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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.




^ 5 Comments...

  1. PierreB

    Fantastic comments, thanks.

  2. Elmer

    Wow BC and ON prove again they believe themselves to be the centers of the universe. Look for who isn’t mentioned.

  3. mike ostrowski

    Great ideas discussed. Podcast would be nice.

  4. Xander77

    How did you pour out that whole mountain of words about how the conservatives need to stand for something other than contrarianism without your head exploding from sheer cognitive dissonance? You have been a conservative commentator for over a decade, yet I can count the number of times you took an unambitious stand FOR something on the fingers of a horribly mutilated hand.

  5. J.J.

    It’s nice that you keep coming back.