Here are some actual facts about those Obama portraits

A portrait of President Obama in the National Portrait Gallery.

Paintings of President and Mrs. Obama were unveiled at the National Portrait Gallery yesterday morning, and the press and social media have been spraying nonsense ever since. The portraits have gone viral, but it’s been a virality of ignorance, and a classic case study of how today’s media landscape is bent to favor sensationalism over fact.

Though this adjective has been used incessantly in all reporting on the paintings, these portraits of the Obamas are not their “official” portraits. A president really only ever gets one “official” portrait in his lifetime, and that’s the photograph designated by the US Government Publishing Office to be used in federal buildings. Because said photo is authorized for mass reproduction by a government agency, it can be safely called “official,” in the same sense the federal government produces “official” tax forms or “official” signs at national parks.

The National Portrait Gallery is a branch of the publicly-run Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC where you can see paintings of famous people. Some of these people are presidents and their wives. For a relatively short period of time, that is, since the retirement of president George HW Bush, the Gallery has made a tradition of inviting ex-presidents and First Ladies to unveil portraits of themselves as they are added to update the Smithsonian’s collection (usually about a year or so after a family leaves the White House). Generally speaking, these portraits are known for being somewhat unusual — at least by the standards of what people expect a presidential portrait to look like.

The portraits of George W. and Laura Bush are both very casual, with her reading a book and him sitting in a wide stance with an open necked shirt. Bill Clinton’s depicted him in a bizarre pose that seemed to emphasize his crotch, while Hillary was given a much smaller, horizontal portrait that depicted her in profile. Bill’s artist seemingly didn’t like the ex-president (“the most famous liar of all time”) and bragged about including a subliminal reference to Monica Lewinsky in it. The dislike was apparently mutual, and the NPG people have since commissioned a new one of Bill, though it’s no less strange. The slightly avant-garde depictions of the Obamas are hardly unprecedented when viewed in this context. But it’s all fairly irrelevant, given these are not “official” portraits in any meaningful sense, let alone “the” official portraits of the couple. Any gallery anywhere can commission a painting of any president. Presidential art can be seen across the country, and most presidents are painted numerous times, by numerous artists, for numerous galleries.

The Bushes unveil their portraits at the National Portrait Gallery, December, 2008.

The Bushes unveil their portraits at the National Portrait Gallery, December, 2008.

What lazy reporters are choosing to confuse the NPG paintings with are White House portraits, which are commissioned by the White House Historical Association and hang in the White House. I guess these could be considered “official” portraits, — though even the White House Historical Association itself doesn’t use that term — as these are portraits authorized to hang in a government building. The WHHA portraits are unveiled in a White House ceremony several years after the president retires, and thus several years after the NPG portraits are unveiled — indeed, the NPG seems to deliberately sow public confusion by organizing such a similar ceremony, held so soon after a president leaves office, when public attention is likely to be high.

The White House portraits of the president and First Lady are traditionally revealed by the ex first couple in the presence of the current first couple, in what is usually characterized by the press as a happy moment of bipartisan levity. These ceremonies, however, do not usually get a lot of media attention as they tend to occur so long after a president leaves office. The dullness of the art also works against them being much fun to write about — the WHHA portraits are usually very conservative in depiction, with the president and First Lady formally dressed, standing upright or sitting regally, in some real-world White House setting. Nevertheless, these are the portraits that usually find their way into textbooks and flashcards and so forth, and are thus the sorts of paintings that deserve to be given the critical eye the Obama portraits are currently receiving. A White House portrait is a much more important historical object than a National Portrait Gallery one, and enjoys a far more permanent place in the American canon.

The Obamas and the Bushes unveil the White House portraits of the former first couple, May, 2012.

People should really put more effort into trying to understand American culture.

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7. Josh Lieblein on Canadian culture

I talk with my friend and writer Josh Lieblein about Canadian entertainment and the cultural roots of some annoying aspects of Canadian politics.

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Patrick Brown’s fall was inevitable, not a “witch hunt”

I’m a conservative pundit in a country that doesn’t have a lot of them, so it’s been easy for me to cultivate friends and sources  — often very high-ranking ones — in Canada’s federal and provincial conservative parties, as well as Canada’s broader conservative “movement” (to the extent it exists). Given this context, I hope I will have some credibility when I say that when it comes to Patrick Brown, absolutely everyone who’s anyone knew.

In talking to conservatives about the upcoming Ontario elections, the understanding that Patrick Brown was a womanizer — of an often creepy and predatory sort — was baked into all political analysis of the man. Social conservatives, and those who simply took conservative ideas seriously, viewed Brown’s womanizing as additional proof of the man’s moral emptiness. More pragmatic or cutthroat partisans were less bothered, but still anxious that “the women” would eventually come forward — or be brought forward by the Wynne Liberals — and cause enormous turmoil in Brown’s campaign for premier. The only thing that’s truly mysterious about the whole episode is how quickly Brown’s inner circle ditched him following the revelations. Since they surely knew “the women” were coming, one would have expected a better defensive strategy. My guess is they were prepared for irate former staffers — but not a teenager.

There are obvious questions to be asked about moral responsibility. I  thought seriously about making some sort of website where disgusted Tories could submit stories about Brown’s antics, in order to bring public attention to a reality the mainstream press was choosing to ignore. I put out a Twitter call for submissions and received a few, but they wound up being so salacious I got nervous. Even though I’m not very famous, I worried about the legal and professional consequences of airing so much dirt anonymously. As far as Brown’s inner circle goes, however, what-did-they-know-and-when-did-they-know-it questions will continue to loom large, and will surely provide ample fodder to the Liberals for a long time to come. John Casselman, who leads a dissident faction of PC voters, sent out an email calling for the party to engage in a full-scale purge of all Brown’s hires and intimates. It’s hard to imagine any other way to kill his ghost.

An equally serious question of accountability must be asked of the Ontario news media. For many years Canadian political journalism has operated on the assumption that there’s something heroic and noble about never reporting on the “personal lives” of politicians. Even when newsrooms and capitals swirl with rumors so large and omnipresent they rise to the level of — to use the favored cliché of the moment —  “open secrets,” the iron principle is that the public must never be told. Affairs, sexual impropriety, drug and alcohol abuse, to say nothing of more innocuous, but still relevant facts like a politician’s sexuality, marital status, or romantic status more broadly — all are tightly held as privileged gossip of the chosen few. If such “irrelevant” knowledge was to fall into the hands of the vulgar public, the logic goes, that public might use that knowledge to inform their political opinions. And if Canadians began forming opinions on politicians based on the sort of people they are, rather than hermetically compartmentalizing the “personal” from the “political,” then Canadian political culture might evolve in a direction the journalistic class scorns — ie; an “American” direction in which things like affairs or addictions routinely force resignations. This is at odds with the who-am-I-to-judge progressive sensibility, and is considered a self-evident bad.

I remember an NPR interview a few years ago featuring Gawker editor John cook and Toronto Star publisher John Cruickshank. This was at the height of the Rob Ford clustercuss, and Cook expressed incredulity over the degree to which the Toronto press had conspired for years to suppress damning stories about the Ford brothers, particularly the large role alcohol and drugs — including drug dealing — played in their “personal lives.” Cruickshank lamely replied that Canadians just “think differently” about these sorts of things, inspiring Cook to parry with perhaps the single best summary of Canadian media culture: “in the land of the passive aggressive, the truly aggressive is king.”

I say all this not in an effort to pass off Patrick Brown as a problem for my ideological enemies — to repeat, the conservative apparatus of Ontario has a lot to say for itself — but it does suggest that toxic politicians like Brown are an inevitable byproduct of a certain progressive culture in which judgement of personal conduct is considered the real crime. As Jonah Goldberg recently put it, the present moment is forcing many liberals to rethink their once standard assumption that there’s something “very French and sophisticated” about licentious men, and if the end result is an increasing right-left consensus that character matters in politics, I’m all for it.

A final thought — the surprisingly large amount of liberal journalists who have chosen to make Patrick Brown a case study of #metoo culture gone mad are inadvertently exposing themselves as shockingly ignorant observers of conservative Canada. Of all the columns I’ve read in the aftermath of Brown’s resignation, only Adam Radwanski’s in the Globe seems informed by the realities of what was actually going on in the party, while the writings of others — particularly those who claim to be “shocked” by the “speed” or “suddenness” of Brown’s fall, reveal ostensibly well-informed political journalists who clearly never venture outside their ideological bubble. Searching for a sympathetic character in exotic terrain, they have settled on the villain.

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6. Anthony Furey on the left

I talk with Anthony Furey, opinions editor of the Sun newspapers. We discuss what Justin Trudeau and other members of the Canadian left believe — and why — as well as other various trends in Canadian politics, culture, and media.

