A superior understanding of Canada

In his logical and rhetorical works, including the Posterior Analytics (Book II, Chapters 3 & 10) and the Topics (Book I, Chapter 1), the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle gives various accounts of what a definition is and how it fits into demonstrative and dialectical arguments. “A definition is a phrase signifying a thing’s essence,” he says in one place, and it “is rendered in the form either of a phrase in lieu of a name [i.e. a noun], or of a phrase in lieu of another phrase” (101b35-102a1). If a definition is provided in a rhetorical contest or dispute it will necessarily be part of a dialectical argument. For dialectical discussions concern “reputable opinions” and are forms of inquiry that contribute “either to choice and avoidance, or to truth and knowledge, and does that either by itself, or as a help to the solution of some other such problem” (104b1-3). Aside from defining definition and discussing what role it can play in a debate about a contestable matter, in the Organon Aristotle also outlines in detail the ways in which one can attack or defend a definition or the argument to which it belongs. He repeatedly draws our attention to ambiguity, for instance. If a word or an argument has more than one sense or addresses multiple questions at once, a disputant should be prepared to defend this ambiguity if called upon to do so, or they should attack this ambiguity if it will be advantageous for overturning a rival’s performance.

In The Longer I’m Prime Minister: Stephen Harper and Canada, 2006- (2013), the veteran political journalist Paul Wells maintains that too many critics and commentators dismiss Harper and in doing so fail to understand him. By focusing on the wider context in which Harper operates, Wells submits that he provides readers with a more complete picture of the politician and something along the lines of a more satisfying explanation of his success. After all, millions of Canadians repeatedly voted for Harper; he was elected as PM on three separate occasions. In consequence, Wells would have us conclude that such a long-serving political leader must be possessed of a “superior understanding” of Canada. His book aims to show us what that superiority looks like. However, this thesis is really a rather contentious assertion, slipping in a synecdoche which has Parliamentary and electoral politics stand in for Canada as whole. Following Aristotle’s advice, I would say it is also unhelpfully ambiguous. Given that Wells cites Aristotle approvingly, it is perhaps apropos to examine his claim about Harper along peripatetic lines.

The vast majority of the supporting material for Wells’ thesis comes from stories about various electoral campaigns (Conservative attack ads on Michael Ignatieff, for example), from interviews with politicians and political staffers (Conservative MPs, or Conservative employees such as Ian Broadie), and from the quotidian ups and downs of the Parliamentary sessions while Harper was PM. At times the book does indeed provide the kind of explanatory context that genuinely enhances our grasp of Harper, such as the second chapter’s account of Peter Brimelow’s The Patriot Game: National Dreams and Political Realities (1986) and its influence among prairie conservatives. For the most part, though, this sort of scrutiny is absent. This undermines the broader claim to “look beyond” Harper himself. Yes, to a certain degree, Harper’s electoral victories demonstrate “widespread support in the land.” Yes, in order to win multiple times, he must have had some sense of “how to guard and grow that support.” If what we’re interested in is a better understanding of Harper as a political and historical phenomenon, though, we will want to know why he gained the support he did among Canadians. Wells does not really address this question. Rather, he takes that support for granted. In other words, looking beyond Harper doesn’t involve an analysis of the wider background of Canadian society and its history.

Making this point does not undermine the substance of Wells’ book, since, once we look past its overall thesis and the foundation upon which it rests, the reader can glean much of political interest from his wry and often pleasantly sarcastic writing. So perhaps I should frame my criticism a different way. By reading this book I was hoping to see how Harper fit into the history of Canadian conservatism, particularly the prairie conservatism of the Reform Party. I wanted to understand more about the lineage connecting Preston Manning to Harper to Pierre Poilievre. Understanding Harper in a wider frame—Wells’ stated goal—is not something that can be done adequately if we stick too closely to the way he conducted his electoral campaigns, how he managed his political staff, or the novelties of his tightly controlled, not to say restrictive, public relations strategy. What is needed is a more substantive analytical narrative about the ideological currents Harper navigated, the languages of political thought he employed, how his words and deeds fit into the cut and thrust of Canadian politics, viewed not just in the short-term of an election or a term in office, but also the medium and longer-term. And all of this should ideally be related to an account of the shifts in Canada’s social and cultural make-up. Wells’ book includes elements that can contribute to such an understanding which are often fascinating, but when the chapters are seen at a distance they don’t add up to a terribly broad picture of “Harper in context.”

