Photo by Adam Jones/Global Photo Archive CC-BY-SA 2.0

In late September, the Liberal government delivered a throne speech outlining plans for economic recovery from the pandemic. Predictably, the official opposition decried the inadequacies of the government’s plans and signalled its intention to vote against the speech at its first opportunity. The Conservatives were joined by their provincial partisan counterparts in Alberta and Saskatchewan, all three pointing to shameful neglect of the oil and gas industry as the main failing of the federal government’s recovery plan.

A minority government could fall over a defeated throne speech, so attention shifted to the NDP. Although in broad agreement, the New Democrats discerned two major drawbacks in the Liberal plan: less money per week ($400) in the successor to the Canada Emergency Response Benefit than in the original ($500), and inadequate federal assistance for sick pay. They hinted they might even vote against the speech.

No worries: the very next day the Liberals announced they were accommodating the two NDP demands. The NDP indicated support for the throne speech, but reiterated that Liberals never do anything progressive without being pushed by the NDP.

The Alberta and Saskatchewan premiers continued muttering about Ottawa encouraging western separatism. In the National Post, John Ivison discerned a dark secret unfolding: a centre-left Liberal-NDP alliance threatening to take control of Canada. A failed candidate in the recent Conservative leadership contest wrote in the same paper that she had discerned a “socialist coup” underway at Justin Trudeau’s direction, one that relied not on force of arms but on the redistributive tax system.

The Liberals presented the most ambiguous face: were they really socialist zealots out to remake the country? Or were they reactionaries led into captivity by the NDP?

The Liberal Party of the last century was resolutely centrist in an age when catch-all brokerage parties, as opposed to programmatic parties, tended to be dominant. Political marketing in the pre-internet era favoured broad appeals to as wide a group of potential supporters as could be feasibly targeted. The old Liberals were masters at responding to shifts in public opinion from whatever direction. Were they facing the old Liberal Party, the NDP could justifiably fear that their partners in the de facto alliance might bolt to the right at the first opportunity. Now this fear would be misguided, but not because the Liberals have undergone conversion into a principled party of the left. The Liberals have adapted to a new age in political marketing by becoming a different kind of party, one that opportunistically recognizes the left of centre as more attractive than the right of centre for hunting Liberal votes.

The Liberals weren’t the only centrist brokerage party. Brian Mulroney’s Progressive Conservatives formed a broad centrist government in the late 1980s. But the PCs were virtually wiped off the electoral map in 1993, losing the West to the hard-right Reform Party and Quebec to the sovereigntist Bloc Québécois – two programmatic parties.

It’s largely a matter of political marketing in the new media age. In the past, party platforms were directed like aerial bombing in World War II: fly over the general area, open the bomb bays, and hope for the best. Broad centrist appeals to be all things to all people seemed the best approach to voters. However, new information technologies have enabled marketing that resembles the computer-guided precision targeting of missiles in contemporary warfare, with party advertising no longer designed to be all things to all people, but instead particular things to particular people.

The dirty secret of this political marketing is that it plays on divisions. When appeals can be calibrated to particular targeted groups, what one group gains, others lose. Successful party brands are as much defined by who are against it as by who are for it. “Our enemies are your enemies” is the implicit message to carefully targeted supporters. One result: across the Western world, what Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., long ago dubbed the “Vital Centre” has been eroding. The fierce implacable tribalism of American politics marks the apex, or nadir, of this trend, but similar signs can be found elsewhere.

When the Conservative Party of Canada was born out of a hostile takeover of the remnant of the PCs by the Reform/Canadian Alliance in 2003, the new party staked out a more sharply defined centre-right position. The Harper governments (2006–15) established a near monopoly of the centre-right for the Conservative brand, for the most part displacing inroads the Liberals had made over the years among more conservative voters.

Though partisan divisions have never attained the brutally divisive levels of recent American politics, the rock-hard solidity of centre-right support for the Conservatives since Harper has been remarkable and has formed one of two broad clusters of political opinion. It appears to be diverging, at an accelerating rate, from the other cluster, which is moderately centre-left. The two clusters are not equally balanced. Public opinion research regularly shows the centre-left to represent about two thirds while the centre-right represents about one third of voters.

This imbalance has less political impact than might be expected, since the smaller centre-right is united behind the Conservative Party, yielding it political reach and seats beyond its base. This advantage is magnified by the fact that the centre-left is split among four parties: Liberal, NDP, BQ and Green. On a range of issues and values, supporters of these parties tend to be indistinguishable from one another, even as they maintain fierce partisan rivalry. True, BQ supporters are out of step with the rest of the centre-left on Quebec sovereignty, but differences tend to stop there. One particularly interesting survey compared Quebec sovereigntists to western separatists. The westerners were way to the right of mainstream opinion on a wide range of issues, while the Quebecers, except on the one issue of Quebec sovereignty, were situated squarely in the Canadian mainstream.

The partisan implications of the centre-left/centre-right distribution are further distorted by the regional distribution, starkly evident in the 2019 election results. The centre-right cluster is not only concentrated behind the Conservative Party but is regionally skewed. In Alberta the Conservatives swept 33 of 34 seats with a towering 69 per cent of the popular vote; in Saskatchewan the haul was all 14 seats on the basis of 65 per cent of the vote. This helped produce a Conservative popular vote plurality of 34 per cent in the country but a shortfall in seats, given all their “wasted” votes on the prairies.

It was also apparent, even before the results were in, that the only way Andrew Scheer could have become prime minister was with an outright majority of seats. None of the other parties could have countenanced supporting a Tory minority, except at the cost of alienating their own voters. The reason for this is the yawning policy divide between the Conservatives and all the other parties over the crucial issue of the environment versus economic development (for the latter, read pipelines and oil sands exports). Analysis of the centre-right/centre-left opinion clusters shows that a dramatic acceleration of differences over the past decade has been over this very issue. Centre-right voters increasingly privilege development of oil and gas and constructing pipelines over protection of the environment, while centre-left voters increasingly place the need to combat climate change ahead of further fossil fuel development. Pro–fossil fuel views are concentrated not only in partisan terms within the ranks of Conservative voters but also regionally in Alberta and Saskatchewan.

When the Conservatives made opposition to a national carbon tax the centrepiece of their 2019 campaign, they set in motion potent symbolic politics that were interpreted in diametrically opposite ways. For Conservatives, it seemed to be a case of saving the Canadian economy from environmental radicals out to tear it down. For the centre-left parties, it looked like saving the environment from climate change deniers. Exaggerations on both sides, no doubt, but the raw psychology of symbolic politics goes a long way toward explaining the predicament of a Tory party shut out of power in Parliament, as well as Alberta and Saskatchewan threatening western separation.

Andrew Scheer has departed but his successor, Erin O’Toole, owes a great deal of his successful leadership campaign to early intervention on his behalf by Alberta Premier Jason Kenney. Nor has O’Toole forgotten this. Since taking over the party reins, he has persistently raised western alienation as the most pressing problem facing the federal government, demanding major concessions from an “anti-western” Liberal government. The Conservatives continue to campaign against the carbon tax, in the courts and on the hustings, as if this were their signature brand.

The federal Conservative alliance with Alberta and Saskatchewan faces greater problems than being temporarily shut out of Ottawa. Not only has the pandemic brought the oil and gas industry close to disaster territory, but the place of fossil fuels in the post-pandemic economy is also in serious question. Major investors, state and private, have begun pulling out of fossil fuels, and oil and gas giants like BP, Shell and Total are joining the flight, shifting to greener alternatives to avoid being left holding stranded assets as the world’s leading economies set net zero-emission standards for the next decades.

The Liberals, in what may well prove their last effort at an old-fashioned centrist compromise, used billions in tax dollars to buy the Trans Mountain pipeline from the Texas owners who were bailing out. If they imagined this would bring any gratitude and political benefit to the Trudeau government, they were badly mistaken. Liberal political standing in Alberta could not be any worse if they had simply left Trans Mountain to die on the market. On the other hand, they have lost serious credit with environmentalists. Yet plans for guiding economic recovery by encouraging Alberta to shift its petro-economy to greener alternatives are angrily rejected as Ottawa interference, as Kenney doubles down on his oil sands cargo cult.

The centre does not hold.

There are a few cracks in the Conservative façade. Under pandemic pressure, Ontario Premier Doug Ford has become an enthusiastic booster for the federal Liberals, and has let it be known that in a future federal election he has no intention of supporting the federal Conservatives. In 2019, the federal Tories shut down Ford, judging him a liability, but invited Jason Kenney to campaign in Ontario for Andrew Scheer, so this may simply be payback time for Ford. For his part, the new Tory leader O’Toole has been quick to criticize Ontario’s handling of the pandemic recovery, contrasting it unfavourably with Kenney’s Alberta. Personal politics aside, Ford’s doubts about a united Conservative front may reflect a dawning recognition that the manufacturing heartland of Ontario has interests that diverge from the western petro-economy. Significantly, two major auto companies, Chrysler-Fiat and Ford, have announced plans to convert Ontario plants to manufacture of electric and hybrid vehicles.

From another direction, the Conservatives face a threat from the far right in the form of the “western” (read Alberta/Saskatchewan) separatist movement, now taking form as a political party under the leadership of former Conservative MP Jay Hill and calling itself the Maverick Party. If Kenney fails to gain major concessions from Ottawa or, less likely, if he compromises what separatists consider core western interests, the Mavericks just might cut into the Tory support base enough to render serious damage.

Over on the government side in Ottawa, it does seem most likely that the Liberals will continue to tack to the left on purely practical, opportunistic grounds if nothing else. Some may advocate further grand compromises with the petro-economy along the lines of the pipeline purchase, although with the forced departure of Bill Morneau, those Bay Street voices may have grown fainter. Smart hunters go where the ducks are, and there are precious few ducks for the Liberals on the right. On the other hand, the Liberals face the daily challenge of competition from their left in a fractured left-centre. The dangers are exacerbated by the first-past-the-post system. The more ground the Liberals concede to the NDP, BQ and Greens, the more likely it becomes that a regionally based Tory minority, if it can seal the cracks in its own base, might just slip back into majority government.

The political landscape for the post-pandemic recovery is daunting, with frustrating policy gridlock one potential outcome. Given the hard realities of the current political configuration, Liberal leadership of the centre-left toward a socially responsible and more equitable green recovery might seem the best hope. As partisans, the NDP, BQ and Greens will be unhappy about this, but in terms of advancing the interests of their progressive supporters, it may just be the most practical way forward.

In March 2020 Canada and the world, like Alice, stepped through a looking glass and into another dimension, a world so strange and unprecedented that no one could find a historical analogy that did not break down on closer examination. There was the plague that devasted ancient Athens during the Peloponnesian War in 430 BCE; the Black Death of the 1340s that killed perhaps 60 per cent of the European population; and the Spanish influenza pandemic of 1918–19 that may have killed 50 million people, more than perished during the preceding First World War. None really resembles the particular challenge of COVID-19 or provides templates for responses.

There were famous chroniclers of such past catastrophes, from Thucydides to Boccaccio to Dafoe to Camus, yet none seemed to speak from their experience to the utterly unique situation of an entire world going into voluntary or involuntary lockdown, deliberately shutting much normal economic activity; nor to a bizarre realm in which from one day to the next governments could transform from near-silent shareholders in a globalized corporate enterprise to Leviathan states instantly funding and taking command of a private sector that, for the most part, had been regulated not by government but by the market.

Like Yeats after the Easter Rising of 1916, pundits sententiously declared, “All changed, changed utterly.” Perhaps; perhaps not. There are, however, some things that should change after this searing experience.

Trump and Brexit populism rode a wave of suspicion of science and expertise. Remember Michael Gove dismissing ironclad arguments of economists about havoc in the wake of Brexit: we “have had enough of experts”? Now life and death literally hang on the expertise of scientists and health professionals. Surely this renewed trust in expertise should carry over into the post-COVID world. Surely climate change deniers will give way to the professional opinion of the scientific community that the world is heading for catastrophe if we do not get to net-zero carbon emissions.

For years we have heard tireless reiterations of the neoliberal theme that government is the problem, not the solution; that private enterprise does everything better than bureaucrats; and that deregulation and marketization are the keys to good public policy. Depredations on the tax base by the rich create a hollowed-out state, which is then pointed to as evidence of public sector incompetence.

And then comes the plague. Suddenly everyone – corporations, unions, big and small business, workers, rich, poor – rush to the comforting arms of the state. And the state, astonishingly to those who believed the antigovernment rhetoric, delivers quickly and effectively. Ottawa rolled out massive relief programs of unprecedented complexity and had money flowing into people’s bank accounts within days. When coverage gaps were pointed out, adjustments were made: the public service could be not only efficient but resilient in the face of overarching crisis, even when bureaucrats had to work from home. Surely the performance of the state, matched against the manifest incapacity of the unassisted private sector to cope, should be a salutary lesson to free market evangelists.