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5. Gerry Nicholls on political strategy

An interview with Gerry Nicholls, conservative strategist and consultant, about political marketing and campaign strategy in Canada.

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4. Spencer Gibara on young conservatives

Talking with young conservative Spencer Gibara about the growing subculture of young right-wing men online, including the alt-right.

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Canada Chat podcast

So after a fairly inconspicuous “soft launch” in which I released, but didn’t really promote my new podcast (it took time to sort out the kinks), take this as the formal announcement.

I’ve made a podcast called Canada Chat, which now has three completed episodes. You can find it on iTunes, or your favorite podcast app, or you can access the feed directly, right here. Because of the way I’ve set the thing up, new episodes will appear on the main page of this site,, as they are posted.

People have been telling me to do a podcast for a while now, and it’s something I’ve long been interested in. But I knew if I did it, I wanted to do something a little bit different. I wanted to make it very specifically about Canada, I wanted it to feature intelligent Canadian guests of a conservative bent who aren’t often heard in the mainstream Canadian media, and I wanted our conversations to be about their analysis of present Canadian realities, but not a “this week’s headlines” sort of thing.

Longtime followers will know that I am the sort of person who tends to take on a lot of projects. I don’t like to start things and abandon them, but I also don’t like using nervousness about my ability to maintain a project long-term as an excuse for not doing the project at all. The happy middle ground, I’ve found, is to create things that are capable of surviving as either short or long-term projects, which is how I conceptualized Canada Chat. If the podcast only lasts ten episodes, I want those ten episodes to be capable of standing alone as interesting conversations about Canada that have some degree of long-term relevance. If it goes for a longer time, well, all the better.

Anyway, I hope you enjoy the three episodes I’ve made so far. Let me know what you think! I have a lot of other interesting guests planned, but if you have any suggestions, please let me know!


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3. Jonathon Van Maren on social conservatism in Canada

A conversation about the Canadian social conservative movement with Jonathon Van Maren, a leading so-con commentator and anti-abortion activist. We talk about the pro-life movement in Canada, as well as the transgenderism debate, free speech, and whether religious Canadians have much influence in Canadian politics these days.

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2: Sean Speer on Canadian Conservatism

I am joined by former Harper advisor Sean Speer to discuss whether Canada has a viable conservative movement, and the state of conservative politics and ideas in modern Canada.

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1: Doug Musk on Canadian politics

My friend Doug and I discuss the state of the Canadian Liberal and Conservative parties as they begin planning for the 2019 election.

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The Troubling State of Canadian Politics in Late 2017: a dialogue

Conservative leader Andrew Scheer and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau

This is the fifth in a series of dialogues on Canadian politics between me, J.J. McCullough, resident of Coquitlam, B.C., and my friend Doug Musk, resident of Beamsville, Ontario.

Check out our previous dialogues on the state of the Canadian left, the state of the Canadian right, the state of the 2017 Conservative Party leadership contest, and the election of Andrew Scheer as Conservative leader.

JJ: Well Doug, as far as I’m concerned, the 2019 Canadian general election has now officially kicked off, seeing as we now have all three major party leaders in place. The next prime minister of Canada will be either Justin Trudeau, Andrew Scheer, or Jagmeet Singh, and they’ll have two full years to make their case.

In some of our past dialogues we’ve speculated on various possibilities of how 2019 could unfold, but now that all the “ifs” are out of the way — at least in terms of who the candidates are — we can maybe get a bit more firm in our analysis.

DOUG: Let me start with Singh, given we closed our last dialogue with some speculation on the NDP leadership race. Your assumption that Singh would win easily was more correct than my view that there would be some resistance from the other candidates. Unfortunately it’s difficult to see how exactly Singh pulled off his victory since the NDP shared basically zero detailed data on the results — we didn’t even get the province-by-province breakdown! It’s completely unacceptable. I’m continuously stunned at the lack of openness and accountability from political parties in this country. They’re really run more like protection rackets for Canadian elites than democratic organizations. At best, we can sort of parse through Singh’s donation numbers — which by law have to be made public — and assume that his win was due to overwhelmingly high support in Indo-Canadian heavy communities like Brampton and Surrey (and to a lesser degree the metro areas that surround them) plus just enough traditional NDP support to get him a first ballot win. If this is indeed the case, you can see why the party would be nervous about releasing the numbers. If it was revealed Singh only won because the vote was swamped by the votes of a niche demographic bloc it could do great damage to perceptions in Quebec, and might even rub their supporters from places like Northern Ontario, Vancouver Island etc. the wrong way, too.

That said, the other candidates deserve credit and critique as well. Nikki Ashton finished around where I expected her to. In many ways she was sort of the “horseshoe” version of Brad Trost in the CPC contest (their results are actually almost identical), which is to say, the candidate who adopts the most orthodox, almost caricatured positions on virtually every issue. Both of them had a twinge of awkwardness to them personally and would have deeply struggled with the electorate at large. Still, Ashton has to receive some credit for nudging her party leftward and questioning some narratives. I do have some sympathy for that.

The other two, however, were total flops, Caron was in the traditional “boring policy wonk” lane, which, for as long as I can remember, is only good for getting your name out there — never actually winning. Once the Quebec membership numbers came out it was sort of assumed he was doomed. I have less explanation as to what happened to the Angus campaign — he never seemed to create much interest, (perhaps due to a lack of policy ideas), and he had a surprising lack of endorsements. You could say he lacked a strong raison d’etre — there was no “anybody but Singh” movement he could benefit from by default. This is another reason it would have been helpful to see the geographic breakdown: is it possible Angus received OK support throughout Canada but was swamped in the GTA and Greater Vancouver areas?

But in terms of Singh’s win itself, and what it means for the NDP, I certainly agree with his “high risk” characterization of himself over the media — or CPC — characterization, which presents him as this hugely consequential figure who will be automatically successful and badly split the left allowing Scheer to sneak up the middle.

There are at least ten (and possibly more)  NDP MP’s in Quebec that should basically start preparing their resumes and making plans for November 2019. Yet Singh could spell bad news elsewhere, too, since his campaign will almost certainly laser-focus on the suburbs of Toronto and Vancouver at the expense of everywhere else. That could cost seats in the Prairies and more rural British Columbia to both the Conservatives and Liberals. Singh’s gamble, of course, would be that these losses could be paid off with a surge of urban and ethnic ridings, but I’m skeptical.

The NDP is already dead on arrival in many suburban ridings dominated by large Chinese or other East Asian populations. In places like Richmond and Markham the NDP is basically a fringe party, and I don’t see how a Sikh man who has openly praised Communists like Castro in literally the most favorable terms possible is going to do well with voters have likely fled communist regimes themselves. NDP economics were already a hard sell in these ridings, and combined with a pro-drug legalization policy and other quite socially-liberal ideas, I just can’t imagine an NDP breakthrough here on the sole basis that Singh himself is a visible minority.

There’s this tendency to treat immigrant voters as if they come from “Immigrantlandia” (to use a term from a recent article I read), where they all share some certain common “values” and are basically interchangeable, when fact many will culturally differ more among each other than with the European majority.

But what of ridings with large South Asian populations? My initial assumption was that Singh could indeed sweep these easily, but he’s fumbled badly on his views on Air India, trying to pass off the entire line of questioning as racist. If you actually follow the comments on these news items, a lot of Hindu and Sikh Canadians will say no, this is actually a very legitimate issue to want some clarity on. Even amongst the Sikh community the Khalistan issue creates huge divides. It’s really only the most hardcore progressives who buy his excuses. Many might be surprised to hear that Singh is actually a bit of a persona non grata in India itself, and has repeatedly angered the Hindu-nationalist government of Prime Minister Modi. Given Modi is quite popular, this is a significant hurdle he’d have to get over.

Perhaps I’m being too negative. Maybe Singh can land on his feet, connect with immigrant and youth voters and hold Trudeau’s feet to the fire. Yet after all I’ve said about Singh’s flaws, I still think his greatest challenge might be that Canadians and left wing voters just aren’t all that upset about Trudeau.

J.J., do you think Trudeau is really as vulnerable as the media is letting on? Will downtown voters abandon the Liberals, causing progressives to turn to the NDP as a better vehicle for their ideals?

JJ: I think all your points are fair, particularly the “Immigrantlandia” one. To the extent a politician can pander to immigrants as a collective, it’s on immigration policy, and even that can be iffy. Beyond that, however, you’re talking about a vast array of different racial, cultural, and religious communities who aren’t going to blindly rally behind some random candidate who has one thing in common with them.

That said, it would be nice if we had more hard data on what different ethnic groups in this country actually want and believe. Along with the lack of internal party data you mentioned, I’m consistently annoyed opinion pollsters in this country make no effort to compile any of the very basic racial/ethnic demographic data that’s so abundant in the US. I could find President Trump’s approval rating with Asians in about a minute. I’ve never seen a poll in Canada that provides an answer to a question even as basic as that.

