Monday, January 04, 2016

Shattered Mirror: Conservative Economics and Counterfactual History

The mirror universe alternative history of the 2015 election, then, runs something like this: the Harper Tories had a justly and accurately winning record if they had just stuck to the economy and ditched all the other stuff for which they became know (culture wars, anti-rights, Islamophobia, opposition to democracy, etc.). Here is how The Globe (in the piece I cited in a previous blog) puts it:

The key issue of the election should have been the economy and the financial health of Canadians. On that score, the Conservative Party has a solid record. Hardly perfect but, relatively speaking, better than most. However, the election turned into a contest over something else: a referendum on the government’s meanness, its secretiveness, its centralization of power in the most centralized Prime Minister’s Office in history, its endless quest for ever more obscure wedge issues, and its proclivity for starting culture wars rather than sticking to the knitting of sound economic and fiscal stewardship. It turned this election into a referendum on the one-man show that has become the Harper government.
In an election about the economy, the Conservatives might have won, and would have deserved to. But thanks to the Harper government’s own choices, this election has mostly not been fought on the Conservative Party’s strong suit. Attention has instead been turned to the rotten culture of Mr. Harper’s government.

The same op-ed suggests that the Liberals and NDP had simply absorbed the Conservatives economic policies (which, if true, really begs the question of why one needs the CPC to win if one is, like The Globe, only interested in economic issues, but I'll leave that to your imagination). It then goes on to slag Trudeau as a pretty boy, the Liberals as a party without policy other than what they stole from the Tories, and to reiterate its point: Harper had to go because his neo-con sideshow had become the problem. So, ipso facto, on two counts, Canada still has a Tory government, either (a) through Liberal cribbed policies or (b) because good sense Canadians would have embraced the good Tory record if they had just ... well ... not been Tories.

My intention, as I explained in a previous blog, is not to slag conservatives or support anyone else. It is to look at how conservatives are responding to electoral defeat. My argument is that they are responding in no one way because the party itself is a mishmash of different perspectives, but all the ways involve some measure of distortion that goes beyond "putting a good face on a bad situation." It involves, as I intimated in a previous blog, living in the equivalent of a Star Trek Mirror Universe.  I'm not certain what perspective Rex Murphy represents, but The Globe is clearly neoliberalism looking to assure us that neoliberalism is (a) good, (b) has a good track record, and (c) what good ordinary Canadians want (and, thus has both a good sense and a democratic sanction, in case you missed the "finer" points).

There are, of course, a host of problems with this alternative history. The Conservative economic record is, in fact, not particularly good. They made bad decisions at the beginning of the recession and reversed them only when they thought they would lose power (suggesting that they were making those decisions for a reason other than a commitment to the national economy ... but, again, I'll leave that off). They wasted resources needlessly on partisan spending, engaged in a costly aggressive foreign policy that accomplished next to nothing, and put all the national economic eggs in the Tar Sands basket ... the results of which are now evident to anyone who has tried to buy something online from the US. In short, Tory economic policy was shaky at best, produced needless -- as in it served no useful economic purpose -- debt, and created an intensely problematic (both economically and ethically) resource dependency (I noted before that this was the message of the Alberta provincial election that the Tories did not get: Albertans recognized the problems of economic resource dependency and voted NDP not because they suddenly turned lefty but because the NDP was the only party that was talking seriously about diversification).

What you will notice about The Globe's narrative, however, is the way it avoids all these issues by simply ignoring history. The past is, in effect, addressed simply in a single sentence that runs like this Conservative = good economics. What you will notice is that this point is taken for granted and never explained. There is no significant analysis; no facts; no discussion of national debt, no discussion of Canada's relative HDI, no discussion of standards of living. I wrote a blog on this point years ago, but I'll say it again: the historical record simply does not back up the position that Conservatives are better managers of the economy than moderate centrists (Liberals) or even lefties. (If you are interested in more discussion of this issue from someone other than me: look here and here and here.) The point, of course, is not to refute The Globe point-by-point, but to suggest that Conservative economic policy is not a black and white, good v everyone else bad, issue. Its complicated and requires some degree of nuance that looks at things like mismanagement, standards of living, spending patterns, etc., the future it laid out. In fact, from this op-ed, we don't even know what The Globe means by a good economic record since they never explained it. They simply asserted it was good. Was it good in terms of employment? working hours? diversification? skill development?