Neoliberalism went hand in hand with unchecked globalization. This COVID crisis has brought home the danger posed by extended global supply chains and “just in time” delivery. Globalization had led to concentration of food production and delivery in a small number of multinational conglomerates with resulting dependence on food imports, and now a crisis in Canadian food security. Surely the post-COVID era should see serious efforts at shortening critical supply chains, ensuring adequate inventories of crucial products and refocusing on local food production.

Neoliberalism had notoriously encouraged greater inequality, with the corporate elites paying themselves multimillion-dollar “earnings” and “performance bonuses” while a state starved of resources cut back and privatized social services, providing derisory wages and employment conditions for those who work in the service sector. The COVID crisis highlighted the crucial and heroically self-sacrificing role of health care workers who put their own lives on the line daily in defence of the public.

In Quebec and Ontario in particular, it also shone a harsh spotlight on the shockingly substandard conditions in long-term care facilities, many run for profit, where COVID raged out of control. Seniors are most at risk from the virus, but the ghastly contagion and death rate could have been prevented had conditions not been as Dickensian. Surely the future should see a redistribution of resources to reflect decent remuneration and working conditions for those whose services truly are essential. Surely we should see proper public funding for essential social services like seniors’ care, decoupling of these services from the for-profit sector and an end to simply warehousing the elderly who cannot afford premium care.

Politics in liberal democracies have increasingly in recent years been characterized by relentless partisanship; by the “permanent campaign”; by the commodification of politics and the reduction of citizens to consumers; by the active fostering by politicians and partisan media of social distrust and incivility and aggression in public debate. The COVID crisis has highlighted in ways not seen since wartime that Margaret Thatcher was never so wrong as when she notoriously declared that “there’s no such thing as society.” Surely this crisis will have brought home that there is a collective good that transcends individual self-interest, that people will rise to the challenge of doing their best to help their fellow citizens in adversity, and that partisan politics as usual must change to reflect a greater sense of common purpose, uniting rather than dividing people.

Surely and should do not connote certainty, however. There is nothing assured about the way Canada will come out of this crisis.

We need only look south of the border to see how lessons may not be learned. Divisive populism and destructive neoliberalism continue apace in the United States. The Trump response to the downside of globalization has been reversion to 1930s-style nationalist protectionism and issuance of threats against other countries, precluding the kind of globalism that is still needed: international cooperation against the virus. Trump has deliberately promoted disunity over unity, set groups of people against one another and relentlessly sought to extract partisan advantage from the crisis. The result: instead of any coherent national strategy, there is chaos; instead of a common national purpose, there are right-wing thugs carrying assault weapons and even invading state legislatures and threatening elected officials, demanding the end of lockdowns.

Canada sets an admirable contrast to American carnage, not only combating the virus more effectively (with nine times Canada’s population, the United States at the end of April had 30 times the number of reported COVID fatalities) but establishing generally nonpartisan direction with large-scale voluntary compliance with guidelines for appropriate behaviour. But the best contrast with this newfound Canadian unity is not with our neighbours but with ourselves, on the very eve of the onset of the pandemic.

When every television network in the country simultaneously broadcast Canadian musicians, artists and athletes all contributing emotive voices to a collective performance dubbed “Stronger Together” on April 26, it is wrenching to take our minds back just two months, to February 28. On that date the National Post published a poll under the blaring headline “Canada is broken”:

In a time of widespread disagreement and ever-increasing polarization, there remains a bitter solidarity among Canadians in the belief that the government doesn’t know what it’s doing. In the wake of regional discontent from the western provinces and blockades jamming up the country’s rail network, a towering majority of Canadians agree with the statement, “Right now, Canada is broken.”1

A few days later another National Post piece spelled out that “Canada is broken because Justin Trudeau broke it.”2 Columnist Chris Selley followed this up with, “The Fathers of Confederation might well find consensus on the word ‘broken’ to describe Canada, 153 years on. Surely 26 million Canadians can’t be wrong.”3

Apparently they could. Two months later, the “bitter solidarity” of distrust in government had been transformed into an even more “towering majority” who expressed faith that the same government would see them through a crisis that made Alberta discontent and rail blockades seem trivial in comparison.

Briefly revisiting the “Canada is broken” moment may also point to the kind of Canada we might expect when we finally step back through the looking glass into a post-COVID era.

Some of the concern about the state of the country was sparked by the widespread protests, including rail blockades, supporting the opposition of some hereditary Wet’suwet’en chiefs to the Coastal GasLink pipeline crossing their traditional unceded territory. The complexities of the legal issues surrounding Wet’suwet’en territorial and governance claims are examined in detail by Gareth Morley in this issue.4

The magnitude and extent of the protests, and the economic damage and inconveniences caused by rail blockades, appear disproportionate to the causes, intensified by the way Indigenous sovereignty claims were conflated with the environmental case against liquefied natural gas, despite being separate issues. The federal and British Columbia governments are continuing to negotiate territorial and governance issues with the Wet’suwet’en while the pipeline proceeds. While reconciliation with Indigenous peoples remains a leading goal of public policy, working out Indigenous consent to megaprojects will be complex and difficult when First Nations are always divided as much as non-Native Canadians on environment-vs.-economy issues. But Canada is hardly “broken” by these difficulties.

The other, larger, problem supposedly threatening to break Canada, the alienation of Alberta (now joined by Saskatchewan) from Ottawa and central Canada, is a very old story.5 Most recently it has risen to new heights as the Alberta petrostate has seen the future of its leading staple product, oil sands bitumen, called into question. Under Stephen Harper, a prime minister from Calgary, the oil sands were declared to be the leading driver of Canadian economic development. When global oil prices started falling, oils sands profits stalled. Alberta identified completing pipelines to tidewater and export markets in Asia as the answer.

But when Northern Gateway was shelved and Trans Mountain ran into environmental and Indigenous opposition on the B.C. coast, Alberta pointed the finger at environmentalists and federal and B.C. governments concerned with environmental protection as the enemies of Alberta. B.C. Premier John Horgan and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau became hated figures to many Albertans. Even Trudeau buying Trans Mountain when its Texan developers backed out did nothing to allay Alberta rage.

It is now often said in Alberta that Trudeau’s secret agenda is to destroy the Alberta economy (why any prime minister would harbour such a politically self-defeating agenda beggars the imagination, but apparently not that of conspiracy theorists from the fever swamps of the Alberta far right). When the Liberals committed to the introduction of a carbon tax as the centrepiece of a national climate strategy, suspicion of Ottawa reached paranoid levels. Then the 2019 election saw the return of a Trudeau government with the support of three other parties equally or more committed to the carbon tax and to serious climate action, while Alberta and Saskatchewan returned crushing majorities to a Tory party fully backing Alberta. Canada, it seemed, was breaking apart. “Western” (sic) separatism was bubbling up across the Prairies.

In the real world, even if some environmental activists do seek the closure of the oil sands, majority opinion across the country has clung to the belief that the environment and economic development could be balanced, as reflected in the decision to put Trans Mountain under public ownership. Whether any viable compromise might ever have been found is now a moot point, as the pandemic has thrown all calculations about the future of oil and gas into confusion. Global lockdown has led to a drastic drop in energy consumption and resulting oversupply, while a Saudi-led price war had already driven down North American oil to uncompetitive levels. North American prices briefly went negative, with the surreal result that on one day producers would have had to pay buyers $37 a barrel to take the stuff off their hands.

This situation will not endure and eventually there will be a price rebound. But it is doubtful that it will ever rebound to levels that make the Alberta oil sands a profitable producer. In fact, there were abundant signs pre-COVID that the oil sands’ day was done. All foreign investment, including from some oil giants, had already fled the field, and sovereign funds and other big institutional investors had divested oil sands stocks. Ethical concerns may have played a small part, but the larger reason was hard financial calculation: the world was transitioning away from fossil fuels for reasons of self-preservation. The oil sands, being among the most expensive (and dirty) sources of crude in the world, are roadkill in the global downsizing of the carbon economy. The COVID pandemic has given even more impetus to the move away from the petro-economy: this virus is only a preview of the horrific damage the earth can wreak upon a human species fouling its own nest and upending the delicate balance of nature.

Even if there exists a transitional period when oil is still in demand, consider that the Saudis, with low production costs, can break even at a price in the low $20s a barrel. The break-even point for oil sands bitumen is the mid-$50s. For exports to be reliably profitable, prices would have to be in the $60 range, which is the aspirational forecast for Jason Kenney’s 2020 Alberta budget. Energy analysts are not predicting anything like $60 oil in the foreseeable future. No wonder Kinder Morgan backed out of Trans Mountain and Teck Resources dumped Premier Kenney’s pampered Frontier oil sands development (which posited $80–$90 a barrel over 20 years!).

The bottom line is that the real enemy of the Alberta petro-economy is not found among the Liberals, Greens, socialists, federal bureaucrats and environmentalists of Albertan demonology. The real enemy is the market. There is great irony in this, in light of the Alberta Conservatives’ vociferous free enterprise ideology, not to speak of their constant self-congratulation at their genius at finding oil in the ground. One is tempted to sneer that those who live by free enterprise die by free enterprise, but that would be both ungracious and self-defeating. The collapse of the petro-economy will wreak havoc not only on Albertans but on the entire Canadian economy. This is of course only intensified by the downward spiral induced by the pandemic lockdown. Not surprisingly, Alberta is already coming back to Ottawa, this time not as a threatening creditor but as supplicant, grateful for whatever assistance is offered. Ottawa initially offered the same assistance to laid-off oil and gas workers that it offers all other laid-off workers. It also tied specific aid to the industry to environmental purposes: cleaning up abandoned oil wells, for instance. This has won support from both environmentalists and the Alberta government.

What must be resisted are demands that good federal money be thrown after bad into the pit of existing big oil investment in the oil sands. Instead, there is the major challenge ahead of assisting the transition of the Alberta economy to much greater reliance on alternative non-fossil energy sources (geothermal, wind, sun, etc.), toward a greener economy rather than a petro-economy.

This will certainly not be easy, and may be very disruptive and extremely expensive, especially in the early stages. But the pandemic crisis offers an opportunity along these lines that would otherwise have been more difficult to achieve. The transition of Alberta toward a greener future should be part of the renewed common purpose coming out of the crisis, showing that Canada is in no way broken, but indeed stronger together.

Continue reading “Through the Looking Glass – and Back?”

In the 19th century, Karl Marx wrote that “the tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.” In the 21st century, history (“the dead generations”) reappears in new forms. Groups defining themselves by specific identities reread and rewrite history for evidence of historical injustice.

What looks like interest in the past is actually ahistorical. We look to history as an armoury to find weapons to wield in current political struggles. Of course, the present has always employed the past in this way. Memory of war has always been used to inspire present-day nationalism. Today, culture wars rage in the United States over Confederate symbols and the American legacy of slavery and racism. In my town of Victoria, a firestorm of controversy was set off by the decision to warehouse a statue of Sir John A. Macdonald that had stood in front of City Hall, on grounds of his role in the official oppression of Indigenous people. Debates on these issues are typically rancorous and emotionally charged, on both sides.

To get a better perspective on the interaction of past and present in extremis, I visited perhaps the worst-case scenario. Berlin is a city where a very dark history threatens constantly to overwhelm the present. In Berlin – capital of the Nazi regime from whence the orders came unleashing a global war that killed at least 60 million people, 45 million of them civilians, and from whence the horrific mechanized genocide of the Holocaust was directed – the past indeed weighs like a nightmare on the present. The city was never the centre of German fascism: instead, it was known as “Red Berlin” for its citizens’ Communist and Social Democratic sympathies. Nevertheless, Berlin was to be the site for Hitler’s grandiose dreams of a monumental capital that would celebrate in concrete and steel the Übermenschen of the Third Reich.

In 1945, Berlin was Ground Zero: after years of relentless Allied bombing, the savage Battle of Berlin left almost no building standing. The German past as memorialized in its buildings and monuments from earlier eras had been all but eradicated. Berlin’s past would have to be reconstructed at the same time as its future was imagined. What would be remembered and what would be forgotten?

In the first years after the war, amnesia and denial were everywhere, from the “good Germans” who swore they knew nothing of the genocidal crimes of the regime, even those who lived next door to the death camps, to the former Nazis who resumed positions in state and society while neither admitting to nor apologizing for their previous conduct.

A further complicating factor was the postwar east-west division of Germany into the Communist-bloc DDR and the NATO-bloc Federal Republic, given brutal physical form in the wall that divided Berlin from 1961 to 1989. Until the fall of the Berlin Wall and the DDR regime, the Nazi past was seen through two different rear-view mirrors, each with particular Cold War distortions: DDR propaganda depicted West Germany as a haven for ex-Nazi war criminals while the West depicted the Communist police state as the linear successor to Nazi totalitarianism. Fighting the Cold War on German soil was not conducive to recovering a clear and honest picture of the pre–Cold War German past.