I’m still probably more bullish on Singh than you, only because I still think it’s possible that the media, particularly the liberal American media, will at some point manufacture a “Singhmania” phenomenon that explicitly positions him as the cool, authentic, and perhaps most importantly, clean conscience alternative to Trudeau for the mainstream Canadian left. I think by definition these sorts of things always take a while to get off the ground. There has to be this whole arc to the story, in which voters give a delayed “second look” at someone who wasn’t initially taken that seriously, and then that second look evolves into a “unexpected surge” in the polls. Without making this a “just so” theory, I can envision a scenario in which Singh’s bad start with his whole Air India “still looking for the real killer” stuff might be setting the stage for a period of broad disinterest followed by a energetic “rediscovery.” I mean, that’s basically what happened to Justin Trudeau himself. When he first came on the scene it certainly wasn’t as the globe-striding giant of progressive philosophy we read about today. That was very much a late-stage identity that emerged to eclipse his old one, which was the high-risk novelty candidate of a desperate party.

Talking of Trudeau, and getting to your question, I must admit I’ve been a bit surprised at the amount of bad press he’s been getting lately. The bumbling, make-it-up-as-we-go approach to tax policy coupled with the slow drip of the Morneau scandal has clearly proven the tipping point for a lot of commentators, even left-of-centre ones, and the Trudeau government is now increasingly portrayed as “embattled.”

That’s got to be worrying on some level, because the last thing Liberals want is a renewed reputation as a gang of corrupt elitist snobs who want to hike your taxes. A lot of the recent headlines have synced up perfectly with traditional Conservative Party talking points — Scheerite-style talking points in particular — which must be a relief to some in the CPC who never really had much of an alternate messaging strategy. I have to think that a lot of seats that unexpectedly swung Conservative-to-Liberal out west, such as my own riding here in Coquitlam, have to be already lost at this point. Trudeau did not earn their benefit of the doubt, he played to stereotype.

There’s another flavor of Trudeau criticism I think less of, which is these utilitarian assessments offered by progressives. “Liberal incompetence and lying is derailing an important agenda” etc. We heard a lot of this when electoral reform was abandoned, it continues to loom large in the conversation about aboriginal “reconciliation,” and I imagine a lot of similar rhetoric will surface during this bumbling marijuana legalization rollout as well. The press tends to make a big deal of all this, calling it Trudeau’s “obvious weak spots” but I think there are limits to how much the opposition can capitalize on it. Liberal incompetence is killing a lot of things the Conservatives don’t support in the first place, so it’s hard for them to be too bothered without looking hypocritical, and from an NDP perspective, I don’t think electoral reform, or drugs, or aboriginal policy are really top-of-mind issues for swing voters, despite how much attention they get from the editorial pages.

Quebec remains the big question mark. Even casting aside Singh’s… “unique challenges” with French Canadian voters (or whatever euphemism we want to employ), this will be the first election since 2004 in which the NDP does not have a leader from Quebec, and he will be presiding over a Quebec caucus that shrunk by two-thirds in 2015. I’ve written before about how one of the most significant variables in Canadian elections seems to be whether or not a party leader is from Quebec, and with Trudeau the only Quebecker left, you have to assume that works to his advantage, and could set up 2019 as a much more “conventional” election in which the Libs just take a big majority of Quebec seats more or less by default. The recent controversy over Premier Couillard’s burka ban, which is very popular there but opposed by all the national parties, seems like it puts Trudeau in a difficult place, but maybe not. Trudeau was on the “wrong” side of that issue in 2015 as well, and still triumphed. One would think this would be a good context for a dramatic Bloc comeback, but that party still seems to be in disarray, with a poor leader and weak infrastructure. And I don’t think they can get away with just digging up Gilles Duceppe at the last minute again.

I sometimes think politics would be a bit healthier if we could start thinking about prime ministers as having de facto eight-year terms, rather than two four-year ones. You have to go all the way back to the Great Depression to find a PM who went from winning a big first-term majority government to getting booted straight from office after only four years, so on some level it’s unrealistic that we continue to imagine this as such a plausible scenario. It’s not unreasonable for voters to think a government needs more than half a decade to get substantial things done, and be relatively forgiving when they can’t.

From the perspective of Trudeau haters, the best case scenario may be something like the election of 1972, when his father ran for re-election the first time and wound up going from a majority of 155 to a minority of 109. The previous election, in 1968, was the “Trudeaumania” one, where the Liberals won a lot of seats in places that hadn’t voted Liberal in a generation — particularly the prairies and parts of BC — making 1972 a sort of course-correction.

The problem in 2019, however, is that you really have two courses that need correcting, not merely the Liberals unsustainable popularity, but the NDP’s lingering presence in Quebec. A simultaneous double-correction could lead to weird outcomes: Liberals make substantial losses in western Canada, and even some parts of Ontario, but increase support in Quebec, and wind up basically equal to where they are now. That’s the most distressing scenario for Conservatives — Trudeau experiences significant decay, but it winds up being an exclusively English Canada thing that Quebec essentially overrules, sparing him any real consequence.

You notice who we’re not talking about? Andrew Scheer and the Conservatives. We characterized him in previous dialogues as the generic, “safe” conservative leader, and he seems to be fulfilling that promise. I can’t imagine anyone is looking at 2019 and viewing Scheer as any sort of interesting variable; the prevailing assumption is simply that he’ll serve as the most viable alternative to Trudeau, and receive the majority of votes from those looking for a change, or already inclined to vote Conservative. But he’s hardly at the forefront of any sort of aggressive movement calling for a dramatic alternative, as far as vision goes.

Should conservatives be angry about that? Is Scheer missing a bigger opportunity here?

DOUG: Well what’s that one saying? “The opposite of hate isn’t love, its indifference?” This is how I’ve felt about the Scheer era so far.

To his credit, he hasn’t opened fire on his own supporters or the conservative movement as a whole, unlike many provincial centre-right leaders who are actively campaigning against conservatism and right wing ideas, basically playing a grotesque game of “chicken” with their base, seeing how far they can move to the left while still maintaining the loyalty of those with a pathological hatred of the Liberals/NDP. Nor is the federal party being run unethically. No nomination meeting ballot boxes are being stuffed as far as I know, so at least the very foundations of the party aren’t collapsing, which is one of the better aspects of having a “safe” leader.

That aside, it’s undeniable that there is something seriously lacking with Canada’s “right.” Scheer is only a small part of the problem, but he still personifies many of the larger issues.

As far as I’m concerned, the party is getting pretty close to ideologically bankrupt — they’ve turned into what I call “petty reactionaries.” They aren’t reactionary on a deep philosophical level, where grand narratives of Canada or “the left” might be challenged, but aggressively reactionary on petty, day-to-day issues. In fact, it’s almost to the point where Conservative hyperbole exists in direct contrast to the importance of the topic at hand.

So the Liberals unveil deeply unpopular immigration increases, for example, which are supported by about 10% of the population, and we get almost nothing out of CPC HQ questioning this. But a small change to a tax credit? Hysterical talking points like “with this change to the disability tax credit it’s clear the Liberals DON’T care at ALL about autistic Canadians! Tell them how you feel by SIGNING OUR PETITION!”

It’s part of a larger phenomenon where the party’s social media strategy is utterly disconnected from the actual policy preferences that CPC voters are currently showing. Instead, the strategy is to just rile up the mob online, bilk the marks for donations, and get them to sign petitions for voter ID purposes (this is what the party is doing when they ask you to sign a petition, they could give a toss what you actually think, they just want your personal info.) For all the grumbling about the CPC’s association with “The Rebel” this is one area where the two operate in a very similar manner: stir up the crowd while offering very little of substance.

I’m not sure if this has been widely noticed but there’s been a bizarre, gradual adoption of left-wing language into Conservative Party talking points. Increasingly, if you look at the leader’s posts and media appearances you’d be hard pressed to distinguish them from a Liberal feed. The meetings with every niche identity group, the pointless, vacuous statements that have clearly been focused grouped to death. I saw one Scheer interview the other day where in about the first five minutes alone he must have used the word “inclusion” about a dozen times. Is he now an intersectional studies professor? Then there was that bizarre interview where he proclaimed himself a “feminist,” a title even a majority of Canadian women don’t identify with. Who is this supposed to appeal to, other than types of people who would never consider voting Conservative?

Some of the provincial wings have gone even further, to the point of voting with the left wing parties in the legislature on all kinds of issues. Ontario in particularly is at the point where the Liberals and PCs may as well be in one of those European-style “grand coalitions,” with the sole opposition coming from the lone Trillium Party MPP.

