Damned if EU Do, Damned if EU Don’t

Doug Saunders, the Globe and Mail‘s international affairs columnist, just published a piece that so irritated me that I felt the need to write about how bad it is. It is a textbook case of the basic dishonesty and contempt for the left that is endemic to huffy liberal pundits.

“In France and Britain, for want of an opposition the EU could be lost,” runs the headline. Though it takes some passing shots at figures on the far-right, it mostly lays out a plaintive elegy for European social democracy gone by, and laments the scruffy leftists who have usurped the rightful place of the reasonable, pragmatic Blairs and Hollandes of the world, who refuse to pay homage to an EU that has made clear its intentions to crush the working people of debtor nations rather than suffer a creditor to lose a cent. At any rate, you should read it as a companion to this piece.

Written in the context of the snap election just called by UK Prime Minister Theresa May, the piece begins with Jeremy Corbyn. Corbyn, who leads the UK’s social democratic Labour Party, is the most left-wing leader the party has had in a generation. He is also, in my opinion, pretty bad at his job. Saunders and I appear to agree there. What irritates me is what Saunders chooses to highlight as his failings in the context of the current election, and the goal-post moving he engages in to justify his criticism.

First of all, he calls him a “left-wing nationalist.” I was genuinely curious about this: ra-ra flag-waving is not one of Corbyn’s faults. Someone asked Saunders about this on Twitter, and he responded, “Absolutely. His top policy proposals include re-nationalizing key industries, transit, coal mines…” To be blunt, that is not nationalism. It is certainly left-wing, but there is nothing necessarily nationalist about public control of services and industries: the verb is ‘to nationalize,’ certainly, but I’m sure that Saunders is aware that predicating a categorical argument on rhetorical feints is shaky ground.

When he was challenged on this point, he responded that “single-state ownership of ex widely held industries is a pretty clear sign of nationalism, esp with rejection of international alliances.” Wait, what? First of all, the first part is still not really true at all, and he’s now added in another point about international alliances. While many historical nationalists have been reluctant to enter into them, to say that Corbyn’s skepticism of NATO and past supportive statements about Irish republicanism and Argentina’s claims to the Falklands are indicative of British nationalism is just downright absurd. Where is the flag-waving rhetoric here, the jingoism? The context is totally different, and once again, I’m sure Saunders knows this.

Anyway, that’s that particular lie out of the way – I assume that Saunders knows at least something about the last half-century of European history, and is clearly picking his words carefully, so I can only imagine that he’s being willfully dishonest.

He then moves on to the election, and excoriates Corbyn for his choice to not relitigate a referendum his side lost: “[he] did not even mention Brexit in the three-paragraph statement he issued in response to Ms. May’s election call; he instead focused on economic and living-standards issues such as budget cuts to education and health care.” I would suggest to Saunders that these are the issues on which Labour is the most competitive with the Tories compared to the 25-point gap on Europe, and that it makes a certain amount of sense to fight on comparatively favourable ground you’ve chosen rather than the swamp your adversary wants you to jump into.

Later on in the piece, Saunders notes that Corbyn “is widely blamed for having helped create the defeat [for Remain]” in 2016. 65% of Labour voters opted to Remain last year, compared to 68% of ostensibly staunchly pro-EU Liberal Democrats. It is patently ridiculous to me to suggest that the difference between catastrophe and blamelessness is being a hair above or below a solid two-thirds majority. Why not blame David Cameron, the man who called for a referendum for short-term partisan gain in 2013 and then proceeded to win over only 40% of his voters to the Remain camp?

Turning to France, Saunders moans about the “plausible possibility” that the right-wing Marine Le Pen and left-wing Jean-Luc Mélenchon may advance to the head-to-head second round of the French presidential election. He further says that Mélenchon “endorses … withdrawal from the EU.” Which is kind of true – he favours using an exit from the EU as a ‘Plan B’ for leverage in ‘Plan A’ negotiations to reform it, which, frankly, strikes me as a more normal, direct way to negotiate over needed EU reform than David Cameron’s unproductive 2011 efforts and subsequent referendum loss in 2016. It’s not the same thing as Le Pen’s position, which is to unilaterally withdraw from the Euro and then hold a referendum to leave if the EU doesn’t dismantle itself. Saunders, of course, ignores the considerable daylight between the two plans and declares them equivalent.

