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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Continue reading “How citizens became democratic consumers”

After the Parti Québécois under Pauline Marois slipped into office with a minority in the fall of 2012, there was a curiously muted reaction both in Quebec and the rest of Canada – unlike the mingled expectation and dread that followed the first PQ victory in 1976 and the PQ’s second coming in 1994. In their initial instances, Péquiste victories bore the seeds of potential sovereignty and the breakup of Canada. Premier Marois rouses few expectations and even fewer fears. The PQ is no longer the flag bearer of a radical project but just another political party, one that bears the same scars of popular distrust that afflict all parties these days.

Once in office, the Marois government did set about trying to poke the slumbering dragon of English Canada. Presumably this was on the principle that provoking Anglo anti-Quebec sentiments is the best (or only?) way of rousing its own sovereigntist base at a time when the sovereignty option has been sinking in public enthusiasm. But most English Canadians now seemingly care as much about Quebec as most Québécois care about English Canada: the two solitudes have grown even more indifferent to each other. This may be deplorable, but it perversely aids national unity. The PQ’s efforts to pick a quarrel (like removing the Canadian flag from the National Assembly) were met with a shrug from les anglais; instead of rallying, the sovereigntist ranks continued to doze.

All this changed abruptly when the Marois government announced its intention of introducing a “charter of values” that was supposed to express the Quebec identity into which immigrants are to integrate. Chief among these values is laïcité or the secularity of Quebec society after the Quiet Revolution. Once as priest-ridden as de Valera’s Ireland or Franco’s Spain, Quebec is today a society not only thoroughly secular but proud of it. But the PQ’s proposed charter speaks not to that confidence but to the insecurity some feel in the face of newcomers with different cultural values. Such insecurity led to the Bouchard-Taylor Commission on “reasonable accommodation.”

What stands out in the charter are provisions that would forbid public sector workers from wearing religious symbols such as the hijab, the turban or the kippah. The addition of “large” crucifixes to the proscribed apparel list fooled no one. The main point is to target Muslims as the group that most focuses fears of the Other: the steadfast refusal of the PQ to remove the large crucifix that Maurice Duplessis long ago hung above the Speaker’s chair in the Assembly resolves any doubts about the privileged position of Catholicism in Quebec laïcité.

With this, all hell broke loose. As Marois and her minister Bernard Drainville no doubt anticipated, English Canada finally erupted. What they did not expect was the negative reaction in Quebec, not only from the usual suspects in the anglophone and allophone communities but also from within the ranks of the PQ itself and the wider academic and journalistic intelligentsia, the very milieu most friendly to the idea of sovereignty. The Bloc Québécois expelled its only woman and only ethnic-minority MP, Maria Mourani, from its shrunken caucus in Ottawa after the Lebanese-born writer and activist (who often wears a crucifix around her neck) condemned the proposed charter as an insult to religious minorities and a worrying sign that ethnic nationalism was overtaking the sovereignty movement. Then former PQ premiers Jacques Parizeau (he of the infamous “money and the ethnic vote” speech after the 1995 referendum), Lucien Bouchard and Bernard Landry weighed in with stinging criticisms.

Critics suggested that the charter is a solution in search of a problem. Like the town of Hérouxville that barred shari’a law despite having not a single Muslim inhabitant, the PQ was identifying an issue – the imposition on the secular state of minority religious control – for which there was not a tittle of supporting evidence. Any public servant who is unable impartially to fulfill their responsibilities as a result of their religious beliefs can be disciplined or removed. What the charter would do is target public servants not on the basis of what they do, but on suspicion of what they might do. By suggesting that this is not discrimination against minorities so long as minority employees divest themselves of any visible indications of their faith, the PQ denies the obvious. In other words, this is a Quebec equivalent of the old, discredited U.S. policy on gays in the military: don’t ask, don’t tell. That piece of hurtful sophistry doesn’t fly any better in Quebec than in America.

Another argument put forward by some feminist supporters of the charter is equally demeaning. They would have it that Muslim women must be protected by law from submitting to the “patriarchal” imposition of the veil. That non-Muslim feminists would deny Muslim women the choice of what they wear is an unusual twist on “feminism.” If the charter comes into effect in its present form, the clear result would be to deny employment in the public sector to Muslim women who choose the hijab.

English Canadian indignation could be dismissed. After all, was there not a protest a few years ago against Sikh RCMP officers donning turbans instead of traditional Mountie hats? And yet the comparison of Quebec with the rest of Canada on treatment of minorities is one that Quebecers might prudently choose not to pursue. Alone in the Western world, Canada has not produced a racist, anti-immigrant right-wing national political movement. The rise of the Reform Party in the 1990s could have spurred this ugly variant of conservatism, but it notably did not. The Harper government, far from encouraging anti-immigrant sentiments, has actively and successfully wooed immigrant community support.

In Quebec, on the other hand, anxieties over immigration helped fuel the fast-rising, fast-falling and now defunct Action Démocratique du Québec party. The ADQ experience has current echoes in the Coalition Avenir Québec that competes with the PQ for votes in rural and small-town francophone Quebec where there are few immigrants but many fears of those who are not pure laine. These are the ducks that the PQ has set out to hunt.

Contrasting reactions to multicultural immigration are hardly the result of English Canadian moral superiority. It is surely the lack of any clear idea of “Canadian” (as Gertrude Stein remarked of Oakland, California, “there’s no there there”) that contrasts with a much sharper sense of Québécois national identity, especially in the sovereigntist version. “Others” are inherently more threatening when “we” are clearly defined.

Yet this misses a further nuance. One of the most interesting findings of polling on attitudes toward immigrants across the wider Western world is that fear is most pronounced among those who have the least contact with immigrants, while liberality and openness is strongest where the concentration of immigrants is highest. Thus native Britons resident in multiethnic London are more at ease with newcomers than those living in parts of Britain with many fewer immigrants. Familiarity breeds not contempt, but tolerance. In Quebec, the charter controversy has revealed a sharp divide between Montreal and the rest of the province. Opposition to the charter is clear and articulate in Montreal, and tends to cross linguistic and ethnic divides. Outside Montreal, anxieties roused by the appearance of unfamiliar newcomers appear to have more play.

In the 2007 Quebec election, the ADQ captured almost a third of the vote by using the immigrant issue as a wedge driven between Montreal and the hinterland. The PQ is embarked on the same strategy, pointing to Montreal as the seedbed of foreign threats to the Quebec identity. It is not unlike what Duplessis did successfully for many elections in the 1940s and 1950s: mobilize the backwoods against Montreal’s Jehovah’s Witnesses and Communists, said to threaten the integrity of Catholic Quebec. Instead of the Padlock Law there is now the charter to keep Quebec safe. Will it work electorally for the PQ? Perhaps. If enough CAQ votes can be siphoned off, the PQ could even win a majority.

But the PQ is not merely an electoral machine like Duplessis’s Union Nationale. It is also the electoral manifestation of the sovereignty movement. Is this really the issue on which the PQ wants to wage war with federalism? When the PQ first came into office in 1976 it came with a compelling vision: sovereignty promised a better, more progressive, liberated Quebec. Now it promises to fight Ottawa for the right to be mean, self-centred and exclusionary. Has it really come to this?

The PQ perhaps had hoped to ignite a federalist-sovereignist controversy by invoking the notwithstanding clause to protect its charter or by provoking the federal courts to shoot down an unprotected charter. This strategy imploded when the Quebec Commission on the Rights of the Person reported that the PQ charter was clearly in violation of the Quebec human rights code, not just the federal Charter of Rights.

Until recently, PQ nationalism had been dominantly liberal and territorial, rather than narrow and ethnic. Despite good intentions, liberal nationalism never fully resolved the issue of the place of its anglophone, allophone and Aboriginal minorities. Now it seems that the Marois PQ is abandoning the effort and reverting to an older, more illiberal nationalism. The struggle over the charter of values is not only a struggle for power in Quebec. It is also a struggle for the soul of the sovereignty movement.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Continue reading “Chronicle of a train wreck foretold”

Every few decades an issue arises that unexpectedly becomes a defining moment for the country. Such issues can creep up and catch decision-makers unawares. The great free trade election of 1988 was one such: when Brian Mulroney signed the Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement he had no idea that it would precipitate an election/plebiscite widely understood as a choice between two very different paths into the future for Canada. It was one of the rare instances of an election in which a great public policy issue overshadowed parties and personalities.

When the federal and Alberta governments, along with Enbridge and the various other corporate players in the Alberta oil sands, came up with the idea of a pipeline megaproject – Northern Gateway – that would pump bitumen from Alberta across northern British Columbia to the Pacific coast, whence supertankers would ship the cargo to refineries in Asia to feed the giant Chinese economy, it seemed a no-brainer. In a world in which nonrenewable energy resources were being rapidly depleted, Alberta’s oil sands were increasingly seen as the export driver not just of the Alberta economy but of the Canadian economy as a whole.

With a Prime Minister and a governing party in Ottawa with their deepest foundations in Alberta, Alberta and Ottawa had apparently come full circle from the bitter federal-provincial battles of the 1970s and 1980s. In the 1950s, a U.S. secretary of defense notoriously declared that “what’s good for General Motors is good for America.” In 2012 it seemed that Ottawa, as well as most of corporate Canada, the business press and academic economics departments, were all singing out of a hymn book that began “What’s good for Alberta is good for Canada.”

But a skunk had sneaked into this elite garden party. When Opposition Leader Tom Mulcair warned that the Alberta-driven petro-economy was pushing up the value of the loonie to unacceptably high levels and threatening an onset of the “Dutch disease” in which Canadian nonresource exports could be squeezed out, the Establishment vented its fury at the impertinence of questioning the new Canadian consensus. Mulcair’s words were “divisive” and “destructive,” pitting region against region and Canadian against Canadian. From the tone of the ripostes, one could be forgiven for thinking that Mulcair had blurted out a racist epithet.

As is so often the case when an elite consensus is challenged, Mulcair’s views were caricatured more than engaged. This is not the place to discuss the economic merits of the “Dutch disease” syndrome beyond noting that petro-economies, if not very carefully managed, do have distorting impacts on other sectors, even if the precise measurement of these distortions remains a matter of legitimate debate. Instead I prefer to focus on another element in the attack on Mulcair: that he was initiating a “war against the west.”

The concept of the “west” has to be deconstructed. For too long Alberta has appropriated the regional voice of the “west” to amplify its provincial interests and its provincial perspectives. Northern Gateway highlights how something that appears manifestly a good thing in Alberta can appear quite the opposite beyond the Rockies. The first fruits of Mulcair’s “war against the west” appeared in Canada’s westernmost province: a boost in NDP poll numbers in British Columbia. War against the west in Alberta could be seen as war for the west in B.C. The negative B.C. reaction to Northern Gateway is one key to this paradox.

There were some one-off economic benefits to B.C. promised in the pipeline construction and port enlargement. However, such benefits were more than overshadowed by the enormity of the environmental risks. The pipeline route takes it across remote, rugged mountainous terrain crisscrossed by close to 800 waterways, including the headwaters of three major watersheds. The severe environmental threat was highlighted when Enbridge was hit with a series of embarrassing spillages, including a major destructive spill in Michigan, where an American regulator slammed Enbridge’s tardy response as worthy of “Keystone Kops.”

Potentially even worse is the threat of some 500 supertankers per year, each carrying up to a million gallons of heavy bitumen, plying the dangerous Pacific coastline (far more challenging to navigation than the Atlantic coast). Since the 1970s there has been an informal ban on tankers in the Queen Charlotte Sound and adjacent areas. The spectre of another Exxon Valdez or BP disaster represents a terrifying prospect of devastation to a very delicate ecosystem. Assurances that the risk is extremely “low” are worthless: a single failure would be catastrophic.

Not surprisingly, First Nations whose lands Northern Gateway would traverse are up in arms (most rejecting the hush money proffered by Enbridge) and plan legal challenges that could tie the approval process up for years in the courts. But British Columbians generally have been appalled and indeed insulted at the idea that their breathtakingly beautiful natural environment should be held hostage for a few local dollars and huge profits for neighbouring Alberta.

It needs saying that there is much more at stake here than a dollars-and-cents calculation. This issue is cultural, touching on the very core of British Columbian identity. Messing with this is decidedly inadvisable for any B.C. politician. Premier Christy Clark learned this lesson at considerable cost. Very late in the game she realized that she could no longer sit on this fence and presented demands to Alberta for environmental guarantees, including a share in oil sands royalties to offset the risks. She was rebuffed by Premier Alison Redford. Clark’s default is threatening to tie up the project by refusing to issue construction permits and throwing other barriers in the way. Voters appear unimpressed by Clark’s unrequited plea for a bribe. According to all polls the NDP, whose wholehearted opposition has given them ownership of the issue, is poised to assume office in the upcoming May 2013 election.

