Thursday, May 05, 2011

What Makes a Political Culture (Start To, Maybe) Change?

Fan of all things Canadian that I am, I suppose I ought to say something about the monumental election in Canada this past Monday. (This is how long it usually takes me to get around to talking about our neighbors to the north, anyway.) The old joke about Canadian government being about the boring thing imaginable won't go away anytime soon, I'm sure, but when you have an election which delivers to the political party which has dominated Canadian life for decades its worst electoral showing in its entire existence, and is followed with the resignation of not just one but two thoroughly trounced party leaders, both of whom not only brought their parties to defeat but also lost their own seats in Parliament, at least a little attention must be paid.

Most of that attention is, reasonably, being paid to the Conservatives, who, after cobbling together mostly ineffective minority-coalition governments over the past five years, now have a decided majority, and seem entirely determined to make use of it. But I think the more intriguing story of the 2011 election is not the triumph of the Conservatives over the Liberals, but the triumph of Jack Layton and the New Democrats over their mainstream liberal/left-leaning rivals. The NDP is a party with roots in populist, socialist, and other communitarian thinkers and movements from Canada's past, though the degree to which anyone could reasonably call is a "socialist" party today is almost negligible. Still, it certainly does represent a more clearly social democratic option than do the Liberals--and now, with a showing in a national election more than twice as successful as ever before (their previous high was 43 seats in Parliament, in the 1988 election; on Monday, they won 102), they are the voice of the opposition in Canada, with the Liberals and the Bloc Québécois effectively out of the running entirely. What happened?

Two obvious responses, neither of which is remotely original with me, but which I may as well say anyway: first, it may be seen as the first decisive step--or, relatedly, as a natural, logical progression--in an ideological re-alignment in Canada; second, it may be seen as (again) an important beginning--or a important continuation--of the transformation of Quebec. The two are interrelated, though their implications are not the same.

First, what about this re-alignment--the rise of an "American-style" conservatism in Western Canada, particularly Alberta, and its transformative effect on Canadian politics, turning what was, both in names and in ideas, a "Liberal" and "Progressive" conservative movement, into something quite different? Some people, including good friends of mine who are die-hard Liberals, can't believe it's really happening. It's a reasonable conclusion--after all, the Liberals held power for 70 years throughout the 20th century, and it's been over a 100 years since any Liberal leader hasn't taken a turn as Prime Minister. There are very, very few other democracies on the planet where one party can so plausibly present itself as the sole possessor of the intellectual and political resources needed to effectively and legitimately govern the whole country; perhaps Japan's Liberal Democratic Party comes to mind, but even there the comparison pales. Quite simply, for generations, the language of "Canadian values"--which Erna Paris lists as "moderation in civil discourse; toleration of dissent; support for human rights and the institutions of civil society; respect for the rule of law; a commitment to multilateralism abroad and pluralism at home; and a dedication to the public good, which includes a sensitivity to our uniqueness as one of the world’s most ethnically diverse countries"--were essentially indistinguishable from the platform and record of the Liberal Party, and the centers of Canada's population and economic strength (namely, Ontario, and in particular Toronto) seemed to like it that way. But maybe not any longer. In that same article, Paris wonders about the unity of Canada, which held its "solitudes" together through a unified belief (as the voices of liberalism--and Liberalism--held it) in certain international, democratic standards, the cracking of which she associates with the fate of Omar Khadr, a Canadian citizen who was apprehended by the U.S. in Afghanistan in 2002 when he was 15 years old, and has been held in Guantanamo Bay ever since:

During...[a] vote in the UN General Assembly, Paul Dewar, the NDP’s foreign affairs critic, said something that triggered a personal memory from my own childhood. When he said, “Canada must have a seat on the Security Council. It’s in our DNA,” I recalled that the principal of my Toronto elementary school had papered the corridor walls with the entire Universal Declaration of Human Rights. I saw myself standing on my tiptoes, reading avidly, a young Jewish girl who knew nothing about the Holocaust except that something terrible had happened to my people, and that this document promised hope and protection. Yes, I thought, the United Nations has been in my DNA for a lifetime--as a hope, as an institution that would always be better than nothing at all, even when it appeared to fail and needed reform. I have never considered abandoning my support of the UN, because the alternative would be unspeakably worse....

For decades, Canada elicited admiration for policies that advanced the cause of peace and justice abroad, and equality at home. Now we are observed with puzzlement on many fronts, including our apparent abandonment of the core citizenship rights that define all democracies. Without an inalienable commitment to shared equality, the democratic centre of any country will soon fall into jeopardy. To the world outside our borders, our shabby treatment of Omar Khadr has exposed a crack in Canada’s foundations....“Canada’s reputation as a global human rights leader has taken a big hit,” says Alex Neve, secretary-general of Amnesty International Canada. “Right up to the very end, the determination of the Canadian government to appear unconcerned and disinterested was stunning. Last-minute interventions from two UN human rights experts, including the secretary-general’s special representative on children and armed conflict, calling for Canada to intervene on Omar Khadr’s behalf, went unheeded or outright ignored.”

