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Mulcair’s Social Democratic Platform Exposes the True NDP Imposters

In my new role of NDP moderate and regime apologist, I have to say that I am baffled by the sudden vociferousness of people marking the Tom Mulcair​ leadership as the moment the NDP abandoned socialism and joined the Third Way. The reality is that, depending on which province you live in, this event took place some time between 1989 and 1997.

The NDP joined the global capitulation of social democratic parties that culminated in the election of Tony Blair’s New Labour earlier than most SDPs did. In many ways, Mike Harcourt and Roy Romanow could be credited as the true founders of the Third Way; and Audrey McLaughlin can be seen as the first national NDP leader to focus more on limiting rather than building the power of Canada’s federal government to build a fair and equitable nation.

The reality is that whereas Jack Layton’s left turn ended in the middle of the 2004 federal election campaign, the party under Mulcair unflinchingly marks the high water mark for advocating old-style social democratic programs and policies. While I do not agree with all of them, like the Energy East endorsement, for instance, it is undeniable that Mulcair’s party is offering the most comprehensive social democratic national vision the NDP has offered Canadians since the 1988 election.

So, why all the whinging now?

I would suggest that current whining about the NDP abandoning socialism for neoliberalism comes from very problematic places and helps to reveal what has sustained the New Democrats, as a party, in the generation since the Cold War ended and global financial elites no longer needed to tolerate the existence of NATO-member welfare states as a bulwark against the Soviet Empire.

The New Democratic Party survived from 1989-2011 based on lineage and culture. Those connected to the party remained connected to it through family ties, union ties and ties to the non-profit QuaNGO sector that expanded vastly under Third Way ideology. In provinces where, to privatize services, shrink the state and deregulate and depress wages, Third Way governments delivered new programs or transferred delivery of old programs to state-patronized non-profits, the NDP-aligned institutional sector grew, as did the loyalty of those in the caring professions to the party. Family and extended family lineages, reinforced for a minority through access to trade union seniority or QuaNGO jobs, held onto their loyalty to the NDP not just through nostalgia, social memory and the making of a shared past but through governmental and trade union financial patronage.

Relatedly, the party survived, especially in the West, through the cooptation of the right-wing populism practiced by Margaret Thatcher, Richard Nixon and George Wallace, one that blames some element of the working class for the ills suffered by the rest of the working class. For the Third Way governments in BC and Saskatchewan, this group was welfare recipients. Draconian laws were enacted throughout Western Canada, cracking down on “welfare cheats and deadbeats,” and there was little difference between those of Tory Ralph Klein in Alberta and those of New Democrats Mike Harcourt and Roy Romanow. In this way, working class people distant from union, QuaNGO and other party-aligned patronage networks were offered a watered-down right-wing populism that lacked the financially suicidal character of its genuinely conservative competitors.

So, why is it that a minority of long-time NDP supporters and activists are so upset that Tom Mulcair, like most NDP leaders in most elections since the early 80s, is refusing to say he will raise taxes on individuals? Why are people so upset with Mulcair’s anemic climate justice platform, when the BC NDP ran for re-election in 1996 and 2001 trumpeting a five-fold increase in hydrocarbon extraction in the province’s northeast? Why are people so unimpressed with the most robust national energy, childcare and housing policies the party has offered since Audrey McLaughlin stepped down in 1994?

Perhaps it is because, for what remains of the long-term NDP base, our most left-wing leader in a generation is not “one of us.” If what makes you a New Democrat, increasingly, has come to mean your descent from an old NDP lineage, your association with a QuaNGO or trade union patronage system, your access to a union job or your belief that the NDP will crack down on the indigenous and/or chronically unemployed Canadian underclass on your behalf, then Tom Mulcair and his crew are not New Democrats.

They don’t even act like New Democrats. No double-speak and cheap shots against indigenous people, no demonization of the chronically unemployed, no signals that the new regime will be run by the multigenerational party lineages with names like Notley and Woodsworth, no sign, even, that the career courtiers, like Brian Topp, and their hangers-on are part of this new crew. Not to mention the suspicion of Catholics, francophones and Quebeckers endemic in any Canadian party with Western roots.

Most troublingly, by standing for the kind of activist federal state that Svend Robinson stood up for when his party foolishly endorsed the Meech Lake Accord, the Mulcair leadership is offering an implied criticism of those who never questioned or spoke out against the ugly expediencies and terrible betrayals of the 90s and 00s. What, he is effectively asking, if being a New Democrat lives not in patronage, lineage or culture; what if it really does live in policy and principles? If that is the case, many of those expressing first-time qualms with the party after a generation of betrayal and capitulation, may actually be turning against Mulcair because, just by running on an old school 1980s social democratic platform, he is implicitly suggesting that maybe it is they who are not the real New Democrats?

