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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The shifting fortunes of Israel’s reputation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The resurgence of Canada’s Israeli lobby

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

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

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

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

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

The BDS movement

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

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

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

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

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

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

Liberal government, Tory resolution

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

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

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

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

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

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

Something very strange was going on.

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

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

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

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

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

Canada’s blank cheque to Israel

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

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

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

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

the two ministers came to an understanding that

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

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

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

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

Promoting an anti-Jewish backlash?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Greg Donaghy
Grit: The Life and Politics of Paul Martin Sr.
Vancouver: UBC Press, 2015.
456 pages

Kenneth Carty
Big Tent Politics: The Liberal Party’s Long Mastery of Canada’s Public Life
 Vancouver: UBC Press, 2015
160 pages.

It’s back! The Liberal Party that once bestrode the Canadian political system like a colossus, then suffered rapid and humiliating decline into mere third-party status in the last Parliament, once again forms a majority government. That this is under a Prime Minister who happens to be the son of a previous successful Liberal Prime Minister who governed Canada for close to 16 years makes it seem like a political version of Back to the Future. But appearances can be deceiving. Two recent books point to the discontinuity represented in Justin Trudeau’s 21st-century Liberal Party.

Foreign policy historian Greg Donaghy has written a biography of an iconic figure in the old “government party” of Mackenzie King, Louis Saint-Laurent and Lester Pearson. Paul Martin, Sr., never achieved the pinnacle of power in the party (not for lack of trying), but he was a prominent minister in Liberal governments over three decades, “Mr. Liberal” to generations of Canadians. Martin’s career describes a political world we have lost, irretrievably.

Political scientist Ken Carty, the leading Canadian scholar of political parties and the electoral process, has written a concise and insightful retrospective on what he calls in his subtitle “the Liberal Party’s long mastery of Canada’s public life.” Big Tent Politics appeared, ironically, just on the eve of the spectacular return of the Liberals in late 2015. Carty had certainly not written off the chances of a Liberal return to office, but his look back over a long century of Liberal dominance, from the late 1890s to the early 21st century, did lead him to caution that the party would have to find a way once again to transform itself, “this time abandoning the program and practices of a century.” That is the stiff challenge facing Justin Trudeau as current franchise-holder for the oft-rebranded Liberal Party of Canada.

Carty provides a useful periodization of the Liberal Party that divides it into four successive historical manifestations of dominance:

  1. From Sir Wilfrid Laurier’s first victory in 1896 to the end of the first decade of the 20th century;
  2. From King’s first victory in 1921 through to the end of the Saint-Laurent era in 1957–58;
  3. From the revival under Pearson in the early 1960s through the end of the Pierre Trudeau era in the mid-1980s;
  4. From the further revival under Jean Chrétien in the early 1990s to the collapse of the Paul Martin, Jr., minority in 2006.

16_Paul_Martin_with_Mackenzie_KingMartin, Sr., was a product of the first two of these Liberal eras, and to a degree an architect of the second and third eras. Born during the second of Laurier’s four mandates, Martin the boy and young adult was a proud “Laurier Liberal,” an identification that in some sense he never outgrew. Plunging into Liberal politics in his adopted city of Windsor, Ontario, during the Great Depression, Martin sought and won a federal seat in the 1935 election that saw the Liberals returned to office over the battered corpse of the R.B. Bennett Conservatives. The Liberals would remain in office for an unbroken reign of 22 years, during which time Martin advanced initially to the post of parliamentary secretary, and then to the Cabinet in the postwar King and Saint-Laurent governments.

Martin was a curiously transitional figure in the 1940s and 1950s, looking back to the Laurier era and forward to the very different future of postwar Canada. The Laurier Liberals were a party based organizationally and financially on patron-client networks. Martin proved a meticulous practitioner of a patronage politics that in the 1930s was still prevalent across the country. As client, a freshman MP, Martin assiduously cultivated his patron the Prime Minister, shamelessly lathering King’s capacious ego and earnestly fulfilling any tasks tossed his way from on high. As patron, building a rock-hard base in Windsor where he won his seat in every election from 1935 to 1965, he carefully dispensed whatever plums were available with an eye always on the health of his political machine and made sure that every economic opportunity for the greater Windsor region was seized and maintained. His genius for this kind of politics was such that he eventually became a kind of patronage legend in his own time.

But Martin was living through an era when the importance of patronage was in long-term decline. The heavy policy demands of depression, war and postwar development were enlarging the public sector and transforming the role of national parties from bosses of patron-client machines to managers of the welfare/warfare state. Instead of promising individual rewards for individual contributions, parties were increasingly compelled to focus on offering universal benefits to entire categories of the population. In this historic shift from patronage to bureaucratic politics, Martin was tagged by many as a remnant of the past, an energetic but unimaginative ward-heeler out of place in the new world. This characterization increasingly dogged him as he survived into the third Liberal era of the 1960s and had much to do with his failures to win the party leadership in 1958 and 1968.

The ward-heeler image was also largely unfair to Martin. If he saw mastery of the mechanics of politics as crucial to survival, when it came to the ends and objectives of politics he began and remained an idealist, a liberal Liberal who believed that government had an important role in fostering orderly social reform and maintaining social peace by promoting greater equality. He drew this liberalism from Laurier, as well as from liberal Roman Catholic social and political thinkers he had encountered in his early education. Domestic reform was one part of his thinking, but he was drawn as well to a liberal internationalism in foreign affairs that sought diplomatic solutions to conflicts within the framework of strong international organizations and the rule of law.

Another element of Laurier liberalism at the core of Martin’s thinking came from his own background as a Franco-Ontarian Catholic. To Martin the most important role of the Liberal Party was to maintain a balance and accommodation between the English- and French-Canadian communities that rested at the heart of the Canadian polity. This was indeed the foundational mission of the Liberals from Laurier to Pierre Trudeau, and to Martin it had to be a guiding light for determining all Liberal policy.

As Donaghy points out, Martin brought into politics not only a persistent idealism but also a certain boyish naiveté (especially evident in foreign affairs) that stood in peculiar contrast to his image as a machine politician. Yet it is precisely this odd juxtaposition of apparent innocent idealism with crafty control over the nitty gritty of real politics that has infuriated and bewildered generations of opponents of the Liberal Party. Conservatives and social democrats have often thrown up their hands and charged successive Liberal governments with hypocrisy as they were beaten again and again at the polls by this combination of high-minded rhetoric and effective down-and-dirty tactics in the trenches. Both the practical and idealist sides of the Liberal Party were real and persistent and help account for the party’s long success: without the ability to get out the vote (with whatever that took to accomplish), the grand policy goals could never be achieved; yet mere electoral success without a justifying vision would pall and eventually fail.

The vicissitudes of Martin’s ministerial career lead to another observation. Some have discerned a dynamic at work in Canadian political history in which the Liberals have moved left at strategic moments and preempted the emergence of an effective left-wing alternative. This has indeed been the case at crucial points. During Martin’s career there were two such instances: in 1945 the Liberals headed off the CCF with a reform platform, and again during the Pearson minorities in the mid-1960s they expanded the welfare state with an eye to their left flank.

But that is only half the story. When Martin arrived in Ottawa in 1935 it was to a King government that responded to the Great Depression with resolutely orthodox conservative policies, in sharp contrast to the innovative New Deal to the south. And after the flurry of reform that attended the Liberals’ reelection in 1945, the Saint-Laurent governments after 1948 settled into a comfortable exercise of power from a right-of-centre position hardly distinguishable from the corporate towers of Bay Street, from which – to the exasperation of Tory fundraisers – they drew the bulk of their financial support. This too is an enduring face of the Liberal Party, one that predominated again more recently during the Chrétien–Martin, Jr., era, when deficit elimination and debt reduction were accorded highest priority with an eye to the then rising threat from the Reform/Canadian Alliance. To the despair of both ideological Left and Right, the Liberals have always been a true centrist grouping, tacking this way or that to the prevailing winds. Paul Martin, Sr., and his cabinet colleague C.D. Howe, whose motto might have been “The business of politics is business,” are both firmly embedded in the Liberal DNA.

