The decimation of the federal Liberals provides new hope for Canadian moderates
By: James Di Fiore
Canada is becoming a very strange place. Historically, our political landscape was shaped by the apathetic, sprinkled with some conservatives, liberals and socialists. Policies were drafted and negotiated based on the reality that ideologues did not yield power in this nation. Pierre Trudeau, Brian Mulroney, Jean Chretien – all of the most significant leaders this country has seen over the past 40 years have governed from the center, their base providing a lift and moderates providing their political survival. The apathetic played their role too – they stayed out of it. Canada had a brilliant international reputation as being fiscally prudent peacekeepers who brokered free trade agreements, hosted Olympic Games, milked internet bandwidth for all it was worth and extremely potent marijuana. It is cynical, but today we have a growing portion of our electorate who know how to say words like ‘socialist’ or ‘fascist’ but clearly have trouble defining either term. Ignorance may be bliss, but it is running rampant in the great white north.
How did we get here? When did we go from affable to laughable, and who is to blame for our new trot towards the mindless recitation of talking points from talking heads? The Reform Party may have been the first domino – a stringent, ideological crew from western Canada made from a mix of Libertarian and Evangelical roots. They successfully dismantled the federal Progressive Conservatives, turning a reasonable right-leaning party into an ideological posse ripe with partisan beliefs and an unwavering philosophy. Former prime minister Joe Clark, once seen by his political rivals as a conservative stalwart, seemed not only tame but reasonable by his former opponents on the Hill. Alberta, disgruntled by Trudeau’s energy policies which cemented an air of resentment within the province, yearned for a voice better suited to the narrative being recited for decades. That narrative was stark, a sort of provincialism reminiscent of Quebec separatists only without tales of an unfair confederacy nestled inside the rhetoric. Of course, Albertan conservatives would disagree, claiming decades of injustice had passionate reactions among regular folks, but in Canada this was brand new: a dismantling of a Canadian political institution and the beginning of the new conservative indoctrination project.
The new Canadian conservative movement has been fueled by two incontrovertible facts. The first is an easy pick: Liberal Party incompetence. While Liberals tend to blame member infighting for their woes, the Chretien vs Paul Martin beef is propped up by residue from the sponsorship scandal and most recently exacerbated by two leadership conferences that produced two lackluster leaders. Meanwhile, the NDP has collected the scraps from the Liberal table and now sits at the head, creating a polarized Canada and the perfect storm for the Conservative Party.
But the most troubling recruiting tool currently being sharpened by the conservative right is the encouragement of demonizing political rivals by right wing strategists, pundits and politicians. Regular right-leaning Canadians are answering the call with American-inspired attacks on all who lean left. Evidence of this deliberate tactic is everywhere. The caricature is hockey grump Don Cherry who mused at Toronto Mayor Rob Ford’s inauguration about ‘left wing pinkos’ and ‘bike riding communists’. Message boards and comment sections on newspaper sites contain a treasure trove of vitriolic statements and ideological rants that not just disagree with non-conservative views but vilify and marginalize those who think differently.
Hardcore leftists are equally repugnant in their brief and rather unlettered manifestos, often describing Stephen Harper as a fascist while creating conspiracy theories about his ties to corporations and the state of Israel. Talk of Canada’s national identity being reshaped by fundamental Christians is complimented by maniacal claims of hidden political agendas and treasonous takeovers by oil companies.
And the Liberals, a party who had tried to brand itself as Canada’s only band of moderates, suddenly find themselves pushed aside. They deserve their political demotion, but the need for political moderation has never been more dire. Canadians are being driven towards polarization through the politics of fear, a dangerous yet potent ingredient in mobilizing party support in any country. But this task of extracting reason from panic is an uphill battle for the Liberals who have spent the bulk of the last 7 years focusing on their rivals rather than their constituents. Pundits who muse about a possible merger between the Liberals and NDP are dreaming out loud. Jack Layton is finally reaching his potential and would never relinquish his new found role as leader of the opposition. Nor should he. Nor could he. Ideologically, the NDP and Liberals are worlds apart, mostly because the Liberals do not have a well defined ideology.
Perhaps the old adage of finding opportunity nestled inside crisis is too idealistic for Canadian moderates, but the prospect of throwing in the towel would spell disaster for the nation. The Liberals are a blank slate – bruised, beaten and bloodied – but they have wiggle room. Without any real influence over their conservative and socialist counterparts they have no choice but to redirect their gaze towards the very people who voted them out, while simultaneously engaging the only constituency who continue to be unrepresented – the youth. Incorrigible as they seem, not since the 60s have we seen a climate where young people are finding their voice. Their sloth-like pace is a frustrating testament to the outdated method of engagement undertaken by politicians stuck in an ancient ritual of long expired recruitment methods. It may be a colossal challenge, but without young people there can be no base, and without that youthful base there can be no party.
It has been the better part of a decade since Liberals engaged honestly with Canadians, and the better part of two decades since they last showed an alliance with them. Canada is not the United States…yet. But the symptoms of drifting towards a two party system are ripe, and without the emergence of a new centrist manifesto we could be in for a dark age in federal politics.