All this is in total contrast to the resurgence of right-wing ideas in the rest of the developed world, where we’ve seen the overreach of progressives result in an interesting revival of all sorts of anti-left ideas, from free-market types in the Baltics to “national conservatism” under Sebastian Kurz in Austria. I’d particularly encourage our readers to take a look at a new right-wing Dutch party called “Forum for Democracy” which has surged in the polls recently, peeling off votes from both the mainstream conservatives and Geert Wilders’ populist party. They have an ideology grounded in the history of Western philosophy and a young and an attractive, young, energetic leader named Thierry Baudet. Take a gander at them, contrast with the Conservative Party of Canada, and weep in despair.

Many of these issues are systemic, but the Conservatives really need to figure out some kind of direction and soon. You can’t just lurch from issue to issue on the seat of your pants and hope to make ground. Why has the CPC totally abandoned the fight against some of the most egregious and unpopular progressive ideas making such rapid headway in Canada? Why is it up to the likes of Jordan Peterson, Gad Saad or right-wing thinkers in other countries to counter the left’s narratives? Yes, the Liberals have had some bad press lately, but these are the kinds of drip-drip issues that take years to congeal into a “throw the bums out” narrative. It’s possible the public at large will barely even remember Morneau’s conflict of interest by 2019. Or maybe they’ll just reply (with some truth) “well what about Duffy, Wallin etc.”

Scheer has another big thing working against him, a factor that rarely comes up in mainstream political analysis — apathy. It’s clear from the recent by-elections. In Lac-Saint-Jean some of the CPC vote clearly migrated to the Libs and Bloc, while the more positive result in Alberta was earned with an utterly abysmal turnout. If the party is simply trying to coast on rage against the Liberals that rage actually has to show up. If even in their core areas only a quarter of the population can be bothered to take fifteen minutes out of their day to actually voice their displeasure it doesn’t say a lot about the Conservatives’ prospects of motivating the public at large in 2019.

Have you sensed this disillusion with the “right” in this country too, J.J.? Do you think they, or we, can do anything to change this around in the foreseeable future?

JJ: I absolutely sense the disillusion. It’s a constant topic of conversation with each and every flavor of Canadian conservative I encounter. I think it’s justified. But it’s also exhausting, because I believe the problem is inherently structural, and structural political reform is the deadest of dead-ends in this country.

I keep banging this drum because I feel there’s far too little structural analysis offered to describe why Canadian politics is the way it is. We always just hear these broad generalizations that “Canadians” are simply incurably progressive people, that only progressive politics “works” here, yadda yadda. That sounds like a straw man, but this is honestly the thesis of about 90% of what, say, acclaimed Canadian pundits like Jon Key or Stephen Marche write, and what foreign analysts always conclude in the New York Times, or Guardian or wherever. Whenever a conservative politician loses anywhere in Canada, no matter his or her temperament, platform, or ideology, there’s always much blather in the aftermath about how he or she “misjudged” or “didn’t understand” the inherent progressive sensitivities of the Toronto Star editorial page — I mean, the Canadian people. The possibility that a conservative candidate might have been unsatisfying to conservative voters is never entertained.

Here’s what I blame: Canadian party politics are extremely top-down, meaning the options we’re given at the ballot box are often quite unrepresentative of Canadian public opinion. Candidates for parliament are selected by a small and unrepresentative clique of card-holding party members, and even then, the leadership often meddles heavily to secure certain nominations, or veto “bad” ones after the fact. A party’s platform is decreed by the leader, as is the party’s position on every issue that comes before parliament, with votes dictated by the leadership as well. Supporters will defend the managerial efficiency of this system, but it’s also the recipe for a party that’s elitist, out-of-touch, and destined to sire apathy.

In America, self-identifying Republican voters pick their own candidates, and Republican politicians pick their own positions on issues and votes. This can have obvious setbacks — you can get some completely unpalatable person like Roy Moore nominated, or you can elect someone like Susan Collins, who votes constantly with the left. But overall, I don’t think it’s wrong to say Republican candidates and politicians do a generally good job reflecting their base’s priorities and expectations, which is why the Republican Party has proved far more adaptive and successful in the face of changing realities than many other centre-right parties elsewhere in the world.

Canada’s Conservative Party consists of a small group of people in Ottawa around a single party boss trying to effectively run a gigantic cross-country political machine that simultaneously purports to be the sole intellectual godhead of Canadian conservative thought. That’s a lot of work. I know people in Scheer’s circle, and I have respect and sympathy for them, but I also know that humans revert to certain forms of behavior when they’re confronted with an unrealistically daunting task. They cut corners and lapse into what’s easy, and what’s easy in the world of ideas is lazily repeating the conventional wisdom of the left, which so deeply permeates the culture through the many institutions they disproportionately control. Not just the media, but professions like public relations, law, the arts, the tech sector — even much of big business.

That’s what I see from the Tory party these days. They speak in uncontroversial, fashionable language, appoint a lot of boringly pleasant, diverse candidates with little depth or independence of thought, and employ a lazy messaging strategy based around getting hyper-indignant (or as you put it, being “petty reactionaries”) when the Liberals do things anyone with a pulse would find wrong, like charging taxpayers $200,000 to move the prime minister’s chief of staff across town. This is is a fine strategy if your only goal is to come off as blandly “nice” and nonthreatening, but not much else.

I’m not some alt-righter who gets an aneurysm every time a conservative politician says “diversity,” but it’s clear if you’re going to be a successful member of the right you have to offer a distinct style of rhetoric, with a distinct vocabulary, that contrasts with that used by the left. Language that reflects a divergent perspective of society, born from a different conception of wrong and right, virtue and vice, flaw and asset. That will inevitably be divisive, but I always think of the response George Will gave when someone noted that America was badly polarized — “yes, but not frivolously.”

A compliment I sometimes get for my writing, and the one I feel proudest about receiving, is “you have a different perspective.” I don’t think many voters look at the parties of the right in this country and think “now here are people with a different perspective.” They might think “these people hold a different position from the Liberals on issue XYZ,” or notice that the parties have different types of supporters, but I don’t think many voters have reached the conclusion that the Conservatives fundamentally see the world differently from the Liberals, let alone in a way that’s closer to their own views. I’m not even sure if I think that.

As far as I’m concerned, you can only build up that sort of trust from the lowest level, by allowing ordinary people to assert control and ownership over the party itself. I think the CPC should make its candidate nominations into US-style primaries, where anyone who wants to can run and vote, with nomination elections administered impartially by Elections Canada. I think Tory MPs should be able to vote however they want in parliament, with a shift to thinking of the leader as simply their candidate for prime minister, rather than the day-to-day boss of everything.

If we had open primaries, you’d get an interesting set of self-selected conservative candidates who would be in the CPC for their own reasons, reflecting their own sense of how and why the Liberals were failing, and what to do instead. Would some “nuts” get elected? Sure. And who knows, some ridings might even wind up with more leftward leaning CPC MPs than they have now. But I have no doubt the median result would be conservative candidates whose priorities, and positions on the issues, would much more closely resemble that of your average Conservative voter, which would both make the party more electable, and more effective within government at actually addressing and solving problems facing the country.

I think, ultimately, that structural reform of this sort is the only thing that will truly change conservative politics for the better in Canada. I don’t like buying into the cult of the leader, in which everything hinges on just getting the perfect, miracle party boss elected, and I don’t think creating a new right-wing Canadian media outlet will do much either. Canadians who care can find plenty of good conservative arguments online from American writers. What we lack is an ability to meaningfully bring those ideas to Ottawa, without first having them filtered through multiple checks and screens that exist to weed out risk, controversy, diversity, and deviation.

As we bring this dialogue to a close, Doug, I wanted to ask you for your vision of the future. Not necessarily a prediction, but just where do you see Canada’s present political trends, if not substantially adjusted, leading?

DOUG: Just to quickly deal with your primary system suggestion, it’s worth noting that back in the mid-2000’s a very similar idea was proposed in the Conservative Party platform. Of course, power and an overreaction to candidate “bozo eruptions” seems to have put the brakes on that, and the CPC platform has since moved on to more important issues, such as tax credits, more tax credits, and EVEN MORE tax credits! Personally, at this point I’d support any type of electoral change but preferential voting. A preferential ballot would make all the current problems of Canadian politics even worse by narrowing the Overton Window to a sliver, and promoting even more milquetoast politicians than we already have.

If Canadian politics doesn’t change soon then I think the most likely destination, medium-term, is basically where provincial politics are now. It should really be a national scandal how unpopular our provincial premiers are. Only recently-elected Horgan in BC and the soon-to-be-departed Wall in Saskatchewan are anywhere near 50% approval; after them, the two best-liked premiers are polling around 36% — Gallant in New Brunswick and Pallister in Manitoba (who, despite some initial popularity, is now falling off a cliff… literally and metaphorically). This is usually excused as simply part and parcel of a multi-party system, but aside from Ontario, Nova Scotia, and (recently) Quebec, most Canadian provinces really only have two competitive parties with substantial support and seats. Parties themselves also tend to outpoll the premiers who lead them. The whole situation is just so odd to me — we are concentrating ever-more power in personality cult politics even though the “personalities” at the core range from unlikable to downright repulsive.