In 1947 Martin was appointed Minister of Health and Welfare, a portfolio well suited to a reform-minded Liberal. But he found himself, in slightly hyperbolic words Donaghy borrows from a contemporary journalist, “a Liberal in a High-Tory cabinet.” Martin’s zeal to expand the social safety net – especially with regard to pensions and medical care – met with fierce resistance from fiscally conservative cabinet colleagues. He also had to negotiate the perplexing thicket of federal-provincial relations and powerful premiers with their own, different, agendas. Still, Martin fought gamely on, working with progressive younger bureaucrats to achieve some success in wider pension coverage, and limited success with better hospital coverage that fell short of his own goal of a national medicare program.

By 1957 a conservative Liberal Finance Minister, Walter Harris, granted a miserly $6 per month increase to old age pensions, earning him the sneering epithet of “Six Buck Harris.” This allowed the Diefenbaker Conservatives to outflank the Liberals on the left and contributed to the Tory upset victory in the 1957 election. The Canada Pension Plan and medicare awaited the Pearson years in the 1960s, by which time Martin had moved on to External Affairs. Yet he had kept the flame of liberal Liberalism alive during the conservative fifties.

As foreign minister in the 1960s Martin had an even larger arena to advance his liberal idealism, but here he encountered endless difficulties. First was the awkward fact that Lester Pearson already owned the brand of liberal internationalism that Martin espoused, and Pearson continually overtook Martin, first by stepping directly from the public service into the political position of External Affairs Minister in 1948, then by easily surpassing Martin for the Liberal leadership in 1958. Serving as foreign minister under Pearson was always a somewhat uncomfortable assignment as Pearson really preferred to act as his own foreign minister.

The Cold War continued to rage, making the practice of liberal internationalist diplomacy problematic in the face of American-Soviet bloc rivalries. The East-West divide imposed a “with us or against us” mentality on a middle power like Canada that was both junior partner in NATO and NORAD and an independent country striving to play its own diplomatic role on the world stage.

The Vietnam War was a point of tension between Martin and Pearson, as it was between Canada and the United States. Martin, conscious of much that was amiss in the American conduct of that war, was nonetheless deeply wedded to the tenets of “quiet diplomacy” and wanted desperately to avoid public criticism of the Americans. Pearson’s patience was finally exhausted, however, and he brought down the profane wrath of Lyndon Johnson on his head by publicly calling for a pause in the bombing of North Vietnam in a speech he delivered on American soil. Martin was appalled, but his own quiet diplomacy had come to little.

The 1960s were not kind to Martin. Generational change and a decline in deference to traditional sources of authority left him looking increasingly like a residue from an earlier era. His image as an old-time patronage pol did not help. His finely crafted working style of quietly negotiating behind the scenes with elite players to achieve concrete results was increasingly out of fashion. The new generation protesting imperialism, militarism, racism, etc. was growing intolerant of elite governance with its secret processes, demanding transparency and direct action instead.

Martin’s deep commitment to a grand bargain between English and French Canada – and the Liberal Party’s crucial nation-saving role in maintaining that bargain – was also severely challenged in a decade that saw the Quiet Revolution in Quebec and the rise of Quebec separatism. Martin’s idea of French-English amity was strictly one of traditional elite accommodation, but this was under increasing strain as the elites themselves fell out over sovereignty, and appeals were made to direct public mandates. Pierre Trudeau’s accession to the Liberal leadership signalled a new and very different face of communal conflict: less English versus French Canada than federalism versus the Quebec state. None of it was any longer the sole preserve of political elites, as two sovereignty referendums in Quebec and the Meech Lake and Charlottetown failures would later demonstrate.

Martin, purveyor par excellence of elite accommodation, was caught in the rising crossfire. This became painfully apparent around the visit of Charles de Gaulle in 1967 when the French President delivered his notorious “Vive le Québec libre” speech, likening his progress through adoring crowds in Quebec to the liberation of France from Nazi occupation in 1944. All Martin’s efforts at quiet diplomacy failed to avert this fiasco; he then had to watch unhappily as his boss Pearson in effect declared de Gaulle diplomatic persona non grata. This was clearly not what Laurier had in mind when he declared that the 20th century would belong to Canada.

“Compromise” in the 1960s was beginning to indicate lack of principle. Politics, the art of compromise, had become a bad word as well, and compromising politicians untrustworthy by nature. In 1968 Martin went down to a humiliating defeat in his last bid for the Liberal leadership, this time at the hands of a comparative newcomer to Ottawa, Pierre Trudeau, who seemed to promise a new and different way of doing politics. Martin did not run again and was appointed to the Senate where he served as government leader before taking a turn as High Commissioner in London. He died in 1992 before he could see his son Paul, Jr., become Minister of Finance in a fourth era of Liberal rule in Ottawa and then, for a brief tumultuous period, accede to the office of prime minister that had always eluded Paul, Sr.

Martin always believed that politics was the highest calling in life. “I am not afraid to be called a politician,” Martin declared in 1945. “Next to preaching the word of God, there is nothing nobler than to serve one’s fellow countrymen in government.” One can scarcely imagine any politician today being tone deaf or foolish enough to declare such sentiments in a time of populist contempt for public life. But Martin’s words epitomize the Liberal Party’s sense of itself and its mission during the King–Saint-Laurent era, and equally epitomize a failing faith during the Pearson-Trudeau era and later.

If Paul Martin, Sr., represents a political world that Canada and the Liberal Party have lost, what comes next? Big Tent Politics is the best guide yet to those perplexed by the surprising reemergence of the Liberals. Others, myself included, have written in detail about particular periods in the Liberals’ long dominance, but Carty has succeeded in summarizing almost everything important about the trajectory of change over more than a century, and furthermore has done so in 133 pages of succinct and accessible prose. This is a model of what Canadian political science at its best should look like.

One of Carty’s most striking findings is that each successive Liberal era has seen a steady weakening of the party’s popular base. Liberal mastery has more often been a construct of the first-past-the-post electoral system than of majority dominance of the political life of Canadians. As long as the Liberals could assume a commanding bloc of seats from Quebec (although never a commanding majority of votes in that province) and the opposition in English Canada remained divided and largely ineffectual, they could eke out majority governments with a large “seat bonus.”

But Quebec defected from the Liberal fold, going over first to the Mulroney Conservatives in 1984, to the Bloc Québécois in 1993 and then in 2011 to the NDP. Chrétien was able to muster three successive majority governments without much francophone Quebec support; instead, he took almost all the seats in Ontario with a popular vote in that province in the low 40 per cent range. This was possible only because of the split on the Ontario right between the Progressive Conservatives and Reform/Alliance. Once Stephen Harper united the right under his leadership, the game was up for the Liberals. Out of office in 2006, their century-long secular vote decline began to accelerate. In the 2011 election the bleeding had become so pronounced that recovery seemed doubtful.

The 2015 election might seem like just another blip in a downward trajectory. After all, Justin Trudeau’s “majority government” is based on only 39 per cent of the national vote. But Carty does not look just to voting statistics to explain the phenomenon of Liberal historical dominance. The Liberals were preeminently a brokerage party – hence the “big tent” image of aspirational inclusivity. This set them apart from what André Siegfried, the Tocqueville of Canadian politics, called “natural parties,” those based on stable class/ethnic/religious bases with defined ideological and policy programs. The Liberals were an “unnatural party,” a departure from the Western norm. Canadian circumstances, especially the English-French divide, propped up this unnatural party for a very long time, although as those circumstances changed, the props shifted as well.

The Liberals faced their greatest challenge in the early 21st century as the transformation of the media in the age of the internet wreaked havoc with traditional patterns of political communication. Apparently on top of the latest political marketing trends, the Harper Conservatives looked much more like a natural party of the right, governing always with an eye to their own base of carefully defined voting niches and never shrinking from deploying wedge issues to divide and rule. With the rise of the NDP, it was possible to discern the outlines of a politics more sharply divided along left-right ideological lines. In that scenario the “unnatural” Liberals could only fade further into irrelevance.

Instead Justin Trudeau led his big tent party back to office, over the bodies of the “natural” parties of both the right and the left. So far Trudeau has soared in public affection simply on the basis of not being Harper. While that suggests that the Harper makeover of politics was in the end a disaster for the right, it says little about the successor regime. It is far too soon to draw any conclusions about the fifth-era Liberal Party’s long-term prospects, or even what precise shape the party will take. But one thing is already clear. This Liberal government represents serious generational change. How the young, social media–savvy leadership will restructure the Liberal Party remains to be seen, but it will be a very different creature from what we have seen in the past.