In the 1960s, a tectonic shift began deep within German society, precipitated by a generational conflict as young Germans began to question their parents’ role in the Nazi era and demand an accounting for the responsibility of Germany for its war crimes and especially for the Holocaust. This transformation was not easy and has never been complete. But the overall result has been remarkable: an admirable honesty about its national history distinguishes Germany. Nothing like this coming to terms with past misconduct can be seen in Japan, where accounting for the atrocities of the Japanese war of aggression in China (such as the infamous “Rape of Nanjing”) or apologies and compensation to the Korean “comfort women” who were made sex slaves for the Japanese army have generated significant nationalist backlash.

In Germany, Holocaust denial is a criminal offence, and only on the far fringes of the extreme right can one encounter any refusal to face German responsibility for organized mass murder and genocide. This is not an admission of collective blame that passes down from generation to generation – itself a racist conception of blood guilt – but rather a recognition that for today’s Germans, mostly born long after Hitler’s rule, honest memory of past horrors is the best antidote to ever again repeating that dark history.

A prime example of how memory can be made to serve the present is a large block in central Berlin south of Prinz-Albrecht-Strasse. The Nazis used the block to house the headquarters of the Gestapo, the SS and the SD (the SS security service). This was in effect the directing centre of the entire Nazi police state apparatus. After 1945, with the structures reduced to rubble, one option was simply to raze and build anew, covering over the block’s hideous past: to forget rather than to remember. Several abortive proposals along such lines came forward, but none were accepted.

Then, in the late 1980s, a temporary exhibit called The Topography of Terror was opened in one part of the empty block, documenting the rise and fall of the police state in the 1930s and 1940s. Visitors flocked to the exhibit, which is now a permanent memorial. Here one can see the crimes of the Nazi terror apparatus documented, with high information content relying not on multimedia glitz but on text and stark black-and-white photographs. Instead of telling visitors what to think, The Topography of Terror encourages them to think for themselves about what they see. Memory and history are recovered from the ruins, but the razed grounds remain as a reminder of the temptation to forget.

The long-debated project of a national Holocaust memorial finally came to fruition in 2005 with the opening of the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, designed by the American architect Peter Eisenman. A “controversial” design with no explanatory text, it is an installation of blank pillars of varying heights in undulating rows on a grid across a large expanse of Berlin cityscape. Visitors wander through the rows, sometimes dwarfed and lost to sight, at other times visible to the nearby city streets.

Some critics decry its anonymity, suggesting its message is inexplicable. But the Holocaust was itself inexplicable. As for the anonymity, the Jews were murdered not for who they were but for what they were; the Memorial brings home the terrifying impersonality of their extermination. Besides, underneath the memorial is another presentation in which the victims are given their names and personhood back. Jewish families from across Europe are shown in family photos, with information on their occupations, their homes, their marriages and children, and then the precise date and place they were murdered. Above and below ground taken together, I found the Memorial deeply moving. This despite the trivialization by tourists posing amid the pillars for selfies and the junk stands popping up around the perimeter. One can memorialize the past but never account for how the present will deal with it.

An even more remarkable example of teaching the present about the past are the Stolpersteine or “stumbling stones,” small plaques installed in sidewalks in front of buildings that once housed those who fell victim to the Third Reich’s extermination machine. The plaques carry the names of the former residents, their birth dates and the dates they were deported to their deaths. Thousands now appear all over Berlin. This is not an official memorial project. It began as a guerrilla installation in 1996 by one man, artist Gunter Demnig, but has now become institutionalized. Neighbourhoods take the initiative and new Stolpersteine are installed after approval of authenticated names. In Berlin one now walks daily over these haunting memories literally embedded in the material of everyday life.

It is necessary to remind ourselves just how unusual, even unique, this German memorialization of their national crimes is. Try to imagine a National Mall in Washington, D.C., that, instead of its celebratory monuments to Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln and Roosevelt, featured a searing memorial to the enslavement, segregation and lynching of African Americans, or the cultural genocide campaigns against America’s Indigenous peoples.

Yet however admirable the displays of German historical honesty may be, they have not been accomplished without strains, and some of these are growing more prominent. On the right-wing fringes of German politics, the Alternativ für Deutschland (AfD) party, rooted in the economically neglected regions of the former East Germany, has been steadily rising. The AfD has stressed insistently that Germans once again should be proud, not ashamed, of their history. In one sense this is understandable: no country can carry on forever on the basis of a national narrative of guilt and shame. But what the political mainstream has insisted on is that frank recognition of the wrongs of the German past are a significant part of what Germans can be proud of today and in the future. To the AfD, national pride can only be restored on the basis of historical amnesia. A growing minority of Germans apparently agree with this diagnosis, pointing to a coming kulturkampf (culture war) that will be neither pretty nor instructive.

There is another development, this time arising in the political mainstream, that calls into question the role of history from another direction. In May 2019 the German Bundestag overwhelmingly passed a (nonbinding) resolution that the German government “resist” the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement, which it defined as not just anti-Israeli but also anti-Semitic. The resolution threatens to criminalize support for BDS as hate speech. Israel has made a global assault on the BDS movement a centrepiece of its diplomacy abroad, meeting with some success in North America. The German resolution went further than any other response in Europe.

Clearly, German guilt over the Holocaust was very much in play. As a statement from Social Democrats and Greens put it, “In view of Germany’s historical responsibility, it is of great value that a large majority of the German Bundestag, across faction boundaries, has repeatedly committed itself to the security and the protection of Israel as well as to the fight against anti-Semitism.”

The following month the director of the Jewish Museum in Berlin and a distinguished scholar of Jewish history, Peter Schäfer, resigned or was fired from his post, after adding his name to a petition signed by 240 Jewish intellectuals opposing the Bundestag resolution. The petition argued that “boycotts are a legitimate and nonviolent tool of resistance” and urged the continued funding of Israeli and Palestinian organizations “that peacefully challenge the Israeli occupation, expose severe violations of international law and … defend the principles and values at the heart of liberal democracy and rule of law, in Germany and elsewhere.”

Israeli ambassador Yakov Hadas-Handelsman, who earlier had vociferously attacked the Jewish Museum for an exhibition on Jerusalem that showed a city peopled with Palestinians as well as Jews, doubled down on the “any criticism of Israel equals anti-Semitism” trope and demanded that the German government officially enforce the Bundestag resolution.

There is seemingly no end to the ways in which the ghosts of the past can be conjured up for the political battles of the present, and no end to the potential perversions of historical lessons that can result.

For a time, it appeared that Canada had avoided the worst recent experiences of democracy elsewhere, but with the Doug Ford bozo eruption in Ontario, Canadian exceptionalism suddenly seemed less clear. The federal election this fall begins to appear as a gathering storm. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau may have begun his tenure in office with high hopes of new ways of doing politics. His term is ending in vituperative partisan squabbling, rancid regional recriminations and a bizarre spectacle in which two of his former ministers, promoted to purported sainthood status by the opposition, carried on a guerrilla war against the Prime Minister from within his Liberal caucus until they were finally expelled.

A common theme of both opposition and media is “Liberal arrogance,” paging back to the Liberal Party of the Prime Minister’s father. Liberals think they are the “natural governing party.” Out of touch with ordinary Canadians and alienated westerners, tied closely to the Ottawa bureaucracy and the central Canadian corporate elite, the Liberals run roughshod over opposition and even the rule of law to get their way.

Hang on a minute. This is not your parents’ Liberal Party.

The Liberals of the era from Mackenzie King to Pierre Trudeau constituted the Government Party, a big-tent catch-all centrist grouping that won most elections and was embedded deeply within the state and the corporate sector. It had no firm ideological anchor, but tacked to the right or left depending upon the prevailing electoral winds. The Government Party model actually reached its culmination not with the Liberals but with the Brian Mulroney Conservatives, who in 1984 won a commanding majority based on pluralities in all provinces and regions and governed mainly from the centre.

Yet by 1993 the Progressive Conservative Party had imploded, its two main pillars of support, Quebec and the west, kicked away, replaced by two new ideologically driven parties, the Bloc Québécois and Reform. A decade later the remnants of the old PC Party were the subjects of a hostile takeover by Reform, as the harder-line Conservative Party of Canada (CPC) took shape under Stephen Harper. With the breakaway on the far right by Maxime Bernier with his People’s Party and the rightward pressures coming from Ford in Ontario and Jason Kenney in Alberta, Andrew Scheer has bowed to the forces of the right on climate policy, immigration and the whole culture-war framing of political discourse by “alt-right” populism.

This is not your parents’ Conservative Party.

National politics have taken on a more sharply divisive shape, with the CPC firmly occupying the right while the centre-left is shared – or split – by the Liberals, NDP and Greens. Common ground in the centre is rapidly shrinking. How did Trudeau’s promise of “sunny ways” get overtaken so quickly by dark storm clouds of division? Personalities and personal failings are no doubt part of the story, but it is more revealing to look at deeper structural forces at work.

Perhaps the most dramatic changes have been in the transformation of the media by the new information technologies, which in turn have led to dramatic changes in political marketing. As early as the 1990s, parties were gaining access to new tools that could identify and target very specific electoral niches. The old catch-all parties of the past made broad-based appeals to voters who were identified only in wide categories. Parties consequently tended to congregate around the centre of the spectrum where the potential for growth seemed greatest. With more precisely targeted appeals now possible – greatly enhanced in the era of “Big Data” and sophisticated marketing algorithms – strategies to build a winning coalition of niche electorates have become more programmatic than in the past.

In the 1990s, the Mike Harris Ontario Tories were among the first to grasp the potential of identifying niche voters who could be won by a narrowly targeted program. This was branded the “Common Sense Revolution”; once in office, they diligently delivered on their specific promises to targeted voters.

A key point is that the new politics rewards divide-and-rule tactics over appeals to common purpose. The new technologies encourage separate social media echo chambers in which particular groups hear and see only what they want to hear and see, rarely engaging directly with those of differing views. Harris Tories saw the partisan advantages of dividing Ontarians against one another. All the groups alienated by their neoliberal austerity policies – welfare recipients; unionized workers; feminists; gays and lesbians; various other minority communities – were spotlighted as enemies of the pocketbooks of Tory supporters (rebranded “taxpayers”).

The Ford Conservatives are a cartoon version of their predecessors. The programmatic breadth of the Common Sense Revolution has been replaced by “buck a beer” and tailgate parties. What persists is aggressive divisiveness and a drift to the further reaches of the right, mirroring perhaps the same movement among their core base. But for all Ford’s populist bluster of being “For the People,” he was elected premier with only 40 per cent of the vote but a legislative majority thanks to first-past-the-post and a split on the centre-left between the defeated Liberals and the NDP. In a clear warning to the federal parties, an Ontario electorate determined to throw out the Kathleen Wynne Liberals paid little attention to what the alternative really was. When it became apparent that the NDP had moved into place as the only viable competitor to Ford, Wynne conceded defeat and astoundingly urged Liberal voters in key contests to back the Tories rather than their hated competitor on the left. The relatively progressive Liberal agenda was thus sacrificed to a Tory bonfire: Wynne’s cap-and-trade carbon reduction program was immediately scrapped and Ford emerged as a leading opponent of the national climate plan.

On the federal scene, after nine years of a CPC government that was in many ways based on the Harris blueprint – although mitigated by many more compromises with the realities of a regionally and culturally disparate country – Justin Trudeau demonstrated his grasp of the new political dynamics in his 2015 victory. He saw no point in seeking votes on the right where the CPC support base is rock-solid. Instead he adroitly outflanked Thomas Mulcair and the NDP on the left by promising deficits, social spending and increased taxes on the highest-bracket earners. In office the Liberals have, by and large, continued to govern from the centre-left. With the national climate plan, they have mounted an ambitious and systematic approach to combating climate change, including a Canada-wide carbon pricing regime.

Yet Liberal prospects in 2019 are clouded. The centre-left vote may be splintered three ways as Liberal support drains off to the NDP and the Greens. There is a very real possibility of a CPC in thrall to the far right coming to power over a fractured centre-left. They do not have to go far beyond their one-in-three core base to do this, so long as the centre-left is deeply split.

If Trudeau has lost leadership of the centre-left, he has himself to blame, at least in part. Among the debit-side entries:

  • A bungled electoral reform process that managed to alienate supporters both of proportional representation and of the status quo;
  • A tortured argument that climate change could best be combated by promoting pipelines to carry increased production of the world’s dirtiest oil to export, culminating in the commitment of billions of tax dollars to purchase a pipeline that Texas capitalists wanted to unload – this bought Trudeau no credit and created deep animosity among Albertans and disillusionment among environmentalists;
  • The SNC-Lavalin affair in which the Prime Minister could be seen to be interfering with the independence of the prosecutorial office and the Attorney General, on behalf of a corporation whose executives had been found guilty of paying millions in bribes to the former dictator of Libya.

SNC has highlighted the core Liberal problem. Former Attorney General Jody Wilson-Raybould appears to represent a principled ethical stand, while Trudeau appears to represent an old and discredited way of doing politics. In an era when there is widespread revulsion against political elites and an appetite for voting in populist “outsiders” to “drain the swamp,” it is any democratic leader’s nightmare to be caught looking like a deer frozen in the searchlights of the social media avengers – especially when the same leader came into office promising a new way of doing politics.