Megaproject proposals like Northern Gateway are normally refracted through a lens that runs economic benefits and environmental impacts together. Typically, decision-makers have to balance economic and environmental issues. When economic concerns weigh more heavily on voters’ and politicians’ minds, as they have since the great crash of 2008, environmental concerns tend to lose out. But here’s the problem: to Alberta, the project overwhelmingly represents economic benefit; to B.C., it overwhelmingly represents environmental risk. This jurisdictional bifurcation is what raises Northern Gateway to a level of significance far beyond the usual run of public policy issues. One of the great conundrums of today, economic growth versus ecological responsibility, is thus dramatically encoded in a jurisdictional conflict between provincial partners in a federation. The question is: will B.C.’s environmentally driven opposition or Alberta’s economically driven support win out in the larger Canadian federal system?

There is no doubt where Harper’s Ottawa stands. The so-called “budget implementation” bill in the last session of Parliament was actually a bloated omnibus that systematically set out to gut various environmental controls that might stand in the way of the project, and to eviscerate the National Energy Board holding hearings to review the plan. No longer will the NEB have final say. Instead its recommendation may be overturned by the cabinet, which is to say the PM.

At the same time, Tory outriders like Resources Minister Joe (McCarthy) Oliver have been intimidating “environmentalists and other radicals” supposedly funded by foreign money, who should be silenced because they are trying to “hijack” the review process. Tom Flanagan has proposed dusting off the disused “declaratory power” in the BNA Act that would permit the federal government to simply override any B.C. objections by declaring Northern Gateway a work in the national interest. A government led by a PM from Calgary ramming through a project to Alberta’s benefit against majority and bipartisan B.C. opposition might be constitutional, but the political fallout would be, shall we say, volatile. For that reason the declaratory option is unlikely, but the general perception of a federal Tory government squarely behind Enbridge and Alberta has already led to an unusual display of cabinet dissent from the senior B.C. minister, James Moore. There are after all 21 Tory MPs from B.C. whose seats are on the line in the next federal election.

Stopping the Gateway would hardly be a fatal blow to Alberta. The Keystone XL carrying oil sands bitumen to the United States, temporarily put on hold by the Obama administration, will almost certainly be given final approval now that the U.S. election is over. The NDP has endorsed a proposal to pipe Alberta oil to eastern Canada, from which it has been excluded for decades. At worst it might mean a more measured and responsible development of the oil sands, as the late Peter Lougheed, Alberta’s greatest premier, wisely advised.

Stopping Northern Gateway would deal a blow to Harper’s economically reckless and environmentally irresponsible resource export–led development strategy. Uncontrolled petro-economies are not only lethal to the environment; in the long run, they are bad for business. That’s why B.C.’s battle against Northern Gateway is a battle for all Canadians.

In 2012 the world stands on the brink of another war. As with the 2003 invasion of Iraq, a potential attack on Iran is rationalized as preserving peace: a dangerous rogue regime reaching for weapons of mass destruction must be stopped. But Iran is no replay of Iraq. Despite Republican hawks, there will be no “coalition of the willing” invading Iran to effect regime change. None of the principals in the Iraq fiasco seems interested in repeating that script.

Notoriously, the casus belli in Iraq – Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction – proved to be mythical. This time the casus belli is an alleged Iranian nuclear weapon that no one claims actually exists but that must be stopped before it exists. Stranger yet, the country that is threatening to precipitate war with Iran is the only country in the region that already possesses nuclear weapons, Israel.

Israel is not seeking regime change, but seeks instead to prevent the existing Iranian regime from acquiring a nuclear option. Military experts question the capacity of Israeli air strikes on alleged weapons facilities to do any more than delay progress toward production of weapons-grade enriched uranium. Worse, if Iran actually has no such goal, an attack would almost certainly precipitate an emergency Iranian program to achieve a nuclear capacity as the only way to deter further attacks from a nuclear-armed Israel. The case of North Korea, the third member of George W. Bush’s “Axis of Evil,” is no doubt an instructive model for the Iranians. North Korea has not been invaded precisely because it does have nukes, unlike Iraq which could be invaded because it lacked WMDs.

Moreover, far from producing regime change, an Israeli strike would quite certainly strengthen the Islamic regime among ordinary Iranians who would rally immediately behind their government when faced with an Israeli (and, at least by implication, American) assault on their sovereignty and security.

If Israel should strike Iran, the United States and much of the Western world would almost certainly be drawn into the conflict on the Israeli side, with unpredictable but likely devastating economic, security and diplomatic consequences. Oil prices could skyrocket. The stuttering global economic recovery could be driven into a tailspin.

A wider regional conflict might well spiral out of control: to reach Iran, the Israelis must violate the air space of countries unfriendly to them: Iraq (now under a Shiite-dominated regime friendly to Iran), Syria or Turkey. Iran has potentially violent non-state allies, Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza, with capacity to cause considerable trouble for Israel and for Western interests. The Arab Spring, moving along a more democratic path in Egypt and Tunisia, might be pushed into more aggressively Islamist and anti-Western directions. All these scenarios are lose-lose.

Even Israeli opinion is hardly united on the course being threatened by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his Defence Minister, Ehud Barak. Former Mossad chief Meir Dagan says the idea of an Israeli air strike on Iranian nuclear facilities is “the stupidest thing ever heard.” The present Mossad chief has publicly questioned Netanyahu’s insistent assertion that an Iranian bomb tomorrow poses a threat to Israel so great as to justify the high risks of an attack today. The high command of the Israeli Defence Forces has shown little enthusiasm for preemptive military action.

Despite Western demonization of the Iranian leadership – assisted by President Ahmadinejad’s recklessly malevolent rhetoric – the actual record of Iranian behaviour as a regional power has been cautious, always fixed firmly on Iranian national interests and never on ideological adventures. Ironically, it was the American invasion of Iraq that eliminated Iran’s greatest regional rival, Saddam Hussein, against whom Iran had had to fight a horrifically bloody defensive war. Why should nuclear weapons suddenly change Iranian behaviour from moderate to reckless when Israel already has a nuclear deterrent in place?

In light of all this, how can we explain the brinksmanship with which Israel has brought the world to the edge of the precipice?

To a degree, one can be cynical about Israeli rhetoric. A relentless theme of Israeli spokespersons, echoed by the U.S.-Israeli lobby in the American media, has been that Israeli-Palestinian issues must be put on the back burner in favour of the putative Iranian threat. Through relentless dramatization of the Iranian menace, the Israeli-Palestinian peace process has been swept off the negotiating table while the Israeli cabinet proceeds with expanding Jewish settlements in East Jerusalem and the West Bank.

Another cynical political calculation can be discerned in Netanyahu’s recent visit to the United States in which his public coolness toward President Barack Obama was matched by his impassioned address to the Zionist lobby group AIPAC. Netanyahu, along with the wider Israeli right, has clearly written off the President as a lost cause. Crudely, a unilateral Israeli strike in the middle of the U.S. presidential election could put Obama between a rock and a hard place. While refusing to back up the Israelis could lead to an electoral backlash, supporting Israel would clearly signal that Netanyahu holds the upper hand, a humiliating indication that the tail is wagging the dog.

Cynicism, however, will take us only so far. There is more here than meets the eye.

When Israelis insistently point to Iran as representing an “existential” threat to Israel and invoke the Holocaust, they escalate the rhetorical level exponentially. In addressing AIPAC, Netanyahu compared the present policy options on Iran to the wartime Allied decision whether or not to bomb Auschwitz. We are told repeatedly that Israel, as the homeland created for the victims of the Holocaust, has the “right to defend itself” – even though this right is invoked to justify an attack on another country that has never attacked Israel.

There is something very weird going on here. Who is victim and who is aggressor? Is the victim of a past crime rewarded with a get-out-of-jail-free card for any aggressive acts they later undertake against others? The late Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir is said to have remarked after the 1961 trial of Adolf Eichmann, “Now, when everyone knows what they did to us, we can do anything we want, and no one has the right to criticize us and tell us what to do.” In one sense this is an ethically perverse statement, inasmuch as those the Israelis were acting against were not in fact those who acted against the Jews.

There is also a fatal ambiguity in Meir’s us: Israel may be the Jewish state, but it is still a state, and like all other states must be judged by common ethical standards, without any claim to special moral privilege. The victimhood of European Jewry in the Holocaust, as profoundly terrible as that is, does not transfer perpetual victimhood to the Israeli state. This is especially true when that state is the most powerful in the region, economically and militarily, when it enjoys a nuclear monopoly, when it is backed by the U.S. superpower, and when it is an occupying force over captive Palestinians denied the national status enjoyed by Israelis, and given to repeated attacks on its neighbours.

Israelis of the Netanyahu persuasion cannot grasp the way in which much of the rest of the world sees them: bullies posturing as victims. Nor can they understand how Israeli threats to strike Iran and Israeli demands for Western backing can be seen as dangerous moral blackmail based on faulty premises. One wonders whether Netanyahu understands that equating an Iranian bomb with the Holocaust leaves him with no exit strategy – always a hazardous strategic position.

Yet those critics of Israeli policy who allow their despair over Israeli behaviour to fuel overtly “anti-Israeli” positions demonstrate opposite forms of insensitivity. The Holocaust is a huge shadow that haunts the Jewish people. Israel was created as the homeland for the survivors of the worst genocidal campaign of extermination in history. It is hardly surprising that present-day Jews continue to feel insecure in the face of threats to “drive the Jews into the sea” or to eliminate the Jewish state. Of course this is the exaggerated rhetoric of those powerless to carry out their boastful threats. Of course Ahmadinejad is a pompous demagogue with a Mephistophelian urge to foment trouble while accepting no responsibility for his hateful words. But even if these do not add up to a true “existential” threat to Israel, outsiders must realize how such threats are felt by a people with such a dark history within living memory. Rockets still fall on Israeli soil, and the prospect of a man like Ahmadinejad with his finger on a nuclear trigger can only stir deep anxiety.

If Israel is to stand down from the brink, and the rest of the world with it, it must be with genuine security guarantees on the Israeli as well as Iranian side. This applies as well to any Israeli-Palestinian détente. At some point, Israel must shed its victim chrysalis and come to terms with its true power and security. Everyone will be better off when that moment arrives.

Robert Laird Borden and Wilfrid Laurier circa 1910. At the time of this photo, Laurier was Prime Minister of Canada, and Borden was Leader of the Opposition

With time, the federal election of 2011 may be seen as a crucial realignment election, like 1935 or 1993. In realignment elections, the party system undergoes a fundamental structural change. In 1935, two new parties appeared, the social democratic predecessor of the NDP and a right-wing Alberta-based populist predecessor of the Reform Party that in 1993 wrecked and then eventually swallowed the old Progressive Conservatives. 1993 also saw the rise of the Bloc Québécois as a sovereigntist presence in the federal Parliament.

2011 saw the destruction of the BQ by an NDP tsunami in Quebec. That, combined with the collapse of the Liberal Party across Canada, gave the NDP Official Opposition status and the Harper Conservatives their longed-for majority. The Liberal collapse sent a shock wave through the Canadian political system. With deep roots going back to pre-Confederation Canada, the Liberals are the centrist brokerage party that dominated the country from the 1890s through the 1990s and have marked every aspect of Canadian life, from the economy to the constitution to the cultural symbols of the nation. They are the party of Sir Wilfrid Laurier, Mackenzie King, Lester Pearson and Pierre Trudeau, icons of Canadian statesmanship.

George Dangerfield, author of The Strange Death of Liberal England, detailed the collapse of British Liberalism on the eve of the First World War. A century later, it is time to analyze the “strange death of Liberal Canada.” To understand this “strange death,” it is best to focus not on the fate of a political party, but on the deeper meaning of the party’s passage from domination to collapse. Parties are important not in themselves, but for what their success, and failure, can tell us about the politics of the country. Something very important has happened to our politics: the disintegration of the political centre. One need not have any loyalty or emotional attachment to the Liberal Party to conclude that this is not necessarily good news.

We might start with the dimensions of the Liberal collapse. Between 1896 and 2004, there were 30 federal general elections: the Liberals won 21, the Conservatives nine. During these years Liberal governments were in office 72 per cent of the time, the Tories only 28 per cent. This was the long Liberal century. The Liberals were the “Government Party,” the most successful political party in the Western world throughout the 20th century.

That was then. After Jean Chrétien’s third straight majority in 2000, the Liberals under Paul Martin limped to a minority in 2004 while polling 269,811 fewer votes – a loss of 5.1 per cent of their 2000 support. In 2006, Martin’s party lost government, and polled 502,805 fewer votes – a loss of 10.1 per cent. In 2008, under Stéphane Dion, the Liberal losses accelerated: 846,230 fewer Liberal votes than two years earlier, a loss of 18.9 per cent. And finally, in 2011 under Michael Ignatieff, the Liberals fell to third place, in the process polling 850,010 fewer votes, a loss of 23.4 per cent. In four elections in 11 years, the Liberals have lost a staggering total of 2,468,856 votes, close to half those who voted Liberal in 2000. And of these losses, 1,696,240 were recorded in the last two elections, in 2008 and 2011.

