Selected and edited from the Inroads listserv by Bob Chodos

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Harper and Palin: Just plain folks

The burst of enthusiasm that greeted John McCain’s choice of Governor Sarah Palin as his running mate in early September coincided with the beginning of Canada’s election campaign. The Conservative Party of Canada picked up on Palin’s theme of ordinary people versus the elite, and the Inroads listserv was listening.

From: Bill Doskoch | September 6

What is elitism, in a political context, and why is it bad? What is the opposite of elitism? Why is that opposite better? Why, as one example, is being president of the Harvard Law Review a bad thing and being a hockey mom a good thing? On CTV Newsnet today, Tory cabinet minister Jason Kenney said the following:

We also found out today that recently revealed that he didn’t even know what a car pool is. This is a guy who’s telling people they should do things like car pool on his website, but he’s so out of touch – this downtown, urban university professor … with the lives of ordinary Canadians, that he doesn’t even know what a car pool is.

The Globe and Mail picked up on this theme in a Friday editorial: “Even before the writ has dropped, the Tory campaign has made clear its intention to portray Mr. Harper as a minivan-driving hockey dad from the suburbs. The Liberal Leader, Stéphane Dion, by contrast, is to be ruthlessly caricatured as a wimpy and elitist academic of the mad-professor type.” But the editorial noted that Harper is himself an economist (I once read he found himself drawn to his wife Laureen because she read The Economist, that magazine of the little people).

U.S. author Judith Warner wrote the following Thursday in a blog posting at

One of the worst poisons of the American political climate right now, the thing that time and again in recent years has led us to disaster, is the need people feel for leaders they can “relate” to. This need isn’t limited to women; it brought us after all, two terms of George W. Bush. And it isn’t new; Americans have always needed to feel that their leaders were, on some level, people like them.

But in the past, it was possible to fill that need through empathetic connection. Few Depression-era voters could “relate” to Franklin Roosevelt’s patrician background, notes historian Doris Kearns Goodwin. “It was his ability to connect to them that made them feel they could connect to him,” she told me in a phone interview.

The age of television, Goodwin believes, has made the demand for connection more immediate and intense. But never before George W. Bush did it quite reach the beer-drinking level of familiarity. “Now it’s all about being able to see your life story in the candidate, rather than the candidate, with empathy, being able to relate to you.”

Why is the right so much better at playing this game than the centre-left?

To encourage robust responses, the person who supplies the best answers to these lofty questions will get six timbits and a double-double.

Bill Doskoch is a writer with

From: Ricardo Duchesne | September 7

For starters, these questions and commentaries are elitist, and may contain the answer to why this way of thinking does not work with the average person. The running theme is that average people have allowed themselves to be deceived by resentful Republicans who have not been as intellectually accomplished as the Democrats. At no point is there a recognition that the common person does think about the issues and the individuals running for election. There is no sense here that voters should be held responsible for their decisions rather than presuming that they were manipulated by the Republicans or the media.

Secondly, we do live in a mass democratic society in which the average rules, combined with the fact that those political matters that concern this mass do not require an intellectual to attend to or speak about. No need for big ideas on matters of taxation; their implementation will require experts, not intellectuals – which leads to the third point: many so-called “intellectuals” in politics are experts themselves with two or three ideas in their head, just like Dion and his Politics 101 Environmentalism. He is an expert on constitutional matters, but outside this field he is not an intellectual. Obama writes and speaks with ease but his thoughts – underpinned by the belief that America should fashion a set of policies that reflect their “common” ground rather than their differences – have been in the air for quite a long time (in the primary schools and in multicultural academia). On the other hand, Obama is in a race to be a leader, not a thinker, and in this world of action he may show himself to have captured the “spirit of the times” in a way that other politicians were unable to, in a clear, distinct and intelligible manner.

They call some pseudo-intellectuals in left politics “elitist,” and that brings me to the last point: these intellectuals think that the problems of life can be solved through rational discussions, that it is a matter of thinking the right answer. And the answers they have in mind are ones that feel good, are harmonious and comforting to our affluent tenderized souls (redistributing wealth to the “poor,” peace and Gaia); it is all a matter of convincing the average person of their validity. But the average person who has lived life outside this world of civil discussions, faculty clubs and easy-to-read books knows that things don’t quite work that way – in their workplaces, for one. Hence they mistrust this left-wing elitism

Ricardo Duchesne is Professor of Western Civilization at the University of New Brunswick, Saint John Campus.