Without in any way questioning Wilson-Raybould’s probity, the juxtaposition of a principled minister vs. an unprincipled prime minister is not in the end very helpful. Despite populist illusions, governing means making choices, which are inevitably compromises among a “people” always divided over public policy. Making laws is still like making sausages: best judge the end result rather than the process. Every populist movement that has arrived in office has had to either compromise with reality or fail.

Trudeau may not have done himself any favours by overselling how different he would be, but as a leader of a fractious democracy he must follow what Max Weber called the “ethic of consequences” that faces anyone holding power over others. This ethic may often be at odds with the “absolute ethic” that those without power can follow. The Prime Minister’s behaviour over SNC may, as Wilson-Raybould herself has acknowledged, be “inappropriate” without being “illegal.” Despite Andrew Scheer’s claim of “corruption,” there is no evidence of bribery or other corrupt relationship with the company in Trudeau’s advocacy of the alternative remediation agreement route for SNC as being in the public interest.

Those disappointed with the Liberals’ performance might remember Maurice Chevalier’s comment on the discomforts of old age: “Consider the alternative.” The CPC alternative in 2019 is a party committed to a demagogic campaign against the carbon tax founded on an outright lie denying the rebates that will more than compensate people for increased energy costs. This in the face of an alarming report that Canada is warming at twice the global average rate. In the face of the enormity of the challenge, the CPC position may not constitute outright climate change denial, but it certainly constitutes solution denial, which is equally reckless. Carbon pricing is not the sole answer but it is a large part of the solution, and a part that works with the market, not against it. If the CPC is successful in conning its way into office with a shamelessly disingenuous appeal to the lowest common denominator of self-interest at the expense of what is at least a recognition of the existential threat to the planet, Canadian democracy will have truly failed in as unambiguous a fashion as American democracy did when it elected a serial liar and conman to the highest office in 2016.

The NDP and the Greens will argue, not without reason, that the Liberals’ environmental record is poor – the now federally owned Trans Mountain pipeline being an own-goal against their national climate plan. But the potential of vote splitting on the centre-left allowing Scheer into office cannot be dismissed. Of course, if Trudeau had actually followed through on his oft-repeated promise to make the 2015 election the last first-past-the-post contest, we might not be having a conversation about vote splitting. Just one more self-inflicted wound.

When Canadians cast their ballots, they will have to ponder a flawed prime ministerial record. And then they will have to consider the alternative. Hobson’s Choice?

Until recently, some Canadians referred respectfully to the “Mother of Parliaments” in the United Kingdom and deferred to British practices of government as often superior to our own.

We are unlikely to hear such favourable references again in our time. With the Brexit debacle, we are more likely to see the U.K. as a beloved aunt or uncle whose once mature deportment has given way to embarrassingly self-destructive foolishness.

There is, however, a possible way out, ironically involving the very mechanism that sent Britain down the Brexit rabbit hole in the first place: another referendum. The referendum that committed Britain to exiting the European Union was a very blunt instrument of plebiscitary democracy in a country that had traditionally defined the Crown-in-Parliament in opposition to more populist forms of government. It might seem counterintuitive to advise more of the same medicine to a country suffering blunt force trauma from the first dose. Realistically, there is no alternative.

Parliament will be presented with one of three possible options following the conclusion of negotiations with the EU: some form of either a “soft” or a “hard” Brexit, or a crash-out no-deal Brexit. While varying in their degree of undesirability, all options are poor. But Parliament is incapable of breaking out of this Hobson’s choice. The parties that actually make Parliament function are structurally incapable of coping with the issue of Britain’s relationship with Europe. That was why former Prime Minister David Cameron made his reckless decision to call the Brexit referendum, a rash attempt to resolve a permanent schism in the Tory party between the Eurosceptics and the Europhiles. Cameron insouciantly assumed that the result would discredit Boris Johnson, potential challenger for PM at the head of the Eurosceptic faction. Instead the result blew Cameron out of his job and his country toward the cliff edge.

For a century, British party politics have been mainly aligned along a right-left Tory-Labour axis. Sometimes parties steal ideas from each other but their broad right-left ideological profiles have remained largely intact. As Eric Shaw reports from the U.K. elsewhere in this issue (see page 36), Europe has been the anomaly in this familiar pattern, cutting across both parties and both sides of the spectrum.

Although the Leave campaign was headed by right-wing Tories, Labour has always contained a heavily Eurosceptic left that views Europe as a capitalist roadblock to a socialist Britain. The present Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, has decades of experience with this grouping. Corbyn did not join the Leave campaign, given its right-wing slant, but was notably tepid on the Remain front. Since the result, he has argued that Brexit having been definitively decided by the people, the best answer is to elect a Labour government. Given the fierce splits over Europe in both parties, it is difficult to discern how putting Labour on the government benches would somehow make Parliament more coherent on Brexit, whatever else it might accomplish.

Nor do the splits within each party on Europe necessarily fit into partisan ideological categories. There are Remainers and Leavers on both the left and right sides of the Tory party, even if the most vociferous Brexiteers come from the far right. Within Labour, the old Blairite group still not reconciled to Corbyn are mostly Remainers, but it is also the case that young people, especially London-based, are both strong supporters of the Corbyn left and equally strong Remainers, while Leave sentiment can be found in all corners of Labour. Yet partisan loyalties also forbid any enduring likeminded cross-party alliances on Europe.

When Cameron called the referendum, he unleashed the demons of populism. The overnight transformation of a once-deferential parliamentary monarchy into something peculiarly akin to a Jacobin-style people’s democracy is remarkable. When the Supreme Court ruled that the final Brexit deal would have to be submitted to Parliament for approval, the Daily Mail ran the bewigged judges’ pictures over a blaring headline: “ENEMIES OF THE PEOPLE.” One could almost imagine aristocrats being carted through jeering crowds to the guillotine. By any traditional reading, this is very un-British.

That the expression of the people’s will is definitive and not to be questioned quickly became the conventional wisdom, shared even by many of those wary of what Brexit might bring. Perhaps opening the populist Pandora’s box is irreversible.

The problem with the definitive referendum has become apparent as negotiations have dragged on and warnings of the severe consequences of any possible outcome have become known. Leave voters were told there would be a Brexit bonus, one that could fully fund the National Health Service. Instead there will be a multibillion-pound Brexit deficit. They were told there would be an end to free movement of people; EU negotiators have made it clear there will be no access to the single market without free movement of people. They were promised that Britons could “take back control”; they are now told that any access to Europe will come with continued imposition of European rules, but without the political representation they have as EU members. Boris Johnson made the claim that Britain could “have its cake and eat it.” It can’t, of course, as any fool should have known.

The price tag for any post-Brexit relationship in terms of lost business and corporate relocation to the continent is huge. Johnson’s riposte, “Fuck business,” is a bizarre mutation of Conservative philosophy, but one that Brexit supporters should seriously ponder.

There are yet worse demons. Not only did the result set old against young and London against the English countryside, but it also dramatically set England against its Celtic hinterlands. Scotland and Northern Ireland both voted Remain while the English heartland was dominantly Leave.

When Cameron agreed to the 2014 independence referendum in Scotland while campaigning against Scottish independence, he helped release the long dormant demons of English nationalism. He then cynically used these to gain a majority in the 2015 election against Labour: a notorious Tory ad depicted Labour leader Ed Miliband as a tiny figure in the pocket of the then Scottish Nationalist leader. Once roused, inward- and backward-looking Little English nationalism could not be stuffed back into the Great Britain box. Its voice was loud and clear in the Brexit vote.

The prospect of another Scottish referendum post-Brexit was threatening enough to the union. But the biggest challenge is posed by Northern Ireland. The Leave votes were cast in complete indifference to the consequences for the still fragile Ulster peace. The 1995 Framework Agreement depended in large measure on the virtual erasure of the border with the Irish Republic made possible by common membership in the EU. Any Brexit, hard or soft, imperils this open border. Theresa May has tried to square the circle with fantasy solutions that please neither the EU nor or the Irish government. And any possible compromise will be shot down by the intransigent Democratic Unionist Party that holds May’s minority government in a death grip.

The DUP may be the dying hand of the past. Certainly Loyalists have to ponder the indifference shown by the Brexiteers to their concerns. The right wing of the Tory party used to be in sentimental thrall to the Irish Protestants – wrecking, for example, Gladstone’s Home Rule in the late 19th century, and later blocking compromise with the Catholic community during the Troubles. No more. An economically straitened post-Brexit Northern Ireland could expect little help from a U.K. itself battered by Brexit, with no fairy godmothers of the Tory right. Even Loyalists might begin to see their economic and political future better served by joining a now secular Republic firmly situated in the EU.

In this dystopian future, the United Kingdom could shrink into a backwater Little England, shorn of Scotland and Northern Ireland as well as of a seat at the table of Europe.

This brings us back to the original referendum. Along with a negative will to leave, voters expressed a positive desire for a Brexit that would answer their needs. Such an outcome has been demonstrated to be nothing more than false advertising by the Leave campaign. Lacking both legitimacy and competence on this issue, Parliament cannot mend the problem. It can, however, call for a second referendum in which the same people who voted for Brexit will have a chance to examine the actual Brexit on offer and reconsider.

Quebec offers a pointer. In 1980 the Parti Québécois put a referendum on sovereignty-association to the voters. Quebecers could express their will for sovereignty, which was theirs alone to decide. Association with the rest of Canada could only be the result of negotiation and could not be credibly promised in advance by the PQ. Yet sovereignty was tied to an association that alone would make it work. The PQ provided a fair answer to this conundrum by promising, in the event of a Yes vote, a second referendum after the conclusion of negotiations with Canada. Quebecers could then accept or reject the actual form that sovereignty would take.

In 1995 another sovereignty referendum eliminated the option of a sober second look. The late Jacques Parizeau, as PQ Premier, enthused that once people voted for sovereignty they would be like “lobsters in the pot.” We now know that Parizeau had plans to declare unilateral independence following even a 50 per cent plus one Yes vote: the lobsters would be boiled, like it or not.

Those who voted Leave in anticipation of promised benefits that vanished almost as soon as the result was announced might ask themselves: who shows the most respect for the people, those who give them a second chance when the details are complete, or those who would treat them like lobsters for dinner?

Of course a paralytic Parliament may not call a second referendum, leaving the march of the lemmings undisturbed. And if it is called, there is no guarantee that even a bad Brexit might not win out over a return to Europe. If so, at least the lobsters will have chosen their fate knowingly. There would also be a chance to go back to the EU and say, “Please forget our bout of temporary insanity. Everything’s fine again.”

A second referendum will no doubt be an ugly, divisive affair. Whatever the outcome, the losing side will find it difficult to reconcile with the winners. But that was also the consequence of the first vote. It seems to be the only possible route out of the Brexit maze – a democratic antidote to democracy run amok.

 

Early in 2018 Canada awoke to the strange spectacle of a “war” between its two most westerly provinces, both led by New Democratic governments.

The alleged casus belli was not quite up to the standard set by the Confederate shelling of Fort Sumter in 1861. It was a press release from the British Columbia government that mentioned that it was considering restricting the increased inflow of Alberta diluted bitumen (dilbit) from the projected tripling of the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain (TM) pipeline while B.C. carried out an appropriate review of the environmental risk posed mainly by ocean spills.

Enter Alberta Premier Rachel Notley. Declaring the B.C. statement a totally unacceptable threat to Canada’s national interests, she imposed an almost certainly illegal ban on imports of B.C. wine into her province, adding that she was also calling off talks over B.C. hydroelectric exports to Alberta, and warned about other, worse sanctions to come if British Columbia did not capitulate.

She assumed a commanding position in the air war. The national media by and large accepted Alberta’s interpretation that British Columbia was unconstitutionally undermining the national interest, that the approval process was entirely adequate and complete, and that any further resistance in B.C. amounted to defiance of lawful authority. Notley never ceased noting that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had approved TM and she demanded that the full panoply of federal powers be deployed against the B.C. rebellion. She also threatened the clearly unconstitutional approach of cutting off Alberta oil from B.C. customers, discriminatory treatment explicitly outlawed in resource amendments agreed to when the BNA Act was repatriated in the 1980s.

B.C. Premier John Horgan opted for a lawful process, referring the proposed regulations to the highest court in British Columbia for a ruling on the province’s constitutional jurisdiction. Notley, in full triumphalist mode, then declared victory and rescinded her wine ban. Media observers, even in B.C., tended to agree that in the mano a mano confrontation with Notley, “Horgan blinked.” Hardly – this was merely a temporary ceasefire.

Apart from the B.C. referral, various provincially backed legal challenges to the pipeline from First Nations and environmental groups are in process. More immediately, the first waves of public protest against initial work on the expanded pipeline in Burnaby began, and soon civil disobedience was the order of the day. Green Party leader Elizabeth May and NDP MP Kennedy Stewart were among many arrested. When B.C. First Nations chiefs appeared on the line, Kinder Morgan, fearing a PR disaster, shut down for the day rather than call police to drag off Indigenous leaders.