Saunders laments that “pragmatic centre-left” candidates are on the decline, part of a trend “that has struck France, Italy, Poland, the Netherlands and Britain.” There is a major category error here. Emmanuel Macron’s major achievement as the French economy minister was pretty standard Thatcherite ‘economic reform’ designed to “streamline government organization, increase investment promotion, reduce red tape, and modernize our economy.”  In the current election, he’s promised to reinstate compulsory military service, and plans to hire even more police and greatly increase military spending. In the UK, the Liberal Democrats’ leader is the anti-abortion and anti-gay Tim Farron. To cast either Macron or the Lib Dems as paragons of the centre-left is simply laughable. For someone usually so keen on looking under self-applied labels to find the real stuff, Saunders seems oddly prepared to take them at their word.

This taking of major elements of his argument for granted tie back in an ironic way to the central premise of his piece, which is that “nobody has the electoral will or ability to make the case for [EU] membership.” Well, Saunders clearly has the will and ability to make that case in the pages of the Globe and Mail. Conspicuously, he doesn’t.

The EU in this piece appears only on the periphery, the MacGuffin or idealized damsel in distress menaced by a feckless Corbyn or sinister Mélenchon, waiting for a smiling empty suit-of-armour like Macron or Farron to save it.

In reality, it is a deeply flawed institution that, nevertheless, represents a genuinely worthwhile vision of a peaceful, prosperous and democratic continent. It needs more people to make a proactive case for it: Yanis Varoufakis, the former Greek finance minister (whom you could hardly blame for having soured on the whole thing), has rolled up his sleeves and launched the promising DiEM25 (Democracy in Europe Movement 2025) that seeks to democratize the EU.

Saunders is not here to make that case. He is here to punch left, that age-old pastime of smug liberals, by means fair or foul, and his beloved EU is no better off for his efforts.

On Populism

‘Populism’ is a word on everyone’s mind, but very few people seem to be clear on what, exactly, populism is. In the United States, Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders get called populists, in Canada, the commentariat brands Conservative leadership candidates Kellie Leitch and Kevin O’Leary with that vague label.

What do all of these people have in common?

Anti-elitism? A belief in economic redistribution? Tough talk on immigration? A refusal to abide by liberal norms of ‘political correctness’? Espousing ideas that sound good as a slogan but would never work in practice? Skepticism about trade deals? Mere folksiness?

All of these notions, or some of them, in different proportions in different people, get conflated into a hazy melange that pundits and other linguistic trend-setters call ‘populism’. This, to me, seems to be totally analytically inconsistent and intellectually lazy, a smug centrist version of the bright-eyed undergraduate’s use of ‘neoliberalism’*: “something I don’t like.”

I think that we need to be clear about what populism is, especially if we’re going to throw the word around so much. I’ll take a stab at a definition here: I think that populism is not an ideology like liberalism or socialism, or a campaigning style or specific policies, but a political tendency towards participatory, democratic practices rooted in a belief that ordinary people are both able and best-suited to govern themselves. I’d further argue that it is best contrasted with a technocratic tendency that holds that decisions should be made by those who are experts in specific, relevant fields.

What this can mean in practice varies, and I think that the populist spectrum reaches quite far. I don’t think that populism is in itself an ideology, but incorporates itself into other, more coherent or complete worldviews. At extreme ends, I’d argue that anarchist strains of thought like democratic confederalism are populist, as are liberal parliamentary parties that push for more elected representatives from non-elite professions or socio-economic backgrounds. I’d say that my democratic socialism is populist, having as its animating spirit a commitment to bringing about substantive political equality for all people.

In recent history, Preston Manning’s Reform Party in Canada was undeniably populist, with active member participation in the party and a commitment to referenda, recall elections and other direct-democratic measures (its modern successor – the Conservative Party of Canada – has not fared as well in this regard). The Canadian C.C.F (Cooperative Commonwealth Federation) and the American People’s Party (or Populists) were both mass movements of Western farmers abused by the monopoly power of Eastern banks and railroads that fought to empower their constituencies. The civil rights movement, which sought racial equality and a substantive delivery of the promise of citizenship, was perhaps the greatest populist movement of the 20th century.

Reaching further back into Western intellectual history, modern populist ideas of deep democracy and equal citizenship have a distinguished lineage. I believe that what the populist movements of the 20th century have in common is a notion that ordinary people required political power to take on entrenched interests, whether the railroads of Tommy Douglas’ day or the Bay Street elite of Manning’s time. At their root is a theory of non-domination common to the republican ideas of Niccolo Machiavelli and the English Commonwealthmen of the mid-seventeenth century. The theory of non-domination holds that mere non-interference  with personal liberties is insufficient to guarantee personal and political liberty, that only active participation in political life and decision-making by the body of citizens can preserve personal liberties over the long term – farmers foreclosed upon by the combined forces of the bank and the police during the Depression certainly did not feel themselves to be free and equal citizens, and African Americans living under Jim Crow, though they were formally guaranteed rights under the Reconstruction Amendments, had their liberties and persons routinely violated.