I think what we’ve evolved is a fundamentally backwards style of politics. In most situations, you either run a “big tent” party or a “niche” one. Big tent parties run on a certain set of ideas, values, and policies they wish to implement while avoiding issues that are either dead on arrival or too obscure for the public to care about. They attempt to convince the electorate why their particular ideas, values, and policies are good and worth voting for. Conversely, the “niche” parties focus on only one or two very important issues that they think the larger parties are ignoring, or act as a “release valve” for alienated supporters of the larger parties. Even if they have little success electorally, niche parties can still influence policy and help keep the big tent parties somewhat tied to their general values, lest they lose supporters. In Canada, the NDP has often filled this function on the left, and in parts of the world that use mixed-member or proportional representation electoral systems a range of different parties fill this role on the right, left, and even centre.

In Canada, however, it increasingly appears that our parties operate on the conclusion that their core supporters really have nowhere else to go, and thus feel free to abandon the values, ethics and policies that attracted them in the first place, campaigning on a platform designed to appeal to some other sector of the electorate — usually the part that’s purely mercenary, doesn’t really follow politics, and only votes out of habit, or for various “goodies.” The base can always be mollified by being worked into a tribal, hypocritical, ultra-sensitive and angry mob, which also helps keep them away from looking at internal party issues.

In a way, this style of politics is actually very “populist” in that the parties promise a lot to voters for little to no cost. I’m writing this the day after the Ontario PC party released their platform. It’s essentially a model of what I’m critiquing — there’s little to no conservatism in their ideas. Their policies are just a birthday party grab bag of tax cuts and new spending, with the bill either covered by a less obvious carbon tax gouge or just piled onto the debt — it’s complete dreck. But the base is still expected to turn up and vote for it because Wynne and the Liberals are awful.

The media is complicit in all this, and not just because they have ideological leanings different from my own. It’s something deeper, rooted in how they choose to analyze campaigns and parties. Things are viewed purely through the lens of “is this popular and does it conform to preconceptions that form the narrative of Canada?” So the PC party platform will almost certainly get good press for their platform because it’s so vacuous and demands so little sacrifice that it might actually get them elected, and because it plays directly into elite, centrist narratives of what this country is all about.

You’d expect Canada’s conservative commentators to least offer some principled resistance, but by and large “our” pundits are largely terrible. Most of them fit into one of  three categories. The first is those who concern troll from the left — the types whose arguments always boil down to “we need to be more like the Liberals.” The second are the glorified press secretary-types who spin whatever Conservative politicians are doing as if it’s some genius four-dimensional chess maneuver, while insisting everyone “stay united.” In some ways this group is even worse than the first — at least the former have convictions rather than just hackish partisan sycophancy. The third is those shrill, purely vitriolic commentators on the fringe. “The Rebel” went so deep down this rabbit hole I’m not sure it can come back, but I’d also include those dumb “meme” pages you see all the time on social media. Though I’d also note it’s precisely because no one is competently articulating the issues conservatives are worried about that these types have stepped in to fill the void.

In the end, as Canada becomes more diverse and atomized I think the bigger tent parties will proceed to stand for less and less. I expect voter turnout to continue to drop, trust levels to decrease (Robert Putnam style) and political corruption to rise. It’s no mystery why provincial parties are ahead of the game here since they stand for less, have less attention paid to them, and thus engage in more crooked horse trading.

Some centrist types might view Canada’s increasingly non-ideological politics and narrow Overton window as goods unto themselves. But it’s unsustainable. Currently “unacceptable” views will eventually get oxygen and someone (possibly even lunatics and charlatans) will eventually step into the space to give them voice. Attempts might be made to legislate them out of existence with stricter and stricter speech laws until Canada winds up as some bizarre “soft” totalitarian state, or politics in this country might simply become a meaningless exercise where people fight over “brands” in the same way people get passionate over a preferred coffee shop chain or sports team. In any case, it’s not healthy for a nation state to have such politics.

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I love America

AmericaEzra Levant’s renunciation of the alt-right (a popular activity at the moment) has been predictably scorned as disingenuous, but one passage struck me as entirely believable:

“When I first heard of the alt-right a year ago, I thought it simply meant the insurgent right, the politically incorrect right, the grassroots right, the nationalistic right, the right that was a counterweight to the establishment of the GOP, the right that backed Trump and his ‘Make America Great Again’ style over Jeb Bush and the swamp. It was unashamed right-wingedness, with a sense of humour.”

I’ve been observing the alt-right long before Donald Trump — or more specifically, Hillary Clinton – made it a household term on the 2016 campaign trail. Way back in 2014, I even wrote an answer to a question on Quora, “what is the American alternative right” (note the quaint formality) that became, for a time, a fairly widely-shared source on the matter.

In those days, as I noted, the “alternative right” was a “diverse assortment of people, mostly online, who identify as right-wingers but consider themselves either opposed to, or profoundly alienated from mainstream American conservatism — usually because they view it as being too liberal, or preoccupied with the wrong issues.” This community, I noted, thrived on a “archipelago of blogs, podcasts, and social media accounts” and I knew this because in those days, I consumed some of them. I honestly doubt there’s a young conservative alive who can profess zero engagement with the alt-right, at least in this phase of its existence, since many of these blogs, podcasts, and social media accounts seemed to engage freely and frankly with issues like immigration, gender relations, and economic inequality that are front-of-mind for a lot of young people these days.

But of course the alt-right changed, or perhaps simply solidified around one faction. Over the course of a few years it stopped being something creative and diverse, and congealed into something with stricter rules and a more grotesque culture, which in turn made it easier to have a firm opinion on, and reject. The evolution I observed was a sharp shift away from the world of adult politics and political commentary, and into a much more psychological, therapeutic thing, wherein a lot of young men with anxiety about various changes in society were retreating into radical, conspiratorial, hate-fueled mantras that made them feel powerful and dangerous. I wrote about this phenomenon, which, as I noted, is a very standard trend of radical movements throughout history, in a July, 2016 essay for C2C Journal called “All the angry young white men.”

Even that article now reads as excessively tempered. There comes a point where taking the aloof, sociological approach to documenting an unpleasant fad reaches its useful limit, and a point where its partisans simply deserve to be judged for their personal choices. The Charlottesville episode proved mainstream alt-rightism wishes to define itself primarily through racist performance art and “unity” with any and every faction of the self-proclaimed “right” respectable society has agreed, over the course of centuries, to scorn and marginalize. The leadership of this movement, such as it is, clearly comprises an enormous amount of delusional, ignorant, self-obsessed people content to embrace all the discredited ideas of the 20th century’s leading crackpots in a pained effort to seem, ironically enough, relevant.

When one seeks an identity out of insecurity, one will inevitably seek shortcuts to knowledge. To be genuinely contrarian is impressive, as it usually reflects a mind full of independent thoughts and creative insights, but today far too many of us rush towards  eccentric and unpopular opinions because they promise a quick identity as someone edgy and interesting, and are delivered in forms that are easy to consume and regurgitate — conspiracy theories, tautological slogans, memes. Such things offer the dopamine thrill of being contrary but are actually just unconvincing masks of ignorance.

What I’ve come to realize is the ideology that’s truly needed among young people and young men these days is an agenda of conformity. Conformity gets a bad rap in an age when “everyone wants to be the golden crocodile,” as my father used to say, but conformity doesn’t have to mean sacrificing your specialness and merging into some great grey blob of sameness. A dignified conformity simply means respecting and upholding what your society is all about, its traditions, history, hierarchies, and mores, and not waging active war against them. In other words, pretty much the complete opposite agenda of both the far-left and alt-right.

What both extremes share is a common loathing of America, and American civilization. We know how anti-Americanism manifests on the far left, but the alt-right has never been particularly patriotic, either. They have created an alternate, pseudo-patriotism of their own based on worshipping themselves, and their dogmas, all of which frame the United States of America, by design, as a problem to be solved. They rally behind symbols of America’s foreign enemies, like the German National Socialist Party or Putin’s Russia, and American traitors like the Confederate States of America. Their foreign policy views are often explicitly Chomskyite, and frame all of the world’s violence and chaos — up to and including 9/11 — as America’s conscious doing.

In the face of this, the cure is a revived Americanism, a renewed interest, celebration, and yes, conformity around the American country that exists — not the imaginary utopia some dissident faction seek to build in its place — and the unique culture it has produced, shaped by its history, achievements, heroes, and symbols. This can come off as a cliché, but only because we’re used to processing rhetoric like this as an empty slogan, not an actionable agenda. It’s been a long while since Americanism of this sort was honestly attempted.