From: Alastair Sweeny | September 7

The opposite of elitism is populism. Populism is commonly trotted out at U.S. election time as if it were the defining virtue of the American Republic. In Red versus Blue America, election time is culture wars time, when the elites leave their Washington lobby bazaar and descend on the authentic small towns and talk about guns and religion.

I don’t think the centre-right is any better at it than the centre-left. It depends on the quality of the candidates, the quality of their packs of tame commentators and the quality of the shows they put on. And of course the money they raise from home base. It is all symbol manipulation of the highest order, and a source of great amusement for us fans of the sport of politics. But you have to maintain your bullshit detector on high gain.

Elitism can be a curse at election time. Only when you get a true sophisticate like Pierre Trudeau can the professoriate rise above elitism. But of course he was the son of a gas station owner, and was quite able to give the finger when he felt it was needed.

Alastair Sweeny is Vice-President, Development, of Northern Blue Publishing in Ottawa.

From: Garth Stevenson | September 8

The association between populism and conservatism in North American elections probably goes back to the presidential election of 1840. The Whigs, the conservative party at that time, were desperate to end 12 years of Jacksonian democracy in the White House so they spread the story that their candidate, General William Henry Harrison, had been born in a log cabin and ridiculed the allegedly more refined lifestyle of the Democrat, Martin Van Buren. Harrison, who owned many slaves, won on the catchy slogan “Tippecanoe and Tyler too,” Tippecanoe being the site of the battle in which he defeated Tecumseh in the War of 1812. The Whigs won the election, Harrison died soon afterward and Tyler, who also owned slaves, served the rest of his term.

Some of the best presidents – the two Roosevelts and Kennedy – have come from privileged backgrounds. So did Adlai Stevenson. But so also did George W. Bush. Both presidents Bush went to Yale, although I have often wondered how the younger one managed to earn his degree at such a distinguished institution.

At the same time, there have been progressive presidents or candidates who grew up in relative poverty and never became rich, from Abraham Lincoln to LBJ. In other words, there is little correlation between a candidate’s policies (which should be the real issue) and his or her background.

Whether less affluent voters necessarily prefer candidates similar to themselves in background and lifestyle is problematical. As Doris Kearns Goodwin points out, politicians like FDR could relate to the problems of ordinary people and show that they cared about them. But it is true that much of the present-day North American “left” (meaning the chattering classes) is guilty of a patronizing elitism and an ill-concealed contempt for ordinary people and their opinions. This explains the recent mania of the “left” on both sides of the border for having issues of social policy decided by the appointed judiciary, rather than by the people or their elected representatives. It also explains the disgraceful orgy of Sarah-bashing that followed the choice of the Republican vice-presidential candidate. This patronizing elitism, and the growing emphasis of the so-called left on such issues as same-sex marriage and the environment, rather than on the bread-and-butter issues that affect ordinary people’s lives more directly, together probably explain why “conservatives” seem to win more and more elections.

Garth Stevenson is professor of political science at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ontario.

From: Bill Doskoch | September 8

The vice-president is supposed to be ready to step into the presidency. Would Garth care to speculate on what Sarah’s new best friends in the Republican Party (McCain, Giuliani, Romney, Huckabee) would have had to say about her qualifications had she run against them for the party’s nomination? I daresay they may have engaged in a disgraceful orgy of Sarah-bashing.

The Republicans wanted a telegenic, socially conservative political pit bull for a veep. They got one. Did they get a person who is prepared to make life-and-death decisions, up to and including deciding whether to use nuclear weapons in a crisis, if John McCain dies? Did they get one who can even provide substantive answers at a news conference? I think not.

From: Gareth Morley | September 8

Populism is just the original sin of democracy. If you want influence in a monarchy, you must flatter the king. If you want influence with the median voter, you must say – as if you mean it – that Catholic soccer moms in suburban Ohio are the finest species of humanity yet invented.