And yet when Justin Trudeau took to the stage in triumph on election night, he did not invoke his father, or Pearson, or King. Instead he reached back all the way to Laurier and his “sunny ways.” The spirit of Paul Martin, Sr., must have smiled at that.

We live in a new Gilded Age. Inequality is accelerating; the 1 per cent of the superrich grows ever more dominant in its control over the proceeds of the capitalist economy. Meanwhile the middle class is hollowing out, literally disappearing even as the politicians offer snake-oil remedies to make it magically reappear.

Long ago, the journalist B.K. Sandwell said that “Toronto has no social classes / Only the Masseys and the masses.” The Masseys have faded, but who are today’s titans of the commanding 1 per cent heights, the heroes of the new Gilded Age? How do they propose to dispose of their vast wealth, to what effect on the rest of us?

Every once in a while a head pops up over the high parapets, and something is said or done that offers a brief illumination of motives. I will group these sporadic revelations into the Good, the Bad and the Ugly – in reverse order.

First, the very Ugly: Martin Shkreli, 32-year-old hedge fund manager, whose company, Turing Pharmaceuticals, took control of the drug Daraprim, which has been on the market for more than 60 years. Shkreli immediately raised the price of Daraprim, a lifesaving medicine against a parasitic infection, by more than 5,000 per cent to $750 a pill. Attacked for gross profiteering, Shkreli sneered that he should have raised the price even higher. He also purchased the only copy of a Wu-Tang Clan hip-hop album for $2 million for the satisfaction of denying everyone else in the world access to what only he could now hear. Called before a U.S. congressional committee, Shkreli smirked and yawned his way through, invoking the Fifth Amendment like a 1950s Communist before the House Un-American Activities Committee. He later dismissed the politicians as “imbeciles.”

Shkreli may come to a quick end: he has been indicted on serious fraud charges and dumped from control of a number of companies. But the gargoyle face of amoral greed is hardly that of Shkreli alone. Take the banking officials caught in the LIBOR rate-fixing scandal in the UK, or in scandals surrounding money laundering and other forms of fraud perpetrated by huge financial corporations. Forced to justify their behaviour, they appeared peculiarly indifferent, innocent of any inkling of immoral dimensions to their actions. Paraphrased, their rationale for their actions was: “Isn’t life just about making money? We use any means to make more money, because we can.” It is as if a generation of fund managers and investment bankers was born with a missing ethics gene.

Let’s move away from the Ugly excrescences to the merely Bad.

Volkswagen was an iconic fixture of the global auto industry. I still have fond memories of my own 1959 VW Beetle from the time when Detroit pigmobiles still ruled North American roads. One of the jewels of prosperous German industry, VW seemed a model global corporation. And then in 2015 came the shocking news of the so-called “diesel dupe.”

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency found that VW diesels had a “defeat device” that could detect when they were being tested, changing the performance accordingly to improve results. VW was cheating U.S. emissions tests, deliberately dumping unmeasured pollution into the environment. The scandal spread to Europe and Asia. More than 10 million VW diesel cars have been recalled. This ultrarespectable corporation had set out to lie and deceive its customers and the governments that supposedly regulate the products they buy. CEO Martin Winterkorn, admitting that his company had “broken the trust of our customers and the public,” resigned under pressure. Given the careful planning of the deception, his real regret seemed to be that VW had been caught. Otherwise “trust” would have continued, and VW profits – and Herr Winterkorn’s executive bonuses – would have remained intact.

Again, the underlying philosophical rationale is this: making money is the only good; any method of achieving that goal is acceptable; “ethical considerations” mean not getting caught.

But there is a “Good” face of capitalism, one that surprisingly can be found here and there in the sector, precisely the sector whose rise has coincided with the rapid acceleration of inequality. Here among the 1 per cent can be found the heroes of the latest high-tech phase of capitalism, the entrepreneurs who carry out Joseph Schumpeter’s “creative destruction” by disrupting existing ways of doing business and starting over by thinking outside the box. Disrupters such as Microsoft’s Bill Gates have amassed vast fortunes from the global revolution they have helped bring about through personal computing and the Internet. If VW’s disgraced executives were scheming for dubious ways to retain profits from a traditional auto industry that has been around for more than a century, the executives of Microsoft, Apple, Google et al., starting with a clean sheet, may have different ideas about how to use their immense new wealth.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is the largest private foundation in the world (or at least the largest transparently operated private foundation). Bill Gates has donated at least $30 billion of his own money; the third trustee, after Bill and his wife Melinda, is another “Good” capitalist, the largest philanthropic donor in the United States, populist investment legend Warren Buffett. The Gates Foundation does excellent charitable and development work by any standard, especially in the developing world. By dint of its contributions, Gates stands beside political leaders on the world stage as a virtual equal, a private player alongside states with responsibility for issues like climate change, elimination of hunger and poverty and building global literacy.

Enter another 32-year-old entrepreneur, an apparent polar opposite of the execrable Martin Shkreli. Mark Zuckerberg is the inventor of Facebook – surely one of the most “disruptive” technology innovations of all time, changing the way more than a billion people communicate with one another across the globe. Already the subject of a Hollywood biopic while still in his twenties, Zuckerberg has within a decade amassed a net worth of almost $46 billion, according to Forbes. But he is not sitting on this. The birth of his first daughter occasioned a lengthy, touching posting (on Facebook of course) to announce a personal mission to help make a better world – in his words, “advancing human potential and promoting equality.” To advance this mission, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative would be funded by a gift of 99 per cent of his $46 billion worth of Facebook shares.

It would be churlish to carp at this generosity. No doubt Zuckerberg can in this way do some good things for humanity, and it beats spending his billions on private yachts and bling. It certainly beats the behaviour of some of his 1 per cent colleagues – like the oil-drenched Koch brothers spending their money on behalf of climate change–denying Republicans, or the casino magnate Sheldon Adelson using his billions to undermine the Obama administration on behalf of Benjamin Netanyahu.

But churlish or not, a few observers have identified a nagging doubt. Once Zuckerberg places his shares in his charitable foundation, they are outside the reach of the taxman. Zuckerberg is saying, effectively, that he wants to make all the decisions on the allocation of his billions himself. No collective voice of the larger community will be permitted in this process. Zuckerberg may be a decent humanitarian, but he insists on being the sole judge in his own case.

Some may say that governments do all sorts of bad things with tax dollars and have a poor record of actual accomplishment as do-gooders. That may be, and perhaps Gates and Zuckerberg will be more effective. But governments do have one unique feature: they, alone among the huge organizations that today straddle the global economy, are accountable through the ballot box to the people they are supposed to represent. In our present Gilded Age, the heroes of capitalism are claiming a special status, above elected governments. Their successful private accumulation of wealth, they say, entitles them to the unaccountable, autonomous exercise of power.

Some of this power may be for good, but some may not: for every Zuckerberg there is a Shkreli. There is another problem too. Private wealth was not built in a Hobbesian state of nature, but on a publicly built and maintained infrastructure of law, education, transport, communication, heath care, welfare, defence and security – all paid for out of tax dollars. Those who have made most out of that system surely have a moral obligation to contribute more back, and not just according to their own whims.

Recently I was in Stockholm, where I had a tour of the city hall. A guide was explaining the Swedish tax system and the various uses to which taxes were put by the welfare state. Sceptical Americans kept asking about an “unacceptably high” level of taxation. The guide replied, memorably, “I’m Swedish. I consider my taxes my investment in my community.”

In the new Gilded Age, the connection between taxes and democratic responsibility is becoming unhinged, and with it the accountability of the economic oligarchs.

Time to think about getting to Sweden?

De mortuis nil nisi bonum is a Latin proverb admonishing us to speak only good of the dead. To follow this rule in the political death of Stephen Harper would consign us to silence. The saving grace is that the Harperites’ final self-destruction has cleared the ground for a fresh start, and renewed hope.

Nothing in Harper’s political life became him less than the leaving of it. I refer not just to his concession declaration that he had “no regrets whatsoever.” Even Frank Sinatra had a few regrets (albeit “too few to mention”), but like Sinatra, Harper could take solace in the undeniable truth, for better or for worse, that he had done it all his way. But his way was a disaster: for himself, for his party and for the country.