White supremacy is incompatible with America. America was founded as a multi-ethnic state by virtue of occupying lands populated by whites, Indians, African slaves, and later Hispanics from annexed Mexican territories. Since the American constitution was written in universalist language, one of the major storylines of the American democratic experiment has been broadening definitions of citizenship and civil rights to make the multi-ethnic reality of the United States synchronize with its founding promises — an often bloody and difficult challenge. Immigration is a distinct debate, as it involves broadening and diversifying the American population further through government policy — and like all government policies, this can be done well or poorly. Conformity with America requires acknowledging and respecting all of these realities.

Simultaneously, America has another storyline, the story of the most accomplished country in the history of the world, full of citizens who have done incredible things in virtually every realm of human achievement — science, technology, art, music, food, architecture, literature, sport, space exploration, etc. — that have made the world such an infinitely better place. Every life lived on this planet is a life that’s been made easier and more pleasurable thanks to something an American did.

To love and conform with American civilization is to find something attractive in a country whose greatness comes from the consequences of its existence, the principles of its constitution, and difficulty of its survival. Today, many lack the capacity to love America because they are ignorant of America’s effect, cynical about its principles, and view its difficulties as vindication that the whole project is either doomed or pointless. The spread of this mindset is the only thing that will ultimately ruin a country that, more than most others, actively requires a conscious, active, conformist patriotism to be held together. The most useful tools to this end will be a dramatic improvement in the teaching and celebration of American history and biography, with far more time spent telling, learning, and sharing the great American stories — not just in educational institutions, but within cultural-political spaces in general.

My own humble contribution to date has been my site about American biography, called Americans That Matter. I plan to do more in the future.

A final note to fellow Canadians:

Canadians are part of the American civilization, and we have equal onus to appreciate the American heritage that has defined our society, history, and culture. Insecurity over our shared continental identity means Canadians are constantly trying to invent distractions to avoid respecting America, be it postmodern leftist nihilism, or forced nostalgia for some made-up British past, like Gavin McInnes’ “Proud Boys” did last month when they went around waving the Red Ensign flag and declaring “this is a British colony” (present tense).

Because the United States is a larger country with a politics more fearless, democratic and responsive than our own, the US is often the stage on which our own societal dramas play out, which we are privileged to be able to follow so closely. Canadians can calibrate their reactions and responses to a host of trends shaping our shared American experience through case studies in the United States, which, due mostly to the comparative largeness and freedom of the US, are simply richer and more varied than those Canada will reliably produce.

The correct response to this is humility, and I give the Prime Minister credit for stating in the wake of Charlottesville, before anything else, that “Canada isn’t immune.” But in other contexts, our leaders — in all realms — should offer more open appreciation and acknowledgment for the infinite assortment of other ways in which Canada is not different from the United States, much to our benefit.

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The State of the Canadian Left: a dialogue

This is the fourth in a series of dialogues on Canadian politics between me, J.J. McCullough, resident of Coquitlam, B.C., and my friend Doug Musk, resident of Beamsville, Ontario.

Check out our previous dialogues on the state of the Canadian right, the state of the 2017 Conservative Party leadership contest, and the election of Andrew Scheer as Conservative leader.


Ontario NDP leader Andrew Horwath and federal NDP leadership candidate Jagmeet Singh.

Ontario NDP leader Andrew Horwath and federal NDP leadership candidate Jagmeet Singh.

DOUG: Well J.J., since we’ve spent a large part of our previous three chats largely self-flagellating our own of the political spectrum I think it might please our readers to finally tackle what’s going on in the Canadian “left.” Since it’s in power federally, along with in most of the provinces (and many of the cities), I think it’s something important for us to tackle.

What’s your sense of the “left” as it exists in Canada currently — particularly it’s factions and leaders?

JJ: Well, the Canadian left differs from the Canadian right in that it has a pretty clear and focused agenda. When we talked about the right, we characterized it as a sort of confused coalition of people who dislike the left for various, often hazily-defined reasons. The left, I think, has a much better sense of what it exists to do.

They care a lot about creating an ever-more racially and culturally-diverse society and opposing anyone who expresses or fosters racial and cultural intolerance. They care a lot about female empowerment and opposing anyone who promotes sexism. They care about legal equality for LGBT persons and stamping out homophobia and transphobia. They care about delegating as much political, legal, and economic power possible to aboriginal governments and aggressively inserting an aboriginal cultural presence in Canadian society. They consider climate change the defining, existential challenge of our time and believe governments should be engaged in aggressive regulatory initiatives to curb it.

It’s an ideology with traces of the individualism of classical liberalism — certainly in regards to anything having to do with sex, gender, drugs, or the ending of human life — but is overall mostly concerned with strengthening collective rights and securing collective goods.

I’d call most of Canada’s present rulers “technocratic liberals.” They support everything described above, but are pragmatic in how they go about it. Since they believe in politics and government as useful and productive tools, they accept that some give, take, and compromise will be required to make progress on their agenda, with some victories having to be incremental (i.e., Prime Minister Trudeau agreeing in principle that the oil sands should be “phased out” but still approving some — heavily-regulated! — pipelines in the meantime), sometimes aggressively (as with his sweeping trans-rights legislation or Syrian refugee intake).

Given that the Liberal Party is generally in power everywhere, I’d say this approach is synonymous with their governing philosophy.

Below the technocratic-political-class left, we have the broad “activist-class” left — the people who staff the universities and legal groups and think tanks and charities and NGOs and write the columns and the blog posts — and seem to exist mostly to complain that progress isn’t happening fast enough under the current government (at whatever level). I think these are the people who vote and sustain the NDP. Big-l Liberals would complain these are the people who can afford to constantly judge the good by the standard of the perfect, since they’re never called on to exercise any real responsibility. Which I think is fair. Indeed, whenever, the NDP does get in power, as in Alberta right now, they wind up employing the same pragmatic style of governance as Liberals. I think it’s actually rather hard to govern as an unabashed leftist radical these days, given that even the far-left believes deeply in government, and the critical role bureaucrats and lawyers and judges and professors and the rest have to play in the decision-making process. It’s much easier to be a radical if you’re someone like Steve Bannon, who views all this “deep state” stuff with contempt and just wants to plow through; much harder if you spend much of your political breath arguing that these people are all heroic public servants who deserve more money and resources and deference.

Despite the fact that “inequality” has grown in volume as a political catch phrase, the economic left seems pretty absent from Canada these days. Concerns about economically marginalized groups seem to quickly morph into conversations about their racial/gender marginalization, and even our unions now seem as obsessed with “social justice” as they do with minimum wages or raises for their workers — who mostly now work for the government anyway, and are thus already likely to enjoy statistically above-average pay.

The foreign policy left also seems pretty marginal. I mean, this is Canada so foreign policy stuff is hardly ever top of mind, but even then, I feel interest in Israel-Palestine stuff, or criticism of the War on Terror, is vastly less prominent in anyone’s messaging than it was a decade ago. In the early 2000s, Jack Layton earned a lot of credibility on the left for his willingness to aggressively bash George W. Bush’s foreign policy. If a new Layton came along, I think there can be no doubt he’d have a lot more to say about Trump’s sexism than his mideast policies.

I do get the sense there exists a small but feisty left-wing subculture that’s trying to bring back foreign policy and economic leftism, and feels alienated that these arguments are so unheard these days. I find they’re mostly the stereotypical “Bernie Bro” types — young men who are very interested in war and history and like to talk about “actual Nazis” and and post sassy “socialist memes” on Facebook about how Lenin was right, you know. They’re kind of a reverse alt-right. I don’t really know who represents them in Canada. I think they’re honestly not that interested in Canadian affairs, much like Canadian alt-righters.

Does this all strike you as broadly accurate?

DOUG: I’m intrigued by this concept of the “technocratic left.” Roger Scruton predicted the rise of this ruling philosophy in his informative and prescient The Meaning of Conservatism in the early 1980s. He argued political domination by this style of ideologue would be the natural outgrowth of an ultra-consumerist culture and citizenry, particularly amid the decline of mid-level institutions — e.g. the church, community groups, men and women’s organizations, etc.

I’d be intrigued to see how informed the people who vote for “technocratic left” parties are, and how they’d compare to voters on both the right and the far-left. I suspect you’d find a very knowledgeable core along with plenty of people who only engage with politics at a very casual level, or  whose thoughts on politics are mostly informed by glib and vapid one-liners — “if you don’t like an abortion don’t get one!” or “love wins!” or “it’s [the current year]!” The technocratic elite loves these people because they help create the impression that there’s an objective “right side” to any moral debate. It’s a subtle way of portraying your ideological opponents as basically flawed human beings who aren’t enlightened to the degree you are. I think this fits nicely in with this trend of handsome young men in their 30’s-40’s leading  technocratic centre-left governments — not just Trudeau, but Macron in France and Renzi in Italy, too. I think it’s part of a deliberate branding effort to appear thoroughly hip and cool and in tune with the times.

