Liberalism in theory and practice

“Liberalism dominates, but without confidence or security; it knows that its victories at home are tied to disasters abroad; and for the élan it cannot summon, it substitutes a blend of complacence and anxiety. It makes for an atmosphere of blur in the realm of ideas, since it has a stake in seeing momentary concurrences as deep harmonies. In an age that suffers from incredible catastrophes it scoffs at theories of social apocalypse—as if any more evidence were needed; in an era convulsed by war, revolution and counterrevolution it discovers the virtues of “moderation”…Liberalism as an ideology, as “the haunted air,” has never been stronger in this country; but can as much be said of the appetite for freedom?” – Irving Howe

One of the major points of division between liberal and left thinking, it seems to me, is evident in how each side perceives liberal democratic institutions and how they function in practice as opposed to theory.

A particular memory from grad school comes to mind. I recall participating in a discussion of John Rawls’ political thought that after half an hour or so felt completely divorced from reality. It wasn’t that those assembled didn’t understand Rawls – on the contrary, they were incredibly knowledgeable about his work and the innumerable theoretical debates surrounding it. What struck me was that they were discussing these debates in tones that strongly implied contemporary political institutions actually, albeit in varying and imperfect degrees, embodied the idealized speculative versions sketched out in Rawlsian and other neo-Kantian thought.

This is visible in more banal, less esoteric contexts too. A big part of what animates mainstream liberal opposition to the Trump administration – let’s call it the hashtag resistance – is an underlying notion that American institutions more or less functioned harmoniously, or at least in a manner not completely dissonant with what they’re supposed to be on paper, before Trump and his brigands crashed the gates.

The general left view of liberal institutions, on the other hand, is a lot more pessimistic about how they actually work and, in particular, how they work relative to what liberal intellectuals have told us we can expect from them – furthermore to what extent they can conceivably be expected to fulfill even their most basic assigned functions against the backdrop of a political and economic system in which “democracy” has such narrow applicability.

Oddly enough, this all came to mind because of some work I’ve been doing around employee pension plans in Canada – among the biggest and most profitable companies criminally underfunded despite huge dividends continually being paid out to shareholders since the financial crisis. As we’ve recently seen with Sears, this means that the pensions of a huge number of Canadian workers aren’t safe and could more or less vanish into thin air if their employer suddenly goes into insolvency. Why? Because shareholders at big companies have been allowed to cannibalize billions of dollars even if it’s meant worker pension plans run deficits in the hundreds of millions. Even in the wake of the Sears debacle, the reaction of Canada’s Liberal government has been extremely tepid. Justin Trudeau, our great and progressive leader, has said “his heart goes out” to laid off workers at Sears but nothing about concretely guaranteeing pensions in the future and has uttered not a single word of censure towards Sears executives and the bonuses they’ve received despite crashing one of the country’s flagship retail chains (and biggest employers). His Finance Minister, meanwhile, wants to help employers permanently shift potential liabilities onto workers by replacing Defined Benefit Pension plans altogether.

I bring this up because it seems like such a clear demonstration of liberal institutions’ structural inadequacy but also their failure to reflect the basic principles of economic pluralism and democratic representation we’re told they exist to guarantee, expand, and protect. Here you have a clear and present issue of basic justice, around which there are strong incentives for the government to act – the Liberals, after all, talked about protecting pensions in opposition, and a visible move on behalf of ordinary people’s retirement savings would undoubtedly be popular – and the best a supposedly progressive, liberal PM with a massive parliamentary majority can offer is his best wishes.

 

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A modest proposal: Abolish the House of Commons

Canada’s new government is making good on its promise to create an independent, non-partisan Senate and I couldn’t be happier.

Just yesterday, Prime Minister Trudeau announced his first seven appointees to the Upper Chamber: a veritable smorgasbord of the best and the brightest recommended, no less, by a non-partisan committee that chooses prospective Senators based on merit rather than party affiliation. What a novel concept!

According to the Ministry of Democratic Reform candidates for Senate appointments must meet several criteria, including:

  • Demonstrated a record of achievement and leadership in community service or professional expertise.
  • Proven record of “outstanding” ethics and integrity.
  • Bring perspective that Senate is an independent, non-partisan institution.
  • Understand the Senate’s role in Canada’s constitutional framework.

What’s more: in theory any Canadian can apply to be a Senator, meaning that ordinary citizens will finally have a chamber that represents them (at last!).

And so, finally, the Senate – that repository for party bagmen and patronage going back to the days of Sir John A. – will become a place where intelligent Canadians meet to discuss the issues of the day in an evidence-based environment, free of partisanship and vituperative tribal bickering.

Like a healing, postpartisan balm applied to the deep wounds that have crippled our nation, the new Senate clearly demonstrates Prime Minister Trudeau’s commitment to Real Change; to focusing on the things which unite, rather than divide.

Unfortunately, his work isn’t done. Because, nestled only a short hallway’s walk away from the now harmonious Red Chamber, is a place where the foul reign of partisanship and division continues unencumbered.

That’s why I’d like Prime Minister Trudeau to consider a modest proposal: Abolish the House of Commons.