Then a bombshell. Kinder Morgan announced it was suspending operations on the project, citing opposition and its responsibility to its investors, giving the B.C. government until the end of May to back down or see the pipeline come to a definitive halt. Since the B.C. NDP had campaigned against the project in 2017, there is no incentive for a turnaround now. In fact, at this point Horgan looks much more like a winner than Notley.

In Alberta, peak oil hysteria reigns supreme. Notley has even threatened that Alberta might take over Kinder Morgan (socialism in one petro-state?). More bizarrely, arch-conservative Opposition Leader Jason Kenney appeared to cheerlead such a multibillion-dollar fiscal folly. But mainly, Albertans from Big Oil to the NDP to the united Right were all demanding that Big Brother Ottawa come to their and the pipeline’s rescue. Big Brother looked very much as if he would like to be somewhere – anywhere – else. National NDP leader Jagmeet Singh, caught between two warring NDP provincial governments, was desperately looking for his Star Trek comm device to call Scotty to beam him up.

Four myths

It has been said that the first casualty of war is truth. Already heavily encrusted with mythology, the Alberta-B.C. war is no exception.

Myth 1: Completion of TM is necessary for the success of the national climate plan promised by the federal Liberals to fulfill Canada’s carbon reduction goals set by the Paris climate accord.

On the face of it, this is a bizarre idea. Canada has already been falling behind its Paris targets, just as it previously missed its Kyoto targets. The main culprit has been the Alberta oil sands, among the “dirtiest” sources of oil in the world. The TM expansion involves a tripling of the pipeline’s capacity and a big increase in export of oil sands bitumen. Despite offsets elsewhere, there is simply no math, however contorted by politics, that can credibly demonstrate that TM’s increased oil sands capacity would not sink Canada’s adherence to Paris. You can’t reduce emissions by increasing them.

Trudeau has explained federal support in a more realistic, and revealing, way. It’s a political deal, he admits, a “tradeoff” in which Notley’s backing for his climate plan was made contingent on his supporting TM. Behind this is a simple reality of Alberta politics. To have any dim hope of survival, an NDP premier must show that she can achieve what previous Conservative premiers and Albertan Prime Minister Stephen Harper had not achieved: completing a pipeline to the Pacific coast. According to most observers, Notley does not have a snowball’s chance in tar sands hell of getting back into office against a now United Conservative Party under Jason Kenney. Even if TM were completed, Kenney as Premier would become the leading scourge of a national climate plan centred on carbon pricing, so what value would the Trudeau-Notley pact have then?

By backing TM, Trudeau is also undermining the laudable efforts of his government to reset the relationship with First Nations on a more equitable basis. The constitutional duty to secure the “free, prior and informed consent” of the First Nations whose lands and livelihoods will be massively impacted by TM has not been met. The result is a series of legal actions and, further down the road, the spectre of Oka-like blockades and confrontations.

Myth 2: Resistance to pipeline projects is the reason why the American export price for oil is so much higher than the price paid for Alberta imports into the United States; building pipeline capacity would eliminate this deep discount and make oil sands exports competitive.

While transportation bottlenecks do contribute to the discount, more can be attributed to the fact that we export crude bitumen that has to be refined, at considerable cost, before being re-exported by the Americans. That part of the discount will not disappear with more pipelines, and Keystone XL now looks like a sure thing with the backing of the Trump administration, reducing the need for TM. Besides, the same discount will apply with any Asian buyers of crude, with the additional cost of ocean transport added on.

The inconvenient truth is that Alberta oil is among the most expensive in the world. Climate change concerns, taken seriously by governments everywhere but in Washington, are encouraging alternative energy production, forcing a long-term decline in the global price of carbon fuels. China, the major Asian export market for oil and the world’s biggest automobile market, has a plan to phase out all vehicles powered by fossil fuels on Chinese roads. Oil sands fossil fuel may end up literally as a fossil – and TM as a white elephant.

In fact, this is very likely the real reason behind Kinder Morgan’s folding its hand. It may well have arrived at the conclusion that its business plan for the pipeline was founded on false assumptions. Blaming the B.C. government is the safest way for it to ease itself off the hook and get out of town with its wallet intact.

Myth 3: The review process for TM fully considered all aspects of the project, including environmental risks, and the decision of the National Energy Board should have closed debate.

The crux of British Columbia’s concern is that the approval process was deeply flawed, especially with regard to assessment of the environmental risk of ocean spills from supertankers. The National Energy Board’s terms of reference permitted only a narrow set of criteria to be assessed, and its track record is one of rubberstamping Big Oil projects. The Trudeau government has since announced that it will scrap the NEB and establish a new, more comprehensive review body, tacitly admitting the shortcomings of the process that approved TM.

The NEB dealt with the ocean spill issue – always the most serious environmental risk factor – by accepting at face value Kinder Morgan–sponsored laboratory-based research claiming that dilbit would float rather than sink, permitting relatively easy cleanup. Highly qualified scientists demurred, citing the limitations of the artificial test conditions. B.C. is relying more on a 461-page 2015 report by the Royal Society of Canada Expert Panel on the Behaviour and Environmental Impacts of Crude Oil Released into Aqueous Environments, which pointedly concluded that the heavier and cruder the oil (dilbit being the heaviest), the less is known about how to respond effectively to spills – and the more field trials under real weather conditions are needed. The Pacific northwest is notoriously vulnerable to the threat of offshore earthquakes and tsunamis, and the beautiful but fragile coastal ecosystem is delicately balanced. Pending firm and convincing scientific evidence of acceptable risk, throwing open the seas to supertankers loaded with dilbit would be the height of environmental irresponsibility.

Myth 4: The federal government has at its disposal the “nuclear option” – the declaratory power – that could quickly shut down B.C. resistance.

It’s true that section 92 (10) (c) of the BNA Act allows Parliament to declare local works “although wholly situate within the province … to be for the general advantage of Canada or for the advantage of two or more of the provinces.” But constitutional power is not always political power: in political practice the declaratory power is a dead letter. Invoking it against B.C. on behalf of Alberta would effectively blow up more than half a century of federal-provincial diplomacy.

It has not escaped the attention of British Columbians that, in the face of Quebec protests, the federal government has axed the Energy East project that would have brought oil sands bitumen to Atlantic tidewater. Were the feds to invoke the nuclear option to force TM on B.C., the political price in the province for the Trudeau Liberals would be prohibitive.

Even less persuasive are a few hysterical voices calling for Ottawa to invoke the Emergency Powers Act and send in the army to ram the pipeline through. Resistance on the ground has been strictly peaceful civil disobedience, posing no threat to public safety. It is interesting that even through pipeline supporters often invoke images of crazed protestors using violent ecoterrorist tactics, to this point it is the pro-pipeline people who keep calling for coercive force to be deployed (in the “national interest,” of course).

B.C.’s realism

Alberta, Ottawa and Big Oil are living in an enchanted world in which economic myths rule, without environmental consequences. B.C. is standing up for realism, for its First Nations and for the planet. It is fighting its war by strictly legal means. If it can keep going that way successfully, we will all be the better for it in the end.

In the spring of 2016 I was travelling in the Persian Gulf. In Abu Dhabi I decided, with some apprehension, to visit the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque. Opened in 2007, this mosque is advertised as one of the world’s biggest, with the largest central chandelier, the largest carpet, etc. I wondered if I might be confronted with a Disney theme park, a vulgar display of wealth by nouveau riche oil sheikhs. After all, oil was discovered in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) only a couple of generations ago. Prior to the discovery the locals eked out a precarious subsistence desert existence, while today many Emiratis are counted among the top 1 per cent on the globe.

After I made my way across a vast parking lot under the brutal midday desert sun (record highs were being recorded across the Gulf) and past the checkpoint where women visitors were being scrutinized for appropriate head coverings and lengths of sleeves, I caught my first glimpse of glittering white domes and minarets. From a distance a bit like a Hollywood set for an Arabian Nights epic, but rather beautiful against the brilliant blue sky.

On closer approach, my apprehensions quickly gave way to something very different: stunned admiration for an astonishing architectural and aesthetic achievement. The Grand Mosque draws on the legacy of the extraordinary Islamic artistic tradition but brings it into the 21st century with the latest building materials and techniques incorporated seamlessly into a remarkable conceptual unity – a place of worship that, like the great cathedrals of Europe, puts secular artistic tools into the service of a striving toward the eternal. Every detail conforms to a standard of good taste, without a trace of vulgar display. No more than a decade old, the Grand Mosque already reasonably stands comparison with the Taj Mahal, the Alhambra, Angkor Wat, the Parthenon.

Yet appreciation quickly gives way to doubts, not about the mosque itself, but about the context of its construction. The UAE is in many ways an unsettling place. As little as 12 per cent of the population consists of actual Emiratis, who lead lives of extravagant leisure while most of the work is done by the more than 80 per cent who come from abroad and have no citizenship rights or even security of residence. Many of these are manual workers and tradespeople, but many others are highly paid business and professional types working in the burgeoning financial sector in the UAE’s spectacular high-rise office towers.

One Pakistani driver in Dubai told me that he was supporting an extended family at home on wages he could never match there, but he cautioned that he could be expelled at a moment’s notice for any misstep. That goes as much for the European and North American investment bankers at the top. It’s all a little like H.G. Wells’s dystopian vision in The Time Machine of a future in which an effete minority are maintained at leisure by the underground toil of the Morlocks. To keep this system going, the UAE is a repressive surveillance regime that crushes any signs of dissidence or even criticism. Its foreign policy is closely aligned with that of Saudi Arabia, including participation in the horrific Saudi-led military assault on Yemen, one of the worst (and most unaddressed) humanitarian catastrophes of our day.

Not a pretty context for the production of the exquisite Grand Mosque. But does this negate the cultural achievement? After all, the Parthenon was constructed by an Athenian democracy that excluded women, foreigners and slaves. Indeed, much of the economic surplus that enabled the Parthenon to take shape came from Athenian silver mines where slaves toiled in unspeakable conditions. Yet the greatness of the Parthenon remains indelible after two and a half millennia.

In his “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” Walter Benjamin described history as a triumphal procession of rulers stepping over the prostrate. Spoils, called “cultural treasures,” are carried in this procession. Yet these treasures have an origin that one cannot contemplate “without horror,” since “they owe their existence not only to the efforts of the great minds and talents who have created them, but also to the anonymous toil of their contemporaries.” Benjamin concluded with this chilling aphorism: “There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.”

Yet even as radical a critic of capitalist society as Jean-Paul Sartre could write a lengthy treatise on Gustave Flaubert in which he recognized that though Flaubert was a bourgeois writer in a bourgeois age, his Madame Bovary transcends its origins. If every document of civilization is indeed at the same time a document of barbarism, one should forget neither side of this equation. Yes, Aristotle – unconvincingly – justified slavery as “natural.” That surely cannot mean that this seminal Western philosopher should be consigned to a Politically Incorrect trash bin. But neither is uncritical adulation of Aristotle as cultural icon acceptable any longer.

All this is a roundabout way of coming critically at a worrying contemporary tendency to aggressively project the cultural wars of the 21st century back onto the past and onto the Western cultural canon. Of course every generation has the right, perhaps the duty, to redefine the legacy of the past for today. Failure to do so leads to cultural stultification. But what is worrying are demands to erase and silence the past where it conflicts with current preoccupations. Feminists are right to identify and decry the sexism that runs rampant through the philosophy, art and literature of the past. But it would be self-defeating to silence the voices that still speak to us across the years. Happily, many feminists realize that it is far more radically subversive to reread the past and reengage in the continuing dialogue, but in a new, critical light.

The civilization/barbarism dialectic will continue to play out at the cultural level as in some sense it always has: there were once ignorant Christians who wanted to burn ancient writings as “pagan,” just as today vandals like the Taliban and the Islamic State smash cultural treasures that fail to conform to their crude ideas of Islamic truth. The past and its voices will survive.

When culture is politically weaponized, things get even messier, not to say nastier. To politicians and leaders of social protest movements, culture is often seen as an asset to be deployed on the political game board, history a field to be cherry-picked for advantage in the present.

Take the current fracas in the United States over the Confederate flag and monuments honouring Confederate generals like Robert E. Lee. Donald Trump (a man whose immense historical ignorance has constantly been on display) may inveigh against those demanding the removal of Confederate monuments as the enemies of “history,” but history is the last thing involved in this war of partisan symbols. Most of the monuments date from the 1940s and 1950s. They were the frantic efforts of that generation of white Southerners to rewrite 19th-century history to combat the emergent 20th-century civil rights movement against slavery’s stepchild, segregation. The Lost Cause, according to this fraudulent revisionism, was not the defence of slavery but the assertion of states’ rights and white Southern identity.

Today the monuments serve to validate the resurgent white supremacists gathering behind the Trump presidency. This is a travesty of both culture and history. Yet as much as one might wish to see the whole sinister nest of Confederate symbols swept from the public eye, there is still need for fair analysis of Robert E. Lee, a very complex human being, given his key role in American history. And no understanding of American political thought could omit John C. Calhoun with his theory of concurrent majorities in a federation, despite his role as attack dog for the slaveholders.

