Monday, October 27, 2008

Progressive Revival

The period immediately following the American Civil War is generally referred to as The Gilded Age, a term originally coined by Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner. It was followed by what historians refer to as The Progressive Era, in which governors, like Wisconsin's Robert La Follette and presidents like Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, crafted public policies in reaction to the unmitigated greed and conspicuous consumption of the previous period. It took some time, but Canada also hopped on the progressive bandwagon, when a coalition of Ontario and prairie farmers formed the Progressive Party, which eventually merged with the old Conservative Party of Canada.

Progressive programs were similar in both countries. Their general purpose was to wrestle political control from the elites, who held the reigns of power, and to transfer them to ordinary citizens. Thus, progressives advocated workers rights, social justice, gender equality and public safety. These goals were to be achieved by legislation allowing workers to form unions, establishing a progressive income tax, allowing women the right to vote, guaranteeing food and consumer protection, and breaking up large corporate conglomerates -- like John D. Rockerfeller's Standard Oil-- which Teddy Roosevelt called "malefactors of great wealth."

We now take these programs for granted, even as they have been eviscerated during the last thirty years. As capital has become more mobile, power has shifted from workers to employers; income tax cuts have been structured to favour the wealthy; companies have become too big to fail; and, as the recent listeriosis outbreak in Canada illustrates, safety inspections are now the business of the companies which produce goods and services, instead of the government. All of this was done, as Alan Greenspan testified last week, on the assumption that self interest would prevent people from making stupid decisions.

Greenspan now admits that his view of the world and its inhabitants was "flawed" -- and the word "progressive" is returning to the political lexicon. Supporters of Barack Obama like to refer to themselves as progressives; and, in this country, Sinclair Stevens -- the former minister of finance in Joe Clark's government -- leads a group which calls itself The Progressive Canadian Party. In the last election, the party's target wasn't the Liberals or the NDP. It aimed its advertising -- limited as it was -- at Stephen Harper's Conservatives. Stevens himself was, like Clark, a member of the Progressive Conservative Party of Canada. The word "progressive" was dropped from the party brand when Harper was elected leader. Given the policies the Harperites stand for, the word's disappearance was no mere oversight.

And now David Brooks, in last Saturday's New York Times, writes that, in American political history, there is "a third tendency which floats between" Liberalism and Conservatism. This third option -- which Brooks claims is rooted in the thought of Alexander Hamilton -- "is for using limited but energetic government to enhance social mobility." Brooks traces Hamilton's philosophy through Lincoln's Land Grant College Act, which established the state university system, to the Homestead Act, which gave farmers free land in the West -- if they agreed to develop it -- to Teddy Roosevelt's trust busting.

What is interesting is that Brooks calls this train of thought "progressive conservatism." Perhaps he is simply returning to his Canadian roots -- he was, after all, born in Toronto. But, more importantly, Brooks writes that some conservatives had hoped that John McCain (who calls Teddy Roosevelt his political hero) would reform the Republican Party and reestablish the party of Lincoln and Roosevelt. Instead, he threw in his lot with the party of Nixon, which rose to power on a tide of resentment and a southern strategy aimed directly at the supporters of Strom Thurmond, George Wallace and Jesse Helms.

That party, says Brooks, is doomed. McCain's choice of Sarah Palin who "represents the old resentments and the narrow appeal of conventional Republicanism" is a sure sign that the party is "ailing" and "behind the times." No one should mourn its demise.

If the American historian Arthur Schlesinger is right in his assertion that history runs in cycles, we are due for a Progressive Revival. It cannot come too soon.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Post Mortem

Now that the dust has settled, it's time to take stock. As just about every commentator has noted, this election was, while not quite a debacle, nevertheless a sound defeat for the Liberals. And for that Stephane Dion will shoulder the blame. As Susan Riley wrote last week in The Ottawa Citizen, he deserved better. For, like it or not, the most effective way to slow global warming is to tax carbon. George Soros -- who has for some time been predicting the present financial calamity -- made that point two weeks ago to Bill Moyers. Furthermore, the way out of this mess is to tax consumption, not incomes. If the last two months illustrate anything it is that, when you make consumption effortless, you encourage unsustainable debt.

