The Daily Mader – May 5, 2011

Debating the future of the party of the center. Errr…. centre. Middle.

THE ONCE AND FUTURE KING?: All the cool kids are talking about the future of the Liberal Party. The catchphrase appears to be “party of the center.” That’s what Michael Ignatieff called it in his farewell address, and that’s what Rob Silver says it has to be going forward. In a much-discussed blog post, Silver says the Grits need to “[r]eform everything about the Liberal Party[:] Top-to-bottom. New blood, new voting coalition – there’s not much that stays the same in this new Liberal Party.” In the follow-up, Silver suggests the creation of a left-wing Manning Institute, a think tank operating outside of the party apparatus that could develop fresh new ideas. It all sounds very promising. Just one thing.

CLOWNS TO THE LEFT OF ME; JOKERS TO THE RIGHT: It’s just that I’m having trouble wrapping my mind around the whole notion of “centrist” political ideas. What’s a centrist policy? Running a deficit — but a small one? Going to war in Afghanistan — but not Iraq? (Come to think of it…) When you think about it, “centrism” as a political ideology is defined precisely by its lack of ideology. Ignatieff and Silver and others make scary faces about the coming “polarization” of our politics between the right-wing Tories and the left-wing NDP. What they propose as an alternative is a party that stands for… nothing. Everything. Anything. Depends on the season.

THE MEANS ARE JUSTIFIED BY THE END: When a party purports to be conservative — fiscally conservative, say, we know how to judge its success: has it made government smaller, or slowed the pace of its growth? Are taxes lower? Debt under control? We judge a progressive government similarly: is the social safety net secured? Expanded? Are economic extremes tempered? But that’s not how you judge the success of a centrist party. The only metric of success for a centrist party is… success. A centrist party exercises power for the purpose of… exercising power. I mean, that’s what Silver’s talking about, right? He wants to scrap the whole thing, start from scratch, rebuild from the ground up. New faces, new ideas, new policies. To what end? Centrism! Um… to what end? Power! What else?

THAT’S NOT A FEATURE; THAT’S A BUG: But isn’t that precisely the Grits’ problem? For years we’ve been told that Canadians aren’t ideological. Stephane Dion used to use “ideological” as a slur against Stephen Harper — and the man was an academic, for goodness’ sake. But since the Western rebellion and the rise of Reform twenty-five years ago, there has been increasing interest among the voting public in parties that actually stand for something. At the same time, there has been increasing impatience with parties who stand for nothing except power, and who seem willing to stop at nothing to retain it. Surely that’s at least part of the lesson of the Sponsorship Scandal. Is that really the model the Liberals want to adopt?

A LITTLE TO THE LEFT… PERFECT: The “centrists” invoke Liberals such as John Manley as standard-bearers of centrist ideology. But although Manley was often seen as the “right-wing” of the Liberal Party, his brand of Rooseveltian liberalism is a distinctly left-wing approach to government. It certainly differs from the NDP’s labour-leftism — but by in large it differs in degree, not kind. So if centrism as an ideology means something other than a raw pursuit of power, surely it simply means tempered ideology — that is, government guided by a basic philosophy, but tempered in its approach by other (philosophical and/or practical) considerations.

CAN’T WE ALL JUST GET ALONG, IN TWO COMPETING GROUPS?: But if that’s the case — if the niche that the Liberal rump seeks to fill is the niche on the center-left of the traditional ideological spectrum — then surely the place to do that is within a unified left-wing political party or movement, no? That’s what the Tories have done. Contrary to the accusations of its detractors, the Conservative Party is not a social conservative party — or a Christian conservative party, or a libertarian party, or a monarchist party, or a party of big business. At least, it’s not just any one of those things. It’s a big tent. (A tent that now seem to include the ‘centrist’ voters of the 905.) Not all the constituencies within the tent are going to be happy at any one time. But the tent is held together by the common understanding that what is shared is more important than what is not shared, and that the pursuit of any one group’s unique interests at the expense of the interests of the group would spoil the party (ha!) for everyone. If the Liberals are uncomfortable with the unreconstructed leftism of the NDP, they should roll up their sleeves and reconstruct it — or at least join the party and raise a voice for a more tempered social-democratic experiment. For their part, the NDP should recognize that they’re still seen by many Canadians much as the Reform Party was seen a decade and a half ago — as committed ideologues unfit to hold serious office. If the NDP and Grits can get past their superficial, partisan mistrust — and if Liberals like Silver can surrender the fanciful notion that “[t]he Liberal Party is not a ‘left-wing party’” — they’ll be able to start finding the broad common ground that would allow the emergence of a broad, stable, big-tent left-wing counter-party to the Conservatives.