This is a profile of a party that is heading downhill, and picking up speed as it goes. It is perhaps conceivable that the Liberals will bounce back to edge ahead of the NDP as official, if distant, opposition to the Conservatives. More likely, they have now become a marginal third party that will linger as a shrunken shadow of its former glory. Perhaps we are actually witnessing the death throes of Canadian Liberalism, just as we witnessed the death throes of the old Progressive Conservative Party from 1993 to 2003. Whatever happens, the Liberals will never again be the Government Party of old. It is not their vertiginous loss of popularity that has led to the demise of the Government Party model, but rather the demise of the model itself that has led to the copious Liberal bleeding.

The first pillar: Quebec

Looking back over the years of Liberal domination, three pillars of a successful Government Party stand out. The first and most obvious is Liberal domination of Quebec, which dates back to the late 19th century and Canada’s first national unity crisis, the hanging of Louis Riel in 1885 by Sir John A. Macdonald. Formerly dominant in Quebec, the Bleus never really recovered. Wilfrid Laurier, the first French Canadian leader of a national party, brought the Liberals to power in 1896 on a Quebec wave.

Laurier finally lost his grip on national office in 1911, when a combination of anti–free trade Tories under Sir Robert Borden and breakaway Quebec nationalists under Henri Bourassa fatally undercut his support. But the Conservatives proved incapable of reabsorbing Quebec into their fold. In the conscription crisis of 1917, a Union government of Conservatives and pro-conscription English Canadian Liberals succeeded in forcing conscription down unwilling Quebec throats – and also succeeded in crushing Tory electoral chances in Quebec for the next 40 years.

Liberal hegemony in Quebec formed the institutional embodiment of the elite accommodation mechanism that glued the binational state together. The Liberals capitalized on the incapacity of their Conservative opponents to sustain a Quebec base. Twice in the 20th century, the Conservatives made major breakthroughs into the francophone Quebec electorate, thereby yielding national majorities. Twice they fumbled their opportunities. In 1958 John Diefenbaker won 50 of 75 Quebec seats. Four years later, in the face of Tory incomprehension of the emerging Quiet Revolution, the foothold was lost. In 1984, under Quebecer Brian Mulroney, the PCs swept Quebec, a feat repeated in 1988. Yet by 1993, the party’s Quebec wing was virtually destroyed by massive defections to the new BQ led by Mulroney’s former Quebec lieutenant, Lucien Bouchard.

In contrast, the Liberals from Laurier to Trudeau more or less competently managed the delicate negotiation of elite accommodation between English Canada and Quebec. Laurier effectively finessed the contentious Manitoba schools question that threatened English-French relations in the 1890s. During the Second World War, Mackenzie King’s studied ambiguity (“Conscription if necessary, but not necessarily conscription”) manoeuvred Canada past the jagged reefs of intercommunity crisis that had shipwrecked Borden in the previous war. Pierre Trudeau faced down the challenge of Quebec secession in the 1980 sovereignty-association referendum with an ambiguous promise of “renewed federalism”; 15 years later, Jean Chrétien faced down a more acute challenge in the second referendum, and left office in 2003 with the sovereigntist threat considerably diminished.

The positive Liberal record on the national unity file in part may represent simply good luck and good timing, but sustained success over the decades cannot be entirely attributed to chance. Facing the one challenge that has always held the potential to tear apart our federalist state, the Liberals knew how to manage Quebec nationalism. This was a particular Liberal skill in governance.

To understand the Liberal knack for managing an always restive Quebec, one must understand what Liberals meant by “national unity.” To the indignation of Quebec nationalists and sovereigntists, and to the bafflement and frustration of critics in English Canada on both right and left, the Liberal sense of national unity deliberately lacked content. It contained no vision of the Good, of the ideal Canada to be counterposed to the vision of a sovereign Quebec. Normally, it meant “more of the same” or, at most, a rejigging here and there of existing arrangements with the end goal of preserving the system intact. But this was the point: any attempt to articulate a “Canadian” countervision would open up a hornet’s nest of competing and sometimes mutually exclusive notions of what kind of Canada and Quebec was desirable. Thus the fiascos of Meech Lake and Charlottetown, when Mulroney unwisely “rolled the dice.” His Liberal successor Chrétien stoutly resisted any so-called “Plan C” for English Canada in the wake of the 1995 near-miss referendum, and he was prudent to do so.

The closest any Liberal government came to erecting a countervision to Quebec sovereignty was Trudeau’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms, his “people’s package” in the patriation debate. But even though the Charter raised controversies over the relative place of First Nations, women, gays and lesbians, etc., in the end it too conformed to the Liberal emphasis on procedural rather than substantive justice.

National unity became a watchword of Liberal politics, indeed a virtual Liberal campaign slogan, one largely successful for decades. This, however, never meant that English Canada and Quebec shared a positive vision of federalism, even in the eloquent and powerful articulation of Trudeau. It finally came down to this: the Liberals represented federalism in a Quebec that was, following the creation of the Parti Québécois in the late 1960s, rent by a sovereignty-vs.-federalism dichotomy that tended to displace all other criteria for political choice. That Liberal federalism was without much social or economic content long appeared to be strength rather than weakness. One could choose to block the sovereigntist project by voting for a party that covered over the issues that otherwise divided federalists.

Over time this conjuring trick fooled fewer and fewer. First the Liberals lost francophone voters to Mulroney’s Tories, then failed to regain them with the emergence of the BQ. Chrétien’s three majorities were built not on a Liberal Quebec but on a Liberal Ontario. The sponsorship scandal discredited Liberal federalism in the eyes of both Québécois and Anglo-Canadians. In 2006 Harper eked out a minority government. When francophone voters finally grew weary of the BQ’s fixation on sovereignty, they did not turn to a party defined by little more than its federalist faith. Instead they decided to shrug off the tired sovereignty-federalism polarization and vote for a party that had a social and economic agenda that accorded with the BQ’s social democratic philosophy, minus its overriding nationalist preoccupation. In other words, Quebec voters tentatively opted to rejoin the larger Canadian political community by choosing a pan-Canadian social democratic alternative to a right-of-centre government. With that decision, the Liberal Party’s ancient Quebec pillar finally collapsed.

The second pillar: executive federalism

The second pillar of the Government Party model was related to the first. As the national unity party, the Liberals were also the party of the federal – the national – government. It was the Liberals who managed, without benefit of coalition, the national war effort from 1939 to 1945. It was the Liberals who managed the transition to peacetime with no Depression-era unemployment and who orchestrated a quasi-Keynesian “Ottawa knows best” era of prosperity into the late 1950s. It was the Pearson Liberals who presided over the biggest increase ever in the welfare state with the introduction of medicare and the Canada Pension Plan. It was Pearson who gave us the maple leaf flag as a distinctive symbol of national pride (craftily linked to the red-and-white Liberal logo).

Despite attemps by the right to label it as such, the Liberals neither intended nor sold their policies to the electorate as dirigisme or socialism. If anything, they defined themselves as ideologically neutral, as managerial and technocratic. In the Liberal telling, the national government was more competent than the provinces in protecting the interests of the Canadian community – including French and English Canada, the western and Atlantic regions, rich and poor, the private and public sectors.

In associating themselves with the national government, the Liberals were always careful to maintain their federalist credentials, which meant dealing with provincial governments in a quasi-diplomatic manner. Under Liberal guidance the distinctive Canadian form of executive federalism emerged: a Liberal Ottawa would deal evenhandedly with provincial governments of all partisan and ideological stripes. From the late 1930s through the late 1950s, Liberal governments in Ottawa faced Maurice Duplessis’s Union Nationale in Quebec, and federal Liberals in Quebec and the UN observed a mutual nonaggression pact in federal and provincial elections. A somewhat similar situation existed de facto in Ontario where the provincial Tories remained in office from the early 1940s to the mid-1980s: Tory Ontario was often the ally of Liberal Ottawa, as in 1981–82 when Tory premiers Bill Davis of Ontario and Richard Hatfield of New Brunswick were Trudeau’s sole provincial allies in the great constitutional patriation battle.

The point here is that Liberal nationalism – if we can call it that – was nonpartisan or at least very low-key partisan. Ottawa Liberals were never eager to put their own party on the line on behalf of provincial Liberals who in office often proved more formidable antagonists than provincial governments of a different colour – witness the warlike relations between Ontario’s Mitch Hepburn and Mackenzie King in the 1930s, or the tough negotiations between Lester Pearson and Quebec’s Jean Lesage in the 1960s.

Starting with John Diefenbaker’s 1958 electoral sweep, the Liberal identification with the national state began to flash warning signs. The west, especially the prairies, grew restive about federal governments that seemed disengaged from western concerns. With the exception of Trudeau’s “just society” 1968 election, the federal Liberal vote in the western provinces never recovered. Rejection of the Liberals in the west reached new highs under Trudeau. In Trudeau’s 1980 return to power, only two Liberal MPs were elected west of Ontario. The Trudeau government then embarked on the National Energy Program that was, and has remained to this day, anathema in Alberta. The rise of the west was imposing a new reality on the Canadian political economy, and the Liberals’ identification with the national state pitted them in a structural conflict with powerful province-building projects across the west. This weakened the national government, and the Liberal Party.

Events beyond Canada also spelled increasing difficulty for both the federal government and the Liberal Party. The decline of economic growth rates in the 1970s led to the rise of Thatcherism in Britain and Reaganism in the United States. Faith in the Keynesian welfare state faltered. Liberal identification with the national government had always been about Liberals as sound economic managers, and the federal bureaucracy as the competent custodian of the national interest. As markets came to be favoured over politics, and government came to be seen as more the problem than the solution, this second pillar of the Government Party model was seriously undermined.

The third pillar: the Liberals as chameleons

The third pillar of the Government Party model was the agility of the Liberal Party over many decades in identifying and capturing for its own electoral benefit the prevailing direction of the ideological winds in the country. Observers who have chosen points at which the Liberals veered left might conclude that the Liberals are “really” socialists in slow motion; observers who chose points at which they veered right might conclude that they are “really” conservative wolves disguised as moderate sheep. The best description of Liberal policy and ideology over the decades is neither of the above. The Liberals were chameleons: lizards able to change colours to match the immediate environment, so as to minimize the risk of exposure to enemies.

At crucial points in the 20th century, the Liberals veered leftward to co-opt a spike in left-wing public sentiment and thus pre-empt the potential rise of a rival party to the Liberals’ left. In the 1945 election, following the rise of the social democratic CCF, the King government promised a “New Social Order”: family allowances, a national housing policy, a strong federal role in maintaining full employment, etc. In the 1960s, after the founding of the NDP on a solid trade union financial base, the Pearson Liberals brought in a national medicare scheme (after its tumultuous introduction in Saskatchewan by the CCF-NDP) and the Canada Pension Plan. From 1972 to 1974, Trudeau managed a minority by working closely with the NDP. In 1980, Trudeau made a startling return from the dead by campaigning against an austerity budget by the short-lived Clark government, and then moved in office to the ill-fated National Energy Program, foreign investment review and other left-of-centre policies. One last gasp of Liberal leftism came in 2008 with the doomed Liberal-NDP coalition bid that was only averted by Harper’s prolonged prorogation of Parliament.

There is another side of the historical ledger. After returning to office in 1935, Mackenzie King led a government that was, in the desperate context of the Great Depression, one of the most conservative in Canadian history. The Louis Saint-Laurent–C.D. Howe Liberal governments of the 1950s were thoroughly rooted in corporate capitalist Canada. In the 1990s, the Chrétien-Martin Liberals slashed spending and eliminated the deficit that had bedevilled the Mulroney governments of the 1980s.

The Liberals were neither left nor right; they were the classic brokerage party, an electoral and governing machine that tries to put together a coalition of voters that can stay ahead of the competition, whatever direction voters move at any given moment. That formula works best when the brokerage party sits astride the political process as the dominant force, and when it is the only credible alternative when in opposition. This latter condition has vanished now that the Liberals have slid to minor party status. Michael Ignatieff appealed to voters in 2011 not so much as a positive left-centre alternative to the Conservatives as with the old refrain that only the Liberals could form a government. Like the cartoon coyote who runs off the edge of the cliff yet continues on thin air until he finally looks down, the Liberals believed their own conjuring trick – until May 2. No longer a credible governing party, nor the only credible alternative, the Liberal Party with its brokerage politics looks much less attractive. It is a party that stands for little, other than the delusion that it is entitled to office.