Under a government that protects personal liberties but does not permit or welcome popular participation, people lose the habits of everyday citizenship, and more and more of their government is turned over to ‘experts’ or another ruling class less scrupulous about evidence.

As Charles Taylor puts it, “this opens the danger of a new, specifically modern form of despotism, which Tocqueville calls ‘soft’ despotism. It will not be a tyranny of terror and oppression as in the old days. The government will be mild and paternalistic. It may even keep democratic forms, with periodic elections. But in fact, everything will be run by an ‘immense tutelary power,’ over which people will have little control.” Such a government may not necessarily infringe upon personal liberties: but if it decided to do so, very little could stop it. In that case, citizens, the republican theorists argue, are in a state of domination.

Taking our definition of populism, do the politicians the media brand as ‘populists’ meet the mark? In my view, most of them don’t.

Kellie Leitch, who has earned her fifteen minutes in Canadian politics by railing against Muslims, is at her core a mere reactionary nationalist in the mode of Marine LePen. She has expressed some populist ideas, however: her proposal to allow national referenda as a response to petitions seems to be embodied in an ideal of participation and the ideal of non-domination. Kevin O’Leary, insofar as he has any ideological commitments, is running as the incarnation of big-business with no populist leanings whatsoever: he seems to have absorbed the title by osmosis from comparisons to Trump, another loudmouthed oligarch.

Is Bernie Sanders a populist? I think that there’s a credible case to be made. His campaign centred not just on single-payer healthcare and the abolition of university tuition, but actively taking on the concentrated economic and political power of business in America in the name of political equality. He’s also been a vocal advocate of a ‘political revolution’ to put more power in the hands of citizens.

Donald Trump, far from promising to politically empower people, raves about how he and he alone can save America and American jobs. He is a huckster, at best, and a violent demagogue at worst, borrowing liberally from the worst of the American right, from snake oil miracle cures to complex economic problems to virulent racism. Insofar as he postured towards ‘populist’ ideas during the election, he quickly demonstrated in office what his administration will look like by staffing it with deep-state goons and some of the richest men in America.

In labeling him a populist, I think commentators do the term and themselves a disservice. Much ink has been spilled before and since the American election, by Jonathan Rauch and Andrew Sullivan among others, to the effect that the country suffers from too much democracy, and that what is needed is more technocrats to smoothly handle the levers of power behind the scenes while ordinary citizens content themselves with consumption.

In my mind, the United States, and indeed most Western societies, suffer from the opposite problem: we live in what Colin Crouch calls “post-democratic” societies in which very little is actually left in the hands of citizens: the economy and the workplace are de-politicized, incredibly powerful institutions like central banks or the European Union are taken out of nominal democratic control altogether, and as a result, politics becomes little more than a form of entertainment. Why wouldn’t it, when the stakes are so low?

Indeed, Tocqueville was perhaps prophetic when he wrote about the danger of an increasingly centralized, expert and de-politicized state apparatus:

“It is, indeed, difficult to conceive how men who have entirely given up the habit of self-government should succeed in making a proper choice of those by whom they are to be governed; and no one will ever believe that a liberal, wise, and energetic government can spring from the suffrages of a subservient people. A constitution, which should be republican in its head and ultra- monarchical in all its other parts, has ever appeared to me to be a short-lived monster. The vices of rulers and the ineptitude of the people would speedily bring about its ruin; and the nation, weary of its representatives and of itself, would create freer institutions, or soon return to stretch itself at the feet of a single master.”

The Age of Trump will be turbulent for the world, and our lexicon is not well-equipped to deal with a changing political landscape in which old certainties are upended and, as Marx put it, “all that is solid melts into air.” If we are to diagnose this as the age of populism (and I don’t think it is), I hope that we can be clearer about what, precisely, that means, or what an age of populism would look like.


*I actually do think that there are useful and consistent definitions of neoliberalism out there – I’m partial to something like Karl Polanyi’s definition of ‘market society’, where economics is removed from the realm of political contestation and markets are encouraged to expand into previously non-market spheres of life and activity – but there is a lot of conceptual flab and unhelpful baggage around the term.