The other striking thing about modern liberals is how little sacrifice they demand from their supporters. Liberal politicians actually tend to promise that taxes will be kept low, or even cut, with resulting deficits punted to future generations or creditors. When there’s a terrorist attack or international disaster no one will be called to do anything beyond change their Facebook photo and offer some “thoughts and prayers” before turning back to Cosmo. The poor? Well, just have faith that some government department will handle that. Trudeau’s line about not needing to worry about finances because “the budget will balance itself” may be the most visceral example of this type of thinking, but really, so much modern liberal rhetoric simply boils down to some version of “everything’s going to be all right if we just hug and work together”.

That’s maybe why Trudeau hasn’t gone completely overboard on some of his policy ideas and has offered vague support for things like pipelines — I think there’s an awareness in the Liberal backrooms that their support is a mild wide but an inch deep. Their policies aren’t being backed by hardcore left-wing ideologues, but just voters inclined towards conflict avoidance, or those whose support that can be easily bought. I suppose this is partially just how you play politics if you’re (at least ostensibly) a “centrist” movement — you have to be prepared to abandon the more ideological factions of the electorate to parties with more strongly held positions.

One thing you can say about the farther left part of the spectrum — what you called the “activist left” — there’s at least acknowledgment that hard action is required to generate solutions. I may disagree with those solutions, but at least the Corbyn/Sanders/Ashton set are proposing something beyond the inertia of the status quo. The NDP’s “LEAP Manifesto” does signal a firm agenda, and in fact explicitly acknowledges the trade-offs that would be required to pursue the goals it advocates. I’m not sure if the Liberals even realize there are trade-offs implicit in policy making. If they do it’s almost never brought to the public’s attention. The closest thing has been the marijuana legalization mess, and they pretty much had to be dragged to that press conference like it was the Bataan Death March.

I hadn’t really thought of it in some time, but your comment on the lack of foreign policy critiques on the Canadian left these days is just stunningly accurate. At university, I used to jokingly tell fellow non-leftists that everything discussed in seminars would inevitably find its way back to Bush-bashing, or a diatribe on the invasion of Iraq, usually through some spurious link to a historical parable. Now it’s almost never brought up, and if it is it’s in a form of identity grievance politics. For instance, when we talk about Syria it has less to do with the war than the need to import as many Syrian refugees as possible. I’m almost surprised the Liberals actually promoted more military spending recently. I suspect almost none of their base cares about that, and indeed, might actually disagree strongly if it turns out those funds are being pulled from other programs. 

I do see elements of the economic left in my day to day life, though. There’s still a populist union wing of the NDP for example, though with the decline of private sector unions and the rise of less physically strenuous and dangerous work I think a lot of its potency isn’t what it once was. That said, there are regions where this type of New Democrat still has some limited force — some industrial cities like Hamilton and Windsor, as well as Northern Ontario and parts of the interior of B.C. Here in Ontario we’ve even seen open feuding between this wing, represented by the Ontario NDP leader, Andrea Horwath, and the forces that want a more social justice-oriented party. The latter group pretty much openly attempted to sabotage Horwath’s 2014 campaign for not being concerned enough with the issues of the downtown urbanites.

I do wonder where the NDP ultimately goes, though. It’s possible it may bleed some of its hinterland support to parties which are more pro-resource development, and the Liberals seem to be successfully LARPing as “woke” with very few slip ups. Perhaps Jagmeet Singh gives them a new angle which the other potential leaders wouldn’t. I’ve considered it a possibility that Canada might actually be heading back into a more two-party series of elections, (as we saw in the U.K. just some weeks ago where the smaller parties were squeezed). Do you consider that plausible?

JJ: Well, the prospect of a two-party Canada is one of those persistent predictions of Canadian political history (much like, “well, that’s the last we’ve heard of Quebec separatism!”) that often seems plausible in the moment, only to be demolished in the face of unanticipated events. During the 1990s, the global fall of socialism was seen as a deathblow to the NDP, and the party did enter a severe phase of decline, but then it came surging back with a vengeance during the late 2000s. And circa 2011 it was fashionable to say it was actually the Liberals who had one foot in the grave… and then we had Justin Trudeau’s roaring comeback.

Both the Liberals and NDP are very established parties with firm partisan infrastructure that isn’t going to vanish overnight because of a bad election or two. Though the NDP is small when compared to the two governing parties, it enjoys the backing of a large union/activist industrial complex that seems to keep it perpetually flush with staff, candidates, volunteers, and propagandists, even in dark times. In recent Canadian history, parties only seem to truly crumble if the leadership makes a conscious effort to dissolve them, as was the case with the PC/Alliance merger, or what’s going on with the Alberta parties today. There was that passing moment during the Harper years where a “unite the left” idea was briefly entertained, with grandees like Jean Chretien even encouraging it, but it wound up going nowhere because the sitting party leaders opposed it. Institutional inertia is hard to overcome, and the “distinct cultures” of the two parties — the legends they tell themselves about their differences from each other, and their distinguishing symbols and histories and so on — breed strong tribal loyalty among the people who run them.

That said, if the NDP picks Jagmeet Singh to be their leader you’ll have a pretty striking situation of both of Canada’s centre-left parties adopting near-identical “hip and modern” branding strategies of the sort you described. I really think it will be fascinating to see how that plays out, because it’s going to be very difficult for Trudeau, and Trudeau partisans, to try and out-woke a first-generation nonwhite Canadian with a turban. I’m eager to see the first time Singh accuses Trudeau of racism, and the degree to which NDP-friendly media — the sort of outlets and pundits who increasingly feel the need to demonstrate they’re not afraid to criticize Trudeau for being insufficiently left-wing on climate change or Trump or aboriginals — begin to push a narrative of Trudeau as the “privilege” candidate good leftists should feel embarrassed to support. That was a very hard case to make with Thomas Mulcair, who was a kind of embarrassing character in his own right, and had no identity politics advantage over Trudeau — but won’t be with Singh.

But on the other hand, what happens to the more old-fashioned Horwathite NDP voters if they get a Trudeau of their own? Logically, you’d expect the complete urbanification/wokification of both the Libs and NDP to open the possibility of Trump-like Conservative breakthroughs in some of the remaining NDP rural/industrial ridings. Charlie Angus, a middle-aged white guy from northern Ontario who in his past life as a journalist, wrote nothing but those “wither-the-plight-of-the-mining-town” stories that have become so common today, seems like he’d be the true working-class/private-sector unionist choice, but even he’s gone out of his way to minimize any cultural space between the urban left and his constituents. Bill Tieleman, who is quite an insightful NDP pundit here in BC, wrote a good column which sniffed pretty incredulously at Angus’ tweets following Trump’s election, in which Angus claimed his voters back home, in their “coveralls, greasy boots and biker tattoos” had expressed horror at Trump’s sexism in their free moments between “helping Syrian refugees find their way around.”

You tend to notice nuances in party races better than me, Doug. Do you agree with the broad Singh vs. Angus dynamic many are framing the NDP race to be?

DOUG: I somewhat agree with that narrative, though I think Nikki Ashton and Guy Caron could be important factors going forward. Unlike the ridiculously clogged field that was the CPC leadership race, having only four candidates increases the importance of inter-candidate horse trading, as well as allowing a little more space for the candidates to run in separate lanes and actually champion ideas.

It does strike me that Ashton and Singh seem to be running quite similar messages though — the sort of standard “grievance issues” driven campaign, heavy on identity politics, inequality etc. The rhetoric coming from both of them is really quite far to the left, and I think having either of them as NDP leader would represent the furthest leftward tilt any mainstream Canadian political party has made in decades. Let’s not forget that Ashton ran for leader in 2012 and finished last, with only 5.7% of the vote. Her faring so much better this time around shows just how dramatic the NDP’s push to the left has been in the aftermath of the perceived failures of Mulcair.

On a related note, what continues to surprise me is just how negative the stigma around Mulcair is. 2015 obviously marked a decline for the NDP, but it was still quite good showing, historically speaking. Muclair led the party to one of its “top four” results of all time, with only Layton and Broadbent having done better — and in Broadbent’s case, only very narrowly. The historic norm is for the party to perform around the 14-18% range, with the notable exception of the 1990’s, where, as you noted, the party was in deep crisis. It’s why I’m slightly nervous about Conservatives being too reliant on what I call the “Goldilocks strategy” where the NDP’s level of support is “just right” for helpful vote splitting on the left. For one thing, it’s ultimately beyond our control, for another, a strong NDP might just wind up pushing Canada to the left overall, by forcing the Liberals to pander more in that direction.