There are subtle differences between conservative and left populism, but both have their contradictions. Conservatives are supposed to respect high culture and excellence of achievement. At the same time, there is a strong conservative tradition of faith in common sense, and respect for life lessons learned through hard labour. Conservatives are by definition suspicious of intellectual fashion. They believe that love of one’s own is a healthy emotion – and one that intellectuals are too prone to abandon in favour of cosmopolitanism. Of course, conservative respect for the common sense of the common person can degenerate into an angry identity politics of the majority. This kind of identity politics can be more dangerous than other kinds because it can aspire to just rule by majority force – something the identity politics of minorities, however strident, can never achieve.

The left is inevitably suspicious (or possibly contemptuous) of common sense. Gramsci saw common sense as the ultimate bourgeois ideology. The left also tends to be hostile to particularistic identities, at least among the majority. The right’s basic ideas – that incentives matter, that kin matters and that loyalty to our own is more important than abstract justice – can be expressed in complex ways, but they also fit with common sense.

Left populism tends to demonize economic elites, particularly those who make money by coordinating transactions (the “middle man”). The problem with left populism is that it treats the positive-sum game of capitalist cooperation as a negative-sum one. So it leads to attacking those minorities that are most productive, and will ultimately impoverish societies that succumb to it.

Neither the hostility to nor the adulation of Sarah Palin seems to be grounded in anything rational. The argument that she has no foreign policy experience is true, but hardly motivates her critics: the only presidents who came to office with foreign policy experience were Nixon and George Bush, Sr. – certainly, Obama has none. Rather, Palin is the ultimate floating signifier: no one outside Alaska knows anything about her, so we can all attribute any fantasy we want to her. In this way too she is very much like Barack Obama.

Gareth Morley is a litigator with the British Columbia Ministry of Attorney General. All opinions expressed are his alone, and do not reflect the views of the Ministry of Attorney General.

Minority governments, coalitions and proportional representation

When Canadians elected another minority Conservative government on October 14, the discrepancy between the configuration of the new House of Commons and the popular vote didn’t escape the listserv’s attention. A question from Tom McIntosh launched a discussion of electoral reform.

From: Tom McIntosh | October 16

As per usual, the election result has increased the number of letters to the editor demanding a change in the electoral system to some form of proportional representation. As I am teaching an introductory Canadian politics course this term, I have a question about PR for those who have more knowledge than I about the pros and cons of various proposals.

Having talked about first-past-the-post on Tuesday, we then watched the election results in class. Next week I want to talk about alternative models of electoral reform. So I’m in the midst of writing a lecture on some examples of PR and what it might have meant in Tuesday’s election.

I take it as a given that PR in most forms means minority governments and pushes us toward developing a more robust model of coalition governments – something Canadians have little experience with. But my question is this: would such a model run the risk of further marginalizing the legislature as a place where decisions get made? If coalitions become more formal (i.e. sharing cabinet positions between parties, working out the legislative agenda before meeting the legislature, etc.), does it mean that there is even less for the legislature to do?

Theoretically at least, a minority government means that the House becomes a place where compromises are supposed to be worked out. I know that’s not where it will happen, but when the government goes through the motions of introducing a bill, accepts some opposition amendments in order to pass it, etc. then at least we have some semitransparent process that demonstrates cross-party collaboration. In a coalition, all that negotiation goes on inside the executive branch.

Or would it be fair to say that this is no different from a majority government where the legislature is pretty superfluous already and legislative committees are really just theatre?

A bizarre and imaginary example: Let’s say the Tories and Bloc got together and formed a coalition. The Bloc demands half a dozen cabinet seats and they negotiate an agreement on a legislative agenda (sort of the way Peterson and Rae did in Ontario, but perhaps even more detailed and specific). The Bloc won’t say bad things about the government in the House, because they’re part of it. Ditto for their role on House committees. This leaves the Liberals and the NDP to flail and yell to no real effect because the coalition will always vote them down. Is the House further marginalized or is it, in effect, in the same position as it is now? If it’s the former, are there remedies?

Tom McIntosh is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Regina.

From: Reg Whitaker  | October 16

Tom, you have probably put your finger on a signal weakness in PR, whether STV or MMP or List or whatever. The eventual tendency is for coalition government to result, and while this may be a good thing in some ways (more widely “representative” of the range of opinion, etc.) it also contributes to the democratic deficit, and to the further irrelevance of parliament.