Power Matters

“…the most common and durable source of factions has been the various and unequal distribution of property. Those who hold and those who are without property have ever formed distinct interests in society. Those who are creditors, and those who are debtors, fall under a like discrimination. A landed interest, a manufacturing interest, a mercantile interest, a moneyed interest, with many lesser interests, grow up of necessity in civilized nations, and divide them into different classes, actuated by different sentiments and views.

The regulation of these various and interfering interests forms the principal task of modern legislation, and involves the spirit of party and faction in the necessary and ordinary operations of the government.” – James Madison, Federalist No. 10


The best books I read this year, by a wide margin, were Robert Caro’s four (lengthy) volumes on the life and times of Lyndon Johnson. Caro is an excellent writer, and his wife Ina is a determined and thorough researcher. As a team, they are collectively the George R.R. Martin of presidential scholars: the first volume was published in 1982, the most recent in 2012, and he is hard at work on a fifth. Caro’s Years of Lyndon Johnson is more than mere biography, though: if you’re interested in well-written, artfully presented tomes of presidential trivia, in the vein of David McCullough’s John Adams or Truman, those remain the best options.

Unlike McCullough’s soft-focus biographies, or recent hagiographies of Alexander Hamilton, Caro is unflinching about presenting a complete portrait of the man he’s writing about. Johnson’s wheedling sycophancy to his superiors and volcanic temper with subordinates are fulsomely documented, as are his infidelity and frequent cruelty to his wife. The most interesting aspect of Caro’s work, however, isn’t his presentation of Lyndon Johnson’s various personal shortcomings. It’s his presentation of how power works – Johnson’s use, acquisition and creation of power are recurring themes in Caro’s books, and the titles reflect this: The Path to Power, Means of Ascent, Master of the Senate, and The Passage of Power.

Johnson’s mastery of the alchemy of power is endlessly fascinating. Caro recounts how Johnson, ostracized from a popular clique while in college, joined a rival one and turned it into a political machine that exercised real power, if at a petty scale: Johnson used their control over the campus elected offices to reward friends and punish rivals with their small budget and recommendations for campus jobs. He did much the same thing after going to Washington as a congressional staffer. Johnson got himself elected president of the ‘Little Congress,’ more or less a social club for staffers, and turned it into a high-profile organization that allowed him to meet and mingle with prominent Democratic politicians during Franklin Roosevelt’s first term. Finally, as a freshman Senator, Johnson took an irrelevant role, the Majority Leadership, and honed it into a weapon with which he demolished the entrenched seniority system of committee appointments and leadership and turned the Democratic caucus into an instrument of his will.

Johnson was also corrupt. He solicited massive amounts of cash from corporate allies, particularly in oil and gas, and served their interests in turn – the legislative lynching of pro-consumer Federal Power Commission chair Leland Olds is one of Johnson’s most striking favours to the oil industry. He used contacts in the Federal Communications Commission to secure favourable deals for himself in his radio and television business, and quickly amassed a tremendous fortune as an elected official using the machinery of the state.

I find this fascinating, not just as a matter of historical trivia, but as a blunt and exhaustive illustration of the sources and role of power in politics and in American life. This may seem trite. “Of course power matters in politics! That’s what it’s all about.” And that’s of course true – but you wouldn’t know it from watching the practice of modern liberal politics, or reading the policy thinkers and economists who inform the sensibilities of today’s post-political and ‘meritocratic’ liberal technocracy.

I’ve discussed this before, but I find that Aaron Sorkin’s The West Wing is the perfect example of the liberal pathology of imagining politics as a battle between Smart People With The Good Facts and Dumb People fought on the pages of a middle school civics textbook. Congress makes the laws, the President enforces them, the Court decides if they’re constitutional, maudlin flute music plays. But this is, frankly, an infantile fantasy, and an increasingly dangerous one.

Caro, who as a journalist covered the immensely powerful New York bureaucrat-emperor Robert Moses, recalled a moment when the importance of power struck him full in the face in an interview with The New York Times:

“They were talking one day about highways and where they got built,” he recalled, “and here were these mathematical formulas about traffic density and population density and so on, and all of a sudden I said to myself: ‘This is completely wrong. This isn’t why highways get built. Highways get built because Robert Moses wants them built there. If you don’t find out and explain to people where Robert Moses gets his power, then everything else you do is going to be dishonest.’ ”

James Madison’s Federalist No. 10, quoted above, also demonstrated the author’s firm understanding of the role that competing interests and concentrations of power played in democratic politics: the role of popular institutions was to channel them productively and put them on a more-level footing than in an unaccountable and arbitrary monarchy. The dangerous delusion of today’s liberal politics is that power in its raw form doesn’t matter, that a reverence for institutions is enough on its own to contain anti-democratic or merely venal forces.There are voices in the wilderness – for campaign finance reform or an end to gerrymandering – but they are weak voices with no clear plan, broad official sympathy to their demands a product of their total inability to pursue them effectively.