No Time for Conservative Defenses of the Broadcast Consortium

I am a conservative. My political allies are conservative. But we don’t know we are. And so we make mistakes. Lots of mistakes.

By “conservative” I mean that my politics are centred on a nostalgic defense of an irreversibly collapsing social order that was already in decline when I came of age politically. I believe in twentieth-century Cold War welfare states with universal social programs, large middle classes and a commitment to social equality.

We New Democrats are the only true conservatives in Canada, cowardly, nostalgic and willfully blind. Often too frightened to open our eyes and see that not only is the old, industrial, unionized, universalist Canada collapsing, the material and political conditions that enabled it to exist in the first place are no more. Welfare states were creatures of the Cold War, polities whose social contract was necessitated by the Communist Threat. It was necessary for global capital to make a lie of communists’ claim that capitalism magnified inequality, impoverishing, brutalizing and marginalizing the majority, rendering them less secure, physically, materially and socially.

That need has passed. There is no global order challenging capitalism and so its expensive advertising campaign trumpeting its socially just, redistributive nature can be dismantled, either slowly, by Third Way parties or quickly by neoconservative parties.

We true conservatives, as distinct from the radical, triumphant social movements and parties of the far right who have taken on the name “conservative” as a means of obfuscating their agenda of radical social change, know what our job is: slow the dismantling of the welfare state and mitigate the excesses of the market to the extent that the investor class, financial institutions and bond raters permit.

For this reason, we instinctively leap to the defense of any Cold War institution that comes under attack. And so, today, we come to the Broadcast Consortium. Most of my friends and allies in the NDP, Liberal and Green parties are outraged that Stephen Harper is going to boycott the Consortium’s leadership debates in favour of cherry-picking broadcasters and formats that play to his strengths.

Because the Consortium is part of the institutional framework of the Canadian welfare state, we naturally assume that this body exists to safeguard the public trust and maintain our democratic institutions. It does not. The Consortium is just the three Cold War-era Canadian TV networks, two of which are private, for-profit corporations, and the third, the beleaguered CBC, dying of a thousand cuts, its board stacked with Harper appointees.

In other democracies, debates are run by organs of the state, charged with fair and equal election coverage, based on transparent values encoded in law and regulations. If Canada truly had a system of fair election debates based on our democratic values, such debates would be administered by the Canadian Radio and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) or Elections Canada. But that is not the Canadian way. Big communications companies run our election debates based on the needs of their shareholders, not of Canadian voters.

If Canadians on the left really are to snap out of our conservatism and stand for something other than things getting worse slower, these debates are as good a place as any to do so. Instead of defending the Consortium controlled by Bell-Globe and Shaw-Global, the media giants who endorsed Jim Prentice’s re-election bid, let us call, instead of an end to leaders’ debates where big money calls the shots; let’s call for debates under the aegis of Elections Canada’s Elections Advisory Committee or a new committee of the CRTC. Let’s talk not just about defending the older, gentler plutocracy of the Canadian state; let’s call for something better than a corrupt, broken Cold War theory of electoral fairness.

In recent months, New Democrats have begun to shake off our conservatism with our commitment to bold and novel social reforms and new programs like the national child care plan. Let’s keep that up and use our position as the official opposition to set out competing terms to Mr. Harper’s for a national leaders’ debate, rather than simply defend a broken status quo.

Harper’s Unforeseen Doom: the Notley Victory in Historical Context

On its own, the sudden election of the NDP a majority provincial government in Alberta, vaulting from 10% of the popular vote to 41% and four seats to fifty-three is a story with national implications. It goes without saying that this election will have a profound effect on Canadian politics and is likely to have major realigning effects on our federal party system and on federal policy issues.

Usually, I sound a note of caution in response to claims of major national political realignment in response to a single election result. But this time, I am doing the opposite. I want to suggest that the impact of the NDP’s sweeping provincial victory on national politics, and, in particular, on the coming federal election may actually be greater than pundits anticipate.

And that is because of a phenomenon that a Twitter commentator noted when trying to explain the continuation of the NDP surge through the final week of the campaign: “Albertans don’t vote. They stampede.”

Many observers may not yet have noticed a distinctive property of Alberta voters: since entering Confederation as a province in 1905, the province’s parliamentary delegation to Ottawa has been defined by the sitting provincial government. Residents of other provinces unfamiliar with Alberta electoral history might think that I am making an overstatement when I say that the single most important factor in determining what party Alberta voters send to represent them in parliament, over more than a century of elections, are the preferences and alignment of their provincial government. So, for the next few paragraphs, I am going to drown you in statistics.