Coalitions must, by necessity, be thrashed out behind closed doors – and those closed doors shut out not only the public and the media, but party members and activists as well. Coalitions are, almost by definition, matters of elite accommodation since it is the elites that must keep them working on an ongoing basis. Coalitions, particularly when they are widely based, may actually stifle democratic debate (e.g. Austria). Coalitions can also be distinctly undemocratic affairs when very small parties, especially single-issue parties, threaten to pull out in tight situations, and are able to extract leverage out of keeping with their small numbers (e.g. Israel on any given day). Yes, parliament may become marginalized when negotiations take place between members outside of parliament.

Of course, parliament may come back into play when members rebel against their (coalition) party line and vote down proposed legislation, just as this may happen under the present system, but very rarely does.

What is the balance sheet for PR reform? I have been a public advocate for the BCSTV plan that is coming up again in the B.C. election this coming May, but I always preface my support by saying that every system has its advantages and disadvantages. The opponents of PR play a dubious card when they flash some real or perceived disadvantage of PR as a trump to shoot down change: the same procedure works as well, or better, on assessing the present system. My relatively well-informed guess is that the risk is worth taking, that more advantages than disadvantages will result. But coalition government is in my opinion more likely to fall into the disadvantage category.

Political scientist Reg Whitaker lives in Victoria, B.C., and is a member of the Inroads editorial board.

From: Wilfred Day | October 16

The answer is: it depends on several factors. Two of them are:

The type of coalition. New Zealand’s most recent one featured several bilateral agreements between Labour and smaller parties, some looser than others, including the oddity of a foreign affairs minister who was not in cabinet. Labour has a coalition agreement with the Progressive Party, “confidence and supply agreements” with the New Zealand First Party and the United Future Party, and a “cooperation agreement” with the Green Party. Under “confidence and supply agreements,” collective responsibility applies in respect of their ministers’ portfolio areas, and the parties support all areas that are matters of confidence and supply (that is, budget measures). In other areas, “agree to disagree” provisions apply as necessary, so the parties must consult but the smaller party is otherwise not bound by any solidarity, and is as free to vote against or amend measures as in any minority government situation. These arrangements have empowered parliamentary committees, as have the other loose coalitions in the past 12 years. Many people say the parliamentary committee work has been MMP’s best feature in New Zealand. On the other hand, German parties may do more private negotiating, even though the electoral system is almost identical.

Whether it’s really a coalition at all. The 1985 Liberal-NDP accord in Ontario was an interesting hybrid. It looked like a coalition with a detailed agenda that took weeks to negotiate, yet the NDP declined to have seats in cabinet. As a result, details of implementation of the negotiated agenda were thrashed out in legislative committees, much as they would have been in New Zealand’s loose coalitions. People speculating on outcomes in Canada, where the Bloc might be part of an accord but not a coalition, do not always distinguish between the two. In hindsight, since David Peterson rode to a strong majority by taking sole credit for the accord’s accomplishments, the NDP should have taken seats in cabinet. However, in the present circumstances, volunteers to carry the can for the recession are not seen. It such a case, a minority with an accord is more likely. And then there are numerous cases in Europe where a centre-left or centre-right coalition needs to depend on external support from a further-left or further-right party that does not want to share blame for unpopular actions or is too much of a pariah to be an acceptable coalition partner. In those cases, parliamentary committees must be very interesting places.

Wilfred Day practises law in Port Hope, Ontario.

From: Henry Milner | October 17

The question Tom raises is a real one. And Italy was notorious as a country running on deals between party secretaries. But as in many areas, there is no need for us to follow the Italian example.

Let me describe how it works in Sweden, which is not untypical of Scandinavia as a whole. Deals are made upfront: electoral coalitions are formed before the election around common programs. Right now the Social Democrats and Greens are discussing forming a coalition on the left for 2010 to take on the “bourgeois” coalition which took power in 2006. The Greens in a referendum just changed their position on Sweden’s withdrawing from the EU – something the Social Democrats had made a condition of their being invited into an electoral coalition.

I taught a course here to international students just before 2006 election and invited local candidates to address my students. None of them had any problem separating their specific party’s program from the common program their coalition would implement if elected. I should also add that parliamentary commissions are very active here, and that MPs sit on the boards of various sorts of public corporations, investigatory commissions, etc.

Henry Milner is co-publisher of Inroads.