Tune in any day of the week to the proceedings and what do you see? Argument, disagreement, and debate – to name just three of the ailments. Sometimes the Speaker must remind Honourable Members not to clap for too long. Sometimes there is partisanship. Sometimes voices are even raised.

The physical design of the place alone is nauseating: Two sets of benches counterposed to one another in antagonistic contrast, with government on one side and opposition on the other. Does anyone seriously believe this helps create sober discussion amongst adults? Do the shareholders at a company sit like this at the annual general meeting? Would you model your seating at Christmas dinner on the Lower House? Ummm, I think not.

As for the ever-petulant members who occupy the chamber, what even needs to be said? Unlike the Senate, they are not chosen on merit by a committee independent of partisanship and their seating arrangements are dictated by colour. In 2016. ‘Nuff. Said.

The answer seems clear: the House of Commons – an anachronism from the age of partisan bickering – should be immediately dissolved. It’s time public policy was made solely by grownups accountable to no constituencies except their own consciences.

Because it’s 2016.

 

 

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The permanent campaign

On the 100-day anniversary of Canada’s new government, both Chantal Hebert and Andrew Coyne seem to agree: symbolism and marketing have quite overwhelmingly trumped substance.

Coyne, who is less sympathetic than Hebert, goes further:

Three months in, the governing style of Justin Trudeau’s government is coming into focus. It is one part not being Stephen Harper, one part symbolic gesture, one part wriggling out of campaign promises, and one part saying yes to everybody. You thought the Harper government was all about the permanent campaign? Get used to it.

If we ignore Coyne’s obviously conservative bent on some issues (the new government was right to get rid of income splitting and CPC laws targeting unions and First Nations, for God’s sake) the general thrust of his argument is correct: the Liberals are waging a kind of permanent campaign built around a series of carefully choreographed gestures – the real contours of their vision remain obscure, and it’s probably going to stay that way.

And that makes perfect sense, given how they fought the election.

The Liberal campaign was, after all, one which left concern-trolled the NDP by promising modest deficits while also attacking its $15/hour federal minimum wage proposal and saying proposed hikes to corporate taxes were anti-business; that trotted out arch-austerian Paul Martin to give lachrymose sermons about the dangers of austerity; that appropriated the rhetoric of Occupy Wall Street to bait the right and neutralize the left, while simultaneously proposing to cut taxes for most of the top 10% of income earners; that criticized the CPC for attacking Canada’s social programs while opposing the NDP’s proposals to create any new ones; it was (*is) both for and against the building of oil pipelines, the mission in Iraq and Syria, substantively changing the electoral system, the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement, reform of the Senate, Bill C-51, universal social programs…the list goes on.

It was a sunny new approach to politics that involved repeatedly steamrolling local Liberal riding associations and their activists to protect the leadership’s preferred candidates; that happily recruited people like Conservative MP Eve Adams, Bill Blair, and a former Chair of one of the country’s leading right wing think tanks to the cause – not to mention longtime Harper apparatchik Dimitris Soudas.

The overriding theme here is branding: the Liberals propose to “do politics differently”, but their efforts to substantiate this [stated] goal are primarily aesthetic. Reform, where is has happened or will happen, has largely been restorative rather than transformative – Canada is modernizing its way back to circa 2007.

Watching Question Period the past two weeks it’s striking how little the tone of the debate between the government and the official opposition actually reflects any meaningful disagreement. The Tories may bleat about the Liberal plan (yet to be fulfilled) to withdraw Canada’s CF-18s from Syria or Justin Trudeau’s neutralist language around the Energy East pipeline, but the disagreements have more to do with rhetoric than they do with significant disagreement about major issues. Canada’s jets continue to be involved in air strikes (despite an unequivocal campaign promise there is as of yet no timetable for their withdrawal…it’s quite possible they will remain past the CPC’s original timetable or that the mission will simply continue in other forms), and the government proudly trumpets its desire to “get Canadian resources to market”. The disagreement, if you can even call it that, has to do with how openly partisan the government should be about particular issues (the CPC approach is more ideologically honest, though the Liberal one is probably more politically effective).

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Photo courtesy of Day Donaldson. Used under Creative Commons license.

Again, branding is the key here.

As a part of its Sunny Ways™, the government has displayed a visible fondness for the affirmation of process. It is “pro-trade” and appears to be pro-TPP, but it will “broadly consult”; it is pro-electoral reform but non-specific about what that reform will be (consultation first); it was elected around a very specific and widely trumpeted set of economic proposals, but it has yet to put these into a budget or even schedule one because it has to consult first.

This will become more difficult to sustain when major decisions actually have to be made, but the Liberals have already proven miraculously adept at political management. With so much energy invested beforehand in legitimizing the process of consultation itself, even unpopular moves can be deemed the product of sincere public outreach.

The political dexterity this approach affords the Liberals is staggering, as these past 100 days have already demonstrated. Justin Trudeau and his party espouse no ideology, and contend to embody the political preferences of all. It is an approach to politics which, to quote Peter C. Newman, promises “as little as possible but as much as necessary”.

The campaign never ends.

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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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