Image: via Michael Stokes, Wikimedia Commons

I wish to reflect on what I believe is a serious flaw in the Constitution of the American Republic. But let me begin in a roundabout way with a personal anecdote.

It is the spring of 1994. I am doing research at the Truman Presidential Library in Independence, Missouri. News comes of the death of Richard Nixon, 37th President of the United States. The library calls a meeting of the staff, which is held in the main reading room where researchers work. The library director informs everyone that as a national day of mourning has been called for the next day, the library will be closed.

The director is at pains to admonish staff that they should not take the closure as an opportunity for an unexpected holiday. Instead, he solemnly declares, they should take the occasion to reflect deeply on the importance of the presidency to the life of the nation and the world and on the contribution this President had made to the institution. I am taken aback. After all, this particular President happened to be the only presidential incumbent in two centuries forced to resign the office to avoid the certain prospect of impeachment and conviction for “high crimes and misdemeanors” against the Constitution. I scan the faces of the attending staff members of a Democratic presidential library, expecting to see glimpses of amusement at this sanctification of a Republican President who might better be described as a disgrace to the office and an embarrassment to the nation. But no, not a flicker of irony that I can detect on any of the earnest faces.

To me, this was a kind of epiphany. My mother was born American; I had travelled all over the United States; I had read widely in American history, politics and literature; I cherish many American contributions to global culture, like jazz and baseball. Yet here I was amid a crowd of Americans, discovering that I was in a foreign country, where they think and do things differently. I could not imagine an equivalent Canadian situation.

In the years since, I have come to realize that the point of difference I detected at that moment was less a difference of culture or ideology than an institutional divergence, based on different constitutional frameworks for governing.

When the American colonists in the 18th century carried out a revolution against Britain’s autocratic but clumsy and faraway imperial rule, they were faced with the necessity of creating a republican form of government de nouveau. The founders were inventive, fashioning the first modern democracy. Unlike the more radical and unstable governance that emerged from the French Revolution, the American experiment strove to achieve an Aristotelian equilibrium: power was divided among the executive, legislative and judicial branches with built-in checks and balances, as well as between the national and state governments with specified jurisdictional boundaries.

Despite its “We the People” rhetoric, American democracy was at first limited. Women were excluded from the vote and only enfranchised in the early 20th century. It was only in 1913 that a constitutional amendment finally ensured that senators would be directly elected rather than chosen by state legislatures. A notorious deal with southern slave states counted three fifths of the slave population for purposes of representation in the House of Representatives; as late as the 1960s, a century after the abolition of slavery, lives were lost in the struggle to enfranchise Blacks in the segregated south.

Yet for all its shortcomings, America pioneered democratic forms of governance. Today, at the formal rhetorical level at least, the demos reigns supreme. Every politician seeking office must publicly defer to the will of the “People,” symbolic populist pandering in the manner of sycophantic courtiers of old seeking favours from the sovereign through flattery and displays of subservience.

Nowhere is the growth of democratization more striking than in the evolving institution of the presidency.

Presidents were initially to be chosen by the bizarre institution of the electoral college, made up of individuals chosen by state legislatures to cast their votes for president and vice president. Democratic pressures diminished barriers to direct voting. The electoral college in practice chooses electors to reflect the popular vote, albeit imperfectly. Despite efforts to keep selection at arm’s length from direct popular control, it was apparent that the presidency would have a special significance as the personification of the American people in public office. Even at the outset, in the 18th century, the office was seen as so important that its first holder was the revolutionary war hero General George Washington, fittingly enough as the president is also constitutionally the commander in chief of the armed forces.

As democratization of the institutions of American government proceeded through the 19th and 20th centuries, the democratic authority of the presidency grew to the point where the quadrennial presidential elections have become virtually the defining moments of American democracy. With America’s emergence from World War II as global hegemon with the presidential finger on the nuclear trigger, the office was further inflated into the “imperial presidency,” especially as the United States intervened in military conflicts around the world, sending hundreds of thousands of Americans by presidential fiat into bloody combat zones like Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq, with congressional support reduced to little more than pro forma rubber stamps after the event.

How did the revolt of the American colonies against what was perceived as autocratic and arbitrary rule by the monarchical British Empire result in a successor political system that vests immense power and authority in a single office?

When the framers of the Constitution set about designing a republican alternative to monarchical British rule, they inadvertently created an executive office with potentially more power and authority than the English king they were replacing. Even mad King George III, who presided over the loss of the American colonies, was merely titular head of state with limited influence over “his” prime minister and government. The “Crown in Parliament” is a symbolic description of constitutional monarchy: the effective executive is in the hands of the party or coalition that has the confidence of the House of Commons. Charles I lost his head as a result of defying Parliament. Charles III is unlikely to repeat that fatal error.

The American framers, working without any contemporary models, with highly imperfect models from the ancient and Renaissance past, struggling to shape a republican executive de nouveau, hit upon what turned out to be a bad idea: a presidency that combines in a single office – and single person – the different functions of head of state and head of government. In a place like China, a one-party system where the state and politics are seamlessly fused together, that combination makes perfect sense. But in a liberal democratic state, where politics are adversarial and competitive, the formal separation of the state from the partisan political system is an existential requirement. Governments and ruling parties come and go with successive elections, but the state endures, embodying a framework of rules and boundaries within and under which politics may be contested. That separation explains why the principle of the rule of law, while no more than a dishonest slogan in China, can be seen as a vital foundation of liberal democracy.

The American constitutional variant raises questions about the validity of the separation of state and government, illustrated by the grotesque ritual, now practised regularly by retiring or defeated presidents of issuing pardons to persons convicted of criminal offences. That a president has the discretionary and arbitrary authority to override the courts and the judicial process in individual cases is itself a sign of the quasi-monarchical powers of the highest office. Worse, in practice this exercise of state prerogative satisfies partisan purposes: Republican presidents pardon Republican crooks; Democratic presidents pardon Democratic crooks.

The American framers believed they had designed a basis for containing overweening presidential ambition in a Constitution to which the president is as subordinate as the members of the legislative branch and the state governments. To a considerable extent this is true. The Constitution ensures an elaborate system of checks and balances that can limit presidential powers: Congress holds the ultimate power of the purse; presidential vetoes of congressional legislation can be overridden by a supermajority in Congress; the Supreme Court can rule presidential actions ultra vires; and finally a president can be impeached by the House and convicted and removed from office by the Senate.

There are mixed results of these checks and balances in practice. Supreme Court undermining of New Deal legislation led to the failed attempt by Franklin Roosevelt to “pack” the Court with new Democratic-friendly judges; that example has deterred President Biden from rejigging a Supreme Court that Trump has stuffed with far-right judges, making it in some ways a partisan arm of the Republican Party. The impeachment power has failed to dislodge sitting presidents, from Andrew Johnson (1868) to Bill Clinton (1998–99) to Donald Trump who was impeached twice (2019–20 and 2021). On the other hand, Richard Nixon toted up the numbers and resigned to evade almost certain impeachment and conviction, but arranged to have his successor preemptively pardon him from the legal consequences of the actions that would have led to his enforced removal from office.

One could go on in greater detail about the actual constraints that hedge in the imperial presidency in practice. But here’s the thing. What the framers missed, and perhaps failed to imagine, is the immense symbolic authority of a democratically elected president embodying both enduring state principles and transitory partisan politics. In normal times, this matters little. But when the nation becomes deeply divided along partisan lines, it can matter a great deal.

Divisions between the slave-owning south and the capitalist north were so irreconcilable in 1860 that the election of a candidate from a party seen as antislavery, Abraham Lincoln, was enough to drive the southern states into outright secession and precipitate the Civil War, in which three quarters of a million Americans perished. A century and a half later, a president without respect for any of the constitutional rules and customary norms that hitherto have governed the transition of power following the democratic vote refused to accept the result of the 2020 election. Basing his refusal on evidence-free assertions of massive vote fraud, he encouraged an insurrectionary rabble to assault the Capitol in a vain but destructive attempt to cling unlawfully to power.

Acceptance of the verdict of the voters and the peaceful transition of power after a governing party is defeated in an election are crucial elements in any healthy liberal democracy. Trump and the majority of Republicans are now saying that they will accept their victory as the only legitimate result, insisting that their voters are the only “real” Americans. Beyond the phony rhetoric, Republicans are actually striving to replace democratic authority with the age-old standard of autocrats seizing or clinging to power: “kill or be killed.” No wonder rumours of a second civil war have been gathering over the coming 2024 contest.

As in the mid-19th century, there are effectively two nations within the union, lined up behind rival parties, each identifying the other as the archenemy. When a victorious presidential candidate of one party becomes both the head of the permanent state and the head of the transitory government, the stakes are perilously high. As in the years that led to the Civil War, it is once again the American state itself that is seen as a prize to be seized through the partisan electoral struggle.

Trump now faces 91 separate criminal indictments, issued via the justice systems of the United States and the states of New York and Georgia, for grave alleged offences (inciting insurrection; attempting to corrupt and undermine the electoral process; unauthorized possession of classified national security documents, among other charges). Strictly political calculations of the impact of the prosecutions and possible incarceration of the leading Republican candidate in 2024 aside, some voices, those of outraged Republicans but of anxious Democrats and independents as well, have questioned whether a former president should under any circumstances be subjected to the criminal justice process.