From 1905 until 1921, Alberta was governed by the Liberal Party. And in the 1908 and 1911 elections, over 50% of Albertans voted Liberal and Liberal MPs won 67% and 75%, respectively, of the province’s federal ridings. But, in 1917, the wartime national unity government of Conservative Prime Minister Robert Borden won a strong majority, as it did throughout English Canada. Then, in 1921, the province was swept by the United Farmers of Alberta, a party strongly associated with the national Progressive Party. The UFA held office until 1935. Continuing the trend of the Liberal era, Progressive/UFA candidates were the majority of the delegations Alberta sent to Ottawa in every election: 1921, 1925, 1926 and 1930.

In 1935, provincial voters swept the United Farmers from office and replaced them with Social Credit. And axiomatically, beginning in the 1935 federal election, Albertans sent Social Credit majorities to Ottawa in every election for a generation: 1935, 1940, 1945, 1949, 1953 and 1957. This changed in 1958. The populism of Conservative leader John Diefenbaker captured the imagination of English Canada and permanently changed the character of the Progressive Conservative Party. While Social Credit did recover and become Alberta’s second-largest federal party in the 1962, 1963 and 1965 elections, capturing between 23% and 29% in each, the divided loyalties of Alberta voters reflected the divided loyalties of the Social Credit government, many of whom were more sympathetic with the federal Tories than with the increasingly crankish and anti-Semitic federal Socreds.

In 1971, Albertans threw out Social Credit and elected the Progressive Conservative dynasty that was defeated just tonight. And, in lockstep with their new provincial government, Alberta voters began delivering crushing victories to the PCs federally for a generation. Indeed, the 1972, 1974, 1979, 1984 and 1988 delegations Albertans sent to Ottawa were unanimously Conservative.

This one-party hegemony at the federal level came to an end in 1993 not because Alberta voters began to diverge from their provincial government but because, as in 1958, that government came to be divided between Progressive Conservative loyalists and Reform Party sympathizers, the latter group quickly becoming the majority. As the Reform Party grew and changed at the national level to incorporate former Progressive Conservatives, first as the Canadian Alliance and then as the Conservative Party, it continued to enjoy the confidence both of the Alberta provincial government and Alberta voters who delivered overwhelming majorities of the province’s seats to these parties and, beginning in 2004, to the reconstituted Conservative Party of Canada, which won over 60% of the vote and over 90% of the seats in the province in 2004, 2006, 2008 and 2011.

Which brings us to the present.

What will be keeping Stephen Harper up tonight is this question: will Alberta voters do what they have done every other time they have defeated a provincial governing party and granted a sweeping majority to a new political formation in the past 100 years? Will the new government of Alberta be given what Alberta voters always give their provincial government: a massive delegation of MPs to back them up in Ottawa and send the whole country the message that Alberta has changed?

Let’s hope that, while much can change in Alberta, some political traditions remain strong for the province’s next century in Confederation. Because if this realigning election in Alberta is anything like the province’s other three, 1921, 1935 and 1971, Edmonton-Strathcona MP Linda Duncan will have at least seventeen new Alberta NDP MPs joining her in Ottawa this fall.

Culture and Institutions in Canadian Politics: The Rise of First Minister Autocracy and the Russification of Canadian Political Culture

As time goes on, Canada’s political culture and traditions are increasingly divergent from other parliamentary democracies. While some mistakenly characterize this as a reflection of global trends or a result of the Americanization of our political ideologies and brands, it is a mistake to think that the increasing autocracy and centralization in our political system is part of a global trend. Critics of the rise of first minister autocracy, when they don’t blame the US or indict a non-existent global trend, often choose the low-hanging fruit of blaming the shifts in our system on individual bad actors, typically Pierre Trudeau, Jean Chretien and Stephen Harper.

While this comes somewhat nearer the mark, these analyses miss the big picture because they ignore three interdependent variables: (1) the rules political parties adopt for governing themselves, (2) the rules parliament adopts to regulate political parties and (3) the cultural shifts both within parties and among voters generally related to these changes. Based on this emphasis, I date Canada’s divergence from normative global parliamentary practice to the early 1990s.

Three largely unrelated phenomena converged in the lead-up to the 1993 federal election to send Canada on its new course towards first minister autocracy and away from the parliamentary traditions of the rest of the English-speaking world. Ironically, the social movements and ideologies that gave rise to these things were quite similar to movements in other Westminster-descended parliamentary democracies. Canadians did not behave exceptionally or strangely in the early 90s; rather, a set of ad hoc decisions produced a series of unintended consequences that reshaped our political institutions.