Worse, the Conservative election campaign, Harper’s last hurrah, was an utter disgrace – morally as well as politically. After a decade in office, he had nothing positive on offer to voters in exchange for another term: no vision, no hope, only fear and hatred.

Consider that he began with two cards to play: the economy and security. In 2011 the economy had been a winner, garnering him his only majority. Harper successfully played the role of “good economic manager.” After all, Canada had weathered the Great Recession better than most.

But that record was mainly due to his Liberal predecessors, who had balanced the books in the late 1990s by carrying out austerity when austerity should be carried out – in a period of prosperity and relatively full employment. This laid the ground for sustainable countercyclical deficits, which the Tories grudgingly embraced and then turned into megapatronage bonanzas for local Tory MPs. The Liberals had also bequeathed their successors a well-regulated banking sector and a constrained real estate market, both of which the Tories had threatened to deregulate just before the storm of 2008 hit. Of course, the “Harper government,” as they liked to style themselves, took full credit – as any party in power would – and reaped the benefits in 2011.

Behind this Potemkin façade of sound economic management there was an economic theory, Harper’s very own Big Idea. This was a national economic development plan that premised everything on one roll of the dice: a strategy driven above all by the export of raw bitumen from the Alberta oil sands to Asian markets, and via the Keystone pipeline to the United States for reexport. There was no equivalent plan for promoting the productivity and competitiveness of the manufacturing and high tech sectors that other countries were working on, other than throwing open Canada to freer trade through new multinational agreements.

The oil sands dice were rolled. They came up snake eyes. Keystone is dead. Pipelines to the Pacific have become objects of ferocious opposition. The global collapse of crude oil prices, engineered in part by a Saudi Arabia determined to kill future high-priced competition like the oil sands, has put paid to the resource export–driven development model that Harper had so recklessly promoted. All that was left in the Tory bag was indifference to climate change and a pigheaded determination to oppose any globally negotiated emission-reduction targets that would in any way impinge on the rapidly shrinking oil sands profits. This left Canada as a widely shunned pariah outlier among nations confronting the global crisis of the environment.

In 2015 Harper’s economy card had gone from Ace to Joker. The objective now was merely to balance the books after years of recession-driven deficits – at the very moment that the numbers were all going in the opposite direction and Canada had slipped once more into recession, and deficit elimination had become a problem rather than a solution.

The fallback was to go negative. The Tory shit-slinging ad machine relentlessly ridiculed the alleged claim by Justin Trudeau that “budgets will balance themselves.” What he had actually said was simple Keynesian common sense: successful deficit stimulus will raise revenues and restore balance. The Harper message – things may be bad, but they’ll be worse under the other guys – was not exactly a ringing self-endorsement.

As the economy card failed, Harper doubled down on the security card – with an ugly twist. Initially, the plan had been to use the Anti-Terrorism Act, Bill C-51, to bring frightened Canadians fleeing the “the great evil descending over our world,” Islamist terrorism, flocking to the protective arms of Father Harper. But if C-51 reassured the core base, for more people it was a wildly disproportionate police-state bill.

The Islamic State, operating in far-off Syria and Iraq, was too abstract and remote an enemy for electoral purposes. Why not hit on a more visceral nerve, an image of the threatening Other guaranteed to frighten ordinary people? Conjure the Islamic Witch, clad in the blackness of the dreaded niqab, sinister eyes peering out from narrow slits, harbouring who knows what under cunning concealment.

Thus the wholly manufactured “issue” of one solitary Muslim woman who, after meeting all requirements including identifying herself fully (in a situation in which she felt comfortable) for citizenship, wished to take the formal oath wearing the niqab, which to her was the appropriate expression of her faith. Manufactured because it was done in a way guaranteed to fail in court, so that Harper could have yet another live “issue” with which to beat both Liberals and NDPers, as well as judges. As it turned out, the niqab did have some negative consequences in Quebec for the NDP, as the Tories and Bloc Québécois picked off NDP MPs haplessly forced to protect liberal democracy from a backlash against the symbols of Islam.

Outside Quebec, and to a degree within Quebec, the niqab “issue” failed to take off, especially when Tories started musing about establishing a tip line for people to inform the state about the “barbaric cultural practices” of their minority neighbours. Witch-hunting has always been the lowest form of democratic demagoguery because it buys votes by victimizing vulnerable minorities. But Harper’s dog-whistle Islamophobia was too much for most decent Canadians, of whom there are far more than Harper ever feared. There were few votes to be bought in this way, while revulsion against the perpetrators of this squalid xenophobia rose.

In the last desperate days, hysterical warnings were issued that Trudeau would bring brothels into your neighbourhood and push marijuana onto your kids. Then Harper appeared at a rally featuring – crack-smoking Rob Ford! Never in Canadian history had a campaign sunk so low.

A Liberal majority government under another Trudeau might be seen as nothing more than “Back to the Future.” I rather think it signals a rejection of the form as well as the substance of the Conservative project. Trudeau won the campaign, not only against Harper but also against Tom Mulcair and the NDP. He did this as the only leader clearly promising hope and positive change. As Harper shrank and Mulcair stagnated over the course of the campaign, Trudeau grew, not only in the polls but in personal stature as well. Above all, he showed a capacity to learn from his mistakes.

At the outset, the NDP had seized the advantage. Daring to ignore the polls and standing on principle, the NDP opposed C-51 and was surprisingly rewarded with a hefty boost in popularity. Trudeau made the safe but wrong decision to support it, and was seen as gutless and unprincipled. But Trudeau drew the right conclusion from the wrong decision. He realized that Canadians wanted a different kind of politics, more daring, ready to break with the Harper orthodoxy. On the economy, Trudeau seized the initiative with the Liberal promise to run deficits and raise taxes on the superrich 1 per cent. Mulcair, playing it safe, portraying his party as no threat to the existing order, pledged no new income taxes and no deficits under any circumstances. Trudeau had adroitly outflanked the NDP on its left, while a grey, boring NDP lost all the advantage that C-51 had conferred on the party as the best representative of the progressive opposition.

There is yet more to Trudeau’s victory, glimpsed in his election night appeal to the “better angels of our nature.” Harper conservatism was not just an ideological project but a permanent campaign which saw politics as war without quarter and anyone who disagreed as an enemy to be crushed. The key weapon: the “wedge,” any issue that divides and turns people against one another. This is the narrative of all right-wing populist politics in North America. It has been all about mobilizing support from some by stirring resentment and anger against others. Take Toronto’s ex-mayor Rob Ford vs. Calgary’s Mayor Naheed Nenshi: everything Ford did was to exclude; everything Nenshi does is to include. Harper the divider has been replaced by Trudeau channelling Nenshi the successful inclusive leader. That’s why, on election night, Trudeau cautioned his supporters that those who had voted for Harper are not the enemy, “they are our neighbours.”

After a decade of darkness, the promise of “sunny ways” was the winning appeal. Policy aside, perhaps this is the best Canadian answer to the Harper aberration.

Daniel A. Bell, The China Model: Political Meritocracy and the Limits of Democracy.
Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2015. 318 pages.

The image of China in Western eyes is oddly bipolar. On the one hand, China is seen as an astonishing economic success and a credible threat to overcome the United States as the world’s leading economic superpower. On the other hand, it is viewed as a one-party dictatorship and serial human-rights abuser, the antithesis of liberal democracy. In its first, positive, iteration, China is an admired (and feared) competitor due respect and perhaps even emulation. Its second face is entirely negative, conjuring Tiananmen repressions past and future and a backward-looking tyranny bound to collapse, sooner or later, before the inevitable triumph of Western-style democracy.

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? Even fewer ponder the implications of the rising tide of despair over Western democratic decay alongside the faltering economic performance of capitalist economies when set against a Chinese model that is catching up fast. Something does not quite compute.

To the enthusiasts of neoliberal capitalism, the moral of the Chinese story is pretty straightforward. China’s economic progress is the result of its ditching Communism and liberating private markets. Its backward political system is a remnant of Communist autocracy which will ultimately be swept away by Adam Smith’s Invisible Hand. To The Economist, for example, every indication of momentary setbacks or stumbles in the Chinese economy can be resolved by downsizing or eliminating all those state-owned enterprises that still persist and further “liberalizing” capital and labour markets.