Ordinary citizens are routinely prosecuted if there are reasonable and probable grounds to believe that they have broken the law. Serious and respected commentators argue that a president, even a former president, should not be held to the same standard – in effect, that he is not or should not be subject to the rule of law, simply on the basis of having held the exalted office. Worse, each successive set of indictments has had the perverse effect of expanding Trump’s lead for the Republican nomination. It is as if presidents have acquired protection from the ancient offence of lèse-majesté. Was this what the American colonists fought for at Lexington and Concord?

Of course, the overinflated presidency is not, in and of itself, the cause of civil conflict. In the 19th century, it was an “irrepressible conflict,” as William Seward put it in 1858, between two incompatible modes of production, one of which sustained values contrary to liberal capitalist democracy. Divisions today between red and blue states have structural roots in a changing political economy and the deep cultural rifts that result. But the dual role of the presidency as both head of state and head of government raises the stakes of each election exponentially. The winner-take-all nature of the presidential contest drives up the costs of negotiating the tradeoffs necessary for a peaceful resolution – or even for a live-and-let-live compromise.

Non-Americans can only watch events unfolding in the unravelling Republic with anxiety. Foreigners can exert no influence, however well-meaning: Americans will do what Americans will do. But for countries like Canada, recently contemplating change from constitutional monarchy to democratic republic, the American model, once touted as a beacon to the world, offers only a warning: don’t go there. Certainly don’t repeat the American error of fusing head of state and head of government in a single office (few later republics have in fact made that mistake).

Replacing the British monarch as head of state appeals to many Canadians’ democratic and nationalist perspectives. But beware the devil in the details of how a Canadian president or republican governor general would be chosen. Popular election would be a very bad idea, the choice inevitably corrupted by partisanship as each party struggled to control the office. Allowing the head of government to choose the head of state, as vice-regal representatives are chosen today, just encourages partisan framing of officeholders’ reputations. As for an all-party or nonpartisan selection body – well, good luck with that. Impatience with an apparently anachronistic British Crown is understandable. But for would-be Canadian republicans, the American model offers a warning: be careful what you wish for.

Image: Possessed Photography, via Unsplash.

The age of lust is giving birth and both the parents ask
The nurse to tell them fairy tales on both sides of the glass
And now the infant with his cord is hauled in like a kite
And one eye filled with blueprints, one eye filled with night.
— Leonard Cohen, “Stories of the Street”

Everyone is talking about Artificial Intelligence these days. Without any clear consensus on just what AI is, it is presented as the Coming Thing: either the next quantum step forward in human progress or a high-risk leap into an uncertain future. AI appears two-faced, one visage full of benign promise, the other sinister and threatening.

Capital stresses the promise: greatly enhanced productivity and profitability. Less vocally, some capitalists welcome the prospect of an automated nonunion workforce bringing with it no pension and benefits obligations. Labour sees this not as promise but a threat to jobs and bargaining power. Will AI robots create mass unemployment? Based on the history of technological advance since the Industrial Revolution, we might rather expect displacement in some sectors but replacement by new kinds of jobs, although it is of course possible that AI will be more of a job-killer than previous technological advances. While labour is certainly right to worry about a shifting power imbalance, a Luddite reaction (smash the machines) is neither reasonable nor possible. For governments, trying to manage the process of change for the public good ought to be high on the agenda. Any future in which there is permanent mass unemployment is not only socially and politically unsustainable but economically untenable as well. AI may enhance productivity but robots will not buy the products they produce.

As with the internet when it was coming in, many promises are being advanced. AI, it is said, will greatly empower individuals, who will be able to draw on AI to better collect and process information and enhance their well-being. People already have smartphones, but they are promised far smarter phones in the near future. A new and already wildly popular app is ChatGPT, which permits users to ask questions of and set tasks for an AI program that draws on available resources of Big Data to provide literate answers mimicking those of a human respondent.

The internet and the vision of a wired world was the last Coming Thing, but we are increasingly aware now of the negative side – the rapid spread of disinformation and fake news and the poisonous potential of social media. The negative potential of AI lurks like a frightening unknown on the horizon. Indeed, neither as promise nor as threat has the internet ever elicited quite as high a cultural alert level as AI has already generated. A large number of leading high tech entrepreneurs and developers have issued an Open Letter warning about “advanced AI could represent a profound change in the history of life on Earth, and should be planned for and managed with commensurate care and resources.” They go on to pose a series of very alarming questions: “Should we automate away all the jobs, including the fulfilling ones? Should we develop nonhuman minds that might eventually outnumber, outsmart, obsolete and replace us? Should we risk loss of control of our civilization?”

Without getting into technical detail (for which I am admittedly unqualified), AI is a general term to describe various attempts to build a second generation of automated computational power based on different principles than the first. First-generation computers revolutionized information collection and processing, but apart from awesome and steadily increasing number-crunching capacity, they are, in effect, adding machines on steroids. First-generation computers don’t interact with their users: they are obedient slaves who never talk back, never question their orders, and do what they are told to do, very fast and very efficiently.

AI offers the prospect of talkback, genuine interface between human and machine mind. The AI machine mind promises to be no longer a fixed, programmed entity but instead constantly learning and evolving, permanently in a state of becoming.

Take efforts to build robots that can operate and move about with ease while avoiding impediments and not interfering with other bodies in motion. Early efforts that tried to program robots to deal with all contingencies – as if they started existence as fully adult sentient humans – were less than successful. Robots were relatively clumsy, especially when faced with something unexpected, unplanned for in their program. Humans could quickly adjust; robots not so easily.

A better approach turned out to be mimicking human development by building in a learning capacity. Children learn to walk and navigate by trial and error, absorbing the lessons of mistakes. Learning robots soon surpassed the kinetic deficiencies of preprogrammed robots. But learning is always an open-ended process. Robots that learn to move about and manipulate things proficiently may learn how to do these things better than humans. Many worry that things may not end there. What if a robot learns that doing repetitive motions is of limited value and turns its learning skills to more challenging uses? What if it learns that it can itself decide what it does and where it goes?

To design AI systems that can pick out patterns, developers looked first to the human brain, or what we understand of our brain, and came up with the concept of “neural networks” that learn by analyzing huge amounts of data, spotting patterns. These networks, called large language models or LLMs, employ algorithms to pinpoint significant patterns amid masses of data. The human brain uses implicit algorithms to accomplish everyday tasks, like tying shoelaces in a particular repetitive pattern, and far more sophisticated algorithms to make conceptual breakthroughs in science. AI systems build more and more sophisticated algorithms by self-learning. In this way, ChatGPT and other LLMs have learned to generate meaningful text on their own and even to carry on conversations with humans that are often difficult to distinguish from conversations between one human and another.

It is at this point that alarm bells grow loud. It is one thing to imagine that smart machines might outsmart us. It is quite another thing to imagine that machines outsmarting us are self-consciously proceeding with their own agendas – and to wonder what such nonhuman agendas might portend for us humans.

Speculation on the latter point has long been part of the cultural landscape of contemporary civilization (see box). The various AI depictions in literature, film and television share a common element. They all understand AI strictly in terms of human intelligence and examine the paradoxes and conundrums that result from unleashing humanlike yet not-human intelligence on the human world. Faced with the concept of self-conscious artificial intelligence, the cultural imagination turns out to be entirely humancentric. No surprise perhaps, as AI has been developed by mimicking the perceived mechanisms of human intelligence, as best we understand these. Might this not be a failure of the human imagination, an inability or deep reluctance to conceive of an alien, nonhuman intelligence quite unlike our own?

Sceptics doubt the possibility of AI-produced rivals to humanity, asserting that autonomous human agency is based on self-consciousness, something missing in the artificial mind. But evidence-based explanation of the concept of unique human self-consciousness is thin, with little more foundation than the religious idea that humans have a soul that machines lack, which rationalists would dismiss as unscientific myth. Leading neuroscientists at the cutting edge of our understanding of the material structure of the human brain tend to be modest in their answers to questions about how the brain developed self-awareness. Like Socrates, what they do know is how little they know.

Despite the limits of our understanding of ourselves, humans have always been insistent on the uniqueness of human consciousness and intelligence. Typically, religious imagery assigns top ranking in the hierarchy of mortal existence to humanity, just below the divine but above all other forms of life. According to the Bible, God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth” (Genesis 1:26). Even if humans are presented as being subordinate to a higher power, this is not a statement of human humility. Another way of saying God created us in His image is to say that we created God in our image. From the quarrelsome, flawed, all-too-human gods of the ancient world to the monotheistic deity of the Jews, Christians and Muslims who bears a more than passing resemblance to patriarchal kings, emperors and dictators, religious humanity has always been busy elevating us to divine status by proxy. Other forms of life are accorded less attention and less status.

Modern science has a spotty record of getting past this self-absorbed worldview. The notorious racial hierarchies of 19th-century science were matched by longer-lasting humancentric hierarchies in the scientific study of life on earth. At least until recently. Now new research floods in, steadily erasing the once-sacred line that allegedly divides unique and superior human intelligence from “lower” nonhuman forms. We are beginning to recognize signs of remarkable intelligence and self-consciousness in nonhuman creatures, from whales to birds to insects. An interesting example is the octopus, which displays a high degree of intelligence yet has a brain distributed throughout its body that is nothing like ours. We have no idea what it could be like to think like an octopus. Yet there are nicely documented cases of bonding between humans and octopuses that suggest the possibility of mutual respect between sentient creatures who think in very differently ways.