First, there was Preston Manning and the Reform Party. Like Ross Perot in the United States, Manning led a broad, incoherent populist coalition of the fringe, absorbing anti-state voters on both the left and right of the political spectrum. While Manning, himself, hailed from the right of the spectrum, there was nothing insincere in his attempts to incorporate left-populists and left-libertarians into his big anti-government tent. His prescription for reforming Canadian democracy was one that sought to renew rather than revamp the nation’s parliamentary institutions. He proposed to end the gratuitous “whipping” of caucus votes on non-spending measures, favouring a return to the more lax party discipline evident both in the British parliament at Westminster and the US Senate and House, where MPs could defy their leaders in large numbers on key issues without calling into question the party’s functionality or the leader’s legitimacy.

Manning also proposed a cultural renewal to recover the original intent of the first-past-the-post voting system: that an MP’s job should be to represent the consensus of their geographic community rather than the ideology of their party on the issues of the day. He proposed informal polling, surveys and other new mechanisms to shore-up the increasingly untenable view of an MP’s relationship to their constituents. While seemingly nonsensical to the residents of Canada’s multi-cultural, ideologically diverse cities, Manning’s views made a kind of sense in his and his party’s heartland: rural Alberta, the one-party state in which a clear majority in every riding voted for the same party, shared a colour and religion and had fairly homogeneous views on the issues of the day.

I remain, to this day, committed to the belief that Manning was absolutely sincere in those beliefs. But the first major challenge his leadership faced required that he make a pragmatic exception to these ideas: Doug Collins. Collins, an avowedly white supremacist newspaper columnist whose nativist views went far beyond nativist rhetoric to encompass genuine sympathy for the Nazi party, sought the Reform Party nomination in West Vancouver-Capilano. Manning’s own anti-immigrant policies and dog-whistles to politically unrepresented racist constituencies had built just the sort of membership base that was dying to choose the last explicitly white supremacist columnist to still be writing for a mainstream regional paper as their representative in Ottawa.

Unlike most party leaders who could show up or send their key provincial lieutenants to a local nomination meeting to twist arms, make calls and dangle rewards to shut down insurgent candidacies, Manning had built an organization that stood for the repudiation of just those kinds of politics. And so he had to use—or, technically threaten to use—a provision of the new Elections Act, one that granted the leader of a party sweeping powers to over-rule local party organizations in the selection of candidates. Whereas candidates had always required a leader’s endorsement, previous versions of the Elections Act were full of undefined grey areas handled by uncodified tradition. In practical terms, the earlier, skeletal versions of the Act had been interpreted to mean that electoral district associations (the members of a party living in a riding) could choose their candidate and the leader had the power to veto.

Because previous acts had not spelled-out the sufficient conditions to nominate a candidate but merely some of the necessary conditions, Canadian parliamentary tradition had assumed that an electoral district association’s membership had to sign off on a candidate. With a tradition of mutual veto power, shared between local members and the leader, local associations had been left largely unmolested in their candidate selection practices for more than a century. Sometimes the local party board might choose the candidate behind closed doors but, by the 1920s, this had largely given way to nominating meetings won by whoever signed-up the most party members.

Those who remember the 1980s can recall the world before the 1993 election, the world in which if a party leader wanted to parachute in a star candidate, they sent in organizers, bag-men and local heavyweights to corral enough votes for that candidate to win the nomination meeting. Party leaders still got their way most of the time but they had to do so by maintaining majority support for their agenda amongst party members in ridings where they had a preferred candidate.

One can see how powerful our culture is in shaping our perceptions and recollections when we hear party organizers explaining, today, how the sweeping appointive powers our leaders enjoy to hire and fire candidates at will is something that has always been and always will be a feature of the system. Yet these same hacks should be able to remember the 1989 Oak Bay-Gordon Head byelection where local mayor Susan Bryce won the Social Credit Party nomination on a platform of going to the legislature to depose then-premier Bill Vander Zalm. Even though the laws on the books back in the 80s technically permitted the kind of veto power our leaders currently enjoy, our culture was such that vetoing Bryce would have been viewed by the public not as a demonstration of Vander Zalm’s strength as an autocrat but instead a sign of his weakness and incompetence. Promising to work with and include Ms. Bryce was viewed as less weak than overturning the results of a meeting the premier was too incompetent to control.

But culture is only half the story. Manning, the politician who bottled and sold democratic reform, was not just able to get his way because of his vast credibility on process issues with Canadian voters. He could get his way because the much more detailed Elections Act of 1993, authored by the Mulroney government, spelled-out what electoral district associations could and could not do. The inventory of their powers no longer included any ambiguity. Not only had they lost their prior de facto power to select candidates; they had lost their power to admit members too. Now, head office controlled who could join and the leader controlled who ran. Nomination meetings remain part of Canadian political tradition and remain the means by which most parties choose most of their candidates but, twenty-two years ago, they became what they are today, a moribund political tradition that, if things continue as they are, should be a distant memory a generation from today.