Unfortunately, Mr. Dion has difficulty connecting with ordinary citizens. They see him as a good and decent man who is too shrill and too schoolmarmish. And there is, also unfortunately, simple minded prejudice at work about a man who has trouble wrapping his tongue around the words of his second language. Those who fault him for that should go back and listen to John Diefenbaker's French. Dion's English may be awkward. Diefenbaker's French was excruciating. Be that as it may, the time when a Canadian prime minister needed to function well in only one language has long since passed. Anyone seeking to lead this country must be able to slip effortlessly between English and French.

The Conservatives made hay out of Dion's linguistic weakness. They certainly played and replayed the beginning of that CTV interview, where Dion had difficulty understanding a question. And their attack ads -- complete with pooping puffins -- were shameful. But this has been standard fare for some time now. Anyone who has watched Mr. Harper operate over the last two and a half years was not surprised by the Conservative campaign.

And, because we were not surprised, we have lived through a national Ground Hog Day, where we were before Mr. Harper broke his own law because (he said) the country needed an election. Canadians knew that while the Conservatives tried to make Dion look like an egghead and Harper look like (Bob Rae said) Perry Como, there really was a tyrant behind the facade.

Quebecers understood this better than anyone else. When Harper trashed arts galas and suggested a get tough approach to youth crime, they knew he really didn't understand them. Quebecois irascibility is a legitimate source of concern. Jeffrey Simpson noted in the Globe and Mail that "By voting Bloc for six consecutive elections the largest number of francophones in Quebec turned their backs on Canada, while not expecting that the rest of Canada would ever turn its back on Quebec."

The problem, of course, is that the "open federalism" Harper practices makes that possibility more likely. For while Mr. Harper has a clear idea of how he wishes Canada would work, he truly doesn't understand how either Quebec or Canada really works. His central governing philosophy is not John A. MacDonald's or Dalton Camp's conservatism. Under the tutelage of Tom Flanagan -- born in the United States, with a doctorate in political science from Duke University -- Harper has tried to import American neo-liberalism into the country. Both MacDonald and Camp understood that in the world's second largest country, with one of the world's thinnest but most diverse populations, both American Republicanism and pure British parliamentary government would not work. And in the United States, where the consequences of neo-liberalism are now on full display, one can argue that it has been a spectacular failure.

It was Harper's ignorance of how his own country functions that both Jack Layton, Elizabeth May and -- most importantly -- Gilles Duceppe impugned. And, when Mr. Harper suggested that ordinary Canadians should use the stock market meltdown as an opportunity to buy stocks, he displayed a truly indecent ignorance of how most of his fellow citizens live. Harper is a shrewd technocrat who knows a lot about a narrow slice of human experience. And it was what he didn't know that led Canadians to the conclusion -- for the second time -- that giving the man a majority was unwise.

So we're back where we started -- except Stephane Dion will be leaving the stage, perhaps as early as today. That means another leadership convention for the Liberals. Mr. Dion's leadership was the direct result of the uncivil war between Mr. Chretien and Mr. Martin. Whoever the party chooses, he or she must unite its left and right wings. There is no time and no room for an interim or a default leader.

The problems we face at home and abroad are extraordinary. Turnout for this election was 59% -- the lowest in Canadian history. Clearly, in a country where 75% of the citizens used to regularly go to the polls, none of the leaders on offer struck Canadians as extraordinary. One can only hope that, next time around, the leaders and the campaigns will be extraordinarily different.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Swept Away

Tomorrow there will be an election in Canada. In a little over three weeks, there will be an election in the United States. Both campaigns are taking place as world financial markets are being hit by a tsunami, a cataclysm which will leave the world greatly changed.

In the United States, that change is reflected in the erratic Republican campaign, which finds the bedrock it has stood on for the last thirty-five years being smashed and dragged to oblivion in the undertow. In Canada, the change is bedeviling the Conservative campaign, which seeks to import many of the same policies to the Great White North, and shift the country's centre of gravity to the right.

For Canadian Conservatives, James Travers wrote in Saturday's Toronto Star, calling an election "seemed like a good idea at the time." But recent events -- and the Prime Minister's Freudian slips -- have made what appeared to be a "sprint" to victory less likely. "Harper's policies and character," wrote Travers, have begun "challenging Dion's Green Shift and competence as a ballot question." This was particularly apparent last week, when Mr. Harper suggested that wise Canadians should treat the market meltdown as a buying opportunity -- as if ordinary citizens had the money on hand to make such purchases. In fact, Harper's advice had grating echoes of George W. Bush's advice that, after 9/11, patriotic Americans should go shopping.

