Andrew MacDougall: Poilievre will need more than a punchy attitude to make Canada better
No one likes a both-sides argument. But fixing what ails us is a both-sides type of challenge.
By: Andrew MacDougall
If there was any doubt about the desires of the modern Conservative Party of Canada it was doused this weekend, when Pierre Poilievre won the leadership in convincing fashion.
Poilievre smoked his closest rival Jean Charest 68-16 and, more importantly, won big just about everywhere, even the bits of the country where “moderate” Conservatives are thought to be preferred, like Quebec, the Maritimes, and the Greater Toronto Area. It is truly the Poilieverian Era.
The margin of victory — the largest ever under the rules of the modern Conservative Party — now gives Poilievre an unparalleled opportunity to place his stamp on the Conservative movement. To date, that stamp has been attitudinal, rather than policy-focused. Poilievre goes in studs up and doesn’t apologize for doing so. The party membership were tired of losing on someone else’s terms, so they have chosen to go for it, without apology or explanation.
But attitude only goes so far. At some point, as the Donald Trump phenomenon shows, you have to deliver for people by fixing problems or the hold on power slips. We can easily forget, given his continued dominance in the press, how poor Trump was at doing the thing he claimed to love most: winning. Trump lost the House of Representatives in the 2018 midterms and lost the presidency in 2020, despite down-ballot Republicans making significant gains. When it mattered most, Trump was a drain.
What Trump excelled at was inspiring hate in his opponents, dominating the media because of it, all the while using his office for personal gain and making the judicial appointments his base truly cared about. That Roe v. Wade toppled after Trump’s supreme appointments was exactly their point. That the Supreme Court’s decision appears to have galvanized the Democrats is sweet irony.
The point being, making leadership or governing all about attitude leaves the door open for a devolution into a grievance or personality cult (or both together), one that needs to feed on institutions and eroding cultural norms to survive. This is where the Republicans now find themselves and where Canadian Conservatives should never want to be.
Poilievre’s critics, whether across the aisle or in the media, worry he is already at the point of erosion, what with his attacks on the media, Bank of Canada and other regulatory checks and balances. What his critics need to accept is these institutions have shit the bed in a big way over the past few decades, leaving many behind and others racing ahead. Some institutions are in need of renewal and reform because they are blind to problems they can’t see because they are outside of their “lived experience.”
The challenge for Poilievre will be to turn his sharp attitude into a winning program. If people don’t feel like they can get ahead, what can be done to help them get ahead? If the economic action is mostly in cities, how can we reflect that reality while making cities more enjoyable and affordable? If the movements of the global economy are placing severe strain on national economies, how can national governments co-operate to mitigate the damage? If giant multinational companies are exerting too much influence over our information sources and governments, how can elected officials put some boundaries around their reach and activities?
These are complicated questions, one that will require more than a giant “Fuck you!” to “the gatekeepers” Poilievre blames for choking debate and reform. It is not a question of banning attendance at events held by the World Economic Forum, it is about going into the belly of the beast and cataloguing all of the ways the thinking of the WEF has allowed the asset-holding class to race ahead of those without the means to own, while challenging them to broaden their thinking about what and who an economy is meant to serve.
It will also take some introspection on the right. The conservatives who still fetishize the economic orthodoxies of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan need to look at the detritus of the global financial crisis and the fallout from COVID-19 to ask if their preferred global economic plumbing could use an adjustment. Is the short-termism of shareholder capitalism the right way to grow the real economy? Is a bonfire of regulation the best way to safeguard people and communities? Why has there been a boom in tax-shelters and havens, and a shift in finance away from loans to real businesses to financial alchemy in the search for greater returns in the era of cheap money?
None of the above fits into a slogan, and none of the solutions are to be found in the hothouse of social media. Digging out from our current rut is going to take time, introspection, deep policy development, and sustained execution. It will take a vision for what a modern community and economy should look like, communicated in real terms to a population who are skittish and have their doubts about the direction of travel. It is a job for a horse whisperer, not a hot-headed gun slinger.
Whipping up anger is easy. Controlling it is much, much harder. The rhetoric is already getting heated; gassing it up another hundred degrees won’t create the environment we all need to think deeply about what ails us. What we need now are leaders with empathy and humility, ones who can acknowledge our fears and difficulties without judging us too harshly for how we’ve come to hold our beliefs. We need leaders who lean away from, not into, algorithms, ones who can create space, not close it down.
If none of this sounds like Poilievre, I can’t say I disagree. But it doesn’t sound like Justin Trudeau either. No one likes to hear a both-sides argument, but this is genuinely a both-sides type of deal. Trudeau must refuse to punch easily accessible political bruises on the Conservative side, and do some of his own thinking about why his support is dropping and why some people across Canada are feeling very angry at their prospects.
Let’s hope Poilievre and Trudeau can both choose action over grievance. Our future harmony depends on it.
Andrew MacDougall is a director at Trafalgar Strategy and former head of communications to Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
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