This brings me to a Canadian reflection of these debates, the recent calls from Ontario teachers to remove the title of Sir John A. Macdonald from schools named after Canada’s first, and arguably greatest, prime minister. The ostensible grounds are Sir John’s role in the creation of the discredited residential school system and his failure to alleviate Native starvation on the prairies on his watch.

It is easy to empathize with Native people who cringe at the celebration of a man who had a leading hand in policies of cultural genocide and enforced Native suffering. However, the calls for renaming – which have come from non-Native sympathizers rather than from First Nations activists more interested in real-world solutions than symbolic victories – ignore historical context and the degree to which Macdonald reflected the general prejudice of white society as a whole rather than leading or initiating it. But we can refuse to excuse Macdonald on Native policy, while still recognizing and honouring his unique role in Confederation and building the Canadian state.

Indeed, without Macdonald the northern half of the continent might today be part of the benighted Trumpian Republic to the south. I’m okay with naming a few schools to honour that achievement. But do remember: “There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.”

This has been called the post-truth age. Science, reason, logic, facts have been losing their substance, fading into ideology, myth, conspiracy and paranoia.

Now, thanks to some 63 million Americans minimally literate enough to cast a ballot, we have Donald Trump. Con man, egomaniac, pathological liar, sexual predator, manifestly unfit by character for high public office. Yet here he is, alleged “leader of the free world” with his finger on the nuclear trigger. He has suddenly driven America to the brink of destroying the liberal international order painstakingly built up over the past seven decades; of reversing the hopeful efforts to deal with threats to the global environment; of returning race hatred, misogyny, bigotry and intolerance to the very centre of American values. And all the while, together with his glitzy family and grisly entourage, he schemes to make as much money as he can from his latest, greatest scam.

I would call what I have just written “facts” backed by a plenitude of evidence. Others would denounce these words as “fake news,” or “alternative facts.” Half of America agrees that Trump is a monster. The other half thinks he is a messiah – and perhaps the caudillo who will enforce their will and their values on a hostile world. Trump and his followers live in an alternative looking-glass universe from which communication comes in Orwellian Newspeak: black is white; love is hate; peace is war; Barack Obama is an alien; Vladimir Putin is a good guy.

There are commentators who seek to normalize the abnormal, to legitimate the illegitimate. Trump, they assert, will be housetrained by the experience of office; his adult appointees will civilize him. Such illusions have a long history. When the conservative fool Franz von Papen brought Adolf Hitler to the German Chancellery in 1933, he assured his anxious associates that “within two months, we will have pushed Hitler so far into a corner that he’ll squeak.”

While Trump has in his first few months backtracked on some of his more egregious foreign policy stands, this represents less a civilizing process than recognition of the alarming ignorance of his earlier understanding of the world. But it in no way diminishes his narcissistic confidence in himself. He has got where he is by regularly ignoring the experts and party elders who sought to moderate him. Why would he suddenly change course now?

All his adult life he has run a private company, surrounded by yes men and trophy wives who fawningly stroke his ego and reassure him of his brilliance and invincibility. The only thing that has changed is that he has just accomplished the biggest hostile takeover in corporate history and is basking in a CEO office like no other on earth. But this is an office that attracts opposition and criticism, lots and lots of it. And Trump can neither abide nor handle criticism.

The other side of narcissism is deep insecurity. Criticism, especially if comes in the form of derision, is fuel to the flame of his vanity. Nothing drives him to greater fury than being the object of laughter. This is a volatile combination of combustibles that flares in predawn Twitter tantrums against Saturday Night Live; or in darker hints of authoritarian intolerance when he attacks the “lying” media as the “enemies of the people.”

Media critical of Trump are enemies of the people because, as Trump assured his followers in his acceptance speech at the Republican convention, “I am your voice!” In the populist narrative, he is the tribune of the masses, the articulation of their seething anger, their strong arm – and their boot.

Populism posits the people as a monolith with a unified will, needing only the right leader to voice and enforce that will. The paradox is that populist political movements are called into being by the division of the people. The people must struggle against the elites, the power bloc, the Establishment. These sinister forces claim to represent the people, but to populists they subvert the unity of the people, hence must be denied membership in the people. Trump populists refer to themselves as the only “real” Americans; the 66 million who voted for Hillary Clinton are fake Americans, like the fake news that supports their un-American views. Worse, this bears an undeniable racial charge: “real” Americans are white. Hence the Birther movement (which Trump himself led) that insisted that an African-American Democratic president could not, literally, be a “real” American but must be an alien Muslim imposter. Hence also the insistence that mass voter fraud exists and that minorities (“illegal aliens”) must have their votes suppressed.

Now that a populist tribune is in the White House, the possibility of authoritarian rule is imminent. Checks and balances have always been at the heart of the American system of government. Already some of these seem to be working to contain Trump. His flagrant Muslim-ban executive orders have been stymied by the courts. His promise to repeal and replace Obamacare initially failed in the House of Representatives when his own Republican majority splintered in two directions. But a string of such defeats might well be the trigger that sets off open authoritarianism. One scenario would see the Big Man overriding those very “elitist” mechanisms of restraint he condemned on the campaign trail, claiming draconian measures are necessary to “drain the swamp,” and rousing his followers to form intimidating street mobs in support. Perhaps another terrorist attack could be Trump’s Reichstag fire.

In this scenario, the institutional response should come from Congress, which has the power to impeach and remove a president for “treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors.” A compelling case might be made for removing Trump (even short of future authoritarian abuse of his constitutional powers, the questions of foreign “emoluments” from his business interests abroad, or of smoking guns being found in his sinister Russian connections, could figure in articles of impeachment). However, this almost certainly will not happen given the Republican stranglehold on the House and the fierce, remorseless partisanship of that party. Only in the event that the Democrats regain control of the House in 2018 could impeachment become a possibility, but ruthless gerrymandering by the Republicans along with minority vote suppression makes the prospect of a Democratic seat majority unlikely even with a popular vote majority.

What makes the next four years truly threatening is that a legitimacy crisis has become general. Since at least the late 1990s, Republicans have regularly painted Democrats, especially liberal Democrats, as illegitimate. In 2016 populism dovetailed with partisanship to deliver the mass of regular Republican voters to Trump, despite his aggressive assault on the party mainstream during the primaries.

But Trump carries little or no legitimacy among Democrats or independents on the left. Three million more Americans voted for Clinton, a democratic mandate denied by the 18th-century relic that chooses the president, the Electoral College. The story of Russian covert interference in the election on Trump’s behalf is already a scandal that may yet grow worse. Then there is FBI Director James Comey’s ill-considered but fateful intervention in the flimsy Clinton email matter. Finally, there is Trump’s arrogant and reckless disregard for decency, leading a campaign that featured calls for his opponent to be locked up or even assassinated.

The result of all this: the widespread slogan “Not My President!” During the George W. Bush years, many hated his war in Iraq but nonetheless acknowledged that he was still their President, like it or not. No more. Blue-state America is joining red-state America in seceding from democratic trust. Not since the Civil War era has the fabric of democracy been stretched so thin.

Against this turbulent backdrop, perhaps the single most bizarre feature of the Trump ascendancy looms like a huge question mark: the open hostilities that have broken out between Trump and the intelligence agencies. Some in the White House have begun warning of the “deep state,” with dark intimations of plots to overthrow the people’s tribune. During the Cold War there was speculation that a left-wing party coming to office in the West might fall victim to a coup orchestrated by the secret state in the name of defending capitalism against Communism. Now we have fallen down a rabbit hole into a weird world in which a Republican President is being investigated by the FBI for evidence that he is a Manchurian candidate of the Russians, while Democrats howl “subversion” in tones that they once would have labelled McCarthyite.

The “deep state” might be an appropriate analysis of Turkey, Egypt, Pakistan or Thailand, but it is a doubtful concept to apply to America. Power in the American system tends to be fragmented and diffuse and this goes for the intelligence agencies as well. They could never agree to get a coup together to take out a president, however much some may despise him. What they can do, however, and are doing, is to leak damaging classified information that keeps an already chaotic White House continually wrong-footed. It has been said that the United States has become less a democracy than a “vetocracy.” In his stumbling approach to governing, Trump has contrived to add one more set of influential forces ready to veto his initiatives.

Getting rid of Trump during his term may be a pipedream, but we can at least hope that he will continue to be his own worst enemy.

In August 2016 the Green Party of Canada concluded its annual convention. Elizabeth May, the party’s leader and sole elected MP, met the media, but not with the usual bland partisan clichés. Instead she complained, “I have to say I’m pretty devastated.” Soon she was even talking about quitting the leadership altogether, walking away from the small but influential young party she had personally infused with an enviably disproportionate national profile.

Was this a party leader rebuked and rejected by her followers, like Tom Mulcair in the NDP? No, there were few signs of discontent with her leadership; quite the contrary. Nor had the rank and file signalled a desire for any radical break with the Greens’ platform on their environmental policy core.

Bizarrely, May was putting her political future on the line because of the passage of a single resolution on foreign policy, a qualified endorsement of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign that seeks international action to condemn Israel for its treatment of Palestinians in Israel and the Occupied Territories. May did not happen to agree with that resolution, but was this disagreement so extreme as to contemplate resignation? In the end she decided to stay, but only after insisting on a rerun vote on BDS.

Even this did not put an end to this improbable tale. The British Columbia Green Party’s leader and sole elected MLA in Victoria, Andrew Weaver, was so incensed at the BDS resolution that he threatened to change the name of the B.C. party to dissociate it from its national wing. Then three pro-BDS members of the federal party’s shadow cabinet who criticized Weaver’s attack were summarily tossed from their positions by May. Further proscriptions of dissidents followed. As Alice would say, things were getting curiouser and curiouser.

Why pay attention to this tempest in a rather small teapot? The Greens may be marginal, but they are the only party that has shown even qualified support for BDS. In fact there is a parliamentary resolution backed by the majority of Liberal and Conservative members that not merely officially rejects BDS but “any and all attempts” by any groups or individuals in Canadian society to promote BDS – in other words, Parliament is telling Canadian citizens to shut up if they disagree with Parliament on this issue. BDS support, MPs proclaimed, was tantamount to hate speech.

How did such an issue – peripheral at best to most Canadians’ concerns – come to assume such threatening significance? It is hardly unusual for people to take up foreign causes and seek to direct their compatriots’ moral consciences toward bringing pressure, whether political or economic, on states believed to be acting badly. Politicians often ignore such campaigns, calculating that indifference will cost them little politically. But the BDS issue has grown out of all proportion to become a kind of legitimacy test. Support for BDS has been framed, by the political elite and its main institutions – Parliament and the political parties – as something so seditious that it must be silenced and shamed.

Typically, campaigns to assign blame and condemn particular state actors in foreign conflicts are controversial. For instance, the campaign to boycott South Africa in the apartheid era provoked overt and covert efforts (not notably successful) by the apartheid regime to contest the anti-apartheid narrative. But at no time did the Canadian political elite condemn the anti-apartheid campaigners as illegitimate and demand they be silenced.

BDS is a different story. One side – the Israeli government and the pro-Israel lobby in Canada – has largely succeeded, at least at the elite level, in framing the issue in a way that delegitimizes and demonizes the BDS case, threatening in the process to undermine free speech and open democratic debate.

There are numerous lobbies in Ottawa that seek to promote particular foreign interests. Some have the advantage of being able to call upon diaspora communities in Canada with voting leverage. None, however, have ever approached the remarkable success of the Israeli lobby. Anti-BDS is the Israeli lobby’s greatest contemporary hit. But this time the lobby and the Israeli government standing behind it may have overplayed their hand.

The shifting fortunes of Israel’s reputation

There was a time when pro-Israeli lobbying was less visible in North America – perhaps because during the Cold War Israel was widely accepted as a reliably pro-Western democracy amid Arab dictatorships that were sometimes suspiciously friendly with Moscow. It also helped that domestic Jewish communities – still fighting anti-Semitic prejudices and restrictive covenants as late as the 1950s and 1960s – could be partially placated by the Christian majority with full-throated support for Israel at the UN and large amounts of military assistance to the Jewish state.

The sweeping victory of the Israeli Defence Forces in the 1967 war was almost unanimously applauded by Western public opinion. But 1967 laid the ground for future restiveness concerning the supposed high moral qualification previously attributed to Israeli treatment of the Palestinians. The triumph of Israeli arms resulted in Israel’s post-1967 occupation of East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza. This might have been a temporary arrangement, bartered in return for a long-term peace agreement. Instead it quickly morphed into what is now a half-century-long military occupation in defiance of international law and UN resolutions. When Jewish settlements on occupied territory began to appear in the mid-1970s (strongly supported by then–Defence Minister Shimon Peres, dubiously raised to virtual sainthood in the encomiums of Western leaders at his recent funeral), they were the seeds of what would grow into a monster.

