Predictably conventional

This from a recent editorial at La Presse:

Mais peu importe que le mouvement vienne d’un parti traditionnel ou d’une nouvelle formation politique, il serait souhaitable que le gouvernement canadien revienne au centre de l’échiquier politique. Si on veut avancer, ce n’est pas en divisant le pays qu’on y arrivera. Mais en trouvant des terrains d’entente.

First off, let’s address the hollow claim that “it would be desirable for the Canadian government to return to the centre of the political spectrum.” Well, why exactly? Are political spectrums somehow like virtues, with excellence found between the opposing extremes of deficiency and excess? That’s a doubtful proposition. It’s striking that the editorial supplies neither an argument nor an explanation for why a return to the centre serait souhaitable. And that is not even taking into account the debatable judgment that Justin Trudeau’s Liberals have strayed far from centrist politics in the first place. If the admonition advanced doesn’t follow from any arguments, but rests on unexamined assumptions, the observation to which the advice relates likewise lacks credibility.

The agreement made by Trudeau’s Liberals and Singh’s New Democrats needs to be balanced out by an equal but opposite force, we’re told, as if Canadian politics were some kind see-saw in danger of tipping too far in one direction (oh no, deficits! debts!). Never mind that taking the left-right metaphorical understanding of the political spectrum too straightforwardly, and with no historical context or nuance, is like putting on an intellectual straight-jacket and then closing your eyes. The American case makes it crystal clear that centrism is hardly a model of pragmatic progress (why hello there, Joe Manchin). A shrewdly skeptical eye should always be cast on undiluted or generic praise for centrism. Indeed, far from being inherently laudable, advocating for the conventional centre belies a poverty of political imagination, not to mention historical acuity. One could argue in detail, as the historian Ian MacKay has in Rebels, Reds, Radicals: Rethinking Canada’s Left History (2005), that many of the best decisions ever made by liberals in Canada—Conservatives and Liberals both—were hijacked from democratic socialists whose political vision entailed a non-consensual, non-liberal way of “living otherwise” (public health care being the most notable and well-known example).

The editorial’s plea for centrist stability is motivated by the populist threat posed by Pierre Poilievre, who is not unreasonably likened to Donald Trump and Boris Johnson. It’s telling, however, that no consideration is given to the question of why populist leaders and populist politics have made such a comeback recently. Could it have something to do with the aftermath of the financial crisis of 2008? Could it be the fact that centrist liberal politics appears unable to solve the quagmire of housing affordability in Canada? Or perhaps that consensus conventionalism has not adequately or consistently addressed the political problems inherent in capitalism that create and follow from rampant inflation? Instead of trying to grasp what is animating the forces shaping Canada’s politics in 2022, looking to historical and sociological and economic context for a better understanding of the present, the brief opinion we’re given focuses on how a Poilievre-led Conservative Party would leave moderate conservatives stranded, without representation. No attempt whatsoever is made to situate the changes within conservatism over the past 40 years, which is absolutely necessary if we’re to grasp what kind of politician Poilievre is and why he is so far ahead of Charest in the polls.

Consider the years when Jean Chretien was Prime Minister (1993-2003). It was a period during which conservatives of various stripes were indeed represented in Parliament but, in being divided between the Progressive Conservatives and Reform and the Bloc Quebecois, were locked out of power. When the PCP were reduced to a tiny rump (which included Charest), did moderate centrism somehow disappear from Parliament? Simply put, no. Throughout the Chretien years Paul Martin stuck to the “third way” economic playbook, scarcely deviating from the pattern of his centrist fellow-travellers Bill Clinton and Tony Blair. Much of the political spectrum in the North Atlantic world had been shifting rightwards since they heyday of postwar social welfare and the advent of neoliberalism in the 70s and 80s anyways. Which reminds us again of the crucial fact that the centre of the liberal spectrum has tilted in different directions over time for specific reasons.

As the historian Enzo Traverso observes in Les nouveaux visages du fascisme (2016), changes within the conservatism and right-wing politics of the past 40 or 50 years constitutes a novel historical formation. So when someone praises centrism, we should always be asking for an essential ideological and historical qualifier: which one? Leaving things vague doesn’t provide readers with concrete, pertinent political insight. It is basically of no help at all to the democratic citizen trying to make sense of Canada today. The suggestion that the centre will not hold in Canadian politics merely because a populist prairie libertarian might become the leader of a major political party woefully underestimates the staying power of neoliberal hegemony and misreads our moment. Certainly Trudeau and Poilievre are not nearly so far apart as either they or some political observers would have us believe.

The editorial dwells on Charest’s slim chances in the CPC leadership race and the apparently dire straights of moderate conservatives. Yes, as Mme Grammond points out, any new, more progressive conservative coalition would have an uphill battle at the next election. Yet no tangible reason for the necessity of such a party is given, except, again, that a block of Canadians will feel unrepresented. What is meant by representation, though? It’s an equivocal term that needs to be elucidated. In a first-past-the-post system there are many, many Canadians who will cast a vote that will never lead to their preferred representation in their riding. It does not necessarily follow that Canadian democracy is on the rocks.

