Tuesday, December 16, 2008

A Late Commentary ...

A late commentary on the US elections

If nothing else, the US elections re-established one historical pattern: the Democrats were again widely perceived as the party of progressive change. "Change" was a Democratic mantra, repeated so often and with such vehemence that one might doubt its realities. President Elect Obama has tried to keep up the media momentum with timed releases of various members of his different "teams", big names who will work together with him to solve the nation's problems. Is this change real? We need an assessment that involves something more than "only time will tell." In my view, this "change" discourse is actually already more then discourse. It has served to right a political ship that had been tilting in the wrong direction for some time. This much, I suppose, might already be self-evident to most Canadians. What is important for Canadians to take note of, however, is that they should not be left behind. They should not delude themselves with the type of false promises that have infused American politics since Reagan. This is not hero worship of Barrack Obama. It is an effort to understand how political discourse can go disturbingly awry with truly destructive consequences.

In the last election the Democrats captured the "change" mantra from the Republicans who had, oddly, owned it since Reagan, nearly now a generation ago. Republicans were purveyors of change who rhetorically occupied the ideological space the Democrats had occupied since FDR or perhaps even before. The Republicans were for change. They branded the Democrats as old-fashioned and ideologically bankrupt and the label, by and large, stayed in place. Somehow, essentially conservative policies were taken to be new and indeed radical and in the popular interest. Tax cuts to the wealthy were portrayed as a popular -- as in aimed at helping ordinary people -- policy. An intensely conservative brand of Christianity (bereft, if I could editorialize, of the fruits of the spirit) claimed to be defenders of the family all the while poverty was ignored, education collapsed, health care evaporated. Said differently, all the things that allow the family to actually work and be what is was supposed to be were lost all the while the rhetoric of defending the family moved to the fore. Opposition to environmental regulation was portrayed as sensible. The de-regulation of financial markets was presented as an innovative unleashing of the entrepreneurial spirit.

Conservatives, folks, are conservatives. They are no innovators. They look to the past and mobilize traditionalist rhetoric in defense of their position. To portray it as progressive, innovative, even radical is to give a lie to what it is at its heart and what conservatives seek to accomplish. The goal of conservatives, in short, is to hold back the hands of time, rather than trying to build a new future. Reagan was a master of this odd rhetoric, rhetoric that portrayed progress as backward and backwardness as progress. Bush I less so but still relatively effectively. Bush II, initially at least, better than his father. Despite being in government, Reagan ran against government. Arguing that keeping him in power was a way to change things. Bush I did the same thing. The logic of the proposition was almost outrageous. If you don't like the government, don't elect the opposition, re-elect the government.

McCain and Palin tried to mobilize this rhetoric despite the most unabashedly conservative approach that they could muster. They called themselves "mavericks" all the while trumpeting a future that had not place for anyone who really was a maverick. They ignored the environmental crisis and the disaster that became US foreign policy during the Bush II regime. What happened in the last US election was, of course, many things. But, one thing that happened was that the press of history tore the veil from this odd rhetoric and exposed it for what it was: rhetoric. In the face of wars the US may not be able to win, a financial crisis that exposed the disaster of Bush II capital market policies, mounting problems with health care and education, it was simply impossible for anyone who was serious about the future of the US to take McCain's and Palin's claims to be mavericks -- to offer anything but the "same old, same old" -- seriously. The result is that progressives now again own the term change. They need to keep it by actually delivering on their promises. But, they can take some comfort in that large numbers of Americans seem now, to be on their side. They don't have to pretend to be moderates or even small-c conservatives a la Clinton and Gore. They can advocate fundamental change and there is an audience ready to listen to it.

What does all this have to do with Canada? Again, many things but the object lesson here is that Canadians should not fall for the same oddly misplaced empty rhetoric. Conservatives, folks, are conservatives and they are such for a reason: they don't believe in change. If they did, they would not be conservatives. Think about the last budget ... eh, financial update from the federal government. Even while leading conservative pundits and federal ministers try to brand the opposition as backward, the proof of the pudding ..... Canada's conservative government has attempted to turn back the clock on so many issues it is almost silly: picking a fight with China (as if China cared!) in order to relive the Cold War (oh, and let's build up the military and find a "good fight" in the meantime), a national child care system? Heck, instead of that, let's see if we can find a way to use the tax system to bribe women to not go into the paid labour force (we can call it "choice" if anyone gets upset), tax cuts, love 'em because it reduces the capacity of the state to a pre-WW II level (or, if we can't make that, let's aim for something like the 1950s).

Some people might like conservative politics. Fair enough. I don't but there is nothing illegitimate about conservatism. I think its a big honkin' flop that has destroyed the US economy and ruined the US's international reputation, but ... but if some people want the same thing for Canada, well ... they want the same thing for Canada. But, let's have an honest discussion of this issue. Let conservatives proudly stand up and say "We are backward and we don't believe in building a progressive Canada. Our ideal of a good Canada is that which seemed to pass away a generation or two generations or whatever ago and our goal will be to remake that Canada." Otherwise, all conservatives are actually doing when they cast themselves as agents of change is lie.
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