Power comes from two things: concentrated people, or concentrated wealth. Lyndon Johnson was a master at using both. Using the latter, he was almost inevitably venal and self-serving. But using and used by the former, in response to his own conscience and the demands of well-organized and courageous citizens, Johnson pushed unprecedented, sweeping civil rights legislation and fought the blight of American poverty.

A serious movement of the left, both in the United States and in Canada, has to concentrate single-mindedly on power – not merely on winning elections, but on building popular movements and organizing constituencies, to use Johnsonian alchemy to create power from thin air. This isn’t hopeless or utopian – it’s the only thing that’s ever worked.

Thanks, Obama

Donald Trump is the President-elect of the United States. If you had told me eight years ago that the successor to the cerebral, idealistic Barack Obama would be an aged, vulgar reality TV star with profoundly reactionary beliefs, propelled to prominence by a programme of white supremacy and welfare chauvinism, I simply would not have believed you. If you had told me that on the morning of November 8th, I would not have believed you. Yet, here we are.

There is plenty of blame to go around for this catastrophic and avoidable defeat, but the buck, in the spirit of Harry Truman, has to stop somewhere. Donald Trump’s election is going to be Barack Obama’s legacy.

I recognize that this is unlikely to be a popular opinion: people, broadly speaking, still like Barack Obama. His approval ratings are higher than they’ve been in years. And yet, I think the conclusion is unavoidable.

Barack Obama in 2008 was a figure from Aaron Sorkin’s imagination: urbane, witty, sophisticated, principled and valiantly liberal, propelled to victory by a tide of passionate volunteers, but always ready to work constructively across the aisle. Unfortunately, he wasn’t well suited to the political climate that he worked in: after two years of wrangling with hesitant Democratic majorities in Congress, he was faced down by six years of mindless obstruction.

His great failure, and the failure of elite Democrats more broadly, was never recognizing that the spirit of compromise and bipartisanship is dead. Parties are now starkly sorted by ideology, and politics is more zero-sum than ever before in an age of slow growth and inequality.

Barack Obama, President by virtue of a great popular tide, never lost his faith in dealmaking and compromise.

In a sense, he had no choice: presented with the option of doing nothing or reaching accommodations with Republicans, he took the latter (when he wasn’t continuing the centralizing practices of his predecessor and governing by executive order).

But there was a road not taken, the only road to victory for politics of the left: winning elections by mobilizing popular support for popular ideas. Despite his massive base of volunteers and activists, it’s well known that he was not terribly interested in his role as party leader. He was warned many times by multiple sources that people like DNC chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz were incompetents, but did not want to embroil himself in a partisan gutter-fight to replace her. He allowed the Clinton machine to stack the DNC and quietly smooth the way for Hillary Clinton’s coronation as nominee, which is unhealthy for any political party.

(I don’t want to re-fight the primary here, but it should have been a warning sign when a very sizeable chunk of the Democratic primary electorate was so turned off by the inevitable nominee that they sought to replace her with a Vermont independent with no history in the party and came surprisingly close to succeeding.)

This refusal to sully his hands with the minutiae of partisan politics would be laudable if we lived in a Sorkinian fantasy universe where civility is the only virtue and the political victories inevitably go to the Reasonable Adults. The clueless Democrats who donated to the North Carolina GOP, architects of trans-bathroom meltdowns and racialized voter suppression laws, to rebuild a field office, are symptomatic of this kind of addled foolishness.

Unfortunately for these proud members of the ‘reality-based community,’ the mental world they live in doesn’t look much like the real one.

Under Barack Obama’s tenure as leader of his party, Democrats lost control of the House, the Senate, and virtually all state legislatures. Only six states have a Democratic governor and majority in both legislative chambers. The Republicans have the House, the Senate, unified control of 24 states, and have just won the Presidency, and through it, the Supreme Court.

Republicans obstructed mindlessly and were rewarded for it with total control of the government while Democrats were too enamored of their own reasonableness and cleverness to dig in and fight.

This isn’t fair or good. There’s no denying the role that sexism and racism played in electing Donald Trump, but that’s not the whole story. Hillary Clinton lost states last night that Democrats had no inkling they would lose, and only held on to several more thanks to Gary Johnson’s siphoning a trickle of right-of-centre votes.

