Saturday, May 09, 2009

Canadians and Michael Ignatieff

So ... According to public opinion polls, Canadians are warming to Michael Ignatieff and souring, at lest a bit, on Stephen Harper. In Quebec, the numbers are more stark, but this is supposedly because Quebecers don't know a great deal about Ignatieff. At least this was the interpretation offered in the media over the last couple of weeks.

I think this assessment is likely correct and as proof I offer into evidence that fact that the BQ has now turned its guns back on the Liberal Party. The BQ, like the NDP and much of what counts for a national media in Canada, had, of course, spent a great deal of time going after the Liberal Party even after the collapse of the short-lived Martin government. This might have been because Dion was perceived as an easy target. It might have been -- as I've argued in this blog -- that the Canadian media appeared unable to recognize that Canada no longer had a Liberal government and so kept them in the spotlight, it might have been the disposition of political leaders. And, I think importantly, it was also a generalized opposition to the project of Canadian Liberalism that infuses all political parties. I've said before that I am not a proponent of that project and so do not come to defend it. I mean generalized in the sense of the NDP, BQ, Conservatives, and perhaps sections of the media, are not and never have been enamored with Canadian liberalism, which is why they are in other parties. For each of these parties, however, liberalism -- as carried forward by the Liberal party -- has been their main enemy for the last generation. Conservative political leaders have not just found their way to political power blocked by the Liberal party, they have rejected many of the reforms (charter rights, equality rights, women's control of their bodies, state support for equality of opportunity in the form of regional development, etc.) that have been engineered by liberals (or the big or small L variety). In power, they seek to bring in measures -- such as they can with minority support -- that will strengthen the "traditional family," provide incentives for women to not enter the paid work force, re-allocate budget priorities from non-market based media (the CBC) to the military, and such things.

None of this is surprising. It is what we would expect conservatives (of the big or small C variety) to support. What it means, however, is that Conservatives and Liberals do not see eye to eye and view each other as their main competitors. The same thing, oddly, goes for the NDP and the BQ. There is no reason to go into the details but the Liberal commitment to civic nationalism, individual rights, and an active state that is designed to realize particular social goals necessarily conflicts with the BQ's vision of the future. In Quebec, since 1993 what we have seen in the BQ/PQ and Liberals squaring off against each other (with the odd success for conservatives or socialists). The NDP ... well ... similar type of stuff.

The fact, then, that even after they were driven from power, the Conservatives, NDP, and BQ continued to direct fire at the Liberals is hardly surprising. The realization of their objectives (be is social democracy for the NDP or separatism for the BQ) requires the destruction of l/Liberalism in Canada as a vital force able to hold together and direct the federal union. (The reasons why the Canadian media were so amenable to this is another matter.) For conservatives to re-make Canada in the manner in which they would like -- which, after all, was their goal and not just sitting on the government benches -- they needed not just to win an election but politically and ideologically marginalize liberalism in such a way that they could set themselves up as a new government party able to reformulate the policies and ideals that animate Canada. Winning an election, in other words, was not good enough.

What does all this have to do with Michael Ignatieff and Canadians attitudes toward him. Well ... potentially one could answer: not very much and that might, in fact, be the right answer. The rising popularity of the Liberals might strike someone as odd. After all, they have now had horrible leadership for a good long run, first in the guise of Martin (who, I think, never really understood the appeal of liberalism in Canada) and then Dion (who understood it perhaps too well). Even before Martin's folks toppled Chretien, the infighting between the two camps was casting the party into disarray. Add to that the fact that its campaign structure and institutional apparatus are a generation out of day, it is bankrupt and has no mechanism to raise money, and some of Martin legacy star candidates are more in the way of buffoons then political leaders, the fact that many of its leaders are recent converts (Rae, Ignatieff, Dryden, Dosanjh) with little history in the party, the alienation of the federal party from provincial liberals ... and ... well ... one has to start wondering why this party even exists, let alone is leading -- even if briefly -- the polls as enter May 2009.

My argument, all the way along, has been hat the Liberals win not because they are the craftiest of politicians or because they have the best leaders but because the largest minority of Canadians self-identify with the liberal project of nation, with their view of Canada and how it should operate. In other words, the largest minority of Canadians are liberal in their outlook and this necessarily draws them to the Liberal Party and its platform.

What is interesting about Ignatieff is not just that he has benefitted from this but that he is trying -- from what I can tell -- to reformulate Canadian liberalism from within. Dion tried to bring a new environmental perspective to it. Martin tried to refashion it as a ideology-less brokerage machine. Ignatieff, for good or ill, has tried to graft onto the party a modern party structure, a revised position with regard to Quebec, and changed foreign policy. Will he be successful? I don't know, but I do think that the disposition of most Canadians is to give him a chance because ... well ... they tend to agree with most of the things he says anyway.
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