Ever since Greek and Roman antiquity, determining the balance between the personality or character of a politician, the constitution or form of political regime to which said politician belongs, and the laws (nomos), which includes the codified laws as we understand them today but also the customs and mores of the society in question, has been a staple of western political thought. In “That politics may be reduced to a science,” for example, first published in Essays, Moral and Political (1742), David Hume assigned different roles to these three elements—for shorthand let’s call them character, constitution, and culture. Filtered as they are through his reading of Niccolò Machiavelli, the various options Hume considered can be found in the works of Plato, Aristotle, and other ancient thinkers he read attentively, including Cicero. Hume was keenly aware that he lived in a regime whose society was aptly described as a “polite and commercial people,” a phrase later applied to imperial Britain by the famous jurist William Blackstone. Hume also echoed the fairly widespread sentiment that Britain’s constitution was “mixed,” which is to say a “balanced” combination of monarchy (King), oligarchy (Lords), and democracy (Commons). By revising the classical schema (character, constitution, culture) in keeping with Enlightenment historical sociology, as in Giambattista’s Vico’s Scienza Nuova (1725) or Montesquieu’s L’Esprit des lois (1748), Hume attempted to understand the political partisanship of his own day, which pitted Tory versus Whig, Court versus Country, and which included an assessment of the King’s “first” or “prime minister,” Sir Robert Walpole. Whatever might be said about the content of Hume’s evaluation of Walpole’s character and its relationship to Britain’s politics, couched as it in the carefully polished prose of a belle-lettrist, he attempted to enrich and enliven the classical and Renaissance reflections on politics he esteemed so highly with pertinent philosophical, anthropological, and historical considerations, all the while endeavouring to entertain his readers and persuade them of the virtues of “impartial” political “judgment.” Without failing to note its limitations, we can at the very least say that Hume’s Enlightenment political science situates Walpole in quite a wide context, historically and philosophically speaking. An adequate analysis of Harper’s tenure as PM and an astute appraisal of his understanding of Canada demands, I think, a similarly comprehensive approach.

In Canada MPs sit in Parliament because they obtained the most number of votes in their riding on election day. Leaders of each respective political party are not elected by all the Canadians eligible to vote, as in a Presidential election in the USA, but by those in the MP’s riding. In Harper’s case that riding was in Calgary. He was chosen as leader of his party by the members of the Conservative Party of Canada, which is a much smaller subsection of the Canadian electorate. At the very least this suggests that there is a less-than-straightforward relationship between becoming the Prime Minister of Canada, being the leader of a political party, and obtaining the support of the Canadian electorate generally. It’s also worth recalling that the Prime Minister is not the be-all and end-all of executive power in Canada; that role still belongs to the cabinet, even if more and more decision-making power is concentrated in the PMO these days. For now let’s just say that there is an important difference between having a “superior understanding” of Canada and repeatedly constructing a “winning formula” on election day.

It is undoubtedly true that a party’s political leader is an important part of why Canadians vote for this party or that. But as Wells would no doubt admit, it is far from the only factor. It may not even be the most important factor much of the time. Local, regional, and federal elements play a central role. For example, in Alberta a given party’s stance on the construction of oil pipelines may rank much higher than the character of that party’s leader. On a broader and more diffuse level economic, social, and cultural developments come into play as well. A given Canadian voter’s views on vaccine mandates, for instance, may correlate with particular economic and cultural changes in Canadian society, shaping what they do in the voter’s booth. This is to say nothing at all of major issues like environmentalism, or the role of religion. With so many decisive components in play, it seems inexact at best, and mistaken at worst, to equate a leader’s repeated electoral success solely or even primarily with a supposedly “superior understanding” of the country. And that’s leaving entirely to one side the narrowness and conventionality of focusing on political leaders, as if history and politics are primarily shaped by the great and powerful.

Wells makes no attempt anywhere in his book to analyze the democratic behaviour of Canadians. As noted above, why Canadians voted for Harper’s Conservatives remains unexplored. That they did so is taken as evidence of the fact that Harper correctly ascertained their motivations. In Aristotelian terms, the conclusion simply does not follow from the premise. We should note, first, that this is an inductive rather than a deductive argument. Wells makes an observational conclusion based on contingent historical evidence rather than metaphysical or logical reasoning (Aristotle’s criteria for non-probabilistic demonstrative deductions). Referencing the careers of “successful,” longtime politicians, he asserts that it is inductively true that they have “superior understanding” of the states they govern.