Mulroney’s failure and what it tells us

Failing Liberal brokerage politics is part of the explanation for the Liberals’ demise. To fully grasp the extent of the changes that have overtaken Canadian politics in the past three decades, we must turn to the Progressive Conservatives’ inability to establish themselves as a governing party. When Brian Mulroney assumed office in 1984, his government seemed to be the fulfilment of the Government Party model. The Tories held a majority or plurality of seats in every province and region. A Quebec leader had stolen that province from the Liberals and added the west, which had abandoned the Liberals since Diefenbaker. Mulroney in office eschewed the harder ideological examples of his fellow conservatives Thatcher and Reagan to follow a more pragmatic brokerage model. No axes were taken to social programs; he introduced a major new tax, the GST, to pay for pensions, UI, transfers to provinces and so on. A confident national government negotiated free trade with the United States. Mulroney also negotiated the Meech Lake agreement that promised to “bring Quebec back into the Constitution” after its isolation over Trudeau’s patriation. Grasping all three pillars of the old model, seemingly with more conviction than his opponents, Mulroney appeared poised to inherit the mantle of the Government Party.

It did not happen. A populist backlash in English Canada defeated the Meech Lake Accord, and disaffection with pragmatic PC policy flared on the right. In Mulroney’s second term, the PCs were riven by massive defections – in Quebec to the BQ and in the west to the Reform Party. After Mulroney abandoned the field to Kim Campbell, she won a derisory two seats in the 1993 election. The PCs never recovered.

The crucial point of this story is that the Mulroney attempt at brokerage failed because of two new parties that were quite different in nature both from each other and from either the PCs or the Liberals. Both Reform and the BQ were resolutely ideological in origin, explicitly rejecting the centrist policies that had characterized the Mulroney years. The BQ’s raison d’être was independence for Quebec, a goal to which all other policy was subordinated. Reform rejected the economic and social policies of the centre, calling instead for strong economic and social conservatism and radical populist innovations in direct democratic control of representatives (free votes, initiatives, referendums, recall).

The PC collapse of 1993 was not just another electoral setback for an old-line brokerage party; it was a signal of how politics would henceforth be played. To be sure, the BQ failed in its raison d’être. Reform underwent one transformation into the Canadian Alliance and then took over the PCs, forming the new Harperite Conservative Party. Superficially, we seem to have returned to the old party system that prevailed prior to 1993. Appearances are deceiving. The BQ took francophone Quebec out of the old game of elite accommodation, with consequences yet to be fully counted. Equally important, the ideological DNA of Reform/Alliance that went into the new Conservative Party has produced a hybrid beast that has branched off from the old Lib/Con Government Party evolutionary tree.

The Conservatives’ wedge politics

When the new Conservative Party was founded, it quickly shucked off the direct democracy component of Reform ideology. The sole surviving remnant was fixed election dates, which Harper enacted – then promptly ignored in 2008. This is no surprise since Harper had long been a critic of the direct democracy element of Reform ideology. While populist democracy was a mainly western enthusiasm, the Calgary-based but Toronto-born Harper drew on Mike Harris’s Common Sense Revolution in Ontario as inspiration both for the new party’s economic and social ideology and for its political and electoral strategy.

The Harris program for Ontario was largely Thatcherite and Reaganite in content, sharply to the right of the bland Red Toryism of the Frost-Robarts-Davis years. As important as the changing content of policy was the changing shape of the party as a vote- getting enterprise. The Harris party was rebranded for the new political science of micromarketing. It was no longer a party but a virtual party: the Conservative franchise chain sold a product, the Common Sense Revolution, and Mike Harris was its public face. What was new was the marketing concept: the product was not designed for the largest possible number of possible buyers, and thus watered down to the lowest common denominator acceptable to the largest number. That was old-style thinking. New media and polling tools permitted the identification and targeting of niche markets that could be persuaded to vote Tory by specific promises. Political campaigning focused singlemindedly on these microconstituencies. In office the Harrisites were relentless in fulfilling promises to microconstituencies, and were rewarded with a solid vote in their 1999 reelection.

Political micromarketing was an import from the United States. The Clinton Democrats had been adept at identifying target niches (the famous “soccer moms”). The Harris Tories went beyond identifying potential positives by seeking “wedge issues” deliberately designed to be divisive.

All significant public policy creates winners and losers. The Harrisites grasped an important element in the new science of micromarketing: the visible anger of the losers confirms the support of the winners. There was an enormous backlog of resentment built up after years of mildly left-of-centre governance by the David Peterson Liberals and the Bob Rae New Democrats. The Tories tapped into it. “Taxpayers” were pitted against the “special interests.” When these “interests” reacted to attacks on their “entitlements” with strikes and demonstrations, this only deepened the commitment of the “taxpayers” (winners with big provincial tax cuts) by showing that their enemies (unionized workers, students, feminists, gays and lesbians, Aboriginals, etc.) had been made losers. Wedge politics is a zero-sum game, based not so much on class as on ressentiment.

One crucial caveat: this kind of politics works best when the right is united and the centre-left is divided. Such was the case in Ontario where the Liberals and NDP divided the vote to the left of the Tories. In this scenario, a minority coalition of niche constituencies can command power over a divided majority. A decade after Mike Harris, Stephen Harper and his marketing and PR gurus stepped into this opportunity at the federal level. Flush with cash from phenomenally successful fundraising (much of it based on niche constituencies like evangelicals), the Conservatives have launched what Tom Flanagan, insider party scholar-activist par excellence, has called the “permanent campaign.”1 A 24/7 partisan avalanche of negative advertising designed to frame Tory opponents as unworthy destroyed two successive Liberal leaders, Stéphane Dion (“Not much of a leader”) and Michael Ignatieff (“Just visiting”), in the minds of voters before these leaders could define themselves. The permanent campaign rests on relentless partisanship: every issue is infused with partisan rancour in which the opposition parties are tarred with negative invective. The point is not to present the government’s accomplishments in a positive light, but to frame the opposition in the most negative light.

The practitioners of negativity believe that voters can be conditioned more readily by fear than by hope. This is not a new insight. Machiavelli asked long ago if fear or love was the more valuable asset for the Prince. His answer was unequivocal: men love at their own free will, but fear at the will of the Prince, and the wise Prince relies on what is in his power and not in the power of others. Harper as Prince is a good Machiavellian.

Wedge issues fit well into the negativity of niche marketing. Never mind that on a particular issue more people may be on the other side. The hook in a wedge issue is designed for the target niche, not for others, even when the others are in the majority. In describing the “emerging Conservative coalition,” Flanagan reveals the confrontational, divisive nature of the party’s coalition building. After the 2008 electoral reverse suffered by the party in Quebec, the leadership abandoned its earlier attempt to enlist Quebec as the third pillar of its governing coalition (along with western populists and traditional Tories). Instead they targeted ethnic communities, especially in the then Liberal fortress of Toronto.

The roots of this targeting go back to 2005 when Harper seized on the same-sex marriage bill introduced by the Chrétien government. “Harper,” writes Flanagan, “decided to use it as a wedge issue to approach ethnic voters.” $300,000 was allocated to running ads in ethnic media appealing to the conservative moral values of many religiously oriented ethnic voters, opposed to the “lifestyle obsessions of Liberal elites.”2 This was the platform on which the party fashioned its major breakthrough into the ethnic vote in 2011, sweeping 30 of the 45 seats in the Greater Toronto Area. No matter that a majority of Canadians endorse same-sex marriage: as a Tory wedge issue, it was mission accomplished. It is sound electoral strategy, when the opposition parties split the majority vote between them. That it was bought at the expense of pandering to homophobic prejudice and inflaming distrust and division apparently did not trouble Conservative consciences.

Conjuring the Socialist-Separatist Menace

There are already postelection hints of how this negative niche marketing strategy will be extended now that the Liberals have been displaced by a Quebec-based NDP as the official opposition, especially after the tragic death of Jack Layton has left the NDP with a vacuum at the top. Quebec, downplayed in Tory strategy after 2008, has now been written off altogether. Tory spin on Quebec was test-marketed in the propaganda onslaught against the ill-fated Liberal-NDP coalition, which was duplicitously framed as a Liberal coalition not just with the “socialists” but also with the “separatists” – which it was not. This attack on the legitimacy of the BQ continued with the Conservatives’ self-serving plan to scrap public financing of political parties. Real Canadian taxpayers, it was said, were being made to pay for a disloyal separatist party (Quebec taxpayers who voted for the BQ were not, it would seem, “real” taxpayers).

Now that the orange tsunami has swept the BQ off the Quebec map, the Tory spin machine has quickly regeared to unmask and denounce leading Quebec NDPers, starting with interim leader Nycole Turmel, as former Bloquistes or as having had dalliance with separatists in the past. Ponder the implications for national unity: instead of the conversion of former sovereigntists being welcomed, the NDP is denounced as cryptoseparatist.

Contempt for Quebec was further demonstrated when Harper replaced his communications director from Quebec with Angelo Persichelli, an ethnic press journalist who does not speak French and had authored a notorious column in the Toronto Star complaining that that there are too many francophones around Ottawa: “Many are tired of the annoying lament from a province that keeps yelling at those who pay part of its bills and are concerned by the over-representation of francophones in our bureaucracy, our Parliament and our institutions.”3 Even Tory senators from Quebec complained. Winning Quebec hearts and minds is not at the top of the PMO agenda.

For the Machiavelli of Calgary Southwest, this is only part of the plan. Now consider the government’s postelection lurch toward nostalgic celebration of the British monarchy. There was the lavish attention paid to the visit of the newlyweds Kate and William, the return to the Royal Canadian Navy and the Royal Canadian Air Force, the replacement of Quebec artist Alfred Pellan’s mural in the Foreign Affairs building lobby with a portrait of Her Britannic Majesty, orders to hang the royal portrait front and centre in every Canadian embassy throughout the world. Next year a huge bicentennial celebration is planned to commemorate the War of 1812 – patriotism suitably wrapped in the Union Jack. This sudden effusion of British royalist sentiment might appeal to the Colonel Blimp niche in the electorate, which may have been a big constituency in 1940 but is not exactly influential today. The real point is negative: to provoke the Quebec NDP into lashing out at this flaunting of British hegemonic symbolism, thus revealing the disloyal “separatists” in federalist clothes.

When Brian Topp became the first announced candidate for the NDP leadership, the PMO smearmongers were instantly off the mark: “How could Brian Topp speak on behalf of all Canadians, when he is so tied to big union special interests” and was the “NDP leader’s hand-picked negotiator in the coalition talks with the separatist Bloc Québécois.” The next round of Dion-Ignatieff character assassination ads was previewed: “Brian Topp will do anything – including forming a wreckless coalition with separatists – in order to gain power.”4 There you have it: the Socialist-Separatist Menace coming soon to a television screen near you. The cynicism is breathtaking.

But there is yet more political gain for the Tories in this attack. The threat posed by a strong NDP rooted in Quebec is a left-centre alliance that would cross the national divide and bring a social democratic government to national office, the very possibility thwarted by the domination of Quebec by the leftish but sovereigntist BQ and by the Liberal-NDP split in English Canada. Conjuring the Socialist-Separatist Menace thus does double duty.

This marks how far we have come from the old Government Party model, whether Chrétien Liberal or Mulroney Conservative. All three pillars have been repudiated by the Harperites.

National unity has been abandoned for the immediate partisan advantage of undermining the Quebec-based opposition within English Canada. Breaking with the traditional Liberal practice of executive federalism, the Harperites have intervened in the Ontario election of 2011, campaigning for their Tory counterparts against a Liberal premier. Three weeks before an election in Prince Edward Island the Liberal incumbents are hit with a federal government probe of alleged corruption from a few years back, charges enthusiastically supported by the Liberals’ Tory challengers. Partisanship trumps executive federalism.

As for centrist pragmatism in policy, it is a relic of the Liberal past. Division is fostered over consensus as group is pitted against group, and ideology against ideology. Opposition is delegitimized. “Conservative values are Canadian values. Canadian values are Conservative values,” Harper declared at the Calgary Stampede, thus implying that liberal and social democratic values are un-Canadian.5

This is a Canadian equivalent of the contemporary American political system, a system in which a hyperpartisan and ideological Republican party, pushed by the Tea Party and cheered on by Fox News, has bombed out the political centre to interdict compromise with the “left” (i.e., the Democrats). It is in this context that the decline and fall of the über-centrist Liberal Party must be set. It is the strange death of the political centre that is more striking and more demanding of explanation than the strange death of Liberal Canada.

Recreating the centre

There are those in the NDP camp who welcome the vanishing centre as the necessary removal of an unprincipled Liberal Party, clearing the way for what was once hopefully called “creative politics”: a sharp, well-defined right-left division between the Conservatives and the NDP. The complaint of social democrats that the deadening hand of the Liberals smothered the emergence of a Canadian version of the British Labour party was memorably expressed in Frank Scott’s poem on the death of Mackenzie King:

He blunted us.