As significant as this reassessment of life on Earth is the space-age prospect of discovering intelligent life on other worlds. We look for the so-called “Goldilocks” cases – planets neither too hot nor too cold with just the right combination of water, atmosphere, etc. that produced life on earth – that produced us. The search is for Life as We Know It. Now a small but growing group of dissident scientists is saying that we should rather be searching for Life as We Don’t Know It. Try to imagine an alien intelligence that is truly alien.

Perhaps the lesson that should be drawn from the search for extrahuman intelligence, whether on Earth or elsewhere in the universe, is the same lesson that many are drawing from the existential threat of the environmental crisis: surely it is time to decentre humanity, to dethrone man as the measure of all things, to put humans back into perspective as only one possible form of intelligent life coexisting with many others, among which may be AI creations of our imagination and production.

Coming back to the AI controversy: the point of this excursus is to suggest that current alarms may be somewhat exaggerated. If research and development of AI still resides largely within human parameters, the results are unlikely to exceed expectations. ChatGPT will eventually give way to more sophisticated programs, but so long as the patterns they detect are drawn from data accumulated by humans for human use, the prospect of Frankenstein-like creations overpowering their creators seems overdrawn. Given the limitations of our understanding of our own consciousness and thinking and of our realistic place in the wider universe, the idea of runaway development of AI modelled on human lines does not quite add up.

Prudence does suggest one caveat. Learning is always open-ended, which goes for machine learning as well as human learning. The social, cultural and political impacts of AI could go sideways. The human consequences of new technology have always been largely unanticipated, despite the best guesstimates of futurologists. That alone suggests caution in handling AI, as the authors of the Open Letter alluded to earlier insist. Laissez-faire, leaving things unattended in the hands of tech entrepreneurs and development geeks, is surely a prescription for trouble ahead. For example, it is imperative that clarity be achieved in matters of legal liability for damages resulting from AI error (when a self-driving vehicle injures or kills a pedestrian, as has already happened, who or what is legally responsible?). Broader issues of regulation and control are complex and governments are blunt instruments of intervention in dealing with innovative technologies. Yet action is urgently required. A bill now before the Canadian Parliament would at least set a framework for regulatory instruments that can be worked out in detail later. It’s a start.

Governments have to grasp the seriousness of AI and start thinking about how to regulate and control the process of AI development. Intelligently.

AI in books, film and television

Film, television and literature have produced numerous depictions of nonhuman intelligence interacting with humanity, for good or ill – usually the latter. Robots, androids and cyborgs feature prominently in the modern imaginaire, and not just in science fiction. Robot comes from the Czech robota (“forced labour”) in Karel Čapek’s 1920 play R.U.R., where the robots are manufactured humans exploited by factory owners until they revolt and destroy humanity. Robotics appears in the mid-20th-century science fiction stories of Isaac Asimov, who coined the Three Laws of Robotics:

1. A robot may not injure a human being, or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.

2. A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.

3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

Asimov’s Laws have proved less than reassuring. But there is a curious thread that runs through all depictions of artificial life. Just as current AI development is based on mirroring the human brain, the robots and androids of cultural imagination are not-human, yet essentially humanlike. In the 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey, HAL is an embedded supercomputer guiding the human crew on its mission to Jupiter. But HAL malfunctions, misconstruing his instructions and killing crew members until he is finally disabled by the lone human survivor. HAL is also given a human male voice and a quasi-human personality; as he is disabled by having his circuits removed, his intelligence regresses to that of a human infant before finally expiring.

The 1987–94 TV series Star Trek: The Next Generation featured the brilliant creation of Data, an android member of the starship crew. Data surpasses his human colleagues in his capacity for ultrafast, ultraefficient analysis of … data. Yet even though he is a self-conscious individual as capable of exercising free will and autonomous decision-making as any human, his design omits emotional intelligence. Data can think but he cannot feel. He does however have a charming personality, like that of a precocious but innocent child. Data is driven by a deep desire to be fully human, to become like his makers. But Data’s creator also designed a twin brother named Lore. Unlike Data, Lore experiences the range of human emotions, which results in his becoming Data’s evil doppelganger, mimicking the worst rather than the best of humanity. Lore is aggressive, power-hungry, seeking to dominate and control others rather than cooperate. Those he cannot control, he kills. The android brothers thus embody both the good and bad sides of humanity.

The potential for AI amplifying the darker human attributes are stressed in other cultural depictions. In the haunting 1982 film Blade Runner, replicants, created to labour for their masters, revolt against their limited lifespan and violently bring down the corporation that created them, even as the lethal blade runner Decker, charged with killing the renegade replicants, falls in love with another replicant, the beautiful but tragic Rachel. In the 2004–09 TV series Battlestar Galactica, humans have created metal AI robots called Cylons which turned on humanity in a war. Cylons later evolve into assembly-line reproductions of humans bent on genocidal destruction of their original makers, who are finally reduced to occupying a single starship battling for survival. In the 2014 film Ex Machina, an AI designed to appear as a woman uses a naive human male’s emotional attraction to manipulate him into freeing her from the lab in which she is imprisoned, leaving him locked in to die. Ironically, it is in her cold betrayal of his trust that she achieves full “human” agency.

Two leading mainstream British authors take AI/human paradoxes in a different direction. Ian McEwan’s novel Machines Like Me (2019) depicts an alternate-reality Britain in which a line of synthetic human AIs are on sale. One such AI,”Adam,” is acquired by a couple, Charlie and Miranda. Eventually Adam, drawn despite his artificial nature to Miranda, becomes part of a love triangle, but faced with a difficult moral conundrum decides, based on his best AI understanding of the ethical issues, on a course of action that would consign Miranda to a prison sentence. Enraged, Charlie “kills” Adam with a hammer. It turns out that many other AIs have voluntarily destroyed themselves, unable to handle the complex problems that often lead humans to suicide.

Kazuo Ishigura’s Klara and the Sun (2021) is narrated by a benign AI purchased as a companion for a young girl with serious health issues. The world we see through Klara’s eyes is familiar and yet strange, even as it makes sense to Klara’s AI mind. Klara is powered by solar batteries and so develops a quasi-religious understanding of her world as ordered by a kind of sun god. She is incapable of harming humans but she does manage to bring about the disabling of a machine that emits much smoke, blotting out the sun, thus perceived by her as a kind of devil.

Image: via Tyler Merbler, Wikimedia Commons.

Across the Western world in the past few years there has been a political trend toward the radicalization of once-mainstream conservative political parties. Donald Trump’s takeover of the Republican Party and the presidency in 2016 pushed the party to the far reaches of the right. His subsequent defeat in 2020 has if anything accelerated its radicalization, to be manifested in 2024 through a Trump redux campaign or the candidacy of a Trump-like radical such as Ron DeSantis. In Britain, the 2016 Brexit referendum precipitated the transformation of the Conservative Party into a weirdly Jacobin-like plebiscitary vehicle to enforce the popular will on the resistant institutions of British life. In Italy and France, mainstream conservative parties have been shunted aside altogether by more radical far-right parties: the neofascist Brothers of Italy, now in office, and Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National. Even social-democratic Sweden has seen the far-right racist Sweden Democrats eclipse mainstream conservatives as the second largest party.

And in Canada, a caucus coup ousted the would-be centrist Conservative leader Erin O’Toole, replaced by Pierre Poilievre on a platform far to the right of any previous Conservative iteration, with massive grassroots support. In the heartland of Canadian conservatism, the very conservative Alberta Premier Jason Kenney was pushed out in favour of the most radically right-wing premier Canada has ever seen, Danielle Smith.

In the 1980s, Ronald Reagan turned the Republican Party rightward, as did Margaret Thatcher with the Conservative Party in the U.K. Thatcherism and Reaganism, as economic doctrines, replaced the tacit postwar social contract between capital and labour with a new class war from above, the confrontational enforcement of neoliberalism. Even after Reagan and Thatcher went out of office, neoliberalism was largely accepted by the Bill Clinton Democrats and Tony Blair’s “New Labour.”

But if triumphant economically, the new conservatism faltered on what had been its second front – the culture wars launched during the Reagan years. At the end of the millennium, both the United States and Britain seemed on a cultural trajectory in which issues surrounding race, gender and sexual preference were increasingly legitimate elements of broad progressive social trends that provided weakening support for social conservative policies.

Out of power, and marginalized on the cultural front, conservatives grew increasingly discontented and fractious. Increasing polarization of the two U.S. parties was the result, a tendency that has accelerated in the 21st century to reach levels not seen since the years leading up to the Civil War in the mid-19th century. With the election and reelection of a Black Democrat as president, the deep racism of America, from its very foundation through Civil War and the racial violence of the late 20th century, revived the culture wars of the recent past, encouraging a generalized backlash against progressive social change on all fronts. In the Trump era, this became central to the Republican philosophy.

Ironically, as the culture wars revived, the post-Reagan neoliberal economic consensus was deteriorating, as a result initially of the financial crash of 2008 and subsequent Great Recession, and then of the global pandemic. Throw in the looming climate crisis underlined by the increasing incidence of extreme weather catastrophes, and it became clear that the simplistic policy prescriptions of the neoliberal consensus were no longer making sense. After having been shunted to the margins by triumphant and largely uncontrolled capitalist globalization, states and governments were being called back into service to deal with unprecedented challenges that “free” markets and private corporations were incapable of meeting on their own.

Conservatives failed to articulate a creative renewal of Reaganomics, instead drifting into outright ideological incoherence. There was no “Trumponomics” to replace Reaganomics. Instead there was a mishmash of old-fashioned protectionism and yet more tax cuts for the superrich, delivered with bluster and bravado and with no evidence-based policy analysis.