While such advice may be valid from time to time, in the bigger picture this represents a fundamental misreading of the specificity of the Chinese economic model. China has not risen to its present global economic eminence simply by dint of opening up everything to free markets, although that is an important component of its success. Its private sector has always been guided and directed by a strong state hand, by a bureaucracy that has shown remarkable skill and resilience in shaping rapid development. There is no reason to expect that it will suddenly abandon this proven way of doing things to apply abstract free-market theory.

But there is more involved here than economic models. The strong, relatively effective state role, integral to China’s economic success, is itself tied closely to that very autocratic political system that Western observers almost unanimously denigrate. Perhaps it would be more prudent of Western critics to examine and assess the intimate connections between the political and economic spheres in China instead of simply dismissing Chinese structures of governance as illiberal and undemocratic. This advice is especially pressing when we consider the deteriorating capacity of Western state structures to cope with global challenges: not just economic competition, but such macro-problems as climate change and environmental management.

The West, or at least the United States, has been so filled with false self-confidence that it has exported its model of democracy at the point of a gun, as in Iraq and Afghanistan. This has, to put it mildly, not gone well. Now a rising China is being depicted as a military threat as it looks to export its model to other Asian countries and perhaps beyond. Clearly, looking at the Other strictly through the eyes of one’s own model, beyond being of limited analytical value, could become downright dangerous in practice if mutual incomprehension leads to confrontation and conflict.

Daniel A. Bell is a Canadian academic who has spent the past decade teaching in Beijing. He has previously written about a phenomenon to which few Western scholars have paid much attention: Confucian philosophy as a practical guide to governance and public policymaking. His new book, The China Model, offers an approach to comparative assessment of Chinese versus Western models that will strike many Western readers as unfamiliar and unsettling. Bell challenges some assumptions sunk deep into Western thinking and casts the Chinese experience in a novel light.

No simplistic apologist for the Beijing consensus, Bell nonetheless is sympathetic to much of what the Chinese leadership is attempting to achieve and sharply critical of much of what Westerners take for granted as self-evident. He quickly dispatches one common misconception. Communism as an activating ideology is dead in today’s China, despite the strangely persistent half-life of Maoist iconography and ritual invocations of “Marxism-Leninism” as legitimating rhetoric. Bell looks instead to something much older, and much deeper, in Chinese culture. Mao’s burial is only four decades past, but the two-and-a-half-millennia-old teaching of Confucius looms large over present-day China.

Equally to the point, while the birth of a modern, Weberian merit-based bureaucracy based on competitive entrance examinations took place in the West only in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, in China this system dates back almost two millennia. Of course, the system has undergone some ups and downs over time and dynastic changes, and took a severe beating during the Maoist era. But it has persisted as a defining structure of a distinctive Chinese model of governance, one specially pointed to in Francis Fukuyama’s recent magisterial exploration of the origins and decay of political order.1

Bell cites this Chinese tradition of “meritocracy” as highly relevant to China’s present-day success. Where Western eyes see the heavy hand of “bureaucracy” stifling economic and political liberty, Chinese eyes see a process designed to produce competent, skilled leaders and administrators who can deliver effective government. Bell cites one extraordinary accomplishment of this system. The World Bank estimates that the proportion of Chinese under the poverty line was reduced from 85 to 15 per cent between 1981 and 2005 – “perhaps the single most impressive poverty alleviation achievement in human history.” This achievement was partly the result of freeing markets, but it was also the result of a concerted, coordinated plan directed by a relatively efficient state.

Western observers may acknowledge, albeit grudgingly, China’s extraordinary achievements. But Bell takes his argument a step further, one sure to rouse strenuous objections. He asserts that meritocracy is actually at odds with democracy. One-person-one-vote is a system designed to produce the very opposite of meritocracy: call it instead a mediocracy. Bell goes through a long list of ways in which free competitive electoral systems fail to produce competent, skilled leaders, and the reasons for this consistent failure. Tellingly, he points to the fixation of democratic politicians on the immediate self-interested demands of voters and their corresponding indifference to the interests of nonvoters: future generations and the planet.

The voting fetish is the very heart of democracy, which in the contemporary world has become an unassailable synonym for the good and true in politics. Many democrats will react in disbelief at Bell’s temerity in even calling the efficacy of competitive party politics into question.

It is now widely accepted that, even as we continue to commend democratic voting as a magic bullet for troubled countries from the Middle East to Africa to Asia, Western liberal democracies are seizing up in gridlock, coping with failing popular legitimacy, becoming divided into intolerant ideological camps exercising mutual vetoes, and generating electoral success for ranting comedians like Beppe Grillo in Italy or rich egomaniacs like Donald Trump in the United States. Nonetheless, many readers will find Bell’s critique of democracy strange and difficult to absorb. Westerners have trouble thinking outside the box of their system. For every obvious problem that crops up in actually existing democracies, the answer is always the same: yet more democracy, more direct democracy, more populist democracy. To which Bell has a four-word rejoinder: Sarah Palin, Rob Ford.

Perhaps the best way to get out of a hole is not to dig deeper?

However sharp and well-honed Bell’s critique of one-person-one-vote democracy, and however many Westerners might reluctantly agree with him on democracy’s manifest drawbacks, fewer will choose to follow him in his exposition of the advantages of Chinese-style meritocracy rooted in one-party authoritarianism. Bell is careful and cautious, and does not flinch from pointing out the problems and defects in the actually existing Chinese meritocracy. And he is always conscious, from his own Western upbringing, of the inevitable objections that will always arise to Chinese practices that appear alien and even bizarre to Western eyes. But he is insistent that the Chinese model must be taken seriously, even if its cultural particularity probably dooms it as a blueprint to be applied in places with different histories and cultural values. We can still learn from it, even if we are disinclined to follow it.

Bell sees a three-level governance system taking shape in China. There is a democratic element at the local level, with popular participation in choosing local village councils that increasingly share decision-making with appointed party officials. This partial local autonomy provides a kind of systemic safety-valve as well as an institutionalized conduit of local opinion upward. At the intermediate, regional level, Bell sees scope for experimentation in public policy: new ideas can be tried out and if successful, spread more widely.

It is at the top level that Bell sees the meritocratic principle enshrined most clearly. Senior administrators have risen through a system that has repeatedly tested their abilities, from entrance examinations through assessments of their effectiveness as they work through the various levels of administration. The same process of regular testing and retesting has also been applied, Bell suggests, to the political leadership via the Communist Party hierarchy.

19_Xi_Jinping_October_2013Here is where the Chinese system differs most dramatically from democratic practices. Leadership positions in the West are filled by popular vote, and people are selected often without reference to experience or track record in running anything, let alone an entire country. Whatever one thinks of the policies of Xi Jinping and the current top leadership, there is no doubt that they have years of experience under their belts, and have been selected on the basis of abilities and qualities requisite for the jobs they are undertaking. And there is now institutionalized turnover and an orderly succession process in place to maintain the meritocratic principle from being undermined by self-serving private ambition.

Assessing the weaknesses, along with the strengths, of this model, Fukuyama points to what he sees as two significant missing dimensions: institutionalized mechanisms of accountability and the rule of law. On accountability, Bell can counter that such mechanisms do in fact exist in China, even if they differ from equivalent mechanisms in democracies. From local demonstrations to the always flourishing blogosphere, improvisational forms of accountability are felt by the party at the top as well as at lower levels.

In the Chinese tradition, political dynasties eventually “lose the mandate of heaven” and are replaced. If the tacit social contract between government and people (monopoly political power in exchange for steady economic growth) is broken by serious, prolonged economic failure, Communist Party rule will fail. We are very far from such an eventuality, but such a mechanism of broad accountability does exist. Besides, accountability in liberal democracies is strong at the level of rhetoric, but weak in practice. As critics such as political scientist Donald Savoie2 have been arguing for some time now, the connection between electoral accountability and the accountability of government, which has been deteriorating alarmingly, is problematic.

The rule of law is another, more serious, qualification of the Chinese model. This has always been a missing element in China. Even as China pioneered a strong, relatively meritocratic state at a time when Europe was in the dark ages of feudalism, it never developed the concept of holding secular rulers subject to law in the same way as the ruled. In the struggle between church and state in the West, notions of a natural law standing above secular law served to limit the power of rulers. Even as the transcendent religious basis of this idea receded and secularism succeeded, the idea itself survived. In China, where millennia of dynastic imperial rule have been followed by a one-party state, there has always been rule by law, but not of law. This has very specific implications for checks – or lack thereof – on the behaviour of rulers enjoying a monopoly of power.

