Thursday, May 05, 2011

The Mushy Middle?

Those who are hailing the new "clarity" reflected in Monday's election results should read Dan Gardner's column in this morning's Ottawa Citizen. Looking back at the demise of the British Liberal Party, Gardner writes:

Something similar is quite possible here. In a matchup between the Conservatives and NDP, particularly at a time when voter turnout is appallingly low, the electoral math may show that moving to the centre to grab some of the dwindling number of Liberal voters is no longer the smartest option. The more effective strategy may be to identify, engage, and energize the party’s base.

If the government and the opposition begin to define themselves in terms of their differences, the eventual result could be stalemated government. An example, writes Gardiner, is close at hand:

If that sounds impossible, look south. A mountain of research shows that Americans are overwhelmingly clustered in the political middle. Very simply, most Americans are moderate centrists. And yet, American politics is divided and polarized like never before because, in part, the political dynamics reward division and polarization.

Americans seem to have forgotten the strategic advice of the man who led the D-Day Invasion, kept his country out of Vietnam and Suez, and built the Interstate Highway System:

People talk about the middle of the road as though it were unacceptable. Actually, all human problems, excepting morals, come into the gray areas. Things are not all black and white. There have to be compromises. The middle of the road is all of the usable surface. The extremes, right and left, are in the gutters.

As what some see as an historic realignment begins to take shape in Ottawa -- and before more people begin to write the obituary of the Liberal Party of Canada -- they should contemplate both Gardner's and Eisenhower's counsel.

This entry is cross posted at The Moderate Voice.


ck said...

The Globe's Andrew Steel wrote two articles on that very subject recently. The first of which, he takes us on a history lesson of the demise of the British Liberal party and how Labour became more mainstream and the consequences that went with that. Worth the read.

He wrote a sort of continuation about potential consequences here; also explains why the math just doesn't work for a Liberal-NDP merger and all the consequences that go with that.

What is striking is how many NDP supporters are still claiming victory here. Also claiming there is no need for a party that hugs the center.

It's about to get worse. I'm not even sure Canada will be ok again.

I know I have no attachment to federalism anymore.

Owen Gray said...

What people are forgetting, ck, is that federalism needs centrist parties to function. John A. MacDonald knew that. So did Wilfred Laurier.

When Mulroney's Progressive Conservatives imploded in 1993, the only centrist party left was the Liberals. Unfortunately, they had been losing their constituent parts for thirty years.

They had lost Western Farmers; they lost Quebec. They made a come back in Ontario under Chretien, but that changed -- at least temporarily -- on Monday.

Quebec nationalists will be disappointed with Layton. Even though he is now the leader of the Opposition, he cannot do much within a Harper majority.

Quebecers will turn once again to the PQ, who have been saying since Levesque that the federal government doesn't care about you.

Unless the Liberals can recover, the Federation is in trouble.

kirbycairo said...

I think you are overstating the problem here. I don't think success on the NDP's part suggests that the Federation is in trouble. There is indeed a division taking place here, but largely because the Harper Conservatives have poisoned the political atmosphere and the Liberals have lost (at least for now) the perception of being a meaningful party.

I am not sure the comparison to the US is very effective. The so-called "centre" in the US is so far to the right of most countries that any comparison is problematic.

I think the biggest danger to the federation is in fact Alberta. Alberta is so far right than anywhere else in the country that as soon as anywhere else talks about a progressive government Albertans start talking about their own separatism.

Owen Gray said...

While I wish Jack well, Kirby, in some ways he was in a better position with fewer seats. In the last parliament he held the balance of power.

Now -- with a majority -- Harper can, and will, ignore him. The nationalists in his caucus will be frustrated; and the Parti Quebeceois will mine that frustration.

You're right about Alberta. It and Harper himself are pulling the country to the right.

kirbycairo said...