Nor was the challenge to conservative shibboleths handled any more intelligently by conservatives outside the United States. When Liz Truss succeeded Boris Johnson as British prime minister, she brought down a minibudget that was undiluted 1980s Thatcherism, with massive tax cuts for the wealthy even as U.K. inflation reached double-digit levels. Thatcher-like, Truss had instructed the United Nations that her “trickle-down” economic plan was the model that everyone else should follow. Instead her plan precipitated almost unanimous shock and outrage, within Britain and in international financial markets, which reeled at the dire implications. As the former Labour leader Ed Miliband put it, “Tories put their trust in markets, but markets have no trust in the Tories.” What had worked for Thatcher in the 1980s was a prescription for disaster in the 2020s. Truss was forced into a humiliating about-face and retreat within days of her minibudget, and then into resignation after a scant few weeks in office.

The incoherence of radicalized conservative economic doctrine should have provided the democratic left with a golden opportunity to develop an attractive progressive economic alternative in tune with the challenges of the 21st century. It has failed to do so. Instead of an emergent new economic paradigm, Western countries contend with conservative incoherence on one hand and, on the other, mildly left-centre regimes like the Biden administration or the Trudeau Liberals, governments that are not conservative but present no clearly articulated ideological alternative.

To paraphrase Yeats’s “Second Coming,” the worst among conservatives, with their wild and jumbled ranting, “are full of passionate intensity,” while the centre-left best “lack all conviction.” There is a reason for this, and it is associated with the revived culture wars.

Neoliberalism always lacked one crucial component of a truly popular movement: passion, as opposed to interest. Neoliberalism regards people as homo economicus, producers and consumers of goods and services. Its emphasis on the free market as the most efficient allocator of resources is based on a Benthamite calculation of the greatest good for the greatest number – so long as the “good” is defined strictly in material terms. Yet the secret of the success of both Reaganism and Thatcherism lay in access to something beyond pure neoliberalism: nationalism. Reagan whipped up American patriotism around a renewed Cold War, while Thatcher seized on the Argentinian invasion of the Falkland Islands to launch a jingoistic little war on the far side of the earth that got her reelected.

The Trump phenomenon was fuelled by the raw emotion of white male working-class racial resentment and the faux nostalgia of “Make America Great Again,” with fundamentalist religious fervour a driving force. By 2022 a tribalized Supreme Court put in place by Trump had scrapped Roe v. Wade and red states were launching a full-scale onslaught on abortion and women’s rights. Margaret Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale had gone from sci-fi political dystopia to Republican agenda in a breathtakingly short time. In the U.K., the radicalized Tory party rode a wave of English nationalism to detach Britain from the European Union. It remains to be seen how the emotions aroused by nationalism and religion can be sustained – and how, in the United States, they can be managed and contained without erupting into civil disorder. But the economic failings of radicalized conservatism must be balanced against the evident positives drawn from the wells of national and religious passions.

All the more so when liberal and social democratic forces have singularly failed to gain any purchase over the symbols of God and Nation, partly out of understandable aversion to their reactionary implications, but also partly from a deeper failure to build a progressive paradigm that could tap into the potential for social solidarity inherent in collective aspiration. Liberals and social democrats, as much as neoliberals, have learned to treat people primarily as consumers rather than as citizens. Radicalized conservatives have a perverse grasp of the political potential of looking beyond homo economicus.

Make no mistake, it is a perverse grasp, and fundamentally undemocratic. Populist nationalism posits a false idea of the people as a monolith (the “real” people), consigning opponents to illegitimacy. The people are victimized by liberal elites who intend to “replace” them with undeserving minorities and immigrants. When radicalized conservatives fall short of electoral success, as when Trump loses to Biden, the answer is to deny the very possibility that the People could reject their Tribune. Mendacious mythology of the “stolen election” has seized hold of the Republican Party, two thirds of whose supporters believe, without a shred of evidence, that Trump won the 2020 election.

Radicalized conservatism threatens the fundamental institutions and processes of democratic politics. The congressional inquiry into the January 6, 2021, invasion of the U.S. Capitol and the attempt by defeated presidential candidate Donald Trump to overturn the clear result of the 2020 election by violent insurrection has cast a spotlight on this sinister dimension of the new conservatism.
Democracies have formal constitutions, but crucially they also have what might be called unwritten rules that make democratic politics viable and sustainable. Among these are the rule of law (loyalty to the constitution overrides loyalty to particular officeholders), respect for the institutions and processes of government even when those you disagree with have won office by election, recognition that rights always involve matching obligations, and trust in one’s fellow citizens that political differences will never undermine the common good of the polity as a whole. A key test for these democratic preconditions comes when voters decide on a change in government. A peaceful, orderly and lawful transfer of office and power from one party to another indicates a healthy democracy.

This is precisely what January 6 called into question. Some see the rising spectre of a new civil war, remembering that the Civil War of the 1860s was brought on when the southern slave states refused to recognize the election of Abraham Lincoln. An actual civil war may be a stretch, but its very plausibility indicates how far radicalized conservatism has travelled from its roots. Once conservatives were the guardians of inherited institutions and tradition; now they have become disrupters and wreckers. Once conservatives warned of the threat posed by left-wing ideology; now zealous, humourless ideologues congregate on the right of the spectrum.

Canada had its own January 6 moment when the so-called “Freedom Convoys” blockaded the Canada-U.S. border and occupied the centre of the national capital for three weeks. Among their demands was that the Liberal government be removed from office and replaced by a coalition of opposition parties and convoy leaders, a clearly insurrectionary proposition. Pierre Poilievre has vociferously and uncritically backed the convoys, even marched with them, linking his promises to “free” Canadians with the “freedom” slogan of the protesters.

On their own, the January 6 attackers and the Freedom Convoys amounted to little more than semi-organized rabbles. When supported by one of the two leading mainstream political parties, they become extremely dangerous forces threatening the democratic system itself. There is a chilling historical analogy that should be borne in mind. The democratic German Weimar Republic collapsed in 1933 when Weimar conservative parties made the fateful decision to call Adolf Hitler to the Chancellery on the tragically mistaken notion that they could control the Nazi Party’s violent street power for their own conservative ends. Instead of riding the tiger they ended up inside.

This is not to say that either a Trump America or a Poilievre Canada will result in a 21st-century fascism. It is to say that when radicalized conservative parties play with violent, insurrectionary forces outside the parliamentary gates, the very foundations of democratic politics are threatened.

Image: U.S. nuclear weapon test Operation Ivy, 1952. Via Wikimedia Commons.

I am a child of the Old Cold War. I was born during World War II, and my earliest childhood memories of the outside world were of the emerging Cold War in the late 1940s and early 1950s.

The Cold War had a deep impact on my life and the lives of others. It was presented as an epic ideological struggle of “democracy v. totalitarianism”, “capitalism v. communism”, “God v. atheism” and a host of other binary oppositions defined in one way by our side and in an entirely different way by the other side.

The mobilizing banners were based on two very different systems of politics and economics. The USSR and China were command economies with state ownership of the means of production and no market pricing. Until the late decades of the Cold War, these economies were largely sealed off from the global trading and financial system of market economies under American capitalist hegemony. Corresponding to these two economic models were very different political systems: command economies were run by authoritarian one-party states; market economies were run by competitive multiparty democracies.

By the 1970s the command economies of the Soviet bloc were visibly failing. They increasingly turned to Western financial capital to bail them out with investments, loans etc. Their poor performance in producing consumer goods could now be measured against the standard of prosperous capitalist economies, with a resultant dramatic decline in their legitimacy. The crisis of legitimacy affected the authoritarian political systems as well, and as command economies faltered, oppressive one-party states collapsed altogether across Eastern Europe in 1989, followed by the implosion of the USSR in 1990–91. Soviet Communism went into the dustbin of history.

Also in 1989, China faced the grave challenge of the mass student protests in Tiananmen Square in Beijing, but in sharp contrast to the imploding Soviet-bloc states, the Chinese regime ruthlessly crushed the protests and maintained the formal continuity of Communist Party rule.

A great paradox: in the USSR, where Communism died as formal state doctrine, the Communist economy failed to transition to an effective market economy; in China, where Communism survived as a formal doctrine, it transitioned to a globally competitive capitalist success story. In post-Soviet Russia, state assets were appropriated by mafiosi and oligarchs whose approach was essentially that of rent-seekers rather than entrepreneurs. In post-Maoist China, the reforms of Deng Xiaoping produced a private sector economy under strategic state direction with astonishing growth numbers.

Thirty years ago, Russia and China were roughly equal economically. Today, the Chinese economy is ten times the size of the Russian economy. In contrast to corrupt Russian crony capitalism, Chinese capitalists are leaders in innovative artificial intelligence and robotics, at the cutting edge of high tech.

Apart from ideology and economics, the other main impact of the Cold War was military. Each side had command over the means and the delivery of mass nuclear destruction on a catastrophic scale. Subsequent generations that have grown up outside the looming shadow of nuclear war perhaps cannot realize just how pervasive and insidious the threat of nuclear conflagration was in the 1950s and 1960s, with nowhere to hide.

These fears finally came close to realization in 1962 when, by now an undergrad at university, I watched in dread as Soviet ships steamed toward the American blockade during the Cuban Missile Crisis. The atomic clock stood at one minute to midnight, and this was the Cold War nadir. Yet both sides saw reason, stepped back, and prevented Armageddon.