In the United States, Bob Herbert wrote in The New York Times, that "the lesson for Americans suffused with anxiety and dread over the crack up of the financial markets is that there are real world consequences when you go into a voting booth and cast that ballot. . . . I don't for a moment think that the Democratic Party has been free of egregious problems. But there are two things I find remarkable about the G.O.P., and especially its more conservative wing. The first is how wrong conservative Republicans have been on so many profoundly important matters for so many years. The second is how the G.O.P. has nevertheless been able to persuade so many voters of modest means that its wrong-headed, favor the rich, country be damned approach was not only good for working Americans, but was the patriotic way to go."

John McCain started his campaign by peddling that same snake oil. But, in the wake of the failure of those policies, he has veered from one contradictory proposal to another, trying hard to avoid responsibility for the disaster which has engulfed his campaign. The result is that today the man McCain refers to as "that one" has a ten point lead in national polls, even as McCain's credibility continues to drop.

The race is much tighter north of the border -- partly because votes here are distributed between five political parties, not two. However, this weekend, Green Party leader Elizabeth May encouraged her followers to vote strategically -- either for Stephane Dion's Liberals or Jack Layton's New Democrats -- if their votes could prevent Stephen Harper from achieving a majority of seats in the House of Commons. She added her support to novelist Margaret Atwood, who wrote last week in The Globe and Mail, "Dear Fellow Canadians: If you give the Harper neo-cons a majority government, you will lose much that you cherish, you'll gain nothing worth having, and you'll never, never forgive yourselves."

The events of the last two months add a particular urgency to Atwood's plea. It seems that, in the United States, the wreckage of the last eight years is being swept out to sea. The Harper government has only been around for two and a half years. It may survive in a truncated form, because the tidal wave has only begun to hit our housing market and the factories of central Canada. But, before long, I suspect that Mr. Harper and his associates -- despite their attempts to climb high enough into the trees -- will be swept away, like their philosophical and economic brethren to our south.

Monday, October 06, 2008

Bush's Legacy

Last week, in The New York Times, Timothy Egan took the measure of the second Bush administration. Bush's legacy, he wrote, is "a Mount Rainier of shame and failure." -- and it is defined by three catastrophes. Each of those catastrophes occurred despite the advice of Bush's chosen advisers -- all of whom were thrown overboard, when Bush judged that they were not team players.

Such was the fate of Paul O'Neill, who "sounded an alarm, saying Bush's rash economic policies could lead to a deficit of $500 billion." Then there was the case of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Eric Shenseki, who told his boss, Donald Rumsfeld, that any invasion of Iraq would require roughly the same number of troops who were deployed in Desert Storm. Rumsfeld saw to it that Shenseki applied for his pension early and did not attend the retirement party.

Then there was the case of the man who oversaw the first invasion of Iraq, Secretary of State Colin Powell, who warned that any invasion should be approached with a thorough understanding of the Pottery Barn Rule: "If you break it, you own it." Powell, too, was shown his way to the exit.

Mr. Bush simply could not tolerate ambiguity or dissent. As he told Bob Woodward, "I don't need people around me who are not steady. . . . And if there's a kind of a hand wringing going on when times are tough, I don't like it."

It is that childlike insistence that everyone has to play by George's rules which will mark Bush's legacy. "Historians will recall," writes Egan, "that in each of the major disasters on Bush's watch, there were ample warnings -- from the intelligence briefing that Osama bin Laden was determined to strike a month before the lethal blow, to the projections that Hurricane Katrina could drown a major American city, to the expressed fears that letting Wall Street regulate itself could be catastrophic."

Those same historians will recall Paul Begala's comment that Bush is "a high functioning moron." The comment is unfair; but it does raise the question of how Americans managed to choose Bush -- not just once, but twice. I suspect that their choice had less to do with rationality than it had to do with hubris and fear -- and a good politician's ability to exploit both.

"If ever there was an argument for voting against politicians who are confident about their cluelessness," Egan concluded, "Bush is it." That is a legacy which transcends both time and space.