WHO ARE YOU CALLING BI-POLAR: It’s been very de rigeure this week to decry the “polarization” of Canadian politics. Humbug. Unlike a multi-party system, which encourages fracturing and the pursuit of narrow interests, a two-party system encourages the development of broad-based coalitions of the sort described above. And while two-party systems are certainly more “conservative” in the sense of tempering political fads in favor of a sort of political inertia, such systems are perfectly able to adapt to new developments and sentiments, whether through the eclipse of old partes by new (e.g., the Liberals by Labour in the UK and the Whigs by the Republicans in the US) or through the influence of third-party and popular movements (e.g., the Populist and later New Left influence on the Democrats and the Progressive and later Tea Party influence on the Republicans).

STEPHEN HARPER, CHAMPION OF DEMOCRACY: In fact the worst tendencies of two-party systems are often the product of other mischief. The greatest obstacle to the emergence of alternatives in the US is not the two-party system per se, but the fact that those two parties have effectively co-opted the machinery of the state and made the creation of alternative parties a practical legal impossibility. It’s grossly undemocratic. There’s a risk of the same thing happening here of course, since, under current laws, parties receive public financing in proportion to their share of the popular vote — a similarly undemocratic arrangement that acts to entrench incumbent parties at the expense of potential alternatives. But fear not, friends of democracy — the Harper Government has vowed to scrap the per-vote subsidy. Be sure to send him your thanks!

POINT-COUNTERPOINT: More on centrism and polarization from Dan Gardner, who is Wrong, and Tom Flanagan, who is Right. Says me.

DEVIL’S IN THE DETAILS: So it turns out the Bin Laden raid didn’t happen quite the way we were told. He didn’t use his wife as a human shield; he didn’t shoot first, or at all; and in fact of the four people killed, only one was armed. Inaccuracies in the initial account make wholly contrary narratives — like his (twelve-year-old) daughter’s claim that he was taken alive and then executed — all the more plausible. I’m not saying that’s what happened; I’m saying that it gets harder to convince people it didn’t happen if you don’t have a clear and consistent account of what did. I’d wager, though, that most folks — at least most American folks — will have heard the original accounts, but not the subsequent corrections. Isn’t that always the way? So most folks will be left with the abiding sense that the Seals did a bang-up job, busting in and killing the baddies before they could be killed; the possibility that the Seals took the compound and then executed its male occupants won’t ever be considered. That’s probably better for the national psyche — and the administration — than the hand-wringing that would have occurred had the whole truth been known from the start. Am I saying that the administration purposefully disseminated an inaccurate but more pleasing narrative in the first instance? No. I’m tempted, but… no. I think this was all fog-of-war stuff. But it’s a point worth considering.

The Daily Mader – May 4, 2011

Pundits and pollsters and nerds — oh my!

TALKING ABOUT TALKING ABOUT POLITICS: You know who didn’t see these election results coming? Everyone. You know who that includes? The Parliamentary Press Gallery – you know, that stable of cracker-jack reporters who spend all their time covering federal politics. In a way it’s hard to blame them – as noted, nobody saw this coming. But if anybody were to spot the warning signs, wouldn’t they?

WRITE WHAT YOU KNOW: Part of the problem, as Rick Mercer rather pointedly noted, is that gallery reporters aren’t assigned to cover the campaign, really; they’re assigned to cover leader’s tours. And nothing really happens on leader’s tours. And so a reporter touring with a leader won’t — can’t — really be expected to report on how the election is playing among the… what’s the word… electorate. To my knowledge, the only national political reporter or columnist to give an inkling of the coming Tory wave was John Ivison, who noted, on April 22:

There is anger in the herbivore community about Stephen Harper’s failings — some of it is even justified. But the evidence on the doorsteps suggests it does not extend beyond the politically engaged into the suburbs, where people have to get up in the morning.