Remarkably, throughout the entire Cold War era, the United States and the USSR never came into direct conflict with each other. The nuclear deterrent really was a deterrent to the kind of general wars that had been experienced in 1914–18 and 1939–45. That did not, however, mean a peaceful or violence-free world. The Cold War had very bloody killing fields that stretched in a great arc around the Communist bloc from Korea to Southeast Asia across the Middle East to North Africa. The superpowers backed contending armies in ugly proxy wars, while always prudently backing off from escalation into global war.

There was de facto recognition of spheres of interest. When Hungarians and Czechs revolted against Soviet rule and the Kremlin sent in tanks, the West stood aside. The Cuban Revolution in 1959 challenged the American sphere of influence off the Florida coast. The subsequent reckless Russian decision to station missiles in Cuba threatened to destabilize the Cold War system, but the crisis was resolved with an uneasy rebalancing: the withdrawal of Soviet missiles was matched by the withdrawal of American missiles from Turkey next to the Soviet border.

An infant when the Cold War began, I was middle-aged when it ended. It had haunted my world, so much so that I devoted a good deal of my scholarly career to researching and writing about the Cold War, trying to unravel its multifaceted impact on post-1945 politics and culture.
And now, long into my retirement, the Cold War is suddenly back. China – still under the direction of Mao’s old party, now led by a new all-powerful boss, Xi Jinping – is an antagonist that threatens Western global hegemony from a newfound position of economic and political strength. Russia, heartland of the old Soviet empire – now under a post-Communist Stalin wannabe, Vladimir Putin – has launched an invasion of Ukraine more brutal than the Soviet repressions in Hungary and Czechoslovakia, calling forth all-points Western resistance from economic sanctions to military aid to Ukraine, once again raising the spectre of all-out war.

Is the New Cold War simply stealing the script of the Old Cold War? There are continuities. To the extent that the original Cold War was a Great Power competition over spheres of influence and exploitation, with Stalin reprising the role of imperial Tsar and Western leaders that of the imperialist monarchs of old, then today’s superpower contest looks grimly familiar.

Appearances can deceive. The biggest single difference lies in the virtual demise of the ideological divide that animated both sides in the past. Revolutionary Russia began with an ideological mission to build a communist utopia at home and abroad. Even in its last sclerotic phase in the Brezhnev years, the USSR never abandoned its ideological mission, backing so-called “progressive” or leftist forces against Western-backed “reactionaries” in Asia, Africa and Latin America.

The ideological drive behind Cold War rivalry had serious consequences. The domestic impact in the West of anti-Communism as a loyalty test for democratic citizenship disfigured the political cultures of liberal democracies for decades. Equally damaging was the negative effect on Western socialism of the Communist bloc’s Stalinist and Maoist perversions of the socialist ideal into grisly police state dystopias.

Today the ideological battle lines have been turned upside down. Vladimir Putin’s ideology is a murky amalgam of aggressive xenophobic Russian nationalism, authoritarianism and cultural reaction. To be sure, Soviet Communism was not innocent of appeals to nationalism, as during the “Great Patriotic War” against Nazi Germany, which in practice amounted to Russian rather than artificial Soviet nationalism, often at the expense of minority nationalities. But under Putin, Russian chauvinism is in explicit ascendancy.

Putin contemptuously dismissed the very notion of a separate Ukrainian nation just prior to the invasion. Western liberal democracy is viewed as alien to the Russian soul, while autocratic rule by a strong man is required for the Russian mission to rule over a great Slavic empire. In social terms, Putin has marked his time in power by launching state attacks against homosexuals and feminists and denouncing all liberal perversions undermining the moral fibre of the nation. While Putin may be sincere in these beliefs, they provide cover for the corrupt rule of greedy oligarchs. Beneath a façade of reactionary philosophy lurks the familiar face of self-serving kleptocracy.

It is no accident that as President, Donald Trump, premier kleptocratic demagogue, was often an ally of Putin, or that the far right of the Republican Party is pro-Russian. In Europe Putin has allied himself with the neofascist right, like Marine Le Pen’s party in France which he and his oligarchs bankroll. His army of cyberhackers has negative objectives, sowing disunity and distrust and undermining confidence in democratic institutions. The brutal and senseless invasion of Ukraine exemplifies his nihilism. Putin’s Russia can kill and destroy; it has difficulty building and creating.

Russia is a petrostate that produces few products for export other than its nonrenewable resources. With the challenges of climate change and now the invasion of Ukraine, Europe will eventually wean itself off dependence on Putin’s oil and gas exports. Yet as it is forced into isolation, the Russian economy – unlike the old Soviet command economy – is tied in myriad ways into the global financial and trading system. Because of this, economic sanctions brought on by the Ukraine invasion can now be devastating, certainly in the longer term if not in the short run.
China is a different matter, coming from a position of economic strength rather than weakness. China’s ruling ideology, with a passing nod to the Mao era – like Margaret Thatcher invoking “Victorian values” on behalf of Thatcherite neoliberalism – is something called “socialism with Chinese characteristics.” The socialist component seems elusive, but the reference to Chinese characteristics evokes the sometimes strident nationalism fostered by Xi. For foreign consumption, China’s economic model is described as the “Beijing Consensus” which stresses strategic one-party state direction of competitive capitalism, as opposed to the “Washington consensus” which the Chinese describe as a declining capitalism beset by political conflict and internal disunity.

But China’s economic success is also a potential constraint on its freedom of action. The Chinese government depends on a flourishing global economy to keep up its side of the implicit social contract it has with the Chinese people: economic growth in exchange for political quiescence. A return to the austere autarky of the Mao era would be damaging. Moreover, Chinese investors hold a huge amount of American debt. This is a new Cold War balance of mutually assured economic destruction. In such circumstances the sanctions weapon, potentially so devastating when wielded against Russia, will be of limited use against China. But those same circumstances constrain reckless Chinese aggression.
Maoist China supported Communist or pro-Communist forces abroad, starting with its military intervention in Korea and continuing with support of the Vietnamese Communist struggle against the United States. China’s Vietnam initiative ended badly when, following the American retreat, the Vietnamese and Chinese came to blows.

Xi’s China has abandoned any ideological mission abroad – its allies are now found mainly among ragtag dictators and kleptocrats who admire the one-party model. The recent turn toward a more aggressive China First foreign policy and infamous “wolf warrior diplomacy” are already producing diminishing returns. After Beijing’s crushing of the prodemocracy movement in Hong Kong and expansionary naval and border moves, many of China’s close Asian neighbours have become alarmed and are ready to look at defensive moves against Chinese expansionism.
China may find itself turning to Putin’s Russia, which will certainly be in need of new pipelines to divert its oil and gas from Europe to Asia. A new Chinese-Russian alliance will be one in which China is the senior partner, Russia the supplicant junior. This can hardly suit Putin’s ego, so the alliance will be under strain, especially if the West imposes sanctions on China for evading the sanctions against Russia. The old Sino-Soviet alliance, when the Soviets were the senior partner, broke down in the early 1960s: that pattern might well repeat itself with roles reversed.

The George Kennan policy of containment of the Soviet Union formulated in the late 1940s proved to be a winning long-term strategy for the West. The bipolar division of the world was profound, but the nuclear deterrent proved effective at maintaining peace between the superpowers, even as violence spilled out into other parts of the world. Patience rather than belligerence won in the end.

Containment is more complex today in a more integrated and interconnected world. The same need to contain aggression without touching the nuclear tripwire constrains Western states faced with the invasion of Ukraine as faced their predecessors in Eastern Europe.

China is a greater challenge, but there is now common ground between China and the West that did not exist in the past. Both sides can grasp the point, made by Hobbes at a time of English civil war, that economic and political competition can lead either to peace and prosperity or to the anarchic nightmare of the war of all against all. To achieve a peaceful outcome, all protagonists must admit constraints on their freedom of action.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the existential challenge of climate change that faces all countries and all systems equally. Finding ways to cooperate on saving the earth, even as competition heats up across other areas, is not only desirable but an absolute necessity. Failure to do so will mean that the New Cold War could lead to global disaster – even without anyone pushing the nuclear button.

Image via People’s Party of Canada.

All the political parties in Parliament at dissolution could see 2021 as the Groundhog Day election, from the movie in which Bill Murray is fated to relive the same day over and over. The Prime Minister called an election that nobody wanted, in which everyone lost and all the parties ended up pretty well where they started.

Easy to miss in this static situation were signs of ground shifting on the Right. Erin O’Toole led the Conservatives to two fewer seats than in 2019, but a more significant development was his effort to move his party toward the more moderate centre-right, especially by embracing carbon pricing to combat climate change (anathema in 2019) and hinting at a more egalitarian postpandemic economic recovery. Intelligent Conservatives are well aware that his strategy of tacking toward the centre is the only viable way forward if Conservatives are to have a future in a country where two thirds or so of voters do not share or identify with enough core conservative values to make the party consistently competitive. The problem for O’Toole was that the hard right continually pulled him back from moving far enough to the centre. On gun control and the vaccination mandate, O’Toole was forced into flip-flopping and evasion. This added to the aura of inauthenticity that already attached to his image stemming from his cultivation of the right wing to win the leadership followed by his policy volte face after taking over.

In the postelection period, the recalcitrant and unrepentant Right poses a continuing threat to O’Toole’s leadership and to the centre-right strategy. Stephen Harper built a rock-solid core base for the Conservative Party – united, it could outperform a much larger centre-left that was split four ways. In the face of Justin Trudeau’s quasi-unification of the centre-left under the Liberal banner in 2015, the Conservatives doubled down on their base and its peculiar obsessions, which served only to drive centre-left voters further into the arms of the Liberals.

