Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Gilles Duceppe, Or, the Politics of Comebacks

According to news stories Gilles Duceppe is making a comeback.  Politicians, it seems, are as prone to comebacks as athletes and aging rock and roll acts. Exactly why comebacks are so popular is a matter of conjecture. Some athletes -- and, one suspects, some musicians -- burn through their money so quickly and have so few other marketable skills that a comeback looks good. And, people are often willing to put a lot of cash on the table to see, say, an aging rock star that you might have missed in your youth.  Some might like the roar of the crowd, something that might motivate politicians as well.

In the case of Mr. Duceppe, the issue seems to be name brand recognition. The BQ is in trouble. Current polling suggests, in fact, it could get wiped out in the next federal election. More likely, it will cling to a seat or two, hanging on like the old Social Credit party or Progressives ... without much purpose, organization, or chance of victory. Because of his name brand recognition Mr. Duceppe gives the BQ a fighting chance. Their vote would be concentrated but they'd be fighting deeply and multiply divided federalist parties. If they could secure even 30% of the vote ... well, that would stave off the doom of electoral demise.

Like Mr. Parizeau, however, Mr. Duceppe might be more important for what he represents than for what he might actually accomplish. He is widely respected ... or, at least that is what people keep saying. He's a good public speaker. I'm not certain he's better than Trudeau, Jr., but he's as good as Mulcair and Harper. The problem, however, for the independence movement is precisely the same thing that gives Mr. Duceppe appeal. His name brand recognition also makes him a man of the past and whether or no that is good enough for today is another issue.

Why? It is not that Mr. Duceppe is, himself, out of date. He might be. I don't know. The problem is that electoral success for the BQ, even modest success, would stave off a process of rethinking that the independence movement in Quebec desperately needs if it is to be anything more than a footnote in current politics. I say this because it is important to recognize that we have moved on. The history that Mr. Duceppe represented and the history that he helped to build has become something else. We have, as it were, entered a different era in history. I've commented on this with regard to Canada as a whole in the past (under the rubric of the demise of civic nationalism). I'll take the opportunity here to follow up my comments on Jacques Parizeau and use the cover of a quick commentary on a Duceppe comeback to say a few words about what it means for Quebec.

Here is the history: since the late 1960s, perhaps a bit before, Quebec politics have been polarized between separatists and federalists. The demise of the Union nationale and the rise of the Parti quebecois both made and symbolized this era. The Liberal Party transitioned through both. It came to represent all those who supported federalism and positioned itself as a centre/centre-right party that did not abandon the legacy of the Quiet Revolution but was not in a hurry to extend it either. Where the Union nationale, of a previous era, had been a conservative, provincial rights-type party, the PQ represented a left-nationalist opposition that saw the Liberals as emblematic not just of a federalism they disliked but of a power structure they wanted to reorient. The PQ made common cause with Quebec's unions, supported progressive policies regarding access to post-secondary education and women's rights, among other things. Leading figures in the PQ identified with the left, and Lévesque used the word social democratic to describe himself. The leftism of the PQ was not honoured by all its leading figures and not honoured in all policies, but that discourse which drew together leftist progressivism, independence, and modernity appealed to a lot of Quebecers. It lent the independence movements a progressive politics connected to the union movement.

From the late 1960s and then more concertedly in the 1970s, these two political forces battled each other. The Quebec electorate indicated that they were willing to trust the PQ with government but ultimately rejected its cause. Even more importantly, the conflict between the PQ and the Liberals worked in both their favours by allowing them to mobilize voting blocks and keeping potential challengers to their own hegemony at bay. The result was an oddly skewed political spectrum in which it proved difficult for alternative voices to find space on a sustained level. The Equality Party and the ADQ made some splash but not enough to make a sustained dent in provincial political life. Likewise, at the federal level, over time the Liberals and BQ battled each other. Brian Mulroney's PCs made more of a dent but evaporated quickly and, it seems, relatively quietly leaving few traces at the federal level after Jean Charest exited the scene and jumped the conservative ship.

Mr. Duceppe symbolizes the triumph of this particular era in Quebec politics as much as other political figures we might name (Jean Chretien springs to mind or Brian Mulroney as a failed mirror image looking to develop a different way of thinking about Quebec politics). He began his life on the left, a communist of sorts and student activist cum union organizer who emerged on the federal political scene as the first elected member of the BQ (the others had been elected but for different parties, crossing the floor as it were). He became a leading figure in a party whose growth, in fact, helped to destroy conservative efforts to build an alternative to the Liberal-federalist/Independentiste political axis. It is, in this sense, appropriate that it was the failure of the Meech Lake Accord (a political deal that looked to build -- for right or wrong -- an alternative image of Quebec in Canada) that led to the rise of the BQ.  In this sense, the rise of the BQ symbolized the "return of the repressed": separatists who had briefly supported the Conservatives because of their position on Quebec autonomy within Canada, abandoned the Party and left it with little popular or political support in the province. The BQ decimated its opponents in its early days, leaving only the Liberals standing as potential alternatives to it, confirming the binary structure of Quebec politics and, with Duceppe as one of its key figures, discursively building connections between leftist-progressivism and independence. Many of my friends (most of whom would describe themselves as progressives) actually liked most BQ policies, excepting separatism.