The old adage that power corrupts is not a culturally delimited truth. Corruption in the form of Communist Party officials abusing their offices to appropriate wealth for themselves and their families is a notorious fact about China today and a widely shared cause for popular anger and resentment directed at the party hierarchy. It is also a serious concern for the health of the meritocratic principle, which can hardly survive subversion of the public good for private enrichment by political and administrative leaders. Corruption is obviously not absent in democracies – indeed it seems an enduring feature of democratic governance – but elections can be turned into exercises in “throwing the bums out.” In China, throwing the bums out of office is a more difficult process.

President Xi Jinping, cognizant of the gravity of the problem, has launched a massive anticorruption campaign that has already swept up some powerful figures in the investigative net. Ironically, the weakness of the rule of law, a reason for the campaign in the first place, also blemishes the conduct of the campaign, making it look very much like an old-fashioned Politburo power struggle in which top dog Xi crushes potential rivals with little regard for due process. Xi may well be sincere and the results of the campaign may well be positive, but it is hard from the outside to distinguish it from, say, Mao’s self-aggrandizing manoeuvres to label rivals as reactionary deviationists.

Bell might have paid closer attention to the rule of law problem, but it does not pose a negation so much as a modification of the meritocracy model. In the years ahead, China will have to come to terms with the rule of law being institutionalized alongside the existing rule by law. If it does not, the meritocratic edifice may crack fatally.

Uncertainty about the future is a universal phenomenon. Let me offer for consideration one scenario. China will manage to negotiate its way past many of its present institutional difficulties while remaining faithful to its meritocratic mission. A few years down the road, Western democracies will look with more interested eyes at a Chinese model that has indisputably done well. They will not be tempted to emulate a one-party state, but they may well reconsider their own degradation of the state to the lowly status of a despised handmaid to unchecked private greed. They will seek to rehabilitate a meritocratic public service as a positive instrument for advancing the common good. When they do, Bell’s analysis of present-day China may serve as one guide. Continue reading “How China does it”

The Prime Minister was delivering an apocalyptic warning to his country. Like an ancient Hebrew prophet, Stephen Harper conjured a satanic spectre: “A great evil has been descending over our world, an evil that has been growing more and more powerful.” This ogre is “violent jihadism … one of the most dangerous enemies our world has ever faced.”

Harper was speaking with the conviction that comes from personal experience. After all, he had only recently emerged from the closet where he hid while a “violent jihadist” was gunned down by the parliamentary Sergeant-at-Arms. Out of the closet, he had morphed into the Avenging Angel, and he had a lethal weapon of his own: Bill C-51, The Anti-terrorism Act 2015. But what is this weapon pointed at?

Last year, a mentally disturbed young man in Moncton, Jason Bourque, who had conceived a violent antipathy to police, without provocation shot and killed three RCMP officers. This was terrible, but it was, by common consent, a law enforcement problem resolved by the police who arrested Bourque and the courts that sentenced him to 75 years in prison.

A few months later, another mentally disturbed, sometimes crack-addled young man, Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, armed with a 19th-century vintage hunting rifle, shot and killed Nathan Cirillo, a young soldier peacefully standing guard at the National War Memorial in Ottawa, then shot his way into the Centre Block of Parliament before his own violent demise. That too was terrible, and apparently something far worse than a mere law enforcement problem: a “great evil descending over our world.”

Besides frightening the Prime Minister into a closet, how exactly did Bibeau differ from Bourque? Bourque just hated cops, while Bibeau had attached his personal demons to extremist Islamist gibberish and to a trendy brand name, Islamic State, to which this generation of violent wingnuts happens to be attracted. A few years down the road, the next generation of Bibeaus may be invoking the Global Movement to Liberate Chickens from Factory Farms. But today the words Islamic State are a trigger setting off Apocalypse Now.


To be sure, there is a real force calling itself the Islamic State that is armed to the teeth, ruthless, cruel and a genuine threat: to Syria, Iraq and the Middle East. To Canada, not so much. There have been attacks here, including another soldier tragically killed in Quebec, and other plots apprehended and disrupted by good police work. But there is no credible evidence that any of these have been planned, financed and directed from inside the Islamic State high command in Syria, the way that 9/11 was orchestrated from Osama bin Laden’s HQ in Afghanistan. There are deluded young Canadians, along with even larger numbers of deluded young Europeans, who have travelled to the Middle East to fight for the Islamic State, some of whom have died in action. The threat that some might return to Canada as trained Islamic State agents is merely speculative.

Canada is engaged militarily against the Islamic State in Iraq, a mission just extended and expanded into Syria in March. Even for those who favour the Canadian contribution, the frame that the Harper government places around it should give pause. Repeatedly, the government has argued that there is a seamless web connecting Syria and Iraq with Canada. The first clause in the motion that Harper introduced extending the mission states that the Islamic State “has called on its members to target Canada and Canadians at home and abroad.” In his “great evil” speech, Harper asserted that “Canadians are targeted by these terrorists for no other reason than that we are Canadians.” This is as clever as Employment Minister Pierre Poilievre’s inane “the root cause of terrorism is terrorists.”

Of course there is a terrorist problem in Canada. A reasonable case can be made that the Anti-terrorism Act 2001 should be updated in light of the changing nature of the terrorist challenge over the past decade and a half. This case has emphatically not been made by the Harper government, which has failed to define clearly the nature of the threat; failed to indicate how existing laws and police powers are inadequate (or in some cases why powers added in 2001 have never been used); and failed to indicate how the vast and unaccountable expansion of policing powers in C-51 is proportionate to the actual threat.

Make no mistake: C-51 is breathtaking in the scope of its radical redrawing of the boundaries between state and society, between security and liberty. C-51 is the worst and most dangerous piece of national security law this country has ever seen. Among its most objectionable features:

Instead of defining the terrorist threat with greater precision, C-51 expands the definition of what might be considered terrorist activity or threats to the security of Canada to include “interference with the capability of the Government of Canada in relation to … the economic or financial stability of Canada” as well as “interference with critical infrastructure” or “undermining the security” of any other state – among a wide panoply of other potential threats. This is driftnet fishing.

Drawing on this expansive foundation, C-51 envisages better information sharing between government agencies and between governments – with no privacy safeguards in effect and no obvious controls over the extent of the personal information passed on, with whatever consequences for the individuals concerned. This has to be read in the context of the Edward Snowden revelations of epic Five Eyes spying, including the Canadian CSE collecting “metadata” on Canadians. In the face of panoptic surveillance operations, C-51 in effect trumps privacy protection laws.

C-51 scraps a cautious and limited “Passenger Protect” program in favour of a Canadian no-fly list that replicates the discredited U.S. no-fly list – the one that prevents two year-old toddler “terrorists” from boarding aircraft with their moms – and replaces a reasonable appeal process with a convoluted Kafkaesque “appeal” process in which banned individuals are told nothing about the case against them, while the judge considers even hearsay evidence in secret.

Any person who “advocates or promotes the commission of terrorism offences in general” will under C-51 be committing a criminal offence. Starting from a justifiable concern about abusive jihadi websites, ignoring existing laws against hate speech and incitement to violence, C-51 leaps into a direct assault on freedom of expression.

C-51 offers the Canadian Security Intelligence Service a new mandate to take “measures”, “within or outside Canada”, to “reduce” any threats to security. CSIS was created as an intelligence collection agency, in reaction to the scandals in the 1970s when the old RCMP security service was ordered to “counter” violent Quebec separatists like the FLQ and launched the “dirty tricks” era of illegal burglaries and barn burnings. Now CSIS is expected to be a Bond-like swat squad battling terrorists around the globe with muscle. If CSIS thinks it necessary, it may seek a so-called disruption warrant from a federal judge. The application will be heard in secret and, if granted, will authorize CSIS to break Canadian law and violate Charter rights, short only of committing murder, torture, rape or obstruction of justice! This would turn judges from being arbiters of the constitutionality of government actions into enablers of state lawlessness. Moreover, it threatens to reignite pointless RCMP-CSIS turf wars and undermines the viability of criminal prosecutions by contaminating the evidentiary trails required to lead to court proceedings. Subverting the rule of law while making counterterrorism more difficult is quite the trick.