While Manning’s personal brand and sticky situation with Collins added political legitimacy to an increasingly autocratic set of Canadian political practice, it was then-Liberal leader Jean Chrétien whose response to another party nomination crisis who pushed things further. With two leadership contests five years apart, bitterly fought between opposing party factions, the Liberal Party of Canada was the site of the biggest sign-up drives in the nation. In the Toronto area, both the Chretien faction and the Turner-Martin faction had turned to a different group of unpopular far-right zealots: the anti-abortion movement.

Jim Karygiannis, my personal bet for winner of the 2018 Toronto mayoral race (more on that in a future post), cut his teeth in these battles, that vaulted Tom Wappel and John Nunziata into the national spotlight as anti-abortion MPs. While Liberals for Life, the brand name of the conservative Catholic theocrats, had been unmolested under Turner’s leadership, Chretien put an end to their expanded organizing. While not firing any MPs, he too exercised his newfound candidate appointment powers to reshape Liberal nominating practices. By 1997, Chretien was proudly canceling nomination meetings and appointing candidates by fiat, not just in the hotly-contested Toronto area ridings that had created the pretext for using these powers but in any electoral district where Chretien thought Liberal members might make the wrong choice. Accordingly, the Liberal Party amended its own constitution to enshrine and formalize the powers of the leader to select candidates at will and override local members.

This all was only possible because a new Elections Act had to be placed before the Commons. Mulroney, whose popularity had bottomed-out at 14% was widely viewed as corrupt and it was expected that his party would attempt to win the next election dishonourably. This view was not just the result of the series of corruption scandals that felled minister after minister; it was the result of the “free trade election” of 1988, in which unrestricted ad spending by private corporations in favour of Tory candidates dwarfed the budget of all three major parties. The idea that Mulroney might seek to buy the next election by nefarious means had to be dispensed-with, and a comprehensive and transparent Elections Act was the logical solution.

Jean Chretien, Preston Manning and Brian Mulroney did not agree on much. But each man’s response to a different emergency created new legal frameworks, new institutional frameworks and new cultural norms concerning the relationship between leaders and their caucuses. It is in the 1993 election that we see the origins of Canadians’ present-day view that MPs serve at the pleasure of party leaders, in sharp contradistinction to the British and Australian traditions that understand leaders serving at their pleasure of their caucus.

The view that leaders serve at the pleasure of their caucus is a venerable one in British parliamentary tradition. Because parties emerged in the Westminster political system out of voting blocs of elected MPs who coalesced gradually, formal party organizations and mass party membership were additions to a pre-existing party system. The first way parties became real in parliaments was through recognition by the Speaker of a group of MPs as a party. This group had to choose from among their number the first officers parties had: leaders, whips and house leaders. Until the twenty-first century, British political parties chose their leaders in caucus meetings; and that is how it is still done in Australia. Whoever has the confidence of the majority of a caucus serves as its leader, at the pleasure of that caucus. Margaret Thatcher was brought down by a non-confidence vote in her caucus; so were the last two Labour Party prime ministers in Australia.

While this remains the way that party leaders are chosen in the US House and Senate too, the multi-cameral, presidential system of governance down South had to find other ways to select their presidential candidates. In the 1820s, after two generations of dissatisfaction with caucus-driven presidential selection processes, the US Democratic Party became the world’s first mass party to use a system of convention delegates to select party leaders. And about a hundred years later, as a result of cultural exchange, Canada began to follow suit. Of course, by that time, Americans were beginning to tire of the corruption and horse-trading associated with delegated conventions and were beginning their transition to the primary system.

As a measure to counter corruption, American progressives, led by Wisconsin governor and senator Robert La Follette, began to nationalize the process of selecting convention delegates. But shifting the burden of selecting convention delegates from private clubs (because that is all political parties actually are in most English-speaking democracies) that could set arbitrary membership fees to state governments, progressives were able to create a radically more representative system, one that has been crucial in keeping both the best and worst features of American democracy intact. In states with primary systems, parties could no longer charge fees for membership; they could no longer mess with membership rolls; choosing presidential convention delegates and local candidates was a process administered transparently and accessibly by state governments. This slow contagion has spread across the United States, making Americans the most involved of any population on earth in the nomination of candidates for the major parties.

In the mid-90s, most Canadians did not notice the shift that had happened in our laws and culture around the selection of candidates and their relationship to the party leadership. That’s because, like most countries, few Canadians are members of political parties – scholars estimate this figure at 1%. But this is a four-year rolling average that includes the huge influx of instant members who sign up in the year prior to an election.