There were bright spots: Nevada voted for Clinton and a Democratic legislature thanks to a burgeoning, mostly Latino labour movement that has organized and entrenched itself in a right-to-work state. Their hard work will pay off with political and policy victories that will make life better for them and their successors.

But the Democrats’ refusal to organize at a national level, their refusal to fight a total war for their ideals, will have disastrous consequences.

A repeal of Obama’s signature domestic achievement of the last eight years, the Affordable Care Act, will be the first thing to cross President Trump’s desk. Trump will also be taking control of the massive, unaccountable security state that Barack Obama expanded.

The Republicans will devastate the social safety net, repeal consumer protection and financial sector regulation laws, and continue to ignore the climate crisis. American Muslims and Latin immigrants will face a racist backlash unseen for generations. African Americans will continue to grapple with a system built to incarcerate and murder them.

Democrats need to learn the lesson here instead of blaming everything and everybody but themselves. Too many people are counting on them.

 

 

Why the NDP Can’t Reinvent Itself

Since last October’s crushing electoral defeat, Canada’s NDP has struggled to stay visible and relevant.

Many well-meaning activists and sympathetic pundits have suggested different reforms or policy shifts, but I’m convinced that undertaking any kind of transformation will be very difficult. The NDP’s membership structure, in a very meaningful sense, shackles the party and prevents it from quickly reinventing itself.

Canadian political parties used to have two functions. One of these functions was to be well-financed, election-winning machines. Parties are still very good at this.

The other was to be civil society organizations (with varying degrees of democratic governance and openness) that brought together representatives of interest groups and geographic regions with a shared set of values to hash out policy compromises and to share power with one another.

In modern Canadian politics, parties’ civil society function has totally atrophied in a meaningful sense outside of leadership contests. This is not a particularly recent shift (Reg Whitaker wrote about the virtual party in 2001), but it has sharpened.

Parties have realized that in order to win elections in the age of rapid communications, sophisticated marketing techniques, and the never-ending media cycle, they need to have ferocious message discipline reinforcing a consistent brand identity that is increasingly tied to the leader (there are a lot of good books on this, from Susan Delacourt’s Shopping for Votes to Alex Marland’s Brand Command).

(I’ve written about the role of a campaign finance system based on small donors in driving this shift here.)

This doesn’t leave a lot of room for parties to play their civil society role. Leadership candidates form majority coalitions within the party to win the leadership, but then are given a free hand to shape the party as they see fit.

Essentially, to fulfill their primary role of winning elections, parties are jettisoning their civil society role.

If you take a look at the recent constitutional changes adopted by the Liberal Party of Canada, for instance, they’ve decided to water down membership to the point of meaninglessness (even replacing the term ‘members’ with ‘supporters’). While the Liberals pay lip service to the idea of engaging the ‘membership’ on policy development, mass ‘consultation’ processes, as opposed to party elite brokerage processes, are much easier for a popular leadership to control or ignore.

To return to the NDP, its membership has stubbornly resisted moving away from the civil society function. This isn’t an indictment: I think it’s fantastic that New Democrats take seriously their policymaking and agenda-setting role as ordinary members. On the other hand, it does significantly hamper the party in a few ways.

First, it leads to brand confusion. Veterans of the last federal election probably remember the release of the Leap Manifesto by loosely affiliated activists in the middle of the campaign, leading to widespread disparagement of the #TommunistManifesto (a sting that the centrist Tom Mulcair probably felt quite keenly). In an era of instant communication, that activists can hijack the party brand to advance their own agenda and have the media and public interpret it as coming directly from the party is a serious liability.

Second, the NDP’s robust membership machinery means that new leaders will always face institutional resistance to change. In the aftermath of the 1987 Ontario election, new PC leader Mike Harris and his inner circle of hard-right advisors were able to totally remake the demoralized and decimated party into an organization that veterans of the genial, patrician Big Blue Machine that had governed Ontario for decades scarcely recognized. After Michael Ignatieff led the Liberal Party of Canada to its worst election result in Canadian history in 2011, Justin Trudeau and his coterie completely overhauled the party once they won the leadership, adopting a new tone and a more left-leaning policy book.

No NDP leader could do this. The party is too good at surviving crushing blows without suffering grievous wounds. Since there is a deep divide within the party on whether it should prioritize the first goal of political parties, winning elections and power, ideologically committed members are happy to stick around in defeat, and new leaders are not given a free hand to remake policy and the party’s image. The leader who was best able to do this in recent history, Jack Layton, did so only gradually, over the course of multiple election cycles.