So maybe reporters should have spent a little more time on suburban doorsteps, and a little less time on leaders’ tours? (But then Ivison himself has defended the leader’s tour.)

WHAT’S THE POINT OF THE PPG?: I can’t help but wonder, though, if the problem is more structural. The members of the press gallery are all bright, hardworking folks who spend all of their time covering politics. Sure, that can give you unparalleled expertise. But it’s also sure to give you all sorts of strongly-held opinions about the subjects of your coverage that you’ve formed on the basis of a thousand facts and circumstances that the average voter doesn’t know about, or care. It pains me to say it, but the best example is probably Andrew Coyne’s endorsement of the Liberals. I mean talk about out of touch: not even the Star endorsed the Liberals. Heck, it’s still not clear that Michael Ignatieff endorsed the Liberals. Coyne’s piece was thoughtful, well reasoned, and — if not persuasive — certainly thought-provoking. But I think it’s fair to say that he didn’t exactly capture the mood of a nation. As I say, though, I think this sort of myopia is unavoidable given the time and attention that the PPG devotes to national politics and its participants. Maybe when the writ drops we should send the gallery on vacation and have the city beat reporters cover the campaign.

100% OF POLLSTERS ARE WRONG: That being said, when it comes to getting the election wrong, the reporters didn’t come close to the pollsters. Frank Graves of EKOS was all over twitter yesterday apologizing for his firm’s missed calls. You can guess why. A pollster can’t make his bread off of one federal election every two-to-five years; he’s got to pay the bills in the meantime. (In fact I suspect that the pollsters don’t make much, if anything, off of a campaign.) A pollster’s regular clients are corporations and nonprofits looking to do market research. Like any consumer, those folks want to make sure they’re getting good value for money; if they’re not, they’ll take their business elsewhere. And so a federal election campaign is, in a very important respect, a sort of national market-research trade show. Every pollster sets up a booth and starts giving out his wares, free to all comers, in the hope that the quality of his goods will attract (and retain) customers. Let’s put it this way: if your orthodontist had janky teeth, wouldn’t you think about switching? You and I can feel a bit sheepish for failing to predict a Tory triumph. But for pollsters it’s really no laughing matter.


The Daily Mader – May 3, 2011

The brand is at its lowest point in years. Regular supporters have abandoned it in droves. Can a format change revive this old blog? Find out right here – daily!

WELL THAT HAPPENED: Some night for the Tories. Some night for Canada! I’m trying not to read anything into the fact that all this excitement happened in the first federal election that I wasn’t allowed to vote in. So what does it all mean?

THE KING IS DEAD; LONG LIVE THE KING: The story of the night is – well, it’s that there are so many stories of the night. Let’s start with the Grits. In an ironic way, the Liberal Party stands a better chance of rebuilding now than they would have had the Tories failed to win a majority. If NDP + Liberal > Conservative, the resulting contradictory pressures – from the left, to join with Jack and form a government; from the right, to join with Harper and stop Jack – would have torn the party apart. Those same tensions are surely to blame for the decimation the party received at the polls. Now, the rump can take time to decide whether and how to regroup. Just because they can, though, doesn’t mean they will; and depending on when and how the per-vote subsidy is scrapped, the party might not be able to rebuild even if it wants to.

THE NEW MIDDLE?: As my progressive friends pointed out endlessly last night, the Tories “only” managed 40% of the vote, which means a majority of Canadians voted for somebody else. (The same was true of Chretien, of course. And Trudeau. And… Actually, since the war, only Mulroney and Diefenbaker have won more than 50% of the popular vote.) Be that as it may, the Tories have a pretty good shot at replacing the Liberals as Canada’s natural governing party. For one thing, the West, as Andrew Coyne noted on CBC last night, is now in. Firmly in. They might choose to leave again — once a maverick, always a maverick — but for now I think we can agree that the west is pretty solidly blue. And with a Tory majority — and without a Liberal party to cater to their every whim — the central Canadian establishment’s allegiance will shift, pretty quickly, to the Tory camp. In fact you could say that’s what the past ten years of Conservative politics, and the past five years of Conservative government, have been all about: toning down the party’s western eccentricities and getting central Canadians comfortable with this whole ‘Conservative’ thing. So: solid west + amenable Ontario + new seat distributions + end to per-vote subsidy = lasting Tory majority. Well, almost. There’s one other, volatile ingredient.