But while Canadians, as a whole, were not especially concerned about the new powers party leaders had gained—especially given that these powers had initially been used exclusively against racists and misogynist religious extremists, party activists were. The tiny subcultural groups of party members worried that their power as party members was being drained away at the expense of party leaders. And their response, which, like the expanded appointment powers, I supported at the time, seemed eminently reasonable.

“OMOV” was the ugly abbreviation for “one member-one vote,” a series of measures national parties took between 1993 and 2014 to change their leadership selection processes. Long-time party activists who felt disempowered by the draining of authority from their riding associations into the office of the leader saw, as their solution, a more direct and unmediated role in selecting a leader. So, over a generation, one party after another abandoned the old, ethanol-powered, back-slapping smoke-filled convention halls in favour mail-in, internet or phone voting for leadership candidates in which each party member could directly participate.

This put an additional squeeze on the dwindling authority of party caucuses and riding associations. First, members no longer delegated their authority upwards through their MP or convention delegates to choose a leader; in this important role, local party associations and caucus members were far less relevant.

Second, this created an incongruence between the legitimacy of local candidates and the party leader, especially in rural ridings and places where party members had little evening leisure time. While a substantial majority of party members were involved in choosing their leader by mail or electronically, the same could not be said of local candidates, who continue to be elected in in-person meetings. Thus, in nearly every riding, in nearly every party, the number of members who participated in choosing the leader vastly exceeds the number who participated in choosing their local candidate.

Third, it eliminated the role of local party organizers and MPs as brokers of voting blocs. In a delegated convention, the horse-trading that occurs as candidates are eliminated in the multi-round voting system used by Canadian parties was typically brokered by local party organizers or MPs. One came to a convention “with” a leadership candidate, member of parliament or local riding president. As that person made new deals and forged alliances, one followed them from one leadership candidate to the next. With no delegated conventions, preferences encoded before the convention through instant runoff voting or live coverage of the convention via social media replaces these individuals’ leadership in directing delegates’ votes.

As both authority and legitimacy have drained out of local MPs, candidates and organizers into the office of the party leader, this has spurred changes in our public discourse and how leaders are evaluated both by party activists and by the general public. But before I get to that, I want to make a distinction between the argument I am making and the one that many opinion leaders have made about the concentration of power in the office of the Prime Minister.

While it is undoubtedly true that there has been a steady presidentialization of the PMO in the forty years since the beginning of Pierre Trudeau’s third mandate, this is a surprisingly unrelated phenomenon. The phenomenon I am describing affects all political parties, irrespective of their proximity to power through this synergy of law, culture and institution. And, if one looks abroad, it is not to the United States or any similar republic whose course we seem to be following.

No. If there is an international comparison to be made, it is that Canadian politics is become Russified. Those studying the political culture of Russia over the long term sometimes advance the following theory: because of the ravages of the Mongol invasion, Black Death and collapse of Byzantium, we must understand Russian political culture as being forged out of two main traditions, the Byzantine and the Mongol. Both of these systems are what might be terms reverse-feudal. Whether we trace modern Russia to the Byzantine Empire or to the Khanate of the Golden Horde, what we see is a political culture whose accountability structure is not delegated gradually upwards from the micro-local, to the local, to the regional, to the national/imperial, as in societies whose political practices arise out of a Western European medieval past.

Instead, accountability in the Russian system was built through a direct relationship between the peasant class and the Tsar. If a member of the land-owning class was behaving badly, his tenants appealed to the Tsar for relief, including the replacement of the local lord by another member of the gentry class. Because of the lack of a conventionally aristocratic class, the authority of local lords was understood to be contingent upon the Tsar, and not the reverse. And this tradition has continued, de facto and, intermittently, de jure, to the present day: regional governors are appointed by the Kremlin to represent the president’s regime to the local region; authority is delegated upward from the people to the autocrat and thence, downward to members of the national duma and regional governments. When political change happens, it is through seizure of national leadership by a new autocrat.

In Russia, therefore, one of the most important features of the autocrat is their ability to control remote local organizations, party officials and members of the duma. Because government departments and regional authorities are imposed from above and not locally accountable, a weak leader who fails to demonstrate that control produces anxiety in the populace. If the autocrat is the only means by which the branches of the state with which one interacts can be made accountable, a weak leader will produce bureaucratic despotism and corruption while a strong leader will produce democratic accountability.

And, as I first noted in 2008, this is becoming a Canadian political value. Stephen Harper’s performance of strength through a hyper-controlled affect and conspicuous micro-management is resonating with Canadians who now see their only point of access to the political system as their selection of a leader.