A new leader determined either to move the party ‘back’ to the hard left and the politics of protest or to maintain a centrist course would face stiff internal resistance. Institutionally, the NDP is too strong and independent even in its weakest moments to be taken over wholesale by a single leadership clique. While this stability is lovely from the point of view of engaging its long-time members in robust debate, it seriously weakens the party’s ability to win an election in Canada’s modern political ecosystem.

The ‘Atlantic Seat’ and the Problem of Diversities in Federations

Living in Ottawa, I get the incredible opportunity to go to my national Parliament and watch my government at work whenever I like. Today, I went to a meeting of Parliament’s Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights to see the Justice Minister, Jody Wilson-Raybould, respond to questions about the government’s proposed new process for appointing new Supreme Court judges.

A key point of contention at the hearing was regional representation. An incumbent justice, Thomas Cromwell, is resigning in September, and he holds the seat on the bench that has almost always gone to Atlantic Canada more or less since Confederation (Ontario and Quebec get three each, while the West gets two, for nine total seats). The Justice Minister said today that while regional representation is important to the government, it would not ask its non-partisan advisory board to make it a deciding factor, but instead to balance it with non-territorial diversity.

This is an interesting point of view to take, and I’ll write about why that is and some of the challenges and problems with that view in this post.

In my opinion, there are fundamentally two ways to democratically and voluntarily form one political entity from many and share power in a context of diversity.

One is federation, which organizes a set of territorial units, be they provinces, states, Lander or cantons, and divides powers and sovereignty between the federating units and a new federal government. (A confederation is a subtype here, in my view, that privileges the powers and sovereignty of the federating units over those of the federal government, rather than a meaningfully different political form.)

The other, rarer kind is consociation, which organizes a set of peoples (divided by language, culture, religion, etc.) into one by sharing and dividing sovereignty and powers. This is incredibly rare in a pure form.

In the real world, we usually see both at work in degrees in federal states. Belgium, for instance, is a federal state with ten provinces, but also has legislatures and government structures for its linguistic communities (e.g. the Parliament of the French Community and its corresponding executive arm). Switzerland makes sure to balance its federal institutions by linguistic and religious group as well as canton.The Netherlands, a weakly federal state, had a system of social ‘pillars‘ for much of the twentieth century that essentially led to parallel civil society structures of Protestant, Catholic and socialist Dutch people who rarely had to venture outside of their social ‘pillar’.

Canada has a rather nebulous concept of ‘founding peoples’ as well as bilingual federal institutions that act to affirm, to some degree, a consociational relationship between the English majority and the French and indigenous minorities. The attempt to recognize Quebec as a ‘distinct society’ in the constitution would have entrenched a consociational element to the Canadian state by affirming that Quebec’s place in Confederation was more than territorial. The Indian Act and the various treaties between the Crown and sovereign indigenous nations are also an expression of a federalism that goes beyond territory, if in ways that are (to say the least) controversial.

What I heard from the justice minister today was nonetheless novel for Canada. The Supreme Court has always been an institution that reflects territorial federalism (Quebec’s civil law seats notwithstanding, as they are a practical requirement in a country with two parallel legal systems). If the government were to appoint a justice from outside Atlantic Canada on the grounds of non-territorial diversity (assuming equal merit), that would be a sign of a shift in understanding of Canada’s system of power-sharing away from a territorial one and towards a consociational one.

There are reasonable arguments to make for consociational democracy: in today’s world of instant communication, global economic integration and rapid travel, we are connected to and share interests with people who may not necessarily be our neighbours. Our federal system, however, privileges territoriality and always has.

Turning regional representation, a foundational principle of territorial federalism, into just another form of diversity among many would be a dramatic change to our system. If the Trudeau government wants to reshape our institutions, it’s going to have to do so honestly and openly, instead of having a non-partisan panel sneak in sea-changes through the back door. Atlantic Canadians deserve better than to have their place in our institutions taken away with nary a peep from their representatives and provincial governments, or even a word of explanation from their federal government that refuses to even make the argument it seems to have internalized.

Trump and the ‘Movement Conservatism’ Paradox

American ‘movement conservatism’ was born in its modern form in 1955 with the founding of William F. Buckley’s influential magazine, National Review. ‘Movement conservatism,’ is the stuff Barry Goldwater ran on in 1964 and voters know today from people like Ted Cruz and Kansas governor Sam Brownback: a mix of deregulated markets, small government, aggressive foreign policy, and social conservatism. This American blend neatly tied together free market liberals (in the small-l, European sense) on the one hand with both deeply religious voters and flag-waving nativists on the other.