Today half-a-million-and-counting settlers have planted “facts on the ground” to undermine any possibility of a two-state solution. These same settlers have in effect taken Israel political hostage via Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud government: Nethanyahu’s Education Minister, Naftali Bennett, has just called for the forcible annexation of the West Bank. Two desperate intifadas and countless scenes of violent repression of the captive Palestinians have steadily eroded the credibility of Israel’s claim to moral exceptionalism in the eyes of Western publics.

At the same time a different force was at work undercutting traditional automatic Western support for Israel. The OPEC oil crisis of the early 1970s exposed the vulnerability of Western countries to Arab oil and cemented closer relations with Arab oil states, calling into question the West’s special relationship with Israel, an antagonist of most Arab countries.

Israel’s response to this challenge was to mobilize its supporters in Western countries to intensify and concentrate their lobbying more effectively. Then September 11, 2001, changed the terms of engagement dramatically. The case made by Netanyahu as Israeli ambassador to the UN in the 1980s – that Israel was the key ally of the United States against the threat of Arab and Islamist terrorism – now took on apparent substance and meaning, and the Israeli lobby moved to centre stage in Washington.

In the United States, the key component of the pro-Israel lobby is the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). AIPAC was founded in the 1950s, and its influence grew from the 1970s on. It primarily targets politicians in Congress who, in the American system of separation of powers, are able to wield far more influence over government than individual MPs in parliamentary systems. AIPAC has become notorious for its deep reach into the inner circles of power in Washington. All presidential candidates make pilgrimages to appear before AIPAC audiences and seek their approval. Netanyahu regularly makes rock-star appearances to lecture presidents on appropriate behaviour toward Israel. Incumbent and would-be members of Congress cringe in fear of incurring AIPAC’s lethal disapproval, and sometimes go to extraordinary lengths to gain its support.

AIPAC has prospered in a changing political context. In the first decades following the creation of Israel, the American Jewish community remained strongly liberal Democratic. The main Jewish lobby groups tended to reflect that closeness to Democratic administrations. The later ascendancy of AIPAC coincided with a shift to the right on the part of Jewish groups, at the same time as Conservative and Orthodox Jews became more prominent in leadership roles. Israeli Labour politicians tended to neglect their American ties, taking them for granted, while Likud assiduously cultivated links with the right-wing American Jewish leadership.

By the time of the George W. Bush administration, the fit between right-wing American and Israeli governments and between the Republicans and an ideologically supportive American-Israeli lobby had become very close. Consolidating this intimacy was another development: the unexpected adoption of an Israel First position by the evangelical Christian right, an identification of American with Israeli interests that persists today among evangelicals. Standing on this conservative ground, the Israeli lobby has under the Obama administration increasingly become a Likud-Republican alliance, nakedly partisan and openly hostile to President Obama and liberal Democrats.

This shift is embodied in the person of Sheldon Adelson, the elderly multibillionaire casino magnate who funds a free newspaper in Israel that hews so closely to Netanyahu that its coverage is routinely vetted by the Prime Minister’s office before publication. In 2012 Adelson lavishly funded the candidacy of Mitt Romney for president (up to $100 million for Republicans) and arranged a fundraising trip by Romney to Israel to tap rich Israeli backers.

There is one problem with the right-wing American-Israeli romance. It does not seem to extend beyond the elite. In 2012, three quarters of the Jewish vote went to Obama despite the millions spent to convince American Jews that Obama was an enemy of Israel. Indifference or outright hostility of younger Jews to the right-wing message particularly troubles AIPAC and the rest of the lobby. Recently this concern has focused especially on the growing popularity of the BDS campaign on American campuses.

The resurgence of Canada’s Israeli lobby

In Canada, as late as a dozen years ago, it could be said that a “frustrated Israeli lobby is losing its traditional grip, and faces an uncertain future.”1 The Chrétien Liberal government was hardly anti-Israeli, but it did try to forge closer ties with Palestinians and offer aid in the occupied territories. Things began to change in the brief (2003–06) Paul Martin Liberal government. The power couple of Heather Reisman (Indigo-Chapters) and Gerry Schwartz (Onex Corporation), both active on behalf of Israeli causes, were close to Martin, and under their tutelage Canadian votes at the UN began to follow Israel more tightly. Reisman and Schwartz were also instrumental in a major change that would long outlast the Martin government. In 2004 they had begun to assemble a blue chip cast of corporate might that would supplant traditional Jewish organizations like the Canadian Jewish Congress and B’nai Brith with a more aggressive pro-Israeli lobby – in effect a Canadian version of AIPAC. The process was prolonged and not always amicable but by 2011 the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA) emerged as the leading, and often strident, voice of the Israeli lobby.

CIJA claims to be nonpartisan, but its history parallels a shift to the right in the political landscape. Like their Republican counterparts in the United States, Stephen Harper’s Conservatives, in office from 2006 to 2015, professed unqualified backing for Israel, especially under Likud auspices. The Conservative idea of a Middle Eastern policy can best be described as a blank cheque issued to the Israeli government. During the first Gaza war in 2008 (carried out by Netanyahu’s predecessor, Ehud Olmert), Reisman and Schwartz were so incensed by faint criticism of Israeli actions issuing from a few Liberals that the pair publicly decamped to take up residence with the Harperites, from whom nary a squeak of disapproval of any Israeli action would ever be heard. In the 2011 federal election, Harper achieved his only majority in part by taking a number of constituencies in Jewish areas of Toronto. In that election a majority of Jewish votes across the country went Conservative for the first time.

In this political atmosphere, CIJA prospered. Like AIPAC, CIJA has particularly focused its efforts on the political and media elites. During the second Gaza war in 2012, furious lobbying with a wholly sympathetic government succeeded in framing the issue as “Israel’s right to defend itself” without regard to the proportionality of Israel’s actions. It was notable that, as with AIPAC’s bipartisan lobbying of Congress, CIJA’s ideological colouring did not prevent it from successfully targeting Liberals and New Democrats, promoting a cross-party consensus that any criticism of Israel was tantamount to backing terrorism, not to speak of anti-Semitism.

With the ascendancy of CIJA, the public face of the Canadian Jewish community has become indistinguishable from relentless pro-Israeli advocacy. The reverse side of this is more contentious: any criticism of Israel is to be framed as evidence of anti-Semitism. Left out are all those Jewish Canadians who have qualms about Israel as a repressive apartheid state and sympathies for Palestinians denied the same right to national self-determination that Israel was founded upon. Left out as well are all those non-Jewish Canadians concerned about attaching Canadian foreign policy as a wagging tail to a “democracy” carrying out a permanent illegal military occupation of a subject people.

Battalions of willing columnists and commentators along with a stable of ready-made op-ed contributions play the anti-Semitism card again and again to discredit any criticism of Israeli behaviour. Yet that criticism keeps growing across the Western world – with no effect on the Netanyahu government, which continues its open defiance of the Obama administration’s rhetorical attempts to rein in the relentless stream of Jewish settlements.

The BDS movement

The Israeli government has identified the defence of its public image as a major national priority. There is a Hebrew word for this: hasbara, a form of public diplomacy specific to Israel in its unique international position. The contemporary focus of hasbara efforts is directed toward combating the global BDS movement, identified as Israel’s biggest foreign public relations problem today. Speaking to Israeli legislators, Netanyahu has claimed that “we are acting against BDS and this is why they are on the defensive … They are taking hits on many fronts. We have beaten them.”2 Legislators were sceptical. The resources being poured into lobbying against BDS in North America and Europe suggest that it is not time for the Mission Accomplished sign to go up just yet.

What is BDS and why has it been singled out for such hostile attention by Israel and Israeli lobbies? The latter offer scarecrow depictions of the “real” but “hidden” BDS aims. If we turn to how the BDS campaign describes itself, we find that it calls for various forms of boycott against Israel until it meets its obligations under international law by:

  1. Ending its occupation and colonization of all Arab lands and dismantling the Wall;
  2. Recognizing the fundamental rights of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality; and
  3. Respecting, protecting and promoting the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in UN Resolution 194.3

BDS campaigns are currently active on a number of university campuses. Obviously there will be serious differences of opinion about the BDS aims, and about boycott as an appropriate method. As with any such campaign, there are distinctions between ends and means. Some may wholly reject the idea that Israel bears any blame for the situation of the Palestinians. Others (I would include myself here) may lay the bulk of the blame on Israeli policy, yet remain uneasy about boycotting, divesting, etc., as appropriate means to bring about change. Specifically, calling for boycotting Israel in general might give some credence to the idea that it is the legitimacy of the Israeli state itself that is being questioned.

More limited and qualified campaigns to boycott Israeli goods produced in the Occupied Territories, as some European countries are already doing, seem better targeted and quite appropriate. (Ironically, this was the precise form of modified boycott that Green Party members supported, but the qualification mattered not at all since opponents treated it as if it were the full Monty.) The third point in the BDS platform – the right of return of Palestinian refugees – may have strong moral grounds but does appear to be an unrealistic political demand.

These are issues open for debate. The very question of how best to bring international pressure on Israel to change its self-destructive course with regard to the Palestinians should be open for debate as well. But the strategy of the anti-BDS campaign has from the start been to demonize and delegitimize BDS and prevent it from being debated at all. The goal has been to frame the very idea of BDS as anti-Semitic hate speech and thus to silence debate on the issue of Israeli treatment of the Palestinians altogether. To see how this strategy plays out in practice we can turn to the strange tale of the anti-BDS resolution in the Canadian Parliament.

Liberal government, Tory resolution

In February 2016, the 42nd Parliament of Canada, only a few months old, had already begun the process of dismantling much of the Stephen Harper legacy of mean-spirited right-wing legislation and regulation. It appeared, however, that the Tory tail could still wag the Liberal dog – at least when Israel was in play.

The House of Commons voted by the lopsided margin of 229 to 51 to condemn the international BDS campaign. The full text of the parliamentary motion reads:

That, given Canada and Israel share a long history of friendship as well as economic and diplomatic relations, the House reject the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, which promotes the demonization and delegitimization of the State of Israel, and call upon the government to condemn any and all attempts by Canadian organizations, groups or individuals to promote the BDS movement, both here at home and abroad.

There are a number of unusual aspects to this motion. The first part is a statement of Parliament’s disapproval of the BDS movement, something Parliament has every right to make, but it does so by characterizing the movement’s aims as being the “demonization and delegitimization” of Israel, rather than the movement’s stated aims. This happens to mirror exactly the wording of the Israeli anti-BDS campaign. More controversially, the resolution “condemns” any BDS support by associations of civil society “at home and abroad,” which raises serious questions of freedom of expression in a liberal democracy.

Another unusual aspect: it was introduced by a minister in the former Harper government, Tony Clement, and a potential candidate for the Conservative leadership, Michelle Rempel. The Trudeau government’s Foreign Affairs Minister, Stéphane Dion, denounced the motion as just more Conservative “politics of division.” The Tory “bullies,” he said, want to turn the defence of Israel into a partisan issue, making it yes or no to Israel. But as the CBC’s Neil Macdonald paraphrased it, Dion and the Liberals’ answer to this bullying question was: “So, um, yes. Reluctantly, yes.”4 The Liberals voted for a motion they did not approve of. (Three Liberal MPs did vote against and a number of others pointedly abstained). It was more than a bit reminiscent of the Liberal opposition voting for Harper’s Anti-Terrorism Act, Bill C-51, after denouncing it as extreme and dangerous. Are most Grits still afraid of the Tory bullies, even after defeating them at the polls? On Israel, at least, it would appear so.

The NDP said that it too disapproved of the BDS campaign, but took its objections to the second part of the motion as sufficient to vote against it. The Liberals apparently agreed with the NDP diagnosis of the second part but still voted in favour. Tory backbenchers were in no doubt about the implications of their motion: there were calls for the government to “crack down” on or even “disallow” the BDS movement. Exactly that has been done in France where campaigning on behalf of BDS can land you with a criminal sentence. One can’t imagine the Trudeau government planning anything that would make it a criminal offence for a Canadian to campaign peacefully for a boycott of a foreign government. Whether you agree with the campaign or not, living with different opinions is what a “free society” should be all about. But the government was driven by its agreement with the premise of the motion to accept a second part that suggests state intimidation of dissent.

Something very strange was going on.

Hiding in plain view, spelled out explicitly by the motion’s Tory sponsors, was the ace in the hole: the anti-Semitism card. Some supporters of BDS might deny that their criticism of Israel was motivated by anti-Semitism, but the Tory MPs would have none of it.

A former minister, Kellie Leitch (she of the infamous Barbaric Cultural Practices snitch line and a “Canadian values” screening test for immigrants), declared BDS was “nothing but a thinly veiled anti-Semitism movement.” A few Tories suggested that some BDS supporters might be deluded dupes, but to others it was no more than devious cover for “Jew hatred.” It was left to Jason Kenney, a former minister who had long equated criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism, to lay the argument out in crude and sweeping form: BDS “represents a new wave of anti-Semitism, the most pernicious form of hatred in the history of humanity.”