I do think a move to the left is basically inevitable for the NDP, though, even if Caron or Angus win. Though Caron seems to be the most moderate of the bunch, and has gotten some attention from the NDP base for actually proposing concrete policy ideas (particularly a “basic income” plan), I’m not sure if he has a path to victory. The NDP membership is dominated by B.C. and Ontario (about 60% of their members are in these two provinces) and the field is decently bilingual, which removes that angle for him to run on. Perhaps he can somehow finish ahead of Angus on the 1st ballot, though I think it’s unlikely.

Angus seems to be splitting the difference a little between Caron and the Singh/Ashton wing of the party. Not totally neglecting the populist and policy wonk factions, but trying to at least placate the identity politics and urban wings with some rhetoric, as you pointed out. I’ve also heard some standard “establishment” type critiques of Singh, how he hasn’t spent enough time in the federal party, doesn’t have a seat in parliament, etc. I don’t think that stuff is too damaging though I guess it might hurt him slightly on the margins.

I’m always a little skeptical about the significance of leadership races, overall, however. The pool of voters you have to pander to is very small and niche, and we really have no idea if the candidates are just going to completely reverse all their positions after winning (see Patrick Brown’s utterly cynical PC leadership campaign in Ontario for a particularly grotesque example). You have to wonder if Angus, for example, is just posturing with some of his recent comments, like those ones in that article you mentioned. Am I really supposed to believe residents of Timmins are worried about “cultural appropriation” and “microaggressions”? Income inequality and aboriginal issues I can definitely see as being uniquely important to NDP supporters in places like Northern Ontario and the B.C. interior, but these sorts of “intersectional” issues can’t be much more than annoying distractions for, say, union voters at the local paper mill.

That brings me to the larger question of how popular all this university-radical stuff is with the public at large, let alone the NDP base. Is this the kind of politics where the bark is worse than the bite? Perhaps I’m just biased since all this stuff is completely dead in the water where I live — even NDP voters I talk to either have no interest in it or are actively opposed (for some context: the NDP often finishes second in my riding after the Conservatives, with the Liberals in third). I just have this gut feeling that a lot of these campus crazies are just mentally ill and/or weird youth who will drop it all at a later date. The media, for its part, seems to be under the false impression that Twitter is somehow reflective of the population as a whole, as opposed to a highly self-selected 15% (or so) of it.

Could Singh or Ashton backfire on Conservatives hoping for a vote split? What if their new leader makes the NDP come off as a bunch of radical far-left lunatics, thus making Trudeau and the Liberals seem moderate centrists by comparison? Would Caron and Angus just get overshadowed by the more charismatic Trudeau? I’m actually very intrigued by the NDP race because I think there are two distinct paths possible and I really can’t put my finger on how the winner will be received by the public (unlike “generic Conservative” Andrew Scheer).

JJ: You raise a really important question about perception, and it’s one I struggle with a lot. When you spend a lot of time on the internet, and particularly on social media, it becomes easy to get comfortable with these very broad, cartoonish caricatures of left and right wing voters, which really warps your ability to accurately read the tastes of the electorate.

Obviously there exists a faction of Canadians that wants the most far-left prime minister imaginable. These are the stereotypical people, and I think it’s probably fair to say they’re a much smaller and less influential group than the right’s current obsession imagines. That said — and while I’m skeptical of leaning too heavily on foreign analogies — I think Sanders and Corbyn also illustrate we can also be too quick to assume politicians who emerge from the far-left fringe can’t assemble a wider electoral coalition. I think a key variable is whether the candidate can present as an authentic champion of fairly mainstream socio-economic interests. My sense is authenticity of this sort is closely linked to cultural authenticity. Sanders and Corbyn, for however radical they may have been ideologically, were these rumpled old white guys who spoke in a blunt, pissed-off manner about common problems. They struck many as familiar and genuine.

What we don’t have is a good case study of someone like Singh — someone who would be a far-left ideologue and quite outside the mainstream culturally. That strikes as a particularly high-risk mix given Singh also hails from the identity politics wing of the far left, as opposed to the more materialistic left of Sanders and Corbyn. What some call “cultural Marxism,” as opposed to ordinary Marxism.

Hillary Clinton is often portrayed by the right as having run this repulsive SWJ campaign, but that’s kind of a narrow generalization of a much more elaborately flawed candidate. Barack Hussien Obama was culturally odd in some ways, but also ran as a bland hopey-changey liberal technocrat of the sort we previously discussed. That’s why I’m so obsessed with Singh, I think he would be a fascinating, unambiguous electoral test case of the current incarnation of the activist urban left.

Singh would almost certainly do poorly in rural and suburban Quebec because Quebeckers are just generally more racist and xenophobic than the rest of the country, a fact which is now pretty much being openly conceded in the press through euphemisms about Quebec voters being “uncomfortable with his outward displays of religion” or whatever. But even in more comparatively open-minded English Canada, I think there could be a powerful middle class distaste for an East Indian party leader with a big beard and a turban who is always banging on about discrimination or transgender rights or whatever. The medium sort of becomes the message, and there becomes a sense that the public’s tolerance is being deliberately stressed — triggering a “well now this is a bit much” type reaction. I guess that’s what media people mean when they refer to this idea of the country “not being ready” for a politician who is too ostentatiously outside the mainstream. It’s an instinct of caution that may be unfair, but it is what it is. For the record, I think Nikki Ashton would have a similar problem of being a young single mother who just finished (by the time she became leader, at least) giving birth.

But on the other hand, I have a hard time imagining Singh being a disaster for the NDP in some of the big urban ridings, including those where a vote split on the left helped give the Conservatives a majority victory in 2011. I think these are places where the idea of electing a nonwhite, non-Christian prime minister will be very attractive, and where there’ll  be significant appetite for punishing Trudeau for not fully delivering the progressive goods. Will that be enough to compensate for (increasing) NDP losses in Quebec? Maybe not. Once again, Quebec could wind up being the erratic variable, which shows just how difficult it can be to use a purely ideological analysis for understanding Canadian politics.

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Justin Trudeau’s Spotify playlist is not nearly politically correct enough

TrudeauThe CBC informs that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has released his official Prime Minister’s Summer Playlist on Spotify. And I am deeply offended by it.

Prime Minister Trudeau’s playlist, while undoubtably well-intentioned, nevertheless fails to live up to his progressive reputation. While much effort has clearly been exerted to ensure the prime minister is seen to only enjoy music aligned with the values that have made Canada such a fair, diverse, and inclusive nation, I nevertheless believe a strong case can be made that the PM’s list is deeply problematic on a number of levels. Progressive Canadians should think twice before listening.

Where to begin…

Of the prime minister’s 39 approved songs, only 24 (61.5%) are the creations of Canadian artists. Most subversively, there are seven songs by Americans, the very sorts of cultural imperialists who the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission established quotas to protect Canadians from. I find it grossly irresponsible for the prime minister to be encouraging the listening of non-Canadian music like Dire Straits, and particularly American music like Gary Jules’ “Mad World.”

Likewise, I find the prime minister’s attempts to ensure the Canadian artists adequately acknowledge the various regions of Canada to be sloppy at best. Most glaringly, only four of the 24 Canadian artists are from Quebec (Cœur de Pirate, Pierre Lapointe, Charlotte Cardin, and Adam Cohen), and only three of those four sing in the French language. This 16.7% representation of artists for a province representing 22.9% of the Canadian population (according to Statistics Canada) is frankly inexcusable, as is the deeply disrespectful underrepresentation of one of Canada’s two official languages.

The rest of the geographic distribution is no less troubling. 12 of the 24 artists are from Ontario, meaning a full half of the prime minister’s Canadian favored musicians are from a province that only comprises 38.5% of the country’s population. Placed in this context, the five western Canadian artists and three Atlantic Canadian artists feel like polite afterthoughts at best.

Most appalling of all, however, Mr. Trudeau’s bungled efforts to recognize the diversity of contemporary Canada is nothing short of a disaster. Only six of the 24 Canadian artists are female, indicating that the prime minister’s Spotify playlist remains yet one more “old boys club” to which women need not apply. Only three of the Canadian artists are people of color, and only one is a woman of color. There are no indigenous artists at all. I thought it was 2017, Mr. Prime Minister. This regressive playlist would have raised eyebrows in 1986.

Canadians, and indeed progressives around the world, look to Justin Trudeau to be a beacon of liberal inclusion and openness in an often cruel and intolerant world. It is disappointing that the PM has once again failed to live up to the high standards he has set for himself.

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Trudeau and Khadr

Trudeau and Khadr

I don’t do editorial cartoons very often these days, but sometimes a story really demands one.

The numbers are in, and even Trudeau’s own supporters reject the Khadr deal, by Anthony Furey in the Toronto Sun.

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