The Line's Naughty List: If we're five years behind American politics ... uh oh
Canadian conservatives and Conservatives have, at least until recently, largely eschewed the politics of institutional destruction and anger fomentation.
We at The Line are, we admit, often a bit on the grumpy side. But there are wonderful, happy stories worth celebrating, and in the final week before Christmas, we celebrated a half-dozen of them here. Now, though, it’s time to get back to doing what we do best: pointing out all the bad things that we really ought to be fixing!
Today: In our final installment of this series and last post for 2022, Ken Boessenkool on how an American political sickness has taken hold in Canada … and we don’t know yet how deep or how seriously.
Happy New Year!
By: Ken Boessenkool
There’s an old saying that when the United States sneezes, Canada catches a cold.
It’s generally used in reference to Canada’s economic dependence on the United States, which stems from the fact that nearly three quarters of Canada’s exports go to the United States and over half of our imports come from there. And our exports and imports are each just under a third of our economy.
In short, we are economically tight-tight-tightly wound up with the United States.
It’s not just the United States economy that affects Canada, it’s also its politics, though the virus tends to afflict with much more of a lag. The United States elected Reagan in 1981, we got Mulroney in 1984.
Clinton and Chrétien were both elected in 1993, but the lag reappeared when they chose George W. Bush in 2001 and we chose Harper in 2006, and when they chose Obama in 2009 and we got Trudeau in 2015.
In very rough terms, and with caveats all around, our politics roughly follows U.S. politics with about a five-year lag.
And we don’t just trail with political leaders. Political methodologies also tend to move across the border with a lag. The Harper gang (present company included) learned a lot from Republican micro-targeting, largely using telephone technology. And the Trudeau gang learned valuable lessons from the Obama team when it came to micro-targeting using social media. This advantage paid big dividends for Liberals in 2015.
There is admittedly an interaction between these two things … improved political methods by American conservatives moves across the border to Canadian conservatives. And the same holds true on the progressive side, with Canadian Liberals forging ever-closer ties with U.S. Democrats.
Which brings us to Trump.
Trump’s institutional wrecking and anger fomenting style of politics reached an apex in the United States in 2016 with his surprising win against perhaps the most disliked American Democratic nominee in living, and perhaps un-living, memory. His politics reached rock bottom in the disgusting events of January 6, 2021, wherein his attempt to undermine and overthrow American democracy itself, while unsuccessful in the moment, became a key Republican primary and general election strategy in the time since.
It, sadly, needs to be said that institution wrecking and anger fomenting, whatever else they may be, ought to be entirely foreign to conservatism. Protecting and guarding institutions, admittedly sometimes too earnestly, is at the core of conservatism. And the centre of the conservative disposition should be gratitude — quite the opposite of anger.
Trump’s style of politics came to a crashing, and, one prays, final, halt in the U.S. midterms of this year, where nearly without exception, Republican candidates pushing the institution wrecking and anger fomenting mantra of the stolen election allowed Democrats to steal a partial victory from the arms of defeat. Yes, they lost the House, but they held the Senate, and there was no red wave, as predicted.
Humiliating and hilarious Trumpian trading cards are, again, one prays, signalling the last gasp of a vile period in American politics. It is surely a sign of the end if your sycophants are buying while everyone is laughing.
And how has this all affected Canadian politics? If we accept the roughly five-year-lag thesis, after all, that puts our Trumpian era arriving right about … now.
The first thing to be said is that Canadian conservatives and Conservatives have, at least until recently, largely eschewed the politics of institutional destruction and anger fomentation. Attempts by the left to attach the Trump label to politicians such as Doug Ford and Jason Kenney have largely backfired. In the case of Ford, as he became better known any comparisons to Trump made Ford, if anything, more likeable. Like Stephen Harper before him, early and persistent demonization can, when proven wrong, bolster a politician in the eyes of their potential voters.
Turns out, “He’s not nearly as bad as I expected,” is political capital that can be spent.
And Kenney’s frequent denunciations of Trump and his methods made comparisons seem overly partisan. Indeed, it was Kenney’s failure to be suitably pro-Trump that motivated a small but organized clique of angry anti-institutional Albertans to seek Kenney’s ouster and find a suitable replacement.
And find her they did.
Their choice, Danielle Smith, came out swinging against Canada, proposing a law, the entire point of which its supporters said was undermining the Canadian constitution — a core Canadian institution. (Disclosure: I was involved in one of the campaigns that ran against her for the UCP leadership.) Then there were her anti-health, anti-science and anti-vulnerable Canadian views on government actions and vaccines related to the COVID-19 pandemic. Views so far out of the mainstream that no Western government held them. Even her oft-quoted hero, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, was initially in favour of vaccinations and COVID economic restrictions. It is now accepted that high-vaccination rates prevented staggering death rates and economic dislocation. And Smith’s open association with extremely questionable and angry public figures and open calls for the pardoning of lawbreakers made her anti-institutional biases quite clear.
As with Trump, most Alberta conservatives, and certainly most United Conservatives, publicly wrapped their arms around Smith. Ignoring previous denunciations, they sat in her cabinet and offered nonsensical defences of her worst impulses.
… that does sound familiar, doesn’t it?
A much paler imitation could be seen in the federal leadership for the Conservative party, where Pierre Poilievre danced, albeit much more gingerly and with more publicly stated caveats, with law-breaking convoyers, anti-institutional crypto-bros and made open calls to fire the traditionally independent governor of the Bank of Canada.
Were these opportunistic moves made to not just secure the leadership, but blow away all competitors and secure Poilievre as an unimpeachable leader — something his two predecessors failed to do? It certainly worked, but his actions since seem to suggest a new target for his opportunism.
Poilievre now seems directed towards the wider group he will ultimately need to succeed in his next big political challenge — defeating the powerful Liberal machine likely led by Justin Trudeau, no political slouch himself. Crypto and convoy talk has all but been replaced with a highly-disciplined and effective economic message which will be necessary, if not entirely sufficient, for future political success.
Smith shows no evidence of such opportunism, appearing rather to prefer being right in her own — and supporters’ — eyes rather than successful among a wider population.
Which sets up the question … Is Canada in America’s 2016? Or its 2022? Will Canada see anti-institutional, anger-fomenting politics succeed in the coming year(s)? Or will Canada escape the excesses of the dangerous and profoundly unconservative politics that reached its apex in the United States a mere seven years ago, and that continue to rock that country’s politics?
In short: How badly will America’s Trumpian sickness infect Canada?
I don’t know. If I had to bet, I’d say Poilievre is no Trump, and Notley is no Clinton.
But in any event, we’re living in the consequences … and it’s far too soon to say if we’ve seen the worst of it here.
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