Instead of reasons for the importance of the existence of a new centre-right federal party, the editorial tries to console readers with a conventional wish: il serait souhaitable. Perhaps we are meant to recall that, historically, Canada has almost always had such a party. While that’s more or less true, the record of past eras casts rather large shadows on an unqualified trust in centrism as the repository of political wisdom—peace and order sure, for some people, for some of the time, to the benefit of some Canadians. But good government? Prohibition and residential schools and conscription were all arguably policies that emerged from what was once the centre of the liberal spectrum. If Parliament is guided by its ideological midway-point that is no dependable measure of whether or not Canada is governed justly, fairly, equally, freely, or well.

Secondly, the article concludes by claiming that if Canadians “want to move forward, it is not by dividing the country that we will get there. It is by finding common ground.” Intentionally or not, this phrase echoes Justin Trudeau’s campaign book / memoir, Common Ground—the French title matches the article’s French original too, Terrain d’Entent. I have written a review of Trudeau’s book elsewhere. Suffice it to say that, as with centrism, there is nothing inherently redeeming about brandishing consensus in a democracy. Consensus is no sure guarantee of pragmatism or prosperity, since, as with centrism, we need to ask which kind of consensus we’re talking about, and for whom.

What counts as pragmatic or prosperous is itself an ideologically inflected judgment. When the top 1% accumulate unprecedented wealth, protecting it through centrist, consensus-based, supposedly pragmatic politics (to say nothing of the nefarious means employed), obviously that does not settle the question of whether or not the distribution of that prosperity is just or democratic (see Danny Dorling, Inequality and the 1%, 2019). In such a situation conflict may be much more appropriate as a democratic political strategy. Plainly consensus can serve as a pleasant-seeming ideological mask worn over more particular partisan interests, diverting attention away from material social developments which may be highly unequal, partial, and anything but the basis of political, social, or economic “common ground.” In Justin Trudeau’s case this often takes the form of setting himself up as a moderate between extremes, using longstanding liberal scarecrows to do so (e.g. a patently false equivalence between Karl Marx and Ayn Rand), all the while championing the middle class as if the mere appearance of the word “middle” ensures us that the majority of Canadians will be well-served. As often as not in Canadian politics, consensus is an empty or even mendacious slogan that tells us nothing substantive about the policies adopted in its name.

Apparently some observers find the notion of a politics of ideological division disagreeable or distasteful, as if it has no place in a peaceful, ordered democracy. Whether that is because they think it leads to intractable or intolerable problems is hard to say. If so, that is a supposition advanced on the basis of shaky premises, not to say a preference smuggled in as an insight. The contention that consensual collaboration around the centre of the political spectrum leads to forward-moving democratic progress, whatever that means, is both hollow and incredibly banal. Approval of progress in such instances typically begs the question: those who value generic consensus and what seems like political moderation will point to commonsense (historical?) “evidence” which allegedly indicates that consensus and political moderation are the surest way to ensure progress. Quelle surprise!

Evidently a democrat who champions identifying and naming social, economic, and political divisions where they actually exist, and who advocates reforming the existing political regime in order to address imbalances in favour of fairly empowering and liberating as many Canadians as possible (among other things), will find the editorialist’s judgment faulty in this instance. Such is the stuff of political debate. It’s important to underline, though, that the disagreement isn’t merely over the advice offered, but the overall assessment of the present political scene upon which the advice is based. There is no need for democratic debate to be unduly hostile or stubbornly uncooperative. But it’s imperative to be on the alert for the ways in which genuine political alternatives are excluded from view because of the ideological blinders of consensus-based centrism. Different styles of such blinders may have come and gone, but they have been consistently worn by important politicians and a plethora of political commentators over the course of the past 200 years.

Like the article in general, the editorial’s conclusion is illustrative of the fact that far too often in traditional Canadian media (La Presse is considered a paper of record) there is little or no awareness of the normative contingency of liberalism, let alone the conventional repertoire of what passes for moderate centrism. Perhaps that accounts for the fact that political debate among journalists at such outlets frequently stays safely within the bounds of capitalist realism, i.e. the notion that there is no desirable or feasible political alternative to the financialized, global, neoliberal “free” market. Which is to say that virtually no consideration is given to a wider and deeper reflection on the historical relationship between imperialism, liberalism, capitalism, and democracy (on which, see Ellen Meiksins Wood, Democracy Against Capitalism: Renewing Historical Materialism, 2016). To judge by the discussions on “Le panel politique” on Ici Télé (Radio-Canada), for example, where Mme Grammond frequently appears as a guest, such a topic will never arise. In contrast to major media outlets in other democratic countries, including the UK (Guardian), France (France Info), or Australia (ABC), where the range of views canvassed more diverse, complex, even at times more “representative,” in Canada political commentary is all too often predictably conventional.

Scroll to Top