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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Four myths

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

B.C.’s realism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The shifting fortunes of Israel’s reputation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The resurgence of Canada’s Israeli lobby

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

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

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

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

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

The BDS movement

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

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

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

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

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

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

Liberal government, Tory resolution

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

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

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

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

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

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

Something very strange was going on.

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

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

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

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

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

Canada’s blank cheque to Israel

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

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

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

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

the two ministers came to an understanding that

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

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

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

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

Promoting an anti-Jewish backlash?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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 dot.com 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”