We had no shape
Because he never took sides,
And no sides
Because he never allowed them to take shape.

There is a problem with this call for right-left class politics. Currently the North American right, not the left, has the ideological wind in its sails; the sharper the division, the worse the fate of the left. And this has always been the case. British Columbia is a Canadian case study for what happens when politics is turned into a binary opposition of ideologies. B.C. politics has been the closest thing to European-style class politics ever since the CCF emerged as a contender for provincial office in the 1930s. The right coalesced in reaction, first behind the B.C. Liberals in the 1930s, then behind a Liberal-Conservative coalition in the 1940s, followed by Social Credit from the 1950s through the 1980s, and finally again the B.C. Liberals in the last decade. Whatever name it has gone under, a business-based right-of-centre party has confronted a labour-dominated, ideologically driven CCF-NDP. The results are stark. In 22 elections since the arrival of the social democrats, the right-wing party has won 19 times, the NDP only three times. Over eight decades, the right has been in office 84 per cent of the time. This is not an impressive track record for “creative politics.”

Here is the prime vulnerability for the post-Layton NDP, and the Tory smear machine will gleefully seize on it. Whoever succeeds Layton will be framed as a scary radical, and the party as a dangerous leftist threat to Canadian values and, of course, to taxpayer wallets. As the centre declines, the resulting political narrative favours the right more than the left. True, the Canadian public idolizes icons of the left like Tommy Douglas and Jack Layton – once they are safely dead. But the same public elects and reelects living, acting politicians of the right. The language of politics reproduced through the media and the corporations embeds the dominant theme of the right: the self-interested demands of taxpayers and consumers are prior to the obligations of citizens toward their community. Politicians of the right go with the flow; those of the left have their faces to the wind.

Liberals occasionally got things through, from the left like medicare or from the right like deficit elimination, precisely because they “blunted” debate (in Scott’s lament). Deficit elimination under the Liberals worked because they “never took sides,” refusing to package it as a neoliberal attack on the state. It worked so well that, by the end, all parties (including the NDP and the Greens) were in agreement that Canada’s welfare state, no less than its economy, was in better shape when the books were in balance than when the country was in debt to foreign creditors and the bond rating agencies. Contrast this to the brutal Hobbesian state of nature that characterizes the current war between the Republican Congress and the Obama White House over the U.S. debt problem, where the centre is a no-man’s-land between armies that take no prisoners.

There is a deeper question than the electoral fate of particular political parties. Is the decline of the political centre rooted in the changing social and economic circumstances of our time? Or is it an artificial construct, fostered and manipulated by the right for its own political benefit? Perhaps it is a bit of both. The squeeze on the middle class has in effect narrowed the base for the political centre.6 The fragmentation of the commons and the techniques of micromarketing, both facilitated by the new media, allow wedge politics to deconstruct the “public” into multiple manipulable “publics.”

There is widespread disgust with the negative climate of politics fostered by the deliberate attack on the centre. To the extent that the cultivation of fear and loathing turns many people off politics altogether, especially young people, it may even be a deliberate strategy of the right: shrink the voting population down to a smaller pond dominated by right-wing constituencies. But there is also an enduring yearning for more civility and more common ground on which substantive, as opposed to partisan, debate can take place over public policy.

At this point the continuing partisan divide of the parties to the left of the Conservatives is not only unfortunate but downright irresponsible. The 60 per cent of the electorate that has refused to be drawn into Harper’s coalition of negativity cannot reasonably be described as a “left” alternative; it is a potential centre-left source of effective opposition – if the two or three parties can get their act together and unite to represent this nascent majority. If this happened, the Liberals would probably shed some of their own more conservative elements – the John Manleys et al. – which would bolster the Red Tory minority in the Harper party and be a welcome moderating influence on the Harperites.

Perhaps the centre’s strange death has been, like Mark Twain’s, greatly exaggerated. If Harper has moved the entire spectrum to the right, then it is the centre-left that now occupies the ground formerly contested between the Liberal centre and the NDP left. The three pillars of the old Government Party still remain relevant, albeit in need of renovation:

  • national unity redefined as a common progressive front across the two nations;
  • a renewed and reinvigorated national government as an instrument for the Canadian community as a whole against the fragmenting forces of globalization and private greed;
  • an emphasis on rational public policy as against ideological zealotry.

There is a potential majority around these pillars that needs the encouragement and cooperation of both the Liberals and the NDP. With that cooperation the strange death might then become a not so strange rebirth.

Continue reading “The Liberals: The strange death of the political centre”

In North America populism is all the rage. In the United States, activists under the banner of the “Tea Party” are storming the Republican Party. Rabid right-wing TV ranter Glenn Beck poses as the tribune of the people.

Canadian politicians and commentators are less inclined to act as hysterical drama queens, but we are not immune to the appeal of populism. This is especially the case in British Columbia, where populist frenzies can suddenly flare like the forest fires that consumed parts of the B.C. interior in the summer of 2010. Just as the fires were fuelled by the prior infestation of the pine beetle that has turned forests into kindling, populist rage feeds on a political system already hollowed out by undemocratic politicians.

Like American populism, the B.C. variety is a taxpayer revolt, in this case opposition to the Harmonized Sales Tax (HST). Economists have been virtually unanimous in arguing that the HST makes economic sense. They could have saved their breath. The public was in no mood to listen to academics. Nobody likes a tax increase, but anti-HST feelings soon went beyond the usual grumbling: they now threaten to overturn not only the HST but also the Liberal government that brought in the HST. They have already claimed the career of three-term Premier Gordon Campbell.

Driving the populist wave was anger at the antidemocratic attitude of the Liberal government, which had campaigned for reelection in 2009 without a hint of an impending HST decision, and then dropped the bombshell in the immediate aftermath of winning another majority. Arrogantly assuming that voters’ attention span fell short of the next election in 2013, they thought they could get away with it. Bad plan.

The HST saga is a tale of two provinces. Ontario made the decision first. There has been taxpayer grumbling in Ontario, but little more. Ontario anger will have to be saved for the next provincial election.

B.C. is a different story. In keeping with its populist political culture, B.C. has a unique Recall and Initiative Act, NDP legislation from the 1990s. An initiative petition to stop the HST was launched by the discredited former Social Credit Premier Bill Vander Zalm and other right-wing antitax crusaders, joined hand in hand by NDP leader Carole James and pro-NDP journalist Bill Tieleman.

Despite, or perhaps because of, such strange bedfellows, the petition easily amassed sufficient names in every constituency. As a result, a provincewide referendum on Vander Zalm’s proposed “HST Extinguishment Act” will be held in September 2011. Premier Campbell quickly announced that his government would accept a simple majority of votes cast as the trigger to dump the tax, thereby hoping to avoid the other, nuclear, option threatened by the anti-HST campaigners: “total recall” of the entire Liberal government (Total Recall is the title of a 1990 movie starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, who 13 years later became Governor of California in a campaign recalling a recently elected governor). B.C. legislation permits petitions to recall sitting members of the legislature, and while no recall attempt has yet succeeded, there is no precedent for the heat of the present populist backlash.

The prospect of an impending vote on the HST represents a public policy disaster for the province. Uncertainty over the fate of a key tax for business can only harm the economic climate, and if, as is likely, the HST is dumped, the ramifications will be worse. Reversing the HST, which is a joint federal-provincial program, would involve negotiations with Ottawa, and B.C. would have to return $1.6 billion the federal government kicked in as a sweetener. It would also have to restore its provincial sales tax and reconstitute the bureaucracy to administer it (which was absorbed into Revenue Canada when the HST replaced the PST). It would be a major-league mess. Campbell desperately announced a 15 per cent cut in provincial income tax, but when that failed to improve his dismal approval ratings (9 per cent!) he abruptly resigned and called for a leadership convention.

Whatever happens, B.C. has shown eagerness to go down the road of California, where public policy may be determined by referenda and initiatives, and elected officials can be recalled by an aroused electorate. The prospect of the “Californication” of B.C. is one that should chill not just British Columbians but all Canadians. It is universally acknowledged that California is a failed state with collapsed finances, disintegrating educational and health institutions and dysfunctional politics.

There is a direct link between California’s dire straits and its extreme populism. Proposition 13, an initiative passed by California voters in 1978 and now embodied in the state constitution, not only lowered property taxes but severely restrained state and local governments from raising taxes in the future. This taxpayer revolt has paralyzed funding for public institutions for more than two decades.

Populism does not, as its proponents like to think, make democracy more democratic. It just makes it more dysfunctional – and therefore less democratic. Populism is incapable of mustering a positive program for reform because the emotions that drive it are fundamentally negative: distrust and resentment of privileged “elites” and the large, complex organizations “they” have turned against “us.” Underlying populist rhetoric is an enduring democratic fallacy: the “will of the people” is perpetually thwarted by self-serving elites.

But what is this “people” that possesses a unified “will”? Margaret Thatcher once infamously said, “There is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families.” One might with greater accuracy say that there is no such thing as the people. There are individuals and groups, and there are interests. The problem with populism is that it constructs a mythical “people” to provide a false legitimacy to the loudest voices of the moment. But the people are always divided among themselves, with sharply differing interests in conflict. This is why populism is almost always negative. You can unite a large number of people against something – especially a tax – but it is much more difficult to unite people for something. In federal politics, populist backlash vetoed both the Meech Lake and Charlottetown constitutional accords, but populism has offered no constructive alternatives.

Ex-Socreds, miscellaneous right-wingers and NDPers can all be mobilized against the HST, although there is not a chance they could act together for anything. Hitching itself to a populist wave is a dangerous strategy for the NDP, whatever its immediate electoral appeal. Populism in the 21st century has a distinct right-wing complexion – as witness the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party, funded by far-right billionaires like Rupert Murdoch. The people elect the politicians, but they do not elect the capitalists. Politicians are accountable; the capitalists are not. Corporate wealth and power escape populist rage, by and large, while the state, which alone can rein in unrestrained corporate power, bears the brunt and sees its fiscal capacity and its regulatory power weakened: as a result, the people lose. Think of it as populism’s built-in self-destruct mechanism.

The NDP first fought B.C.’s environmentally progressive carbon tax in the provincial election, and now fights the HST. Does a purportedly social democratic party with an agenda for expanding public programs really want to come to office on the back of a tax revolt? Yet the federal NDP has joined its provincial party in vociferously opposing both the carbon tax and the HST. Such is the siren song of populism.

How ironic it is that British Columbia, the worst-case scenario for dysfunctional populism, has also offered a remarkable innovation in democratic governance. In 2003 a B.C. Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform was created (composed of 160 men and women in equal numbers randomly selected from each of B.C.’s electoral districts) to advise on the best voting system for the province. Unlike plebiscitary populism that gives only the power of “no” to a faceless majority, the Citizens’ Assembly was an exercise in deliberative democracy: ordinary people learned about and thoughtfully debated an issue with which the political parties could not be trusted for partisan reasons, and then made a positive recommendation submitted to a provincewide referendum in 2005.

The Citizens’ Assembly plan, for a Single Transferable Vote system (STV), “failed” after gaining 59 per cent in a referendum (the province set the bar at 60 per cent). It was again put to the voters in 2009, but was defeated soundly by a majority of No votes. Ironically, this time it fell victim to populist distrust (fed by political parties which dislike a voting system that undermines their privileges). Prominent among the anti-STV campaigners was Bill Tieleman, the same NDP advocate who has helped spearhead the anti-HST campaign. Call it the populist audacity of nope.

The point is not whether STV is preferable to the existing voting system. The point is that the Citizens’ Assembly offers a procedural model of deliberative democracy that is preferable to populist negativism. British Columbia thus offers the rest of the country the best and the worst faces of political reform.

To understand the policies of the Chinese government, foreign as well as domestic, it is necessary to understand the tacit social contract that underpins the regime. It begins with economic development. Any visitor to China today – at least to the most developed urban parts of this vast country – cannot but be astonished by the sheer magnitude and swiftness of the transformation from an underdeveloped and misruled Communist autocracy into a capitalist dynamo that has just outpaced Japan to become the second largest economy on earth and has its sights on eventually closing in on the United States at the top of the global league tables.

Take two examples. Beijing two decades ago was a city of bicycles. Today there are more than four million automobiles on the roads of Beijing. Six ring roads with intersecting connectors, all of them multilane freeways, are congested from day to night. The Beijing authorities have even been forced to restrict the number of car purchases, with a lottery system for new licences.

