Friday, February 10, 2006

The End of the Civic Nation?

The defeat of the Liberal Party of Canada in the last federal election means a number of things. It might mean, as polls suggest, that a lot of people just wanted a change. This might not be a bad thing although I have never been a fan of change for the sake of change. Let's assume, however, that the election is about something more than change. Let's assume that it is about Canadians' sense of their nation and where they would like to take it in the future. A lot of journalists and some politicians on all side of the campaign will suggest that this election is actuallly not about these things but, put the results together and you get a different picture. What is the key result? It relates not so much to conservativism but to liberalism. This election exposed the weakness of liberalism in Canada, something disguised by the divided oppsition of the 1990s. It is possible that support for the liberal ideal of Canada might be shrinking and this shrinkage seems to be occuring on a number of fronts. Lets add up the balance sheet and see where things stand.

Before doing so, however, let's be clear about what we mean liberalism and the liberal ideal of Canada. The Liberal party of Canada is not just a vote-getting machine. It carries a particular ideology of nation, a particular way of envisioning Canada. Canadian political theorist (and Liberal MP) Michael Ignatieff calls this vision "civic nationalism". We need not go into all the details -- and that would take way too long -- but the key points are this: liberals oppose ethnic nationalism (nationalism based on shared ethnicity, language etc.) not out of a commitment to Canadian unity (although there is that) but because they view ethnic nationalism as inherently problematic, potentially violence, and irrational. A civic nation builds bonds of unity around a commitment to a shared political philosophy that can encompass all citizens regardless of ethnicity. In Canada, the basic commitment has been to liberal virtues (individualism, equality of opportunity, rule of law, etc.). Some people may lament the fact that socialized medicine is one of the key signifiers of Canada but it is perfectly consistent with civic nationalism: the nation is constructed as a particular type of society. Civic nationalism has gone by various names but its key proponet in modern Canada was Pierre Trudeau. The reforms engineered by the Trudeau government were not just a series of things they thought good ideas that they tried implement but a coherent policy that aimed to reorganize the ideal of nation in Canada: defense of the welfare state and regional economic development (promote equality of opportunity), official blingualism and multiculturalism (individualism), the Charter (individualism and rule of law), opposition to the PQ (resistence to ethnic nationalism), and we could go on. To a greater or lesser extent these ideas remained part of the liberal mantra for Canada promoted by the Liberal Party from the late 1960s until today. And, without doubt it enjoyed some popularity among Canadians. The Charter remains wildly popular, as does socialized medicine, majorities support equalization and official bilingualism and multiculturalism have their determined advocates. Etc. This way of looking at Canada never commanded the support of the majority of Canadians because no majority was or is (in my view) ever possible in Canada. But, it did command the support of the largest plurality. Beginning with Trudeau, the Liberal party was in governent from 1968-79; 1980-84; 1993-2006. Thats a good long run.

Yet, one wonders if this ideology might have had its day. First, a good hunk of Quebecers (not the majority but a goodly number) have never signed onto this ideal and continue to support some other ideal of Canada. I'd be so bold as to suggest that despite some measure of success in Quebec in the late 1990s, civic nationalism might be the least popular political view in the province, behind separatism and distinct society (or, dualism). In other parts of the country, more left wing socialistic views have held sway (Halifax, oddly became a bastion of alternative visions of Canada in the 1990s), but the NDP enjoys support in old working class districts like Hamilton and Windsor in Ontario and Winnipeg in Manitoba as well as in the lower mainland of BC. Conservative ideals of Canada have held sway among rural Canadians, particularly in rural southwestern Ontario, Saskatchewan, northern BC and Alberta. The Liberal party has always benefitted from the popular support of the Canadian middle class and it continues to be popular here. It enjoys support in the suburbs of Halifax, in Moncton, Montreal, the GTA, and has actually been increasing its support in Vancouver among other places. Liberalism, then, retains vitality among the Canadian middle class.

Does this vitality disguise weakness. I think it does. I don't think it need be a long-term problem. In a future post I will look at the future of Canadian liberalism. But, what I might suggest is that Paul Martin's more pragmatic brokerage model of liberalism has never done the Liberal party any good. Martin, in fact, abrogated a number of key liberal ideas, demoted key proponents of civic nationalism in his cabient (Stefan Dion comes to mind), turned power over to others whose support for civic nationalism was tenuous (Brison, Lapierre, Stonach) in an effort to broaden the base of his party in the absence of an ideological hook, and played on fear (as opposed to argument) and anti-Americanism to win his points. IOW, Martin was not a fan of civic nationalism and so ditched it from the forefront of the party, much in the manner of John Turner (and, look at what happened to him). Civic natioanlism, then, is not simply challenged by alternative visions (the NDP, for instance, did not really increase its popular vote and the Conservative party could not win a majority despite facing the most corrupt government since John A. Macdonald's Conservatives in the Pacific Scandal era. This is not a ringing endorsement.) but challenged from within by the decay of civic nationalism within the Liberal Party itself.

The result is that Canada, always already fragmented, may be fragmenting further but on an ideological level. Civic nationalism, and important philosophy that has defined Canada, may be in trouble. It provided the centre to the Canadian nation-state and its development for over a generation. Now, it is being pulled asunder by separatism, socialism, conservativsm and then an internal decay. This does not mean Canada will fall apart, of course, and there remain strong proponents of civic nationalism within the Liberal party. It might mean, however, that Canada is a state of ideological transition.
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