VIVE JACK LAYTON LIBRE: Federalists of all stripes were congratulating the NDP for destroying the Bloc. Some were even declaring an end to the sovereigntist movement. Wrong, and wrong. The NDP didn’t out-campaign the Bloc in Quebec. Let’s be honest: the NDP hardly campaigned in Quebec at all. Nor did they out-ground-game the Bloc. So it’s not really fair to credit the NDP, as a political organization, with the defeat of the Bloc, as a political organization – even though NDP candidates beat Bloc candidates across the province. No, the NDP won in Quebec because, by all accounts, Bloc voters voted NDP. Now I suppose it’s possible that the voting majority of an entire province went to bed one night committed soft-sovereigntists, and woke up the next morning committed federalists in search of a federal party that best represented the rest of their social-democratic views. Possible – but likely? Hardly. Isn’t it more likely that the very same people who voted Bloc last election and NDP this election are… still soft sovereigntists? Surely. And it’s just as likely that they voted NDP not simply because the NDP offered them a social-democratic federal alternative, but also because the NDP offered them… a soft sovereigntist federal alternative. In short: the NDP didn’t defeat the Bloc in Quebec. The NDP simply co-opted the Bloc vote.

TWO SOLITUDES: Without a doubt the political map has been re-drawn. But the new shades and borders make a renewed unity crisis more, not less, likely. More than half of Jack’s new NDP caucus is from Quebec; the party holds nearly 80% of Quebec seats. The governing party holds less than 1%. In the Rest Of Canada, meanwhile, the governing party holds roughly 70% of seats, compared to less than 20% for the NDP. There are a lot of dynamics that will determine how that tension plays out. The NDP has room for growth – particularly in the maritime provinces, which are the last bastion of Liberal support, and in the cities. But the NDP’s growth in the ROC may come to be inversely related with its fortunes in Quebec. As Gilles Duceppe warned last night, the NDP, having won Quebec’s votes, must now cater to Quebec’s demands. And a party institutionally required to pander to Quebec will have a tough time growing its base in the rest of a Canada growing increasingly impatient with special status. On the other hand, a Tory government firmly entrenched in Ontario and the West will have to tread carefully if it wants to avoid stoking Quebecois feelings of resentment. Fat chance. Referendum by the end of the decade.

SLOW NEWS WEEKEND: So Bin Laden is dead. Long-time readers know that I am second to none in my neo-conservative support for the war on terror, so please, please save me the machismo when I say that I won’t celebrate the death even of a piece of garbage like him. Harper’s “sober satisfaction” is the most appropriate response I’ve heard. At the same time, I think I understand the cheering throngs in Washington and New York. This is a nation desperate for good news. This is a nation desperate for anything to counter the general, creeping, inexorable feeling of decline. An apparently perfectly executed SpecOps raid deep inside Pakistani territory, like something out of Tom Clancy, allows Americans to feel like they’re still top dog. And of course it provides a nice book-end to the last Tom Clancy-esque moment in American history, ten years ago this September. But of course this isn’t the end of the war on terror, and it’s silly and irresponsible to say so. That’s not because, as a war-monger, I want an excuse to go invade other countries. It’s because this war has never been winnable by military means alone. I stand by what I wrote eight years ago: this is a struggle for human rights and democracy and against terrorism and tyranny. In such a struggle military might has its place; but ultimate victory depends on a renaissance among those who would destroy us, and an acceptance, on their part, of the principle of peaceful coexistance. On balance I think Bin Laden’s death moves us closer towards that point, just as I continue to think that the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq did the same. But it’s certainly debatable, and in any case we’re a long, long way from the ultimate goal. So: sober satisfaction; quiet resolve.

HATERS GONNA HATE: Lastly, the Royal Wedding. It was marvelous. They’re a terrific couple; it was meaningful, as a renewal of vows between nation and crown; and all the naysayers are perfectly welcome to go suck an egg. God bless them both; God bless us all.