Shanghai was once a city ground under the heel of arrogant Western colonialism, where the European lords of the earth erected the notorious “No dogs or Chinamen allowed” signs around their privileged enclaves. Today its business district looks like a 22nd-century science-fiction city of the capitalist imagination. Pudong is the area of Shanghai directly across the river from the Bund, the street that ringed the old foreign enclave area. Twenty years ago Pudong was entirely farmland. Today it is the site of what must rank as one of the world’s premier urban skylines – matching Singapore, outdoing Tokyo, Hong Kong, Manhattan, with its sheer plenitude of ultramodern towers vying with one another in stunningly imaginative design as they push skyward in exuberant commercial cacophony. At night the Pudong skyline becomes a symphony of lighting effects, with rainbow cascades of colours up and down the walls, the offices of enterprise metamorphosed into effervescent spires of the night.

The Great Wall took decades and the blood, sweat and sacrifice of millions to erect. In Shanghai, more than 10,000 high-rise buildings have been erected in the past 20 years. Construction firms work 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Of course, the planners are not bothered with zoning restrictions, onerous building regulations or union rules, and certainly not with citizen groups protesting the destruction of old neighbourhoods or the elimination of green space. Shortly after my visit, a 28-storey residential tower caught fire while being renovated and scores of residents burned to death: apparently building codes for safety exits were less than adequate, and there was no legal requirement for sprinklers. And the pollution is appalling. But even with the dysfunctional side-effects that disfigure capitalist hyperdevelopment everywhere, one is still astonished at the stunning speed with which China has emerged as the ascending economic superpower of the 21st century.

The unspoken social contract

No one can deny the astounding power of the market forces unleashed by the economic reforms under Deng Xiaoping. The material evidence is everywhere. What is bizarre about China’s headlong capitalist transformation is that it is directed by Communists, in the name of Communism. It is the same state, the same party, the same gang of autocrats and apparatchiks who brought four decades of zealous Maoist ideology and often downright imbecilic economic policy – such catastrophic follies as the Great Leap Forward of the late 1950s when Mao’s brutal collectivization policies led to famines in which 35 million or more people perished. As late as the 1960s and early 1970s, the lunacy of the Cultural Revolution wracked Chinese society from top to bottom, as gangs of youthful zealots ran amok with official sanction, destroying or maiming everything and everyone in their wake like crazed locusts.

No one in China today tries to justify the Cultural Revolution. Everyone readily admits its insanity, and shudders at the memory. Deng Xiaoping is the new Great Helmsman, putting Chairman Mao in the shade. All China’s newfound riches and its correct policies are attributed to Deng’s reforms. To young Chinese, China’s modern history starts with Deng’s reforms; what came immediately before is a distant dark age.

Strangely, Chairman Mao is still quite visible. His portrait still stares out over Tiananmen Square (although now matched by a statue of Confucius). Along the Bund in Shanghai, a statuary Chairman stares across at the capitalist Oz of Pudong. But Mao is a curiously absent presence. The idiocies and atrocities carried out under his direction and encouragement are freely acknowledged but never as the results of Mao’s and the Communist leadership’s decisions. It is as if actual Maoist policies were malignant natural forces like floods, droughts or tsunamis rather than the malevolent responsibility of the men who actually conceived, implemented and enforced them. It is commonplace to hear young Chinese express revulsion at what they have learned about the excesses of the Cultural Revolution, while at the same time referring to the continued wise direction of the country under a Communist Party whose lineage extends in direct succession from Mao to Deng to today’s Hu Jintao. Yet there is no alternative to this contradiction within the ruling narrative. The same gang that brought the crimes of the past is bringing the gifts of the present. Blame them for the former, and one risks the latter.

And thus the unspoken but almost universally acknowledged social contract. It goes like this: the regime promises unlimited economic growth and an open door of opportunity for individual enrichment; the quid pro quo is that the population agrees to give the regime a free hand in the political arena. If the people seek to participate directly in the political process bypassing the party, if they insist on direct accountability of party officials, if they publicly question the authority of the party to make all the key decisions, then unlimited economic growth will be threatened and the people will suffer. The other side of the contract, yet to be tested, poses an equivalent obligation on the party: if the regime fails to deliver continual economic growth, the people may reconsider their obligations. In the parlance of the old pre-Communist feudal regime, it will be seen to have “lost the mandate of heaven.”

China today is far from such a revolutionary or even prerevolutionary stage, but there is an unspoken threat in the air concerning the fulfilment of the social contract, on both sides. The party and state must understand the implications of any prolonged plunge into economic stagnation or decline and the prevalence of frustrated expectations. On the other side, the people understand the dire implications of pushing reformist demands to the stage of direct confrontation with the hegemony of the party – the spectre of Tiananmen 1989 hangs over all thoughts of oppositional politics.

Challenges to Beijing’s rule from ethnic enclaves within the Chinese empire – Tibetans and Uighurs, to take recent examples – are dismissed by the majority as the senseless stupidity of violence-prone agitators with “bad attitudes”: why would these people jeopardize the economic gains from Beijing’s benign management for the sake of their backward, feudal cultural identities? Similarly dismissive remarks are made about the small number of Maoist fundamentalists.

Westerners are often puzzled and frustrated by the thinness and marginality of the dissident strain in China. Much is explained by the tight hold of the regime over all forms of communication. The media are indeed claustrophobically controlled, and Internet blogging – today’s typical space for dissident voices against autocratic regimes – faces the Great Firewall, a technologically advanced censorship of the Internet to block any sites that might impart “anti-Chinese” (i.e., anti-party) material. I arrived in China in the immediate wake of the awarding of the Nobel Prize to the dissident Liu Xiaobo. Chinese media initially refused to report the award, later framing what scant notice was given in terms of anti-Chinese insults by an arrogant West.

Moreover, the Chinese blogosphere is dominated by other voices that are protected and even cultivated by the regime, those of sometimes quite rabid Chinese nationalists. When some outrage by foreigners to national sensibilities is perpetrated, the blogosphere erupts in expressions of indignation and demands for retaliation. Nationalism outpaces liberalism.

Yet simply blaming the state-controlled censorship and manipulation of communications cannot fully explain the vanishing dissent. Maoist China tried to control tightly every aspect of social and personal as well as political and economic life. Everyone had to dress according to Communist code, and was supposed to apply correct Communist principles to every aspect of his or her life. Today’s Chinese are free to dress any way they want and there are no puritanical party edicts governing sexual relations – here as anywhere else, moral rules no longer emanate from the party. Moreover, in business and trade, people are now free to operate according to their reading of the market, not according to their reading of the party line. To Chinese coming out of the long decades of totalitarian repression, these freedoms, which we in the West take for granted, appear to be huge advances. What are the complaints of a few ideological cranks at the margin compared to this – especially when their kind of radical politics could, if left unchecked, cast all the economic and political gains of the past two decades into doubt?

In the West, observers have critically noted in recent years the many ways in which citizens are being downgraded into consumers. Yet the formal legal status of political citizenship stays in place and remains as a measure of how far we are falling short of the democratic ideal. The tacit social contract between state/party and people in China means a different standard is emerging – one in which citizenship rights in the sense of active participation in the political community are waived in exchange for a de facto consumer charter.

At this point, we can speak confidently of a functioning Chinese political and economic model (the “Beijing Consensus”) that has, so far, successfully combined free-market capitalism with a monopolistic one-party state. This is quite different from the sclerotic Soviet model, which combined a command economy with a command polity, a model that disintegrated when the economy could not deliver and the political regime in the end could no longer command. It is from this vantage point that the role of China in the world needs to be understood.

Is the Chinese model a threat?

Many observers have argued that the Chinese model is threatening the global dominance of the Western model of liberal capitalism, and that there is a new economic Cold War between East and West. China’s apparently irresistible rise, especially when matched against the Great Recession that has gripped the capitalist West since the financial crisis of 2008, appears to promote its authoritarian model. It certainly holds undoubted attractions for existing autocratic, politically illiberal regimes seeking to kickstart their underdeveloped economies without threatening their own privileges, which gives China a competitive edge in pushing its model in the Third World.

In theory, politically unaccountable administrations can make and enforce the big decisions that are required in the face of big challenges, which tend to paralyze liberal democratic regimes or throw them into confusion. Once a decision is made in China, the resources can be allocated, policies can be implemented and any obstacles lying in the path can be bulldozed – in contrast to the political bedlam that any serious reform proposal sets off in the democratic West. Once a decision is made in China, the resources can be allocated, policies can be implemented and any obstacles lying in the path can be bulldozed – in contrast to the political bedlam that any serious reform proposal sets off in the democratic West. A striking example of this is the imposition of the famous “one-child” policy to reduce population pressure, which has been largely successful, although with the perverse consequence of a serious gender imbalance of male over female.

Facing this, the Western model, with its rather simpleminded version of Wilsonian democracy (democracy reduced to a voting fetish) which successive U.S. administrations keep trying with relentless futility to export at gunpoint in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, is on the defensive. The free market after the 2008 crash is no longer delivering as it promises, and everywhere democratic politics are in gridlock. Disillusion, disenchantment, disengagement are wearing down the traditional political structures, leaving executive and legislative arms of government increasingly deadlocked and impotent. Every day, democratic citizens are declaring that the only sphere in which their voices are registered through their votes is unrepresentative, unaccountable and of interest only as a punching bag to absorb spasms of populist indignation. When it faced the Soviet model, the Western model was clearly and manifestly superior; the outcome of that contest was never really in doubt. When placed in the ring against the Chinese model, the odds appear shorter.

Yet the apparent advantages of a command political structure can be deceptive. Transparency so often makes democratic politics seem perverse; the making of laws and policies is like the making of sausages – the less known about the ingredients the better. Command structures can appear magical to the jaded democratic eye. The Party or the Great Leader whisks a wand, and – presto – things get done: the battalions march; the trains arrive on time. But benevolence remains the exception among authoritarian regimes.

The Communist Party has been in command in China for six decades. When the party leaders get it right, they have shown they can do great things. But when they get it wrong, they can be very, very wrong. What guarantee can today’s party – although clearly more sensible, more rational, less ideologically fanatical than in the past – give that it will not misuse its immense power in stubbornly pursuing wrongheaded policies, with grave consequences?

For example, China clearly has the political capacity to enact radical responses to the challenge of climate change, a capacity that befuddled Western democracies appear to lack. Yet this opportunity rests in the hands of those who have in fact contributed mightily to the problem by their reckless and unregulated industrialization and urbanization policies. Indeed, the cost of the explosive economic growth that has so boosted the regime’s fortunes has been horrific environmental damage. If not offset by radical countermeasures, the continued expansion of the Beijing model in China and elsewhere where it is emulated will do incalculable harm to the planet. True, the regime has shown a capacity to mount serious ecological projects, such as a vast reforestation program in the interior. But is the leadership willing to pay the price of environmental responsibility at the expense of its growth trajectory?

What guarantees can a one-party state make that wise counsel is actually being heard and taken in the decision making process? While I was in China, the Communist Party held its four-day-long annual Central Committee meeting. Of course, the 370 top party honchos met behind closed doors. The Chinese people know that momentous decisions that will have the most serious impact on their lives are made in meetings like this, and they understand as well that their views are of little consequence to the process. The media sit obediently outside the doors of the new Forbidden City, and await the authoritative disclosure/nondisclosure at the end of the meetings, tossed by the official spokesperson like breadcrumbs to pigeons.

This year, the hot news crumb was a signal that Hu Jintao’s successor has been anointed: a 57-year-old high party functionary named Xi Jinping, one of the “princelings,” so called because of their fathers’ lineage in the revolutionary generation of Communist fighters. Xi’s qualifications for the top job, even his policy views, remain pretty much a mystery to all but those in the inner conclave – and they are not talking. Questions that perplexed outsiders might ask include: What kind of expertise is inputted into this mysterious process? What is the range of opinions permitted? How much stultifying groupthink is prevalent? We have little idea, but the sharp negative reaction to any dissenting opinions voiced from outside the party does not suggest the presence of lively and free debate within.

The imperial disdain with which the Chinese state invariably dismisses any foreign criticism of the impact of its policies on the outside world is another source of doubt about the party’s intellectual resilience. The policy of maintaining an artificially low Chinese currency to promote cheap Chinese exports to the West has been widely criticized as counterproductive on all sides: it not only impedes economic recovery in the West, which is in China’s own long-term interest, but is also destructive internally, promoting inflation and hindering the emergence of a stronger domestic market. Yet all suggestions from abroad that the currency be allowed to rise, however politely couched in the language of economic rationality, have been angrily dismissed by China as if any foreign comment is presumptuous and unacceptable.

