A review of Trudeau’s “Common Ground” (with a little help from 1970)

With Justin Trudeau™ currently touring the country to promote his memoirs (“Common Ground: My Past, Our Present, and Canada’s Future”) our nation has, at long last, a version of the young prince’s brand of focus-grouped, aristocratic image politics committed to paper. The Liberal leader has so few actual policies – save a few calculated to provoke the Conservatives [marijuana] or reassure the business community [support for Keystone XL] – that commentary must almost invariably focus on his personality. This undoubtedly suits Trudeau and his advisors just fine, since personality is exclusively what they’re peddling. When we do we hear the Dauphin speaking about his vision of politics it’s exclusively in vague terms such as these:

“Too much government is an enemy of freedom and opportunity, but so to is too little. Governments can’t do everything, nor should they try…But the things [government] does, it must do well.” 

A statement like this tells us virtually nothing, in this case placing Liberal economic policy somewhere between Von Hayek and Stalin. But that’s exactly what it’s supposed to do: reassure the audience by giving as little offence as possible to widely shared orthodoxies while marginalizing anything substantive or critical as inherently immoderate and opposed to Consensus™.

Trudeau’s compulsive lack of precision has occasionally raised the eyebrows of a columnist or two. The National Post’s John Ivison wrote a scathing review of the speech excerpted above:

“My colleagues in the press gallery looked at each other in disbelief. The consensus was that it failed on any number of levels — it was a bland repast, containing neither policy meat nor political mustard…The platitudinous, at times cloying, nature of much of the oratory is becoming an easy target for mockery — one pundit even called for a “National Platitudes Strategy”…In large measure, Mr. Trudeau would do many of the same things as Stephen Harper, but do them with a smile on his face, reassuring voters about the efficacy of his sunny ways.”

Such overt criticism of Trudeau has, however, featured quite rarely in the press which seems willing, at the very least, to take him seriously as a national political figure.

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Anyone who’s spoken to me about Canadian politics (or who’s read the preceding) knows I’m no fan of Justin Trudeau or the mode of politics he represents. I almost certainly won’t be reading his book (which is not so much a memoir as it is a literary press release) and intend this post to be a review of the Liberal leader’s notion of “Common Ground” rather than of the thing itself.

Elsewhere on this blog I’ve written the first of a three part series regarding the L/liberal or centrist conception of politics and political leadership using the elder Trudeau as a heuristic device. More on this is coming but, for now, I’ll leave you with something else written about Trudeau Sr. from the always invaluable Charles Taylor in his 1970 book The Pattern of Politics. As an exercise, try reading it and pretending you don’t know the year it was written:  

The NYL – the New Young Leader – is said to be attuned and responsive to the issues which preoccupy young urban dwellers. He is said to have the courage to dispense withh the double-talk and circumlocution of the Old Guard…All this may have little relation to reality, but is it the myth rather than the reality of the NYL we are examining here: and this myth firmly rests upon the consensus view of politics. Those who promote the NYL make up the highly successful new elite…Lawyers, professors, businessmen are not at all at odds with the structure of our society. What they look for in the NYL is the crystallization and expression of a consensus.

This is why his goals must remain without real content. He expresses ‘changes’, ‘innovation at our highest political level’, everything except a clear program of reform, which he contemptuously dismisses as ‘old fashioned promises’. But this is more than mere equivocation, because the role of the leader is to remain flexible and pragmatic, to respond to problems as they arise. To do this, the embodiment of the supposed new technological elite must be an exponent of the main thesis of consensus politics: that politics is the domain of problems and solutions, and not the confrontation of fundamental questions. He must embody the end of ideology. 

At the same time, if the NYL is courageous in eschewing the language of equivocation, he speaks out not to break the consensus but to present more effectively the goals that are hidden in the gobbledygook of the traditional politician or bureaucrat. In short, the NYL is supposed to be discovering and articulating the demands of our society. He ‘personifies all of the exciting changes in our society’. But does he?

What is totally missing in the argument is any inkling that there are important and fundamental conflicts in our society which make any claim to consensus specious. It is impossible for one person to represent the demands of the whole. 

In the saga of the new leader, the battle is exclusively between the young and ‘with it’ and the old with their outworn ideas and sensibilities. But this in no way involves a critique of the structures of our society or an attack on the privileges they entrench. Instead, the attack is launched in the name of these structures or on behalf of their ideal image of themselves as the breeding ground of enlightened, technocratic innovators.

The myth of the NYL is a kind of parody if the modern idea of progress, in which the latest thing is always right and always wins effortlessly over the old. The idea that progress requires struggle, so prominent in earlier theories, both liberal and socialist, finds no place here – because the myth takes no account of structures. This wraith-like change embodied by the NYL is a matter of style, feeling, ideas; it glides through any structure of society without any resistance. 

The dramatic struggle between the old and new is thus largely theatrical.

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