There are no provisions for expanded oversight or accountability to match the greatly expanded powers provided to the agencies. In fact, the Harper government has seriously degraded the already inadequate existing patchwork of accountability.

C-51 is a monstrosity. To their credit, the NDP and Green parties have responded appropriately: it should be killed. To their shame, the Liberals said they would vote for what they admitted is a terrible bill, but would improve it once a Liberal government is elected. In other words: buy the stinking pig today on the promise to apply deodorant later.

The Liberals’ bizarre stance is explicable only as proving Harper’s strategy of using terrorism to terrorize his opposition. This worked on the gutless Liberals, but it has not been working on more and more Canadians, who have reacted with anger the more they have seen of the devil in the C-51 details. Even some conservatives have begun shaking their heads at an allegedly conservative government (slayer of the gun registry and the long-form census) bringing in police state powers reckless of individual privacy and liberty.

Harper has done something none of his predecessors ever did. He has turned national security into a partisan issue with which he hopes to savage his opponents. The economy as a reelection issue has sunk in lockstep with the collapsing price of oil, so peddling fear will take its place. He has even added Islamophobia, with cheap jibes at Muslim women wearing niqabs and hijabs. Apparently his reelection is worth to him whatever cost the country will pay in loss of civility and decency.

Perhaps the election will settle the matter. The result might demonstrate that a ruthless leader can employ irrational fear to perpetuate his rule. Or the Canadian people may instead decide that the “great evil” is not so much terrorism as it is Mr. Harper himself.

In the movie Groundhog Day, Bill Murray is forced to live the same day over and over. He tries to break the loop by changing events; he even tries suicide. Nothing works: his next day is always his previous day.

Canadian foreign policy debates in the year 2014 look very much like Groundhog Day. Two conflicts – Israel-Palestine in Gaza and Russia-Ukraine – have raised much heat, many sharp words, vehement passions, but precious little light. Hanging over the debates is a pervasive sense of déja vu. Trapped in a time warp?

Russia-Ukraine is a good example. Following the coup that drove out the pro-Russian president, Vladimir Putin’s annexation of Crimea and barely covert Russian backing for violent pro-Russian separatists in the eastern part of the country quickly led to talk of a “new Cold War.” Putin was cast as the dictator Stalin menacing eastern Europe circa 1947–48, with the West being called on to revive the heroic spirit of the Marshall Plan and NATO. We in the West, it seemed, were blameless innocents confronted by Putin’s aggression and lust for domination. The failure of appeasement in the 1930s to stop Hitler had taught the West that dictators must always be confronted.

1_Israel_Defense_Forces_-_Children_in_Town_Under_Fire_by_Rockets_from_Gaza_(2)he problem with the screenplay for Cold War Two begins with its crude interpretation of Cold War One. In the late 1940s, it was seen as a simple case of Soviet Communist aggression and Western response. Stalin bore sole responsibility for starting the Cold War, and early Cold War history echoed this version of reality.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, haunted by the spectre of the Vietnam debacle, revisionist schools began to appear that turned Cold War historiography on its head. Now it was the United States that was the villain, with the Communist world responding to imperialist aggression. Revisionism did point out flaws in the Western façade of innocence, and did cast light on the defensive elements in the Communist posture. But simply inverting the anti-Soviet model into an anti-American one was a misconceived, if not morally suspect, enterprise.

After the collapse of Soviet Communism, Cold War historiography has become more balanced and nuanced. Few would claim any more to find a smoking gun at the starting line. There were deep differences – systems, interests, goals – between the capitalist West and the Communist East that doomed postwar cooperation. There were also grave mistakes made in reading the intentions of the other side: what were primarily defensive moves by the East were misread as offensive actions by the West, and vice versa.

Fast forward: Ukraine 2014. Few lessons of this history have been learned. Spurred by a loud anti-Russian Ukrainian-Canadian community, politicians of all parties in Ottawa could see only Russian aggression. To be sure, Putin was making it easy: annexing Crimea and subverting Ukrainian sovereignty were red flags that demanded countermeasures.The decades-long nuclear standoff – the “balance of terror” – ironically proved a factor for international stability. It prevented East-West rivalry from degenerating into a third world war, for which the Cold War was a safer substitute. The one time when the balance was seriously threatened was the Cuban missile crisis, when the USSR attempted to counter U.S. missiles on its Turkish border with secret emplacement of Soviet missiles in Cuba. The doomsday clock was stopped at one minute to midnight when the Soviets withdrew their missiles and the Americans pulled theirs out of Turkey. Mutual recognition of fundamental interests, without surrendering fundamental values, prevented catastrophe.


But were pro-Western Ukrainians the virtuous democrats depicted by their supporters in Parliament and the media? Not quite. First, they came to power by an uprising against an elected pro-Russian president. Yes, that president was corrupt. But so are virtually all Ukrainian politicians, pro- and anti-Russian. That some of the “democrats” were fascistic ultranationalist extremists was not simply Russian propaganda. Ukraine is divided, as it always has been, between western and eastern regions, Ukrainian and Russian speakers, pro-Western and pro-Russian sentiments. Proclaiming the supremacy of one side over the other is a very dangerous prescription for civil war, especially with thuggish militants on both sides.

Crimea is majority Russian-speaking and strongly pro-Russian, as Putin’s referendum clearly showed. It definitely is not an integral historical part of Ukraine. It was assigned to Ukraine as a gift from the Kremlin in the mid-1950s when everything was run from Moscow. Most importantly, Crimea is the site of Russia’s strategically crucial warm water naval base, one recognized internationally and by the Ukrainian Parliament. An independent Ukraine might well be better off without having to hold down territory that contains a largely hostile population and a major Russian military presence. But Crimea also illustrates a larger context for helping to explain, if not excuse, Russian behaviour.

With the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the Soviets were reconciled to German reunification on the understanding that a NATO including a united Germany would represent no threat. What followed was a steady march of NATO eastward to include former Warsaw Pact states, along with the contemptuous, almost offhanded, rejection of a request by post-Soviet Russia itself to join NATO. The West seemed to be saying to Russia: we won the Cold War, so now we set the agenda in your region on our terms.

Tension escalated significantly with the threat of bringing Ukraine not only into the European Union but into NATO as well, thus providing NATO with a presence directly on the Russian border – and, prior to the annexation of Crimea, a presence on territory with a Russian military base. Putin’s Russia is not the weak, stumbling sick man of the Yeltsin era; it is a renascent power, but one highly sensitive to the decline of its position in the world, looking for respect, and serious about restoring its regional security. We in the West see Putin starting a fight and see resisting him as defensive, but Putin can see his actions as resisting provocation by the West. And so the downward spiral of mutual misunderstanding begins anew.

If Ukraine is the touchstone of a new Cold War between Russia and the West, it is well to recall the mistakes of the last war. Trying to see the world through the other side’s eyes is not weakness or disloyalty. It is a realistic way of appraising the other side’s actual intentions, not what our own anxieties and fears might conjure. The hawks who demanded rollback to liberate the captive nations behind the Iron Curtain would have brought on a world war. Patient containment of Communism paid off when the Soviet bloc eventually imploded under the weight of its own contradictions and failures.

The Israeli assault on Gaza offers another example of Parliament as an echo chamber rather than a debating forum. Further consolidating their already growing grip over the Jewish vote, which swings a number of seats in Toronto and Montreal, the Harper Conservatives grabbed the old playbook and automatically blamed Hamas for starting hostilities (as if almost 50 years of Israeli occupation and settlement of Palestinian land were without consequence).

The mantra that “Israel has the right to defend itself” became, in the mouths of ministers, opposition MPs and media commentators, a fiat shutting down debate. Self-defence is a legitimate claim only when exercised with reasonable proportionality, and could hardly be invoked when the civilian casualty ratio is hundreds to one in favour of Israel. One did not have to be “anti-Israeli” to insist that blatantly prejudicial arguments granting Israel a perpetual get-out-of-jail-free card for any of its actions, however disproportionate, should be subjected to critical scrutiny. Yet Foreign Minister John Baird characterized any criticism of Israel as equivalent to support for the heinous terrorism of Hamas, if not evidence of anti-Semitism.

To their discredit, the opposition parties acquiesced in this. Indeed, Tom Mulcair exercised a gag order on the NDP caucus to silence criticism of Israeli policy. The notorious George W. Bush formulation “You’re either with us or with the terrorists” was alive and well in Ottawa. Groundhog Day.