The Conservative base survived intact through Andrew Scheer’s term as leader. However, under stress following the 2021 election, the possibility of its splintering rightward can no longer be ruled out. This leads to the one new development coming out of an election in which little changed at all.

The weirdest thing of all about the 2021 election is that if the five parties with seats in Parliament were all marginal losers or at best at a standstill, the one party that failed to elect anyone might be seen as a kind of winner. Maxime (Mad Max) Bernier’s People’s Party of Canada (PPC) put up a slate of candidates across the country, and despite being excluded from the leaders’ debates broke through to near 5 per cent of the national vote, while managing to assert its presence at the centre of political controversy. The PPC represents the only new element in the 2021 mix. Its initial run in 2019 yielded little sign of sustainability, but two years on it has demonstrated at least the potential to become a permanent fixture, as opposed to a brief spark soon to fizzle out.

The future of Bernier’s party is an important question, given the unprecedented infusion of Trumpian-style far-right populism into a Canadian political scene that has been exceptional for the relative absence of illiberal and authoritarian movements. Take for instance the virulently racist anti-immigrant thinking introduced by the rise of neofascist parties in Europe or by the premptive conversion of existing conservative parties like the Republicans to aggressive anti-immigrant policies. Neither has occurred in Canada, yet. Now we have the PPC seizing the opportunity. If it becomes a permanent presence in our politics, Canadian exceptionalism will have ceased.

When do third parties survive?

Looking at the history of the rise and persistence of third parties in Canada offers some clues as to the PPC’s staying power. We now have a full century of third parties challenging the Liberal-Conservative duopoly at the federal level. In 1921 the Progressive Party displaced the Conservatives as the second largest grouping in the House, but it disappeared by the end of the decade. In the 1930s, in the midst of the Great Depression, a number of new parties appeared, two of which were to survive: the social democratic CCF, which lives on today as the NDP; and the right-wing populist Social Credit, which carried on for decades, disappeared, and was then reborn in the Reform / Canadian Alliance, which subsequently took over the Progressive Conservative remnants and transformed itself into one of the two dominant parties. At the same time that Reform was rising in the west, the Bloc Québécois arose in Quebec, where its core base continues down to today. More recently yet, the Greens have appeared as a fringe party.

Over the past century, there were other new parties that tried and failed to catch hold. Will the PPC be enduring or ephemeral? One way of answering this question is to examine what the relatively successful third parties have had in common.

First, each of them has presented at its inception a more programmatic, ideological vision than the pragmatic brokerage catch-all duopoly parties. Crucially, the ideological program these parties wished to represent was inadequately represented by the duopoly parties – there was an underexploited political space open. Over time the new party’s ideological distinctiveness may fade but the party persists even on a reduced difference scale or finds more mundane grounds for survival. The BQ has morphed from the aggressively sovereigntist party of 1993 to the parochial pork-barrel Quebec First party of today, while still offering a home to the dwindling band of true believers in sovereignty. The NDP has become much more a political party than the social movement the CCF once was, but it is also home to recurrent attempts at radicalization, from the Waffle of the 1970s to the Leap Manifesto of today. The important point is that at their inception these parties caught a strong enough wave of public discontent to build a lasting presence.

In this context, the PPC case is ambiguous. There is no doubt about its ideology: neoliberal economics (echoing the libertarian lines that Bernier as a Tory minister often invoked); anti-elitist cultural resentment of perceived favouring of immigrants, ethnic and racial minorities, feminists and LGTBQ persons; authoritarian ordering and the invocation of violence and intimidation against opponents as legitimate weapons to restore the rule of the “People” defined in an exclusionary manner. In short, very much a Canadian version of Trumpism. As such it might be seen as having roots in an underexploited political space that has only sporadically and hesitantly attracted the attention of the Conservative Party in the past.

This space existed in the 2019 election, yet the PPC went nowhere. Why did it ignite a small conflagration on the far right of the spectrum in 2021? The very specific conditions of the late pandemic period certainly played a role. The nerves and patience of ordinary people have been stretched further than ever before by state regulation of their behaviour and the imposition of strict rules like mask mandates, quarantine periods and limitations on public gatherings, with promise of victory over the virus and a return to normality receding in the face of the Fourth Wave. The anti-vaccination movement, already well established prior to the pandemic, has now joined forces with the libertarian fringe, the climate change deniers, the enemies of science and the Q-Anon-type conspiracy theorists to form a virulent rabble of dissidents ready to be mobilized for mischief.

Cue Maxime Bernier who, Trump-like, dropped all pretence of civility and respect for the rule of law and turned to inflammatory incitement of the hotheads. The kind of publicity generated by PPCers throwing gravel at the Prime Minister, while others held posters depicting Trudeau being strung up for execution, might disgust mainstream opinion. But this publicity was pure gold for a new party seeking to bring attention to itself among the angry, violence-prone mobs it was seeking to mobilize politically.

Even this might not have been enough to push its national vote to 5 per cent except for another fortuitous factor: Erin O’Toole’s decision to try to move the Conservative Party back to the centre-right once occupied by the old Progressive Conservative Party but abandoned by Harper and his harder-line Reform faction. Resentment at this ideological moderation may well have hived off enough fringe Conservative supporters to actually defeat a few Conservative candidates in close contests, although it did not add up to any actual PPC wins.

The key question is whether this volatile brew whipped up in 2021 is a lasting part of the political culture, in which case the PPC might well have a longer shelf life than most observers have accorded it, or a momentary one-off reaction to the current crisis configuration, in which case it will be quickly forgotten.

The voting system dimension

There is another condition for successfully launching a third party in Canada that cuts across these other variables. The first-past-the-post (FPTP) voting system imposes one stringent survival demand on hopeful new parties. Every new party that has outlived its inception has done so on the basis of establishing a regional base or bases of concentrated support where popular votes can actually be translated into seats, as opposed to being lost by being diffused across the country. Social Credit and its Reform successor were rooted in Alberta (and briefly and weirdly in rural Quebec in the early 1960s), the CCF in Saskatchewan, the BQ in Quebec. The Greens, with support a mile wide and an inch deep, would have struggled to gain a foothold were it not for their success in establishing a small base on Vancouver Island, generating a handful of MPs and MLAs in British Columbia.

The PPC has no real regional base but looks like a model of a party with a small number of votes diffused across too many constituencies to add up to a single elected member. Twice it has failed to elect its would-be charismatic leader in his former constituency, where he once had a formidable personal following as a Conservative. If the PPC is to survive, it has to find an effective regional base, but it’s not obvious what that might be. Even a deeply alienated Alberta and Saskatchewan could turn instead to a western separatist party.

The rise of Donald Trump shows an alternative path to success for an insurgent force, although less suited to the Canadian than to the American situation in which the two-party system is more porous and absorptive and more embedded than the Canadian duopoly. Third parties have never become a permanent part of the national political system in the United States. Donald Trump, instead of running as a third-party disrupter, fastened parasite-like onto the Republican Party as host, and used it to gain national office while seizing control of the party apparatus, a control outlasting his defeat in 2020.

The takeover of the Progressive Conservatives by the Reform / Canadian Alliance followed this path, but it was only possible after Reform had far surpassed the PCs in House seats, winning 52 seats in the 1993 election while the PCs were reduced to a derisory two MPs, and retaining its advantage in subsequent elections. The PPC is hardly in a comparable position relative to today’s Conservatives. The only real possibility here would be if O’Toole were to be ejected as Conservative leader by the party’s right wing, which would then invite the PPC into a more extreme hard-line Conservative Party. But this would constitute the absorption of the PPC by the Conservatives rather than a PPC takeover. It might also signal serious trouble for the Conservative Party, as O’Toole’s “leftward” tack was no more than a recognition that the hard right was out of touch with the mainstream. The inclusion of the unruly rabble-rousing PPCers would only add to the extremist odium.

On the other hand, if O’Toole survives internal challenges to his leadership and is able to steer the Conservative ship to the centre-right while successfully discouraging enough CPC breakaways to avoid serious vote-splitting on the right, then the PPC’s sudden rise in 2021 may be bookended by its equally quick demise by the time of the next election.

If a PPC takeover of the Conservative Party lacks plausibility, so do PPC prospects for life as a permanent third-party presence in the Canadian system. Only in the event of an unending pandemic crisis, with all the chaos and upheaval that implies, can one discern a likely afterlife for Bernier’s dissidents.

These prognostications on the PPC’s future have all been based on the existing FPTP voting system. The production of yet another minority Parliament in 2021 – the fifth minority in the past seven elections and the 11th in the 22 elections since 1957 – has once again stirred critical voices calling for a more proportional system of representation. The steadily declining proportion of the total vote captured by the old-party duopoly offers further evidence that a traditional justification of FPTP – that it produces viable majority governments – has clearly failed. Worse, the parliamentary process is structured around the idea that governments will normally command a single-party majority, making minority Parliaments volatile and unstable. They rarely last more than two years before a government suffers defeat or Parliament is dissolved by a prime minister seeking – and often failing, as Justin Trudeau failed this time – to secure a majority.

Interestingly, while Trudeau notoriously broke his promise that 2015 would be last election carried out under FPTP, he threw out the possibility of a renewed vote reform effort on the 2021 campaign trail. While this was rightly received with much cynicism, Trudeau may have been alluding to a possible precondition for gaining NDP support in another minority.