In 2010, I became the first candidate for a federal NDP nomination to be barred from proceeding to a nomination meeting in my riding. I was barred on the grounds that I have made four Facebook posts on my personal page that the national office crew deemed unflattering to the party. They found the most egregious to be the one in which I raised the party’s conduct during the Gustafsen Lake siege of 1995. Without getting into the merits of my particular case, I wish to note that since that time, the number of candidates for nomination barred from even subjecting themselves to a vote by local members has grown, not just in the NDP but in every party.

This change in party practices arises, in part, from a misunderstanding of the advice Obama organizers have given the Liberals and New Democrats. “Staying on top of social media” has been misinterpreted as the control and management of party officials’ and candidates’ communication to small online communities. But this is, manifestly, not how the Democrats or Republicans work. In part because they are hemmed-in by a primary system and cannot hire and fire candidates at will but, more importantly, because a US presidential candidate must demonstrate her legitimacy by assembling a large, heterogeneous that is unanimous about very little, legitimacy is associated with showing that your leadership is one of the few things on which your party is in accord.

But even this mistaking of advice is significant. Canada’s new autocratic political culture is doing one of those things that culture does: constrain our ability to imagine a place or time different than the one we inhabit. Just as we forget nomination meetings like Oak Bay’s in 1989, we also misinterpret people from other countries when they try to tell us about how things work there. The Democrats must mean that that they obsessively surveil and silence minor party officials, because we cannot imagine that what they are really doing is conducting social media like an orchestra, deftly signaling one section to speed up, to slow down, to play louder or softer, to transform the cacophony of the party base into harmony.

And so it becomes necessary for leaders to demonstrate their authority with increasing severity whenever a candidate goes off-message, publicly sacking people for minor remarks to small audiences. To do otherwise would be to show weakness, in the Russian sense, imperfect control of one’s minor officials who are only accountable through you, the leader.

For this reason, it is only natural that more and more candidates should be personally appointed or removed by the leader, arbitrarily and at will and party organizations have fallen over themselves to rewrite their constitutions and bylaws so that, even if the Elections Act were amended to limit leaders’ sweeping powers of appointment, as Michael Chong attempted to do through the failed Reform Act, our march to autocracy would continue apace.

Unfortunate reality of modern Canadian politics is that we are approaching the point of no return. Whereas Margaret Thatcher, in the Britain of 1989, could be fired by her caucus, this is only barely possible in today’s Canada. First of all the position of “party leader” has now been legally severed from any role in the House of Commons. Were Stephen Harper’s caucus to fire him, here is what he could do:

As Prime Minister, Harper could visit the Governor General and ask him to dissolve parliament, a request with which he would be almost certain to comply. Once parliament was dissolved, Harper, as the head of the Conservative Party of Canada, could appoint 338 new, loyal candidates by leader fiat and his current caucus would find themselves running as independents or saddled with the problem of building a new political brand and party infrastructure, new lists, new members, new donors in a matter of weeks. And, because nine in ten Canadians vote based on party platform or party leadership, the overwhelming majority would likely be defeated by newly-minted appointed MPs.

In the 2007 referendum on proportional representation in Ontario, the Toronto Star warned that if we did not stick with first-past-the-post, we would live in a Canada where leaders directly appointed their entire caucuses. Yet the reality is that, without changes in Canadian political culture, this is the direction we are heading. As I observed in 2008, it is the absence of proportional representation that is helping to increase leader-centred autocratic control:

In most countries, the increasing diversity of political opinion has resulted in more proportional voting systems and coalition-building; it has reinforced deliberation and negotiation in politics. These changes have been made not simply out of respect for diversity but out of a growing demand for social and political order in the face of an increasingly diverse and atomized society. Yet Canadians, motivated by the same anxieties, have chosen a different response. We seek to vest power in the person who is most capable of fusing a subset of these atomized groups and individuals back into some kind of unified formation.

In our voting system, the most successful party is one best at reducing the number of choices its potential voters feel that they have. A look at Liberal messaging shows that Jean Chretien became increasingly reliant on his ability to convince potential NDP and Green Party supporters to vote for his party. And despite his antipathy for Chretien, Paul Martin intensified this approach. What we missed during that time was how this change in Liberal tactics helped to change Canadian ideas of what made a legitimate government. As the Liberals lost their capacity to intimidate left-of-centre voters, they lost power. And Canadians learned a lesson: a government’s legitimacy comes not from its ability to appeal to the majority but instead from its ability to control and discipline its own supporters and potential supporters.

Supposedly, Canada’s dwindling newspaper and TV news sector are worried about this. And yet, when a candidate displays any originality or distinctiveness at all, they rush to report that a party has suffered a “bozo eruption.” They begin hounding the leader, demanding what he will do about even one of the party’s 338 candidates expressing a difference of opinion from the leader. And if the leader does not immediately and publicly punish or, better yet, summarily fire the candidate, we might as well be reading Russia Today: the leader is portrayed as weak and unable to exercise the kind of control befitting the occupant of 24 Sussex Drive.