I think Layton is better off as opposition leader when Harper is in a majority than if Harper were in a minority. There are several advantages - 1. The Conservatives will have a lot more difficulty being in constant campaign mode. They got away with the attack ads on Ignatieff in large part because they were in a minority position and thus there was a certain perceived legitimacy in the Cons being in the continual campaign mode. 2. Unlike the position that the Liberals have been in for the past few years of either supporting the COnservatives or facing an election, Layton will not be in this position. He can oppose everything Harper does (as he should) without ever facing an election due to his opposition. 3. The NDP now has several years to build a proper infrastructure for the party in Quebec which will help them keep the seats that they have already won. 4. By the time the Cons face election again they will have been in power for 10 years and the boredom factor will then come into play. Only 3 Prime Ministers have lasted that long (Laurier, King, and Trudeau) , and only Trudeau since the age of television and the advent of the so-called information age. In other words, by the time of the next election Harper will have build up sufficient scandals, animosity, and the 'throw the bums out' ideology that the Cons will have little chance of surviving another election. (And this is the rosy picture for Harper because the dark picture is that his backbenchers get restless and start introducing death-penalty motions etc. and then they are really finished.) Before the vote took place and it looked like the NDP would win a lot of seats I thought the best position for them would be a Harper majority and I still say that is the way it will pan out.

Owen Gray said...

If I were drawing up a wish list, I would include every one of your points, Kirby. But there are two I question:

1.The Conservatives will stop operating in campaign mode. Their attack ads have been so successful -- and their coffers are so overflowing -- that there is no way they will put them on hiatus. The attack ads will continue, but the target will change. Jack is now in the bull's eye.

2. While the NDP will seek to build a party structure in Quebec,it will be difficult to accomplish amid a notoriously mercurial Quebec electorate. Besides the Conservatives, Liberals and Parti Quebecois, Quebecers recently had a fling with the ADQ; and there is currently a new party in the works.

There is room for a national unity party in Quebec, and the Conservatives are trying to wave that flag. So far, Quebecers aren't buying. Jack hasn't raised that flag, either.

And unless -- and until -- Quebecers are willing to foreget the sponsorship scandal, the Liberals willl have a hard time gaining traction.

Despite the rejoicing which followed the demise of the BQ, the "realignment" which took place on Monday made things in Quebec much more problematic.

kirbycairo said...

Dear Owen - We will, of course, have to wait and see on all of these issues.

As for issue #1 I think that it will be very dangerous for the Cons to maintain their campaign mode for the next three-plus years. There is simply a different mind-set when there is a majority government. I think too many people would view it as mean and unseemly to, say, run attack ads against Layton when there will definitely be no election for years to come. I mean, let's face it, given that (at least in terms of perception) the Cons have been governing more from the centre than most expected and they still had a hard time winning a small majority - this is largely a result of their political "style" rather than policy issues. It is their meanness and lack of democracy that stood in the way of a large majority years ago. Now to continue in the same vein in a majority position would, I think, finally destroy the credibility of the party under Harper.

On point #2 - Of course Quebec is always volatile and unpredictable. But I just don't see Quebec going conservative any time soon. I don't think there is any question that Quebec is by and large Social democratic and going more that way all the time. The Bloc's popularity was based largely on this and it is not surprising that Quebec went from the Bloc to the NDP. And I think people are over-rating separatism. I think it has lost its cache and short of any monumental shifts the chances of Quebec separation is very very small now. (Unless Harper has a secret plan to promote separatism in the hope of losing Quebec and thereby the most socially democratic population in Canada - making the remaining segment of the Country more conservative.

We Shall have to wait and see. What is that Chinese curse? May you live in interesting times. . . .

Owen Gray said...

These are certainly interesting times, Kirby. There are those who point to a more "relaxed" Harper. They predict that he will mellow.

I have my doubts. There has never been anything mellow about his espoused positions. On the question of separatism, one should remember his suggestion that Alberta build a "firewall" between itself and the rest of Canada. If past behaviour is the best predictor of future behaviour, then Canadians should not expect a generous, statesman-like Prime Minister.

On the question of Quebec separatism, no one would be happier to see its demise than me. But the truth is that all that is necessary to revive nationalism in Quebec -- from Louis Riel, to Maurice Duplessis to Rene Levesque to Lucien Bouchard -- is a growing sense of grievance.

If there is one thing Stephen Harper is remarkably good at, it is generating a sense of grievance. In fact, his whole political career has been built on a sense of grievance.

If both sides wind up bearing a visceral hatred for each other, it will be hard to undo the mess they will have created.