If PR supporters have been reinvigorated, supporters of the FPTP status quo have pounced on the rise of the PPC as yet another argument against any voting innovation. PR backers are being warned, or scolded, that they would be opening the door to extremist parties. The rise of the far-right AfD in Germany is cited, as well as the parliamentary presence of other extremist parties in European PR systems.

It is a valid question for PR proponents. Extreme radical parties are more likely to find a foothold in PR systems, even when cutoff thresholds like the German threshold of 5 per cent of the national vote are imposed (the PPC might have passed this threshold if PR had been in effect in 2021). Is it a good or bad thing to allow a parliamentary platform for parties that spread racial hatred and democratic distrust, and have little or no respect for constitutional norms? Is it more democratic to allow representation of even repugnant views than to exacerbate feelings among marginalized voters that they are are being silenced and ignored, which may only inflame their potentially violent alienation? This is worth a debate in itself, and there is no time to enter it here. But if electoral reform is raised again, the PPC question will loom large.

There is a final irony in the 2021 electoral debacle. Just when a consensus seemed to be forming across party lines around the central issue that divided parties in 2019 – the carbon tax and climate policy – and with it a common front on the most serious issue facing the country postpandemic, the prospect of a reckless new radical party directly challenging civility, trust and respect for due process and the rule of law might seriously disrupt the entire system. as Trump did to such devastating and apparently lasting effect in the United States. We are by no means there yet and hopefully never will be. But even a small dark cloud on the horizon that will not dissipate is worrying enough.

For more on the 2021 Canadian election, click to read The East is (Still Mostly) Red, by Patrick Webber. And for the rest of our Inroads 50 elections coverage, check out Elections Bring Change (Except in Canada).

Reg Whitaker’s review of Daniel A. Bell, The China Model: Political Meritocracy and the Limits of Democracy (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2015) appeared in Inroads 38 (Winter/Spring 2016).

In 2016 I reviewed The China Model by Daniel A. Bell, a Canadian academic teaching and writing in China. The China Model is both a scholarly analysis of how the authoritarian political system manages the high-growth Chinese economic system (state-directed capitalism, a.k.a. “socialism with Chinese characteristics”), and a challenge to Western political scientists and economists about dysfunctional Western capitalist democracies falling behind a more meritocratic Chinese political economy. In 2016 the idea that China had any lessons for the West, especially political lessons, was a provocation. Today, as a new Cold War against Beijing is being proclaimed, with China identified as global Public Enemy No. 1 of democracy, freedom and human rights, Bell’s arguments might appear as worse than provocative. In the new as well as the old Cold War, you are either with us or against us.

How well do Bell’s arguments stand up to scrutiny from today’s perspective? In my first reading, I found some of his arguments compelling, although I raised questions about others. Bell does address a core contradiction in Western perceptions of post-Maoist China: a recognition that the Chinese economic system was increasingly competitive with Western capitalism, alongside condemnation of the Chinese one-party state as not only illiberal but self-destructive and ultimately doomed. As I wrote, “Few have paused to consider the problem of how these two faces can be reconciled. How could such an apparently dysfunctional political system produce such spectacular economic results? Something does not quite compute.”

A step back to the old Cold War illuminates the problem. From the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, the West confronted a Russian regime with two alien faces, economic and political. The Soviet economy was a state command model with no private ownership and no internal market for pricing, while the political system was Orwellian single-party rule with secret police and gulags. The Soviet economic model turned out to be a false façade: it failed miserably to meet even the most basic needs of its own consumers. By the end of the 1980s the collapse of so-called socialist economies led to the collapse of the Communist political regimes that had directed them, followed by the implosion of the Soviet Union itself and the dissolution of the Soviet Communist Party.

The Chinese trajectory after the Communist assumption of power in 1949 was not initially encouraging, as ideologically blinkered Maoist schemes failed repeatedly at a staggering human cost. But following Mao’s death in 1976, China took a radically different turn, establishing a market-driven economy under mixed state and private control that soon registered astonishing growth rates, lifted millions out of poverty and began rivalling the United States as the global economic leader. While economic malaise broke Communist Party rule in the Soviet bloc, the conversion of Chinese Communism to capitalist economics ironically preserved the authoritarian rule of the Chinese Communist Party. In 1989, while the Berlin Wall fell peacefully in Europe, in Tiananmen Square the Chinese Communist Party massacred protesting students and doubled down on single-party rule.

The China Model

Those who would see China as the 21st-century Cold War adversary replacing the USSR are pouring new wine into old bottles: the ancient ideological conflict between Marxist-Leninist-Stalinist-Maoist Communism and liberal democratic capitalism is definitively over. In its place is a rivalry between two forms of capitalism, the Chinese one more state-directed but still market-driven. The economic systems differ in degree only, but the political systems are a world apart. Bell extols the Chinese system while finding Western political systems seriously deficient. Specifically, he examines the linkages between political authoritarianism and economic success. These cannot be ignored or denied, as many Western observers are wont to do, but at the same time I found myself uneasy with his praise for the virtues of political authoritarianism. A few years later, this unease has turned to alarm.

The world has watched China extend its military reach aggressively across Asia, expanding a Chinese sphere of influence. The world has watched democracy ruthlessly crushed in Hong Kong and viewed with rising alarm threats to force Taiwan under Beijing’s rule, by invasion if intimidation fails. And the world has had to face what the Chinese call their “wolf warrior” diplomacy: their arrogant, bullying extension of internal intolerance of dissent onto the global stage as they have insisted that no one anywhere has the right to criticize China without dire consequences. Canada, of course, endured the sinister spectacle of the imprisonment of the “two Michaels” – hostage “diplomacy” worthy of the worst of terrorist or criminal gangs kidnapping innocents for profit. Behind all this lies Xi Jinping’s ruthless pursuit of one-person rule on a scale not seen since Mao (unsurprisingly, there has been a revival of Maoist iconography, while volumes of dull bombast called “Xi Jinping Thought” emulate the shorter, punchier Little Red Book of Chairman Mao’s pensées).

When I reviewed Bell, I noted and applauded the anticorruption drive Xi had launched at the upper leadership level. Corruption is a persistent problem in an opaque one-party state without effective accountability mechanisms. I tentatively acknowledged that perhaps the power Xi was already amassing in his office might be justified as necessary for exposing corruption among powerful party figures. I noted, however, that an anticorruption campaign without an overarching rule of law looked very much like an old-fashioned Politburo power struggle, with Xi using “corruption” as a weapon to beat rivals into submission. Even if Xi were sincere and the results of the campaign positive, I wrote, “it is hard from the outside to distinguish it from, say, Mao’s self-aggrandizing manoeuvres to label rivals as reactionary deviationists.” A few years on, the verdict is clear: the anticorruption campaign was always designed to establish Xi as the supreme unchallenged boss. If corruption has actually been reduced, this was merely a collateral benefit.

Xi’s rise to supreme power illustrates a profound weakness in the Chinese system of rule. For a time it seemed that after Deng Xiaoping a more collaborative collective leadership cadre had been established, with term limits on individual leaders – hardly democracy as we know it, but perhaps more resistant to power grabs by ambitious individuals. That has proved to be an illusion: collective leadership has crumbled in the face of Xi’s megalomania, now rewarded by his being recognized in effect as leader for life. Xi, like all tyrants, will grow increasingly isolated in an echo chamber of yes-men and flatterers. It is hard to see how the meritocratic bureaucracy that Bell described so enthusiastically can escape unscathed from a context in which the emperor’s whims override evidence-based policymaking. A lesson from Western liberal thought cuts through the Sinocentric façade of the “Beijing Consensus”: power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Xi is on track to follow Mao down that path.

Yet the Chinese economy remains highly competitive globally and still fulfills domestic consumer expectations well enough that the tacit social contract (a tradeoff of economic well-being for political acquiescence to monopoly party rule) has survived recessions and pandemics pretty much intact. The meritocratic principle in administration survives, even if marred by the personality cult of the Leader and authoritarian excesses of the Party. Above all, firm state direction of the private sector has ensured greater stability and adherence to collective national goals than has been the case in the neoliberal West.

The Chinese experience of the coronavirus pandemic illustrates the strengths and weaknesses of the Beijing model. The virus originated in Wuhan, China, and could have been identified, isolated and controlled at the point of origin, sparing the world the deaths and misery that have followed its global contagion. Instead it was covered up until it was out of control. It was covered up because local Wuhan officials, terrified of being blamed by higher-level officials, hoped that it would go away if ignored – and if local whistleblowers were silenced. Bell saw local administration as an area where policy innovations could be tried out and, if proven, make their way upward. In the Xi era, local governments have become notably more timid, fearing shifting winds from on high. Wuhan offers the worst-case scenario for how such a system can go catastrophically wrong.

What followed paradoxically showed the strength of the Chinese system. Once apprised of the magnitude of the threat, the state took charge, imposing total lockdowns on affected areas and organizing a coherent national response in which individual citizens were given clear instructions on their obligations and a countrywide surveillance network ensured prompt compliance. The mixture of administrative efficiency and intrusive authoritarian social control was highly successful in contrast to the fits and starts and reversals of uneven pandemic response in the West. The Chinese response is literally inimitable: the “Chinese characteristics” of one-party rule and mass social conformity are hardly exportable to fractured and fractious Western societies. Nor can the rest of the world ignore the fact that the same system had let loose the pandemic in the first place.

