin Trudeau – all for the bragging rights of being the biggest frog in an opposition pond made artificially small by the distortions of the first-past-the-post electoral system. More fragmentation: Greens draw away environmental votes from both the Liberals and the NDP, while the Bloc Québécois works on widening the Quebec hole in the Canadian centre-left doughnut.

Harper’s base is rock solid. Despite tiny cracks in the Tory caucus over abortion, the PM sees no challengers to his right and an opposition more intent on fratricide than regicide. The latter tendency has only been stepped up with the election of two new leaders and frantic marketing competition over marginal product differentiation. One area where Conservatives have been smarter than Republicans is in wooing rather than alienating the “ethnic” vote. Yet here too it is the fragmentation of the opposition that is the biggest contributor to Tory inroads into immigrant communities.

The idea of opposition cooperation to defeat the Harperites has found its way into mainstream political discourse. An excellent summation of the case for cooperation can be found in a book by Paul Adams nicely entitled Power Trap: How Fear and Loathing between New Democrats and Liberals Keep Stephen Harper in Power – and What Can be Done about it.1 Some have tried. Nathan Cullen ran on a cooperation platform for the NDP leadership and finished a strong third. Joyce Murray ran on a cooperation platform for the Liberal leadership and finished a surprising second. Cullen has subsequently been given a prominent role in winner Tom Mulcair’s team, but has had to fall silent on cooperation. Murray’s second-place vote total was actually 70 per cent behind the Soviet-style majority rolled up by Justin Trudeau. Murray may well be given front-bench visibility, but Trudeau has shown zero interest in cooperation.

Finally in sight of the Promised Land after generations in the wilderness, the NDP is in no mood to make peace with a once powerful but recently failing rival. At the NDP’s policy convention in April, Mulcair repeated an oft-told line about former Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff posing an “arrogant” choice for voters in 2011: “Either the blue door or the red door.” The voters, Mulcair joked, “showed him the door.” He then went on to say that “only one result is possible if we want to get rid of Stephen Harper. The only party that can replace him is the NDP.” In other words, either the blue door or the orange door. Liberals, with visions of Trudeaus past and present dancing in their heads, expect to recover their ancient entitlement to govern. I leave it to readers to spot the arrogance difference.

The closer one looks to the centre of parties, the stronger the aversion one finds to renouncing perpetual partisan warfare; the further from the centre, the more openness to new and less partisan ways of doing politics. In the electorate at large the verdict is clear. Polls have shown strong support for centre-left cooperation: the only exception is Conservative supporters who rightly fear the consequences.

In loyal defence of their parties, partisans invoke history. “The party of Laurier!” “The party of Douglas!” These incantations increasingly fall on deaf ears, not only among the young ignorant of history, but also in the stressed middle class cynical about decades of broken partisan promises.

Appeals to history fail for a deeper reason. For the past half century, once-powerful institutions of Western civil society that mediated between the state and individuals, from established churches to trade unions to political parties, have been steadily losing legitimacy.

Take Italy. For decades, political and social life was dominated by two camps, the Christian Democrats, associated with the Roman Catholic Church, and the Communists, rooted in the trade unions. Many Italians were born, grew up and lived their lives within the supportive cocoons of their respective camps. Yet both the Christian Democrats and the Communists have disappeared, gone with the wind. Today Italian politics is in turmoil with the astonishing rise of a new nonparty party led by a comedian, Beppe Grillo. The Grillini have paralyzed the entire process by refusing to support any government – left, centre or right.

Could Canada be looking at a Rick Mercer as its political future?

There is a darker paradox at work. As voters lose interest and electorates shrink, parties that remain in the diminished process perversely become more partisan. Micromarketing targets narrow niche markets. The 24/7 news cycle, driven by new media, leads to neverending election campaigns, a state of permanent partisan warfare without quarter. American cable news drives this process: Fox on the right and MSNBC on the left do not report news so much as tell viewers what they are supposed to think about the news, within fiercely partisan but entertaining frameworks. Meanwhile CNN’s old-fashioned idea of impartial reporting loses ratings. In Canada, Sun News strives to be Fox North, which is no accident since it is the Harper Tories who have mastered the black art of politics as war, while their opponents help them out by turning on their potential partners instead of their real enemy.

The orange, red and green trains have left their stations and are hurtling toward the 2015 election. For the 60 per cent of Canadians opposed to the Harperites the prospect looms of a catastrophic wreck, and with it another four years for Harper to remake this country in his conservative image. Opposition politicians will have a lot to answer for.

Note

1  Toronto: Lorimer, 2012.

 



About the Author

Reg Whitaker
Political scientist Reg Whitaker writes a political column for Inroads and is a member of its editorial board.




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