Republicans have generally been quite proud of their unique (for American politics) doctrinal coherence and look askance at the transactional, coalition-based politics of the modern Democratic Party. I can see why they think this, and there’s certainly a healthy dose of truth to it, but in my mind, it obscures the fact that modern movement conservatism is a ‘coalition ideology,’ a hodgepodge of ideas in tension (and indeed, often totally at odds) with each other. It is essentially very unstable and has remained viable in American politics somewhat in defiance of political gravity and because of the permanent short-term necessity of fielding candidates to compete with Democrats at the local, state and federal levels.

Why do I think that movement conservatism is a ‘coalition ideology’? Let’s embark on a little thought experiment.

Say you’re Kansas governor Sam Brownback, and you come in to office with a mandate to cut taxes and regulation and deliver red meat to God-fearing evangelical conservatives and take a tough stance on illegal immigrants.

Now, let’s say a company that makes high-end sex toys moves in to Topeka to take advantage of your various tax incentives. This in turn attracts immigrants to the lovely city of Topeka, some of whom might not even be from Kansas. The Chamber of Commerce and the folks at the country club are thrilled: they get to have low costs thanks to the competition between jurisdictions for their investment and between workers for their wages.

The evangelicals and nativists, however, are less than thrilled. The evangelicals have to contend with the fundamental amorality of the market (A sex toy factory! Think of the children!) while the nativists either lose their jobs and/or see the makeup and character of their neighbourhoods and cities change. Meanwhile, small towns in the rural parts of the state die out as jobs dry up and their young residents move to cities, and their churches shutter their doors.

You can run this thought experiment privileging the other two legs as well (by, say, cutting immigration dramatically or prohibiting work on Sundays), but what you come down to is a tension between a free market liberalism that demands and rewards rapid adaptation to rapidly changing market conditions and a cluster of worldviews and doctrines that see change as threatening to cohesive social fabric, religious morality or both.

It’s tough for movement conservatives to square this particular circle. Mostly, they haven’t really tried (honourable exception shoutout to Bush advisor Yuval Levin, who writes about this in Fractured America and spoke briefly about it in a great interview with Ezra Klein), relying instead on placating evangelicals and nativists with tidbits while remaining structurally committed to the free market/low tax bit. We’re seeing the fruits of that neglect this year in the Republican candidate for the Presidency of the United States, Donald Trump.

I’m not going to dwell too much on Trump, because you can get great Trump hot takes just about everywhere that words are displayed on the internet these days, but I think he’s valuable as an object lesson in the tensions inherent in American movement conservatism. In fully championing the nativist leg of the conservative stool, he has deeply offended the free-trading, market-loving country club types and while there are definitely some evangelical leaders who have turned on him, many have stuck with him, seeing him as a valuable ally in change-aversion. Seen through that lens, the pick of Mike Pence for vice-president makes a lot of sense: he has both orthodox Reaganite economic credibility as well as clear evangelical bona fides and might help him make up some lost ground on those two fronts.

Conservatives in other times and places whose parties or coalitions have not relied as extensively on free market liberals have been able to make sense of this cleavage more sensibly. To quote from the 1956 Tremblay Commission Report in Quebec, which set out to study the nature and challenges of federalism in that province,

“For those who have adopted it, the new economy has meant an extraordinary rise in living standards and in collective wealth. It has accomplished wonders. But in order to obtain these results, it has had to work on minds. It has had to arouse everywhere a taste for material well-being, a desire for comfort, and an aspiration for prosperity and even for wealth. It has succeeded thus all the more to the extent that it has been able to satisfy the appetites it aroused. Hence its action in depth. The fundamental governing values of human life no longer have any importance by themselves but only in terms of material values. Intellectual values are directed towards production and spiritual values are only remembered insofar as they are necessary for social tranquillity as a condition of economic progress. Thus the order of values has been reversed; success is acquisition of wealth; prosperity, the raising of individual and collective living standards; civilization is economic power.”

The Commission’s authors, which included Jesuit intellectuals and other prominent Catholic thinkers, were very skeptical of the free market’s long-term compatibility with the preservation of traditional society. Experience shows that they were right: marketization, urbanization and industrialization thoroughly wrecked traditional patterns of Quebec life. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, in hindsight, but to deny that it happened is silly.

American movement conservatism is an ideology with significant tensions baked into it. Its commitment to free markets and to a static or slow-moving set of social relations and communities are at odds with each other, and we’re seeing what happens when that conflict erupts into the real world.