On the other side of this moral and legal divide, conservative pundits wrote vitriolic critiques of the Harper government for agreeing to bring Khadr home in 2011 to serve the remainder of his sentence in Canada (a demand of the Obama administration). An Ipsos Reid survey in the immediate aftermath of the trial quantified our disagreement on the Khadr question: 49 percent of the population wanted him kept out.

What could possibly account, Paris wonders, for this declining attachment to international organizations and procedures--to the vision of Canada playing a large, liberal, role on the global stage? She speaks critically of her fellow Canadians being hoodwinked into embracing an image of "little Canada"--focused on harnessing its own economic resources and localizing its own sense of responsibility, giving up the cosmopolitan implications of the Canada which Pierre Trudeau helped to make. I suppose she has a point. But then again, to what extent was that cosmopolitanism ever truly shared outside the boundaries of Toronto (which is, truly, one of the great metropolises of the world)? What happens when the cultural balance which allowed the Liberals to speak for that sentiment, while the "little" or "local" attitudes it eschewed are divided like scraps being fought for between Quebec and all the other provinces, changes? Or at least, maybe, begins to change?

For decades, one version or another of the Conservative party found grounds for tactical alliances with the Bloc Québécois; not that they ever supported calls for secession and separation, but they, on one issue or another, could present themselves as working to respect Canada's unusual cultural and linguistic situation, whereas the Liberals, despite their many overtures to the feelings (and the votes) of Quebeckers, had a nationalist legacy that prevented left-leaning median voters in Quebec from fully supporting the party that was presumably closer to them ideologically. But 2011 represents two changes in this dynamic: first, an NDP which far more aggressively than ever before promised to align its social democratic aims with the political and economic interests of Quebec, and a Conservative party that believed that, between the West and the new firm establishment of entrepreneurial, family-oriented, less "cosmopolitanly-aware" (in the old Liberal sense, anyway) immigrant communities, particularly Indian and Chinese, throughout urban Canada, that the moment for a truly national conservative majority had arrived.

The votes, depending on how one reads them, may provide evidence in support of either, or both, of these agendas. Quebec nationalism does still matter, some way, just not in the same secessionist manner as in times past; witness the huge support in the province for NDP candidates (more than a few of whom had no real connection to the French-Canadian history that traditionally has been so important in the province). On the other hand, the divide between English-speaking Canada and French-speaking Canada simply isn't what it was 16 years ago, when a referendum calling for Quebec separation and sovereignty lost by the narrowest of margins. The pace of technological and economic change in Canada through the internet boom (and global bust) of the past couple of decades has had massive consequences for how their politicians and parties--following their voters themselves--operate and conceive of their place in their nation and world, no less than how such changes have effected the United States and practically every other country on the planet. It just may be that, on Monday, the consequences of those changes took a great many people--people who have long assumed that, in a culturally divided nation like Canada, the ideological preferences of the majority of (English-speaking) voters could be fairly efficiently sorted between cosmopolitan Liberals and ineffective Conservatives--by surprise.

What comes next? Some of my friends remind me that the Bloc Québécois may have suffered a big defeat, but the sentiments they have long served have hardly disappeared; perhaps 30% to 40% of Quebeckers desire some form of sovereignty, and that's enough to win a fair number of ridings. Of course, the NDP, in its minority position under the Conservatives, can make all sorts of promises to the Quebec sovereientists and be free of the obligation to deliver; in the meantime, they may be able to respond to local inputs and continue to refine their social democratic commitments to more comfortably incorporate some of the protectionist and culturally localist beliefs which their erstwhile supporters still hold to. Then again, perhaps the decline from nearly 50% in 1995 to perhaps a third of the population of Quebec as of today represents some sort of definitive evolution of Quebec communitarianism; perhaps the NDP picked up votes simply because the Bloc Québécois was considered passé and the Liberals ran a poor campaign in the face of the Conservatives strongly unified attacks. If the majority of voters in Quebec really are increasingly content with their own particular place in a national regime, if their economy really is increasingly tied to Toronto, Ontario, and the rest of Canada, then perhaps the Liberals, as the "natural ruling party" of Canada, is in no sense prepared to fade into the background, to be replaced as the Liberal party of Great Britain was replaced by a (just to hammer home the parallel) a more "socialist" party at the turn of the last century, when the Labor party emerged from its own third-run status to form the backbone of modern British liberalism. Perhaps the Liberals, in confronting the more clearly nationalized Conservatives, will move more clearly away from the center...but to turn away from Canada's 30-year tradition of presenting itself as a model of a multicultural, peaceful, rational, cosmopolitan, internationally aware democracy? Couldn't happen, or so some of friends north of border insist.

I don't know which is more likely. What is likely, anyway, is that 2011 is going to be remember in Canada for a while. Aside from a new notable exceptions, it's actually not at all common for a stable democracy to have a nation-wide election that reflects--or at least potentially reflects--truly serious ideological differences. That is, you don't often get to see, in election returns, a whole political culture evolve, or at least begin to, in one direction or another. It happened in the U.S. in 1860, in 1932, arguably in 1980. Maybe it happened in Canada on Monday. You'd think more people would want to pay attention to such things!

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