Mr. Duceppe's movement into leadership in the BQ was appropriate. And, the fact that the BQ was an opposition party -- and would never be anything but an opposition party, by design -- meant that it could maintain its ideological position. The provincial PQ, in government, did not. It looked to build connections to the business community, to find ways to balance the books and address taxes, to both support and mollify student protesters at the same time. Duceppe was supposed to jump to the PQ but he never did and, in my view, he never could. If he had, his progressive ideas would have been tested by the realities of power, by a different and more pressing political economy, and by the tax policies and diversity issues that pressed the PQ in government and pushed it, bit-by-bit away from the left wing of spectrum. In might have made a nice story: Mr. Duceppe jumping into provincial politics and becoming premier (as had Bouchard before him), but he himself did not seem to want to move in that direction, I suspect for the same reasons I have laid out. He himself realized that he'd need to consider policies that ran deeply against his personal beliefs, deeply against the type of Quebec he wanted to see become an independent country, and deeply against the grain of the people who supported him.

In the meantime, not only did the PQ change but Quebec changed as well. The PQ's inability to hold together its mix of nationalism and leftist progressivism is, in my view, hardly surprising. We don't need to get into why that is the case here (perhaps I'll address it in another blog on Plan B Nationalism) and the policy shifts in the PQ were likely over-determined: the 2010s are not the 1970s. The key point is this: as the PQ moved to the right it was able to disguise this movement for a while by virtue of the fact that the Liberals were further to the right and by mobilizing the discourse of the Quiet Revolution and its legacy. The problem with this was that no matter how ideologically important the Quiet Revolution is as touchstone of Quebecois history ... it was long time ago. I was born as it was ending. It no longer marked a great divide in the same way as it did for previous generations and appealing to it seemed to ring a bit hollow to the students on the streets protesting current policies.

At the same time, the PQ seemed beset on all fronts. It drifted to the political right and this drift did several things. It allowed the worst face of nationalism to come to the surface in the so-called "secular charter." The thinly disguised legalized prejudice that this bill would have mandated cost the PQ its progressive bona fides. The PQ leadership did their best to dress the secular charter up as a defense of women's rights and as a progressive piece of legislation but there was actually little way to disguise what would have been its true effects, particular to urban and suburban progressive voters who abandoned the PQ in droves. Thus, the PQ found itself in a classic dilemma -- to appeal to voters it needed to modify its policies but that same modification drove off people who might otherwise be committed supporters.

On economic issues, the drift of the PQ to the right undercut its support among unionists.  The trumpeting of union-busting Pierre Karl Péladeau as a star candidate and then leader seriously cut into the PQ's left wing bona fides with the result that the PQ bled votes on the left to a new socialist and nationalist political party Quebec solidaire. Right now, Quebec solidaire is a force only in a handful of Montreal riding but these are riding the PQ would otherwise have won. The fact is that the PQ's victory must now be won against other separatists.

There is little doubt that the declining popularity of the separatism hurt the PQ as well. This much is self evident but the effect might be more unusual than most people realize. The declining popularity of separatism normalized Quebec politics in a way that removed the immediate pressing need to vote for federalism or separatism. In other words, since separatism was going down to defeat anyway, why not vote on other grounds and for someone else? The evidence for this view was oddly provided by the PQ itself in the degree to which the PQ tried to avoid the issue of separatism when in power since they had no desire to play a losing hand.  In other words, voting for the PQ meant voting for a government; not a political project. Since the PQ itself conceded that that project was off the table ... well ... why vote PQ or Liberal? Why not vote ADQ or CAQ or QS?  On the federal level ... why not vote NDP? It is progressive, no? It has a leadership that is committed to supporting Quebecers and defending their rights? And, it has connections to progressives in other parts of the country.

The question Gilles Duceppe needs to answer before he makes a comeback is this: is he equipped to deal with this situation. To be sure, there are a lot of old-time politicos "out there" -- not least in the Canadian anglophone media -- who will love to see him coming. He will, in the short run, boost the votes of the BQ. What the BQ needs to address, however, is a diverse situation if it wants to be more than an opposition party. In Quebec it no longer has the progressive political ground to itself. Both the NDP and the Liberals will run campaigns that try to stake out the same ground. It will have the independence ground to itself but whether or not that is the trigger voting issue is an open question. People like Duceppe and some will vote for him. In my view, however, that will be more nostalgia than good politics.
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