An imperial power

This reaction calls to mind another, and perhaps even more disquieting, aspect of the politically monolithic Chinese model: its increasingly belligerent self-assertion in international relations, at least within the Asian region. Japan too once acted in very much this way, following its own rapid modernization in the 19th-century Meiji Restoration. Japan burst onto the world’s consciousness with the devastating defeat it inflicted on the Russians in the 1904−05 Russo-Japanese War. After the First World War, Japanese power expanded over Asia, leading inexorably to its fateful attack on the American Pacific fleet at Pearl Harbor in 1941. In a sense, Japan in this era was employing modern industry and modern warfare in pursuit of an expansionist foreign policy that was anachronistically feudal in conception. The disjuncture between its modernized sinews of production and killing and its traditional command structures and ways of thinking led to its catastrophic defeat in 1945, followed by yet another successful cycle of modernization, this time under the democratic capitalist model.

It is natural to see China as following along the Japanese interwar path in foreign policy. China ruthlessly extends its own imperial boundaries over places like Tibet, threatens Taiwan over Taiwan’s domestic policies, plays a heavy hand in Indochina, rumbles belligerently along the Sino-Indian border, declares its moral superiority to Japan based on complaints of Japanese atrocities in China 70 years ago, torpedoes multilateral attempts to make its reckless client regime in North Korea comply with international standards of conduct while condemning foreign assistance to South Korea as a provocation, and appears to insist on Chinese hegemony over the entire Yellow Sea between China and the two Koreas.

Like China’s growing military might, Chinese economic might is used aggressively as a counter to advance Chinese interests. Recently, a Chinese fishing boat in disputed waters rammed a Japanese patrol vessel (the event was videotaped by the Japanese). The Japanese tried to hold the Chinese captain so that he could face criminal charges. To the accompaniment of Chinese nationalist bloggers spitting indignation at Japanese “aggression,” China coolly cut Japan off from exports of rare earth minerals – crucial elements in such products as mobile phones and computers – over which it at present holds a global monopoly. Japan backed down and released the captain. Yet months later, rare earth mineral exports to Japan had not been resumed. Just so the point was not lost on Western countries that might have taken Japan’s side in this trivial but symbolic dispute, China briefly cut off such exports to the West as well. Nothing was said publicly, but the mailed fist had been delivered as a warning.

As with Japan in the interwar years, lines of political continuity from the feudal past can be glimpsed in Chinese behaviour. Beijing was and remains an imperial capital in more ways than one. Tiananmen and the Forbidden City are massive, overpowering, deliberately designed to dwarf the merely human scale. Whether housing emperors of the past or chairmen of the present, the message from the Middle Kingdom, the centre of the earth, is the same: we prevail over the lesser, peripheral tribes and nations. Visitors to the equally massive Ming Tombs, splendidly and extravagantly housing the bodies of past emperors, are met with a photo of Chairman Mao who toured the site and wrote poems inspired by what he saw, as well might this modern successor to the emperors of old.

We should not take such analogies too far, however. Indeed, a Canadian might find a more compelling analogy for contemporary Chinese attitudes toward the outside world in the United States. Perhaps there is something inherent in very large, hegemonic nations that fosters a certain mentality made up of ignorance of and lack of interest in the outside world, a sense of national self-importance that grows in the isolation that comes with power and wealth, and the habit of usually getting your own way – and of throwing violent tantrums when you don’t. That China harbours a backlog of humiliation and resentment in the face of Western arrogance only serves to make it even more prickly and self-assertive. The self-congratulatory myth of American exceptionalism has definite Chinese echoes, which do not bode well for Sino-American relations. As that old hand at playing the diplomatic China card, Henry Kissinger, nicely puts it, “neither Washington nor Beijing has much practice in cooperative relations between equals.”

Mutually Assured Economic Destruction

What is the plausibility of claims that these two me-first superpowers (one rising, the other in decline) are – like Japan and the United States in 1941 – on a trajectory toward violent collision? Setting aside xenophobic fears of a new Yellow Peril, what are the reasonable chances of economic rivalry turning into something much uglier? Where there are dangerous tripwires, as in the Koreas, fatal miscalculations can never be ruled out entirely. Moreover, China’s steady advance into Africa, the Middle East and even Latin America through its investments and development and aid projects bears with it the shadow of its growing military might, suggesting the potential for extending tensions worldwide. But there are even stronger reasons for downplaying the potential for military confrontation.

During the Cold War, the United States and Soviet Union constantly threatened each other with nuclear annihilation, yet they never once clashed directly. There was a reason for this belligerence in rhetoric and restraint in practice: the doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction. Because each side had the potential to respond to a nuclear strike with massive retaliation in kind, the first use of nuclear power was rendered unthinkable. The resulting standoff led to a kind of stability that endured for four decades.

Relations between China and America in the 21st century exhibit a peculiar parallel. The recognition of a state of Mutually Assured Economic Destruction restrains economic rivalry from escalation. As America, following the spendthrift wars of the Bush administration and the great financial crash of 2008, has sunk into massive, multitrillion-dollar debt, its biggest creditor is China. In theory, China could accelerate America into outright economic catastrophe by suddenly unloading its billions in American bonds onto the market, causing the collapse of the U.S. dollar. But bringing about global chaos also threatens China, since it depends on the continued health of American and other Western markets for Chinese exports. This situation brings to mind an old joke: “Owe the bank a thousand dollars, you have a problem; owe the bank a million dollars, the bank has a problem.” On the other side of the barricade, America is restrained from taking any aggressive action against China by the sure knowledge that Beijing holds the power to retaliate with destructive economic effect.

Chinese capital, much of it in the form of “sovereign funds” (i.e., state-controlled corporations), is going on a global buying spree. There are diehard Cold Warriors in the West who think any Chinese acquisition of a Western business represents an extension of the Yellow/Red Peril, but in fact this is hardly a cause for disquiet. The more deeply embedded Chinese capital becomes in the global economy, the less the incentive for the Chinese state to take unilateral action likely to disrupt the profitability of markets.

None of this means that China will cease efforts to gain a leading position in the global economy. This prospect is not without precedent, however, and the precedent suggests a less than apocalyptic prospect. Japan, we might remember, was once the rising rival to American economic power. In fact, Japan started out very much like China. Just as today lamentations are heard in North America and Europe about the flood of cheap knockoff “Made in China” imports and the loss of manufacturing jobs to low-wage competition from China, “Made in Japan” once bore the same connotations, and aroused the same alarms.

But Japan soon moved on, developing its own high-tech state-of-the-art exports with their own world-class designer brands. This in one sense represented much more serious competition to Western industry, but the shift also had profound implications for the Japanese political economy. One does not get to lead the world in cutting-edge production with a cheap Third World labour force. A skilled work force has to be paid according to its qualifications, and an affluent work force provided a domestic market for Japanese goods to complement their export markets – and an enhanced market for Western products.

“Made in China” will likely follow the same path. Already China is outsourcing low-end manufacturing to cheaper labour markets in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, not to speak of its own underdeveloped rural areas. And Chinese workers in the cities are starting to strike for higher wages, with some success. If Chinese enterprise moves into its own product innovation cycle, as opposed to old-fashioned import-substitution industrialization, a better trained and more skilled work force will require appropriate levels of compensation. This will not only change the terms of the economic competition between China and the West, but will also have serious implications for Chinese society, just as it has had for Japanese society.

This transformation is the shoe that has yet to drop: few signs are yet visible of distinctive cutting-edge Chinese technology giving rise to distinctive competitive products that establish global brand domination. If China fails to make this transition, its economy will stagnate, and its model atrophy. If it does make the transition, it will become something quite different from what it is today.

Will this China of the future maintain the same degree of political control over its working population? For instance, can China exploit the advantages of e-commerce and the innovative synergies of networked research communication while keeping its Great Firewall against politically suspect sites and messages? It seems doubtful. It would be reckless to assume that China will come to resemble the West in its political structures, but equally reckless to expect its present autocratic form to resist significant evolution.

What goes up must come down

There is another, compelling, reason to anticipate rising political tensions in China. Since China has chosen the economic route of “free market” competition, there is one signal lesson that we in the West, schooled in Keynes and Schumpeter, have to teach those schooled in Marx and Mao. There is an iron rule of free market capitalism: what keeps going up must eventually come down. This was the rule that bonus-frenzied financial gamblers and neoliberal economists besotted with “efficient market” ideologies forgot until the Great Crash of 2008.

In retrospect, the idea that the debt-driven bubble of growth that flared from the 1990s into this decade could have gone on indefinitely was a greed-fuelled delusion, and in the time-hallowed manner of stock markets, greed was quickly succeeded by fear. Yet the Chinese today seem to harbour a similar delusion, that their growth model makes them exempt from the normal business cycles of boom and bust. Japan, stagnating for two decades, is a sign that expansion never follows a linear trajectory. There is no reason to believe that China has found some magic wand to conjure away a basic structural feature of capitalist markets. Its growth rate will inevitably falter since the conditions supporting it cannot be sustained indefinitely.

When Chinese growth does falter, the tacit social contract underlying the Communist Party’s continued monopoly of political and administrative power will be undermined. The existing system may be very poorly designed to deal with the repercussions of frustrated expectations and social unrest that could be generated by cyclical downturns.When Chinese growth does falter, the tacit social contract underlying the Communist Party’s continued monopoly of political and administrative power will be undermined. The existing system may be very poorly designed to deal with the repercussions of frustrated expectations and social unrest that could be generated by cyclical downturns.

It is a mark of the regime’s insecurity that it spends more of its annual budget on “stabilization” (domestic security) than it does on national defence. Plans to use foreign adventures as a diversion from domestic unhappiness are unlikely: the terms of the social contract suggest that diversion of resources from domestic consumption to military operations abroad will be destabilizing internally.

The ruling elite also needs to be concerned about uneven economic growth. Not only have income disparities grown precipitously, with the fruits of growth going wildly disproportionately to a tiny economic elite, but the regional distribution of resources is very badly skewed. The “New China” is an urban phenomenon, but the bulk of the Chinese population still lives in rural areas that have seen few benefits of growth trickling down. To make matters worse, rural residents are denied the kind of access to government services and benefits available to city dwellers – sometimes even by law.

Despite constraints on movement out of the countryside, there has been an exodus of predominantly young rural people into the cities with their prospects of jobs and betterment. Already there are signs of serious unemployment/underemployment among the so-called “ant army” of graduates from provincial universities who, lacking the required “guanxi” or familial/political connections to power, have flocked to Beijing and Shanghai and live in rabbit-warren accommodations while watching their blue-collar compatriots enjoy higher levels of employment. This is precisely the kind of skilled workforce needed for the next stage of Chinese high-tech product innovation, but for now they constitute an overproduction of technical and professional talent in a labour market skewed away from white-collar jobs in the quest for cheap exports. It does not take a great deal of imagination to foresee real problems of governance emerging under conditions of general economic downturn combined with a ruling apparatus unpractised in handling widespread public protest and dissent.

One final caveat about the Chinese model: can an ideology of growth for the sake of growth be sustained forever as the motive driving more than a billion people? For the emergent entrepreneurial class, the watchword of today is that of François Guizot to the emergent French bourgeoisie of the 19th century: enrichissez-vous! For those less well situated, a modest improvement in living standards may be all that is desired, and claimed. But even excluding major social and political unrest brought about by future economic difficulties, will the Chinese continue to push forward indefinitely with the same drive to gain a yet bigger luxury car, yet more Gucci shoes? Surely they will eventually come to doubt a system that combines outmoded Leninist/Maoist political nostrums with simplistic consumerist dreams reminiscent of 1950s America. Was it not an old Chinese caution to beware what you wish for?

The expectations sparked by Mao’s Communist revolution were rudely met by the harsh realities of transforming a rural feudal society. The expectations sparked by Deng’s capitalist revolution await their own uncomfortable rendezvous with reality. Apocalyptic fears that the Beijing Consensus model of authoritarian capitalism will inexorably eclipse the liberal democratic Western model, or that China and the West are on a collision course to military confrontation, are highly overheated. China has indeed astonished the world, but once the shock is over, the dragon begins to look less formidable, more amenable. As Confucius might have said, “Politics is politics, but business is business.”

In 2008 there was a global financial crisis comparable to the storied Wall Street Crash of 1929: some of the biggest investment banks in the world, followed by the American automobile industry, tottered on the brink of collapse. If these had gone, the entire global financial system and the heart of American industry would have gone with them. The consequences of the two crashes were, however, quite different. The 1929 crash was followed by a global depression, with catastrophic consequences in mass unemployment, poverty and social dislocation. In the United States, the New Deal brought a progressive coalition to Washington with innovative social and economic programs.

Europe witnessed the collapse of the Weimar Republic and the rise of fascism. Japanese militarism swept over Asia. The world slid into war on a scale never witnessed before or since. Only that war and its aftermath resulted in the end of economic stagnation and a new golden era of postwar prosperity. The crash of 2008 had ugly consequences, especially in unemployment which was ratcheted up to historically high post-1930s levels in North America, with only moderate relief three years later. But unlike the earlier crisis, panic on Wall Street did not automatically translate into worldwide economic Political scientist Reg Whitaker writes a political column for Inroads and is a member of its editorial board. collapse.