I am not trying to suggest that a single op-ed changes the world because it doesn't. I am trying to use it as an example that illustrates a core point.  The narrative of sound Conservative economic management is asserted and taken for granted in the complete absence of any serious discussion of the economy. Look at the piece again, if you doubt me. Hence, what we have is an assertion that the Conservatives are good at something and that something is important -- perhaps vitally important -- for the nation. In fact, it is so important others copy it but we won't actually tell you what it is or give any evidence to support what we are saying. Now, if we were talking about just about anything other than Conservative economic management ... would you accept this point on the basis of what you've been given?

What is equally disconcerting is the fact that The Globe seems to think that one can easily separate out CPC economic and cultural policies. The Globe holds out hope that the CPC will again become a progressive political party that manages the economy well while adopting liberal values that embrace social progressivism. If that is what you want ... why would anyone vote CPC? In fact, that is a distortion of the CPC.  Think about this ... if the Conservatives embraced liberal reform, dropped their opposition to Islam, embraced diversity, side up with gay and lesbian equality, agree that women should control their own bodies, remove restriction on scientists, stopped mobility discrimination against Mexicans, and encouraged democracy ... would they be Conservatives any longer? I know a number of people who voted Conservative. None of them voted that way because of Harper's sterling economic record. To a one they think the Liberals (or, more exactly "Justin") will be bad for the economy but that did not colour their vote. Opposition to Islam, the perceived need for an aggressive foreign policy, concern about diversity, worries about feminism, etc. did. To a one, everyone I know who voted Conservative did so for cultural -- and not economic -- reasons.

The Globe's discourse -- as an example of Conservative discourse -- enters into something that is more than a bit of a fantasy land. It reconstructs the Conservative Party at the same time that it reconstructs (by ignoring) history. It would have us believe that the CPC (a) would have won but for Harper's misguided policies that were (b) not necessary to conservatism. In other words, Harper alone bears the burden of the electoral defeat: an odd man who refused, according to this op-ed, to stop engaging in problematic behaviour and policies. This, of course, simply ignores the fact that Harper's oddities reflect conservative views in Canadian society (not of all Canadians, but of a good chunk of them). We can dislike these policies. I do. But, 30%+ of Canadians voted for him and that says something. (For a fuller discussion of the electoral ramifications of this ... see my next blog.)

What is equally confusing about this op-ed is its odd disregard for Canadians. The fact that Canadians stated that they did not want the Tories back in office in overwhelming numbers is not ignored but it is downplayed. The almost seven of ten Canadians who elected a progressive alternative are not discussed nor is their reason for their voting this way discussed. It is, instead, assumed that they voted this way -- for "progressive" alternatives -- purely out of a dislike of Harper.

Is that true? I suspect not. A lot of people disliked Harper (and, according to The Globe, with good reason) but why? I'd argue that it was, in some measure, a rejection not just of Harper but of what Harper symbolized: a political project in which the majority of Canadians could not see themselves and which did not represent their vision of the future or the country. Said differently, I think we should allow some value to the stated wishes of the about 70% of Canadians who thought they were voting for a progressive political option. That thought -- whether or not the Liberal Party meets those expectations -- means something too, and that is what is also eclipsed in this editorial.

Where does this leave us? It shows a different type of discourse than that articulated by Murphy, a point I made earlier. Instead of attempting to brand progressive democratic reform as somehow illegitimate, The Globe takes a different approach to reassure the neoliberal faithful.  The Conservatives did not lose; Harper's silliness cost them a good thing. Judged on their merits, the CPC should have won and the fact that it did not says nothing about the wishes or desire of Canadians, whose desire for a progressive alternative to the CPC is, similarly, ignored. It says only that the CPC should ditch cultural issues for economic ones. The fact that they did not shattered the mirror in this alternative universe and allowed another party to gain power.
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