Common factors in both Ukraine and Gaza are: (1) a foreign antagonist who can be easily demonized and dehumanized; (2) a strong domestic political support base for a hard line; (3) a historical template for action readily at hand. If some of these conditions do not hold, the outcome can still be open. The decision to send CF-18s into Iraq in the struggle against the newly discovered threat of the Islamic State did not gain all-party consensus, with the NDP and Liberals both opposed. In this case, even though the Islamic State has been widely characterized as “pure evil,” condition (2) was unclear. As for condition (3), the historical templates of recent interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan were less than encouraging. Even if the vote was a foregone conclusion, at least the issues were aired from more than one side.

In Groundhog Day, Bill Murray finally gets it right and breaks the loop. When actual debate breaks out in Parliament on an issue of war and peace, perhaps there is hope in Ottawa too.

Reg Whitaker is a political columnist for Inroads and a member of its editorial board. He lives in Victoria, B.C.

In recent years, a number of journalists have published books on Canadian politics. Some are forgettable, some quite good, but one stands out from all the others. Susan Delacourt’s Shopping for Votes: How Politicians Choose Us and We Choose Them1 goes beyond the usual journalistic staple of anecdotes, personalities and prognostications to offer an intriguing explanation of a tectonic shift that has taken place in recent decades in how both politicians and voters see the political process. What she finds is not good news, but she does help us understand why things have taken the turn they have.

1_NDP campaignDelacourt begins where Stephen Harper, John Baird et al. love to be seen hanging out: Tim Hortons, where doughnuts, double-doubles and the famous “Tim Hortons voters” are to be found. She wants to tell us how we arrived at a place where the interface between democratic citizens and their political representatives is defined by and reduced to identification with a particular brand of fast food.

Aristotle wrote that “what effectively distinguishes the citizen proper from all others is his participation in giving judgement and in holding office.” As the Greek city-state grew into today’s nation-state, the proportion of citizens who actually hold office has necessarily become tiny indeed. At the same time, the opportunity for participation in giving judgement (defined broadly not only in relation to the law but to public policy) has shrunk, not out of necessity but out of choice. This is a great paradox of liberal democratic capitalism.

It is the proud boast of the capitalist economy that its producers have vastly expanded the range of choice for its consumers, just as it was one of the great failures of the communist model that it could not put consumer choices on its shelves. This is a triumph of production but it is crucially the triumph of marketing, the clever ways in which producers bring their goods and services to the attention of consumers and into their hands. Shopping for Votes, as its title implies, is a description of the process whereby capitalist marketing techniques have been applied to how we choose our political representatives and how we think about politics and the public realm. Ironically, the application of the economy of consumer choice to the political sphere has meant the impoverishment of the democratic political imagination.

Most of Delacourt’s book is devoted to how our political parties have fallen under the ascendancy of the ad agencies, pollsters, PR flacks and spin doctors who manage and manipulate the public images of the politicians. This is fascinating stuff for political junkies. A very good journalist, she paints vivid personal portraits of the Keith Daveys, Allan Greggs and Patrick Muttarts who have, over the past few decades, transformed politics. These are not villains; indeed, some are thoughtful observers as well as technicians. Some are even critical of what they have wrought.

But there are larger, structural forces at work. In 1971 a practitioner raised eyebrows when he incautiously blurted out the source of the electoral success of the Ontario Premier of the time: “If you can sell a can of tomatoes, you can sell Bill Davis.” Four decades later, such a claim is just a description of business as usual. Political marketing has shown time and again that it works. It works because the media of communication that politicians must employ to reach voters are at the very heart of contemporary capitalist marketing. Selling Bill Davis (or Christy Clark or whomever) is just a minor sidebar to the big commercial selling campaigns, whose sophisticated techniques set the tone and style of political marketing.

Older traditions of political debate and campaigning have fallen away because they were out of step with the times. But as McLuhan was always reminding us, “The medium is the message.” The intensification of marketing as the medium of political communication has changed what politics is about. Political participation (even at the minimal level of voting) as an act of democratic citizenship has been reduced to just one among a myriad of choices consumers make among competing goods. To use Marxist terminology – which I hasten to assure readers Delacourt does not – we are witnessing the commodification of politics.

People have always, of course, been consumers as well as citizens. But the alchemy of commodification has been hollowing out the meaning of democratic citizenship, of the primary obligation to participate according to one’s means and abilities in the public deliberations and decision-making of the community. Take the matter of taxation. “Consumers” are recognized as “taxpayers,” but in the negative sense that taxes reduce individuals’ capacity to consume as they see fit. Therefore tax cuts or targeted tax breaks become, in themselves, a main object of public policy. “Citizens” see taxes as providing the collective means to finance public benefits that cannot be met through the private sector: paying taxes is paying one’s citizenship dues, fulfilling one’s obligations to the community that provides one with the equal democratic rights of citizenship. “Consumers” see only rights, without corresponding obligations.

An afterthought or echo of innovative advertising thinking, the science of shaping political communication is not without contradictions. Political choice, it appears, lacks much of the sexiness and allure that attaches to the more attractive commercial choices on offer – as witness steadily declining turnout at elections. A shrinking pool of buyers bothering to exercise their democratic franchise is frantically fought over by highly competitive, hyperpartisan political marketers. Fortunately for the politicians and their marketers, contemporary trends in new media mean that this flight from politics, while a tragedy for democratic practice, represents new avenues for market penetration.

The fragmentation and precision targeting of the new media permits the segmentation of the potential market into smaller and smaller niches. Political marketers identify potentially friendly voter niches, target these with carefully crafted policies (Timbits or McNuggets) and then design campaigns around these consumer loyalty nodes. This is not majoritarian, but determinedly minoritarian, politics. What the majority (many of whom will not even vote) think about any issue is irrelevant; what matters is the minority that can be motivated to return the favour to the party that has provided them with the particular policy good they want.

The Harper Conservatives have pushed micromarketing further than any other party in Canada. They particularly excel at skilfully manipulating “wedge” issues that divide people from one another, reinforcing the loyalty of their carefully cultivated voting niches by deliberately rousing the opposition of those groups their own supporters dislike or fear. The same techniques are used effectively with fundraising: when opposition rears its head, whether among other parties, the judiciary or the bureaucracy, it is usually translated into a fundraising appeal targeting those supporters likely to be angered by such opposition. Successful fundraising in turn fuels the professional marketing campaigns that yield voting support.

It is not surprising that the Tories are the party that has perfected the black arts of negative advertising, or that they have enthusiastically adopted the “permanent campaign” (24/7 remorseless partisan warfare), in which public policy is strictly tied to specific electoral advantage. While this style of governing appalls democrats, it also raises questions among small-c conservatives who can discern few indications of any coherent ideological direction in this micromarketing mishmash of policies. But ideological purity, whether of the right or the left, is the old politics, in which politicians are supposed to lay out visions, encourage debate and exercise leadership in achieving goals. The new politics sees leadership as simply identifying and meeting the consumer preferences of enough potential buyers to put together an electorally effective aggregation of voter niches.

The new political marketing lacks partisan preferences. That the Harperites have exploited its possibilities more effectively than their opponents, so far, does not mean that others cannot out-compete them in the future. In fact, both the NDP and the Liberals are driving toward mastery of the same techniques that have yielded successive victories to the Tories. Early in 2014 the NDP carried out a “cross-country day of action on affordability” in which voters were mobilized around issues like “cracking down on price collusion by gas companies”, “widening access to low-interest credit cards” and “capping ATM withdrawal fees.” The appeal was exclusively to citizens as consumers.

But while not biased in a partisan sense, the new marketing techniques are hardly ideologically neutral. There are good reasons why the new marketing has arrived simultaneously with the triumph of neoliberalism throughout the capitalist world. The two trends complement and reinforce one another. By buying into the “citizen = consumer” equation, parties of the centre and left buy into the larger neoliberal paradigm. Tony Blair’s rebranded “New Labour” is a remarkable example. Historically, social democracy helped lay the groundwork for this change when it began to conceptualize its alternative vision as widening the opportunities of the working class for greater consumption rather than sharing collectively in the governance of the economy.

We are all democratic consumers now. Recovery of democratic citizenship will not be easy.

Continue reading “How citizens became democratic consumers”