But what exactly counts as a “successful” political leader? Most definitions of success include some sense of attaining a desired end. So we could say that political leaders in democracies want to be elected, they want to be able to implement the programs for which they were elected, and in so doing they want to shape the state over which they rule lasting and memorable ways. If that’s an adequate definition, it’s clear that it does not necessarily involve being elected to multiple terms. Political longevity is certainly a measure of electoral success, but it is clearly not the measure of political success tout court. Aristotle would have us note that the word success is equivocal. It can be legitimately applied to political leadership in different ways. Why couldn’t a Prime Minister with a shorter term be described as successful? And if they can, does that not raise questions about describing someone like Harper as successful simply because he was elected multiple times? As Prime Minister, and in a relatively short period of time (1963-8), Lester B. Pearson passed legislation creating universal public health care, the Canada Pension Plan, and the Canada Student Loan program. This had an important impact on the shape of Canadian society that extends all the way up to the present moment.

As this suggests, any assessment of a given Prime Minister’s term will necessarily involve qualitative criteria of a historical and analytical nature. Consider some relevant comparative questions: How does Harper’s response to the 2008 financial crisis rate when viewed in the light of similar situations faced by other Prime Ministers? Was Canada’s ability to respond to that event attributable to him, to his predecessors, to structural economic regulations, to something else, to a combination of these factors? What, then, is the relationship between a political leader’s decisions, the range of available actions they could have possibly taken, and the definition of political success? Once these types of considerations come into view, electoral victory seems less like the measure of political success and more like how a politician themselves might wish to view it. In order to demonstrate “leadership” said “leaders” will unsurprisingly claim much more political responsibility and control than they really possess. Indeed, the phrase “the longer I’m Prime Minister” comes directly from Harper himself. Wells tries to show that his focus on the long game enabled Harper to reshape Canada in his own partisan image. It is not so terribly surprising, then, that Wells grants him a “superior understanding.”

If “success” is an ambiguous term, so too is “superior.” Wells uses “superior” as a synonym for “better.” Which raises the question: better with respect to what? Did Harper have a better understanding of Canada in general? Or did he have a better understanding of how to construct winning electoral campaigns vis-à-vis his political rivals? Obviously the two questions aren’t mutually exclusive. But the answer to the former implies a much more all-encompassing sense of the word “understanding,” extending far beyond the world of elections and Parliamentary politics. The latter effectively substitutes the “understanding” for strategic “sharpness” or “cunning.”

In 2006, when Harper changed the way in which he interacted with the media, no longer engaging in the traditional scrum with reporters in the press gallery because he perceived them as hostile to his politics and his message—a development Wells narrates and rightly excoriates—should we describe this alteration as a cunning communications strategy? Where does such behaviour fit in Harper’s “superior understanding” of Canada? Again in 2006, when Harper responded in bad faith to a Bloc motion recognizing the nation of Quebec, rewording it in such a way as to restrict the meaning of nation to historically French-speaking Quebecois people, which, as Wells acerbically attests, made it totally ineffectual, since that is not at all the same thing as the political entity of Quebec, should we see this as but one more savvy rhetorical parry? Does it too belong to the repertoire of Harper’s “superior understanding” of Canada?

When it comes to explaining why Harper’s Conservatives won several elections, when it comes to understanding Harper’s role as leader in those victories, what we are talking about, finally, is the explanation of human behaviour on a personal, social, and political level. To repeat, the number of factors one would need to take into account in order to provide an appropriate explanation of the outcome of a democratic election in twenty-first-century Canada is much greater than the activities of the leader of a political party, including that of their communications team or their campaign tactics. The conclusion to draw from this isn’t that we should stop reading a journalist such as Wells. We very much need such reporting. In terms of a broader analysis that puts Harper properly in context, however, it is but one piece of the puzzle. If what we’re looking for as democratic citizens is a “superior understanding” of politics, and thus of a given political leader, be they Pericles, Walpole, or Harper, then what we need, to take a page from Aristotle and Hume, is a philosophically rigorous account, a science of politics which entails not only fine historical judgment but acute analytical sensitivity.

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