Emergent economies, notably China and Brazil, felt scarcely a ripple. Australia sailed through unscathed. Canada experienced far less negative impact than did the United States. By 2011 even badly affected economies, with a few exceptions, seemed to be limping back toward a semblance of recovery. For Western capitalist states, the narrow escape from a rerun of the “Dirty Thirties” rests largely on lessons learned the first time around. In addition to the huge state bailout of the banks and the North American auto industry (all “too big to fail”), a Keynesian response to the market crash was promptly instituted across the board with massive economic stimulus measures – precisely the appropriate medicine that was not followed after 1929 when governments were still prisoners to classical economic nostrums. Social safety net provisions, largely set in place after the ravages of the Great Depression, prevented the worst human costs of unemployment and economic dislocation. In other words, the Keynesian countercyclical prescriptions for saving unregulated capitalism from its own excesses – objects of bitter political contestation in the 1930s and 1940s – were shown to work relatively effectively in 2008 and after. Only days before the crash of ’29, the eminent economist Irving Fisher declared that “stock prices have reached what looks like a permanently high plateau.” Fisher not only lost most of his personal savings in the crash, but spent the rest of his career trying to repair the damage to his neoclassical general equilibrium theories caused by the brute facts of market failure. And yet, by 2008, mainstream economists had largely rejected Keynesian economics, and so-called “efficient market” theories that pronounced the definitive end of boom-bust cycles in the free market had reemerged. There were a host of Fishers in all the leading departments of economics, and even more importantly in the treasury departments and central banks of all Western countries. Keynes had long since been put in the shadow by Milton Friedman’s conservative monetarism, and at the U.S. Federal Reserve Board free-market guru Alan Greenspan had told the world not to worry unduly about asset bubbles in the market caused by what he lightheartedly referred to as “irrational exuberance.”

For Western capitalist states, the narrow escape from a rerun of the “Dirty Thirties” rests largely on lessons learned the first time around. By the time irrational exuberance nearly brought down the pillars of the global economy, some serious rethinking might have been expected. There were some efforts to bring Keynes back into the academy, and even some vague references here and there to Marx’s much more radical critique of capital. But three years on, the extent to which everything has returned to business as usual in economics and finance is quite astonishing. While academic economists may have made some minor adjustments in thinking, in the world of policy advice and business journalism it seems that the crash of 2008 never happened, nor was there ever a global financial crisis.
How else can we explain the persistence of strident assertions that only the unregulated free market can effectively allocate resources, and that governments can only make things worse by any kind of intervention? The Australian economist John Quiggin has addressed this irrational behaviour in a recent book strikingly entitled Zombie Economics: How Dead Ideas Still Walk among Us. The self-satisfied reasoning of the zombie economists contains a remarkable intellectual sleight of hand. Massive state intervention in the market actually worked so well to avert another depression that the state’s role in retrospect is simply whisked away, out of sight, out of mind, replaced by shameless reiteration of the free-market shibboleths that helped precipitate the crash and financial crisis in the first instance. Take the rescue of the auto industry. GM and Chrysler had screwed up so badly that the very core of American industry was threatened with massive meltdown, with incalculable consequences for the wider economy. The Obama administration took a controlling interest in the two corporations (critics sarcastically renamed GM “Government Motors”).

Despite right-wing alarms about government incompetence, Washington’s direction proved not only benign but also effective: the industry was put back on track with a sensible restructuring plan, government stepped out of direct management as quickly as possible, and in the end almost all the bailout funds will likely be recouped. Has this kind of successful state intervention led to any rethinking of Fraser Institute−style demands for yet more privatization and downsizing of the state? Not for a moment. In fact, launching huge cutback projects is now the rage among Western governments. The coalition government in Britain has placed cutbacks to the state sector at the very top of its policy agenda. In the United States, the Obama administration is hastily trying to cover its fiscal backside by offering to slash on a scale slightly more moderate than the Texas chainsaw massacre demanded by the Republicans. And small states in Europe badly caught out by the credit crisis face enforced cutbacks so severe that, in the case of Greece, they have already called forth widespread social unrest. This is one of the more puzzling aspects of the Great Recession. A crisis in the capitalist economy has led not to a crisis of conservatism in politics, but rather to a crisis of social democratic and left parties. Throughout the Western world, it has been parties of the centre-left that have been in retreat and disarray since 2008, while parties that profess worship of the very market that has just faltered so badly have experienced almost uniform electoral success. We should never assume, of course, that a crisis in capitalism automatically benefits the left. Credit with the public has to be earned, not scooped like a windfall. Left and centre-left parties have obviously not done enough to win the trust of voters. But this failure does not explain the vehement rejection that many centre-left parties have experienced, the “shellacking” that Barack Obama spoke about after the Tea Party onslaught in the 2010 congressional election. Like the Keynesian response to the crash whose very success caused it to disappear from view, social democratic contributions to the stability of capitalism (the welfare state; managed and regulated markets) have undermined social democratic political support. Originally dedicated to advancing the democratic citizenship of the working class and the poor, social democracy has been victimized by its own relative success. When workers are integrated into the consumer society, they become consumers as well as citizens.

Capitalism and its favoured political instruments successfully appeal to consumers, while left parties flail about trying to find a handle on their former constituencies. Right-wing parties, especially in their contemporary populist guise, have framed a simple, perhaps simplistic, narrative that seems to work better than the confused and often contradictory stories on the left. Still, ideology has its limits. The very real pain experienced by those on the sharp edge of the Great Recession is surely leading to questions about the system that has so hurt them. According to a global poll (GlobeScan), 80 per cent of Americans in 2002 agreed that the free market was the best system; by 2010, that support had fallen to 59 per cent. There is room for centre-left parties to capture this discontent. The spectacular rise of the NDP to official opposition status in the 2011 Canadian election might seem a hopeful sign. But this came at the cost of splitting the opposition vote and handing the Conservatives a majority government based on 40 per cent of the popular vote. To displace the right, centre-left parties will have to come up with their own framing narrative that is more compelling than that so successfully devised by the defenders of the indefensible.

It is very rare these days to find a political leader whose words can become forces in the real world with the capacity to make people think anew and perhaps even to move them to act. In the age of spin, leaders’ words are like processed McNuggets, occasionally achieving an Award for Eloquence with a slogan punchy enough to momentarily penetrate the consciousness of voters, who are judged to have roughly the attention span of a gerbil. Every word is market-researched by polls and focus groups. Desperation would grip any contemporary spin doctor faced with a draft of one of Winston Churchill’s great wartime speeches: “What? You promise them ‘blood, sweat and tears’! Winnie, are you, like, totally nuts? You want to get voted off the island?”

Once there were American presidents whose words mattered: Adams, Jefferson, Wilson, Roosevelt and, above all, Lincoln. Lincoln’s words still resonate powerfully, not just because of his eloquence but because of the clarity and imagination with which he grappled with great questions, some of which are with us yet. Mere eloquence detached from compelling logic and argument is not enough. Ronald Reagan was an actor who read his glib lines with conviction, but the lines merit no more than the odd late-night rerun on the Turner Classic Movies channel. Words can sing, but if they are to soar they must have substance.

Barack Obama came to office armed with formidable eloquence, drawing in part on the remarkable oral tradition of African-American religion. But Obama’s words convey more than unerring cadence and rhythm. He is also saying things that bear serious attention, and saying them in ways that will endure long past his presidency. We should listen carefully and consider his message, which is one of subtle subversion of long-held tyrannies of habit, prejudice and ideology.

It is ironic that the very people he particularly seeks to touch with his words – conservative fundamentalists from darkest America to darkest Islam – are now frantically attempting to shout him down, to drown out his message of conciliation, compromise and cooperation. They have no choice if they wish to remain true to their unreflective certitudes. Obama’s message is in his method, and his method is to engage his enemies on their terms, in their language, and to ask them to reconsider their positions in relation to their values. What could be more subversive, literally, than that?

This strategy of subversion is also radical in the context of the deep and corrosive polarization that the American Right has imposed on public space. Under Bush, the Republican right wing maintained a partisan death grip on the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government. The media were largely under ideological occupation by the neocons and evangelicals whose influence shifted the centre of discussion far to the right. Anyone caught on the “left” (a loose term in America) was marginalized and trivialized, if not silenced altogether.

Nor was this ideological war limited to the domestic scene. When Bush declared after 9/11 that “either you are with us or you are with the terrorists,” he drew a line at least as sharp as the East-West divide in the Cold War, and one with particular implications for the Muslim world.

Facing this ferocity of partisanship in his run for the nomination, and with his own baggage of “otherness” in his innate liberalism and, more nastily, in the colour of his skin, Obama chose a risky stance, summed up in his famous campaign phrase about not being interested in red states or blue states but in the United States. He clearly understood, as some liberal idealists do not, that to adopt an all-out attack mode against a Right so hegemonic in the society and its political institutions would be suicidal. He instead focused on the glaring deficiencies of the Republican project in terms of the real, practical situations of ordinary Americans. After eight years of neocon ideology posing as public policy, and especially after the dramatic collapse of Bush’s casino capitalism in late 2008, his practical critiques found growing resonance.

Beyond this, he was also running a very different kind of campaign, in which he targeted moderate Republicans and independents (not to speak of conservative Democrats) who had been swayed by the conservative social and cultural themes of the Right. Look, he was saying, I see the world through your eyes; I share your Christian values; I worry about the same things that you worry are threatening the American way of life. But the Republican prescription for these ills has simply not worked. Hatred, suspicion and division are not the way forward. Let’s call off the culture wars that have so corroded the fabric of civility and trust. There is a new American consensus out there, just waiting for the politicians to recognize it and move on to a more constructive agenda.

A number of Obama’s speeches make this strategy clear.

His “race” speech during the campaign for the nomination became a classic of American oratory the moment it was delivered. Obama took on the issue of race in America from the perspective of his own African-American identity and history, but he was also careful to speak across the racial divide. He asked white Americans to see the world through black eyes and black Americans to see the world through white eyes. Since the late 1960s, the Republicans had been successfully playing the race card against the Democrats. Obama took that card away.

His Cairo speech to the Muslim world in June 2009 spoke to Muslims in the words of the Qur’an, judiciously chosen not to lecture Muslims patronizingly as Bush had done, but to engage them constructively across the divide of faith while at the same time honestly facing up to the past errors of the West. It marked a shift from the “hard power” failures of his predecessors to a “soft power” approach. The aim is to isolate further the zealot core of violent Islamist fundamentalists from the Muslim mainstream – not to speak of isolating the fundamentalists in Israel equally committed to ceaseless conflict with the Palestinians.

His Notre Dame speech in May addressed the hot button issue of abortion. Obama asked his Catholic audience, “As citizens … how do we engage in vigorous debate? How does each of us remain firm in our principles, and fight for what we consider right, without demonizing those with just as strongly held convictions on the other side?” He asked his listeners to remember that the “ultimate irony of faith is that it necessarily admits doubt … It is beyond our capacity as human beings to know with certainty what God has planned for us or what He asks of us.” This doubt “should humble us … and cause us to be wary of self-righteousness.” He appealed to the Catholic social conscience to work to undermine the social and economic conditions that made abortion a necessary option.

His speech on health care reform to Congress in September was addressed to politicians as well as voters. But the strategy was the same: gear down the divisive rhetoric and focus on what is held in common as a basis for action. Unfortunately, this speech followed an incendiary summer in which the Right on the airwaves and in the streets, and Republicans in office across the land, orchestrated a recklessly irresponsible campaign of lies about health care reform (“death panels”! Canadian horrors!). Obama’s mild defence of a “public option” in the face of hysterical charges of communism appeared fainthearted to liberals, but he was still trying for common ground – especially with the more conservative members of his own party in Congress.

There is a common thread that runs through all of his words. Obama strives to synthesize the best of both sides in the ideological divide, to build a liberal conservatism and a conservative liberalism. Put baldly, this may sound like no more than the old “pragmatism” blarney that politicians fall back on to cover their own lack of convictions or ideas. But I think if we consider Obama’s words carefully, it is much more than that. There is a recognition that in democratic societies there are always deep divisions, and the freer the society the more passionately differences are held. If we want to move forward and confront the big issues that demand solutions, using the values of one group as a whip against others will be counterproductive. This was the catastrophic failure of the American Right, even when armed with all the weapons of hegemonic domination of American life.

If the narrow ideological zealotry of the Republican minority and the hysterical fearmongering of the Rush Limbaugh rabid Right has a rational design, it must be to force Obama off his message and to truly polarize political debate. If relentless negative rejection of all desperately needed reform eventually forces Obama into actually playing the militant culture warrior role that right-wing caricatures have falsely portrayed, then the Right will have won.

What a hollow, mean victory that will be.