Patrick Martin, Middle East correspondent for the Globe and Mail, demolished the anti-BDS arguments as thin and unsubstantiated (without endorsing the BDS program).5 But the Conservatives were not alone in equating BDS and any criticism of Israeli policy with anti-Semitism. Just before the vote in the House, Barbara Kay in the National Post uncovered an alleged BDS conspiracy on campuses like McGill. BDS, she insisted “is investing in the future. The student leaders of today are the political leaders of tomorrow … Relentlessly driving home the anti-Israel message will, they hope, inculcate a permanent bias.” Then, leaping across a logical chasm, she deduced that “this is classic anti-Semitism in action.” By the end, Kay cast all caution aside to declare that universities must “put a stop to this hateful, and institutionally corrosive, psychological pogrom.”6

Before we conjure BDS campaigners firing up the gas ovens, we might stop and ask what actual evidence there is for the equation of criticism of Israeli policy toward Palestinians with anti-Semitism. Of course, there may be some anti-Semites in the BDS ranks. There are almost certainly among the ranks of Israel’s supporters those who are motivated by Islamophobia. No social movement or political protest can attest to the purity of motives of all of its followers. But neither BDS nor the many Canadians who are critics of the Israeli occupation have said anything about Jews as such; they have spoken only about the Israeli state. Former U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron, who joined his government in opposition to the boycott campaign, also declared publicly that Israeli settlement building in occupied East Jerusalem is “genuinely shocking.” Does this make Cameron an anti-Semite?

The anti-Semitism card is not evidence-based but definitional. Worse, this definitional guilt by association has been made official policy of the government of Canada, first by the Harper Tories and now, apparently, by the Trudeau Liberals. There is a history here.

Canada’s blank cheque to Israel

On January 18, 2015, the Canadian and Israeli foreign ministers at the time, John Baird and Avigdor Lieberman, signed a Memorandum of Understanding “Regarding Public Diplomacy Cooperation” between the two countries within the context of the Canada-Israel Strategic Partnership that the Harper government had earlier signed with the Netanyahu government.7 Public diplomacy may sound innocuous to Canadian ears, but to Israelis, hasbara has a more pointed strategic meaning. This MOU is an extraordinary document, unprecedented in Canadian diplomatic history.

After reaffirming their alleged “dedication to the shared values of freedom of expression and assembly, democracy, and the rule of law,” Baird and Lieberman then proceed to focus their attention squarely on their prime target, BDS:

Deeply concerned by efforts to single out the State of Israel for criticism and isolate the State of Israel internationally including calls for a boycott of the State of Israel, for the divestment of investments, and for sanctions to be imposed on Israel,

Recognizing that the selective targeting of Israel reflects the new face of anti-Semitism,

the two ministers came to an understanding that

the Participants will work together to oppose efforts to single out or isolate the State of Israel through:

  1. Developing a coordinated, public diplomacy initiative both bilaterally and in international and multilateral fora to oppose boycotts of Israel, its institutions, and its people within three to six months;
  2. Publicly expressing their opposition to those who would call into question the State of Israel‘s very right to exist or to defend itself, by itself.

What is astonishing about this is that a Canadian foreign minister entered into an agreement with a foreign government that accepted an obligation on Canada to declare any criticism by Canadian citizens of the Israeli government’s policies and behaviour illegitimate – indeed, with the reference to anti-Semitism, potentially falling under Canada’s laws against hate speech. There is no equivalent obligation of any kind imposed on Israel with regard to its relations with the Palestinians (even military assaults on Gaza civilian targets are subsumed under “Israel’s right to defend itself, by itself,” with no qualification for proportionality of response). No matter what acts Israel carries out against the Palestinians, any criticism by Canadians remains illegitimate. In other words, John Baird signed a blank cheque for the Israelis, on behalf of Canada.

Baird has since left public life, while Lieberman has gone on to become Israel’s highly controversial Defence Minister. Baird’s government has been dispatched by the voters. Yet the Trudeau government continues to carry the MOU on the website of Global Affairs Canada, so it presumably remains in effect. And now we have the Tory BDS motion providing parliamentary legitimation for the MOU.

Promoting an anti-Jewish backlash?

Lord Palmerston, as British Foreign Minister, once said, “We have no eternal allies, and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual, and those interests it is our duty to follow.” To Jewish Canadians, Israel is a special place. To Ukrainian Canadians, Ukraine is a special place. But to the government of Canada, representative of all Canadians, Israel and Ukraine should be seen simply as foreign states.

Of course Canada may be closer to some foreign states than to others, but none should be privileged as “eternal allies.” If they behave badly, Canada must preserve its freedom to criticize and even to condemn their actions. And the Canadian government certainly has no business condemning Canadian citizens for what they say about the actions of a foreign government, or for campaigning against that government. The “dedication to the shared values of freedom of expression and assembly, democracy, and the rule of law” to which Baird and Lieberman paid lip service is the most effective rejoinder to what the same pair then proceeded to undermine.

Despite Netanyahu’s declaration of victory, the BDS campaign has had mixed successes and failures as it proceeds across North America and Europe. The McCarthyite tone of the anti-BDS campaign has its own potential downside: while the political elites seem largely trapped within the narrowly self-serving Israeli frame of reference, there appear to be growing numbers of citizens who are tired of threadbare Israeli rationalizations for violence and suppression of a captive people, willing to examine new and creative solutions to the neverending Middle Eastern nightmare and, frankly, fed up with the anti-Semitic canard being weaponized to end every discussion and close down debate.

There is another, darker, downside to the dominant approach of the Israeli lobbies. By tying the Jewish community so inextricably to the Israeli state, might not the lobbies be inadvertently promoting the very thing they seek to prevent, an anti-Jewish backlash? That would be unreasonable, not to say tragic, but why risk it by insisting that unquestioning support for Israel is the sole bulwark against anti-Semitism?

In any event, this latter proposition has been challenged by the appalling spectacle of the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Donald Trump said everything favourable to Israel that AIPAC could have wished for – and more. Yet his campaign pandering to the “alt-right” unleashed a torrent of anti-Semitism among his followers, which he studiously avoided recognizing, let alone denouncing. Trump’s slogan of “America First” eerily harks back to the rabidly anti-Semitic pro-Hitler America First movement of the 1930s.8 Blind support for Israel is no proof against anti-Semitism; by the same token, criticism of Israel is no proof of anti-Semitism.

It is time to untie this noxious knot and free the debate over Israel and Palestine from old shibboleths and the direction of self-serving lobbies. Continue reading “The strange tale of Canada’s Israeli lobby”

Even by the degraded standards of the 2016 U.S. election, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump’s comments at an August 9 rally that his Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton, might be appropriately targeted for assassination caused shock waves. Trump thereby crossed a line never crossed before in the turbulent history of American democracy.

Subsequent disclaimers that he was just “joking” cannot be accepted. The United States is a country riven by continued horrific gun violence – a country where no fewer than four presidents have been assassinated, attempts have been made on a number of others, and presidential candidates have been murdered while campaigning. In such a country, there can be no “joking” about assassination. But never before has a candidate for the highest office himself actually implied (wink, wink; nudge, nudge) that killing his opponent might be a legitimate course of action.

Undeterred by the ensuing outcry, the egregious Trump later doubled down with another sneering hint at political murder in a rally in Miami. To loud applause, he said the Secret Service agents who guard Clinton should disarm. Then: “Let’s see what happens to her.” Then in the second TV debate, Trump sneered at Clinton that when he was elected, “you’d be in jail.” Never in the history of the Republic had a presidential candidate threatened to imprison his opponent.

Trump was not alone. Other Republican officials tossed in reckless hints of violence. In September, Kentucky Republican Governor Matt Bevin told a conservative conference that some people had asked him whether the nation could survive Hillary Clinton as president. “I do think it would be possible, but at what price?” Bevin said. “The roots of the tree of liberty are watered by what? The blood. Of who? The tyrants, to be sure, but who else? The patriots.” This was virtually advocating armed insurrection against a democratically elected government. If this had come from the left against a right-wing president it would have been called sedition and treason.

Donald Trump crossed a line into a very dark place. But what is even more alarming is that these verbal atrocities merely highlight a problem in American democracy that had been growing well before Mr. Trump burst so rudely onto the scene. Trump made loud and explicit what was implicit in political developments over the past few years: partisan polarization on a scale never previously witnessed – polarization that runs from top to bottom of the political system and is mirrored in polarized media and a public that finds its information in largely noncommunicating separate spaces that relentlessly demonize, dehumanize and delegitimize opponents. It is but a short step to calling for killing them. Trump’s thuggish (“deplorable”) supporters, in fascistic frenzies of misogyny and political hatred, were frequently heard at rallies shouting “Hang the bitch!”

Today’s American political world is one in which the give and take of democratic debate and deliberation defer to politics as war: compromise (the very currency of democratic negotiation of differences) becomes suspect, even treasonous. Bipartisan cooperation has disappeared from Washington. A Republican-controlled Congress – anchored in gerrymandered GOP House seats – routinely, obdurately voted against virtually anything supported by the Obama administration. The Senate majority refused even to hold hearings on the appointment of a new Supreme Court justice, simply because he was the nominee of a Democratic president. The same gerrymandering (appropriately referred to by Republican backroom types as “ratfucking”) results in GOP primary contests that have become lunatic races to determine who can be the most reactionary of all to qualify for nomination.

What is in serious peril here is something profoundly important for the functioning of any democracy: trust – a certain amount of trust in our institutions; trust in our fellow citizens; trust that when their side wins they will treat our side fairly, and vice versa; trust that we can always agree to disagree while making the necessary compromises that allow the system to function, in the long run, for everyone.

Of course partisanship and conflict are endemic in democracies, but a minimal level of trust that everyone will follow the rules allows partisanship to be tempered with civility, another necessary element in democratic discourse. Civility is more than mere politeness. The word is derived from the Latin civilis (“of or pertaining to citizens”). Civility may include willingness to confront others in open, even passionate, debate, but always with the respect due the common citizenship of all and a shared commitment to the values of liberal democracy and the rule of law. To be sure, these values are always ideals, rarely achieved fully in practice. But if civility breaks down in the political process, it is the polity itself that may crack and break down.

America has a historical example of how awful this breakdown can be. In the mid-19th century, the issue of slavery drove northern and southern states apart. The election of Abraham Lincoln, candidate of the newly formed Republican Party, was taken by the South as a mortal threat to its very existence. Secession and a prolonged, bloody Civil War followed.

We who live in liberal democratic states should realize how important trust is, and how thin the veneer of civility. One of the greatest achievements of modern democracies has been the institutional resolution of the problem of succession of leadership. Authoritarian forms of government, whether old-fashioned monarchies, personal dictatorships or totalitarian states, are always deeply vulnerable to winner-take-all power struggles. To the Bashar al-Assads and Kim Jong-uns of the world, political legitimacy is reduced to a simple formula: kill or be killed. As a very old saying goes, uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.

Democracies have arranged for peaceful transitions from one party to another, a precious but precarious arrangement that rests on trust and civility.

1_voting-boothAbsence of trust is a crucial element in the failure of new democracies today. Take the case of Egypt, where popular demonstrations brought down the Mubarak dictatorship. The first and only free election saw a narrow victory for the candidate of the Muslim Brotherhood. Unfortunately, the Brotherhood attempted to govern as if just over 50 per cent of the vote gave them power to remake Egypt without much regard to the feelings of the other half of the country. A military coup ousted the Brotherhood, establishing another repressive dictatorship, but the secular opposition has been largely silenced, disillusioned by the failure to make democracy work for all, not just the winners of a one-time vote. Voting does not create a viable democracy if winning an election is seen as just another means of seizing power and using that power to benefit one group while repressing others.

The same could be said for Iraq, where “democracy,” imposed by American guns, has resulted in Shi’i-dominated governments that have deeply alienated the Sunni half of the population, offering fertile ground for Sunni extremists like the Islamic State and Al Qaeda.

The United States is still, hopefully, a long way from these examples, or from its own violent past in civil war. It is hard to credit current public policy issues, however important, as posing as existential a challenge as slavery. Nonetheless we have been witnessing a descent into two nations, red and blue, bitterly divided and exercising mutual vetoes in a state of gridlock. The origin of this can be mainly put down to the toxic mix of ruthlessness and resentment on the right, but once set in motion it has become a senseless self-perpetuating conflict, a form of quasi–civil war. In 2016, with a blustering, bullying egomaniacal American caudillo with no regard for any restraints of decency leading the charge, there came sinister signs of political war turning into real war.

The last days of the Weimar Republic were marked by two serious breakdowns in the fabric of political life. First, mainstream discourse could no longer distinguish between fact and fantasy, truth and lies, evidence and propaganda. Second, parliamentary competition began to be matched by direct violence against opponents. The first of these conditions is already apparent in U.S. media (tune in to Fox News any day, any time). With Trump we have seen broad hints of the second.

Weimar fell to Hitler. Trump may be no Hitler, as such, but he surely points the way to political madness. The deeper issues of polarization, hyperpartisanship, distrust and incivility remain embedded in American politics.