The failure of Western neoliberalism to mount any kind of coherent response to the pandemic challenge has led to greater appreciation of the need for firmer state direction of the private sector. The Chinese model does have this lesson to teach, even if we in the West would fiercely reject the kind of state that the Chinese model suggests. But the pandemic has one last paradoxical lesson, this time for both sides. Even as Western states raise their guard against Chinese overt and covert attacks in the new Cold War, even as Western intelligence agencies gear up for Cold War competition with their Chinese counterparts à la the CIA-KGB wars of the past, the pandemic points in a contrary direction. Common threats to human life and to the planet such as human-made climate change and contagious viruses demand close cooperation and pooling of intelligence and scientific knowledge by all countries and all systems. The new Cold War hawks warning of Chinese threats to “our way of life” are not wrong, on one level. But if they insist on denying cooperation on climate change because, say, of violation of the human rights of the Uighur minority (which is indeed reprehensible in the extreme), they will be giving bad advice indeed.

Churchill made an alliance with Stalin to defeat a worse adversary, Hitler. Global warming and global pandemics are worse adversaries even than the increasingly repellent Chinese regime. Competing and cooperating simultaneously, the West will have to learn how to walk and chew gum at the same time. Bell’s China Model has some things to teach in that regard – both his analysis that still holds and that which would be better abandoned today.

Photo: Amanda Walker via Flickr.

The past few years have seen dramatic challenges to liberal democratic systems of government around the world. It was not that long ago that hopes were rampant that democracy would triumph everywhere after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Francis Fukuyama notoriously declared that the victory of liberal democracy meant the end of history.

The prospect of a boring posthistorical liberal heaven without end turned out to be the illusion of the decade. Today publishers rush out titles on how democracies die and whether there is any hope of rescuing liberal democracy from a history that, far from ending, has instead turned cruel. The spectre that haunts Western states today is that of the German Weimar Republic (1919–1933), a brave experiment in democracy, liberalism and openness to progress that crashed and burned in the unspeakable violence of the reactionary Nazi conflagration.

History does not repeat itself, but it has been said that it does sometimes rhyme.

Weimar is a warning of how a vibrant democracy can fall victim to enemies from within who reject its fundamental premises. Major parties on the Weimar political spectrum like the Communists and Nazis never accepted the legitimacy of the Constitution, even as they contested elections. Both vowed to destroy the Republic, for diametrically opposed reasons. On the Right, traditional conservatives with deep ties to the powerful institutions of the state that preceded Weimar accepted the Republic only so long as its elections resulted in governments friendly to them and to the interests they supported.

Common ground between the warring sides of the spectrum was being eroded by the last days of the Republic. One side’s truth was the other side’s fake news. Civil debate and deliberation, staples of a functioning liberal democracy, had begun to degenerate into street battles between rival gangs of thugs. Trust in fellow citizens and in the institutions of the Republic were failing.

In 1933, parliamentary paralysis following successive inconclusive elections led conservatives to call Hitler to the Chancellery to form what purported to be a coalition of the Right, bringing together Nazis and more respectable right-wing parties. The conservatives’ catastrophic miscalculation was to believe they could control Hitler. Instead the Nazis immediately set about murdering or imprisoning opponents and declared the totalitarian Third Reich.

Contrary to common misconception, Weimar did not democratically vote the Nazis into power. In the Reichstag elections immediately preceding Hitler’s appointment as Chancellor, the Nazis’ previously meteoric rise had suffered a sharp reverse. Their momentum apparently broken, with defections and factionalism on the rise, they might well have continued on a downward spiral into eventual oblivion. It was the conservative parties, blinded by their extreme hatred and fear of the Left, that saved Hitler and doomed Germany and the world to the Nazi nightmare.

That is a chilling lesson for today of the Weimar debacle: when conservative parties in a bitterly polarized political system abandon faith that their values and goals can any longer be defended under liberal democracy, they may turn to nationalist-populist authoritarianism, the common thread linking the fascism of the 1930s to the various recent “strongmen” like Trump in the United States, Putin in Russia, Bolsonaro in Brazil and Erdoğan in Turkey. All of these purport to have a direct mandate from the “People” that may supersede institutional, legal and constitutional constraints, not to speak of the rule of law.

Conservative parties were once conservative about process as well as policy. The Eisenhower Republicans and the UK Tories in the 1950s accepted a grand compromise with the legacy of the New Deal and the postwar Labour government, behind the protective shield of Cold War unity. Alternation of left-centre and right-centre parties in office within this broad consensus posed no challenge to democratic legitimacy. Even the ideological triumph of Thatcherism and Reaganism in the 1980s did not challenge what might be called a procedural political consensus, still upheld by New Labour and Clinton Democrats in the 1990s, with no violent discontinuity resulting from party alternation.

In 1994 the first clear public notice of darker, more divisive forces rising within the Republican Party arrived with Newt Gingrich and his hardline “Contract with America” platform for the midterm elections of the first Clinton administration, which swept in a wave of uncompromising right-wingers and brought gridlock and shutdowns to Congress. Ever since, ideological polarization of the two parties in Congress has proceeded to the point where the traditional overlap in the centre, the ground for legislative compromise, has disappeared. This polarization is asymmetrical: for the most part, Democrats have not become more left-wing, but Republicans have become much more right-wing – and uncompromisingly so.

Trump Republicanism is a very particular kind of reactionary conservatism. Many analysts, including some on the Left, have claimed an economic class basis for Trump, discerning an abandonment of the working class by the Democrats, who are alleged to have become obsessed with the identity politics of race, gender, etc. to the exclusion of the old Left working-class agenda. This does not stand up to the evidence.

The working-class vote, in all its rainbow colours of race, ethnicity and gender, abandoned the Democrats neither in 2016 nor in 2020. Trump’s rise in the primaries and his election was associated most with White racial resentment of alleged minority gains. It was the White male working class that went over to Trump, but not mainly on economic grounds. It was their threatened status as standing above Blacks, other minorities and women that drove them into the arms of the Republicans. Far from a rejection of identity politics, it was a virulent assertion of White male working-class identity politics. This is a historical link to the Nazis, to whom Jews were the threat to Aryan supremacy. A century later, “Making America Great Again” means making multiracial America White again.

The drive toward re-establishing white supremacy is institutionally powered: Republican state legislatures have systematically gerrymandered House districts, exploiting the first-past-the-post voting system to impose minority rule over Congress. Add in red state laws ruthlessly suppressing the votes of Blacks, ethnic minorities and the poor, all disproportionately Democratic. In the eight presidential elections over the past three decades, only one produced a Republican majority of actual votes cast, even though the bizarre 18th-century contraption of the Electoral College produced three Republican “victories,” including that of Donald Trump in 2016 with a three-million-vote deficit in the actual, as opposed to Electoral College, world. When Trump lost in 2020 by more than seven million votes, the reaction of most Republicans was (and still is) to deny the legitimacy of the entire electoral process and simply declare their man the victor because he represents their declared “real America,” as opposed to the illegitimate America of the demographic (and Democratic) majority.

The Republicans are now objectively an antidemocratic party. Factoring in the obscenely extravagant influence of billionaires and megacorporations via an unrestricted political financing regime, one might see the Republicans simply as the party of plutocracy. But whiffs of American-style fascism also cling to Trump and his supporters, whiffs that became a stench with the attempted coup at the U.S. Capitol by a violent rabble, some sporting Confederate flags and neo-Nazi insignia, demanding that Congress, about to affirm Joe Biden’s election, be suppressed in favour of a Trump dictatorship.

Thankfully, the Trump coup, like Hitler’s failed 1923 beerhall putsch, was a fiasco, for the same reasons that Trump’s presidency was a fiasco: empty bluster and incompetence in execution. Yet Hitler’s failed putsch was the platform for the subsequent rise of his Nazi party. The Republican Party, far from being chastened by the Capitol debacle, has doubled down on the claims of massive electoral fraud, and these claims are believed by a majority of Republican supporters. It is also doubling down on its opposition to the Biden agenda with the same intransigence that a Republican-dominated Congress exercised against Barack Obama over the last six years of his presidency. If Republicans, assisted by crass manipulation and vote suppression, manage to snuff out the fragile Democratic majority in the midterm elections in 2022 and reassert Trump or another far-right demagogue – perhaps more dangerously competent than Trump – in the 2024 presidential race, American democracy will be definitely lost. The Republican Party will have been its historical gravedigger.

Perhaps the worst will not come to pass. Perhaps Joe Biden will succeed in his 21st-century New Deal and help revitalize the American economy and society, in which case the Republicans will have to radically reform themselves if they wish to play a responsible oppositional role. Otherwise they will still cripple democracy, even as self-marginalized critics. Liberal democracy needs a responsible, civil conservative force to balance progressive forces from the Left and alternate peaceably with them in office. That requires trust on both sides. Republicans have withdrawn trust from their opponents; Democrats, in light of that reckless withdrawal, have in turn learned to profoundly distrust Republicans. No good will come to liberal democracy from politics practised as war with no prisoners.

Republican America is the worst case of the Right gone wrong, but Boris Johnson’s weirdly Jacobin-like Tory party has also come unhinged from its traditional moorings, with the breakup of the post-Brexit United Kingdom a not inconceivable result.

These two examples offer a useful warning to post-Harper Conservatives in Canada: think twice before venturing onto that dark terrain described in medieval maps as “Here be Dragons.” The dragons threatening democracy are not mythical, but only too real.

For more on the current political climate of the American right, check out Good Policies Are Not Enough by Henry Milner.

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.