Every time another candidate is fired or summarily removed, Canada’s new authoritarian political culture becomes more entrenched; and every time a leader is made to look weak and suffers an electoral setback because they have been portrayed as weak, it also becomes more entrenched. And so, when it comes time to replace that leader, it seems only logical to choose someone more like our current Prime Minister, an unapologetic authoritarian and micro-manager.

Because, increasingly, that is what Canada’s unique, new political culture demands.

Culture and Institutions in Canadian Politics: The Greens and the Absence of “There”

Yesterday, I posted something to Facebook that had the shit shared out of it. Based on the ideas I was wrestling with when I dashed this post off in the space of about 90 second and the responses it has provoked in various parts of the interwebs, I thought that maybe it is time for me to do some writing about the ways in which we underestimate and under-think a basic rule of political analysis articulated by York University political scientist Denis Pilon.

Pilon, a long-time colleague in the electoral reform movement, has posited that the effects of any reform to the voting system will be strongly conditioned by three things: (1) the mathematical and legal language of the legislation (2) the culture(s) of the people interacting with the voting system and (3) the institutional structures prevalent in society and the specific structures and cultures of the institutions interacting with the system.

All too often, when we think about what is going on in Canadian politics, we do not pay enough attention to these things. As a result, we often blame a bad turn of events or a disturbing political development on individual bad actors or the regulations that affect people directly through the state’s apparatus, rather than the regulations (both state-created and self-created) of voluntary associations like political parties and social movement groups. We similarly discount culture as both a cause and effect of political events.

So, to kick off this series of articles, which will begin later today, I will reprint the original offending Facebook post:

“As the Green Party’s scheme of focusing on only NDP-held ridings for pickups this year and passing over prime turf like Vancouver Centre, heats up, many people are saying that the Greens are ‘really conservatives’ or ‘really Liberals’ or ‘really regressive.’

Let me speak from experience: the Greens are not “really” anything. They are the first political formation in North America to come of age in the neoliberal era. As such, they do not function like a political party in the traditional, institutional sense. They are a leader-centric brand, with low membership participation, high turnover and no continuous policy agenda.

‘Green’ is a signifier that functions at a primarily aesthetic, brand-based level. Those trying to understand ‘who’ the Green Party membership is, what the party’s ideology is, etc. is on a wild goose chase. There is nothing to find. A Green Party is, from one moment to the next, an unstable fusion of its leader’s personality, alliances and beliefs and an aesthetically-driven voter base whose theory of political causation is most similar to James Frazier’s original theorization of sympathetic magic.

As for why Greens give the Liberals a free pass and seem hell-bent on taking out a series of NDP incumbents, while there may be some behind-the-scenes agreements with the Liberal Party, I would suggest that such agreements, even if they exist, are post-facto irrelevances. The current leadership of the Greens feel personally betrayed by the NDP for the party’s failure to BE the Green Party. And they are exacting revenge.”

Also, there is some past writing of mine that might also help to inform the series and provide some needed background:

In 2008, I made some comments about the prorogation crisis that are directly germane when examining the way that the law, political party governance and culture have functioned synergistically to condition Canadians’ ideas of legitimacy. They were printed by

On my own site, I’ve offered some commentary on the different ways voters connect cause and effect when they cast votes and the prevalence of sympathetic magical views of voting. Relatedly, I have also talked about the ways in which Green parties are as much novel social movements as they are the occupants of a longstanding role in Christian societies.

This afternoon/evening, I will offer some thoughts on candidate vetting processes and how they fit into a larger cultural and institutional matrix. David Ball’s excellent article on this issue may help to frame my argument.

Prime Minister Mulcair and the Politics of Masculinity

Sometimes I feel shame when reading posts by my fellow NDP members about how great our party is. “Why can’t I do that?” I sometimes wonder. I really do want people to vote NDP next time. Obviously, there is something good enough about the party that I continue to support it despite a rocky relationship with it these past twenty-eight years. And I’m sure that some people will see this post in light of that likely-to-continue track record of disappointment, insubordination and occasional despair. But I honestly am writing this to express my enthusiasm for our leader and to emphasize my view that he has a real shot at becoming Prime Minister in 2015 — even without an electoral cooperation deal with the other opposition parties. Admittedly, I think that shot goes from about 35% with cooperation to about 8% without it but still…

Tom Mulcair has a real shot at becoming the first NDP Prime Minister because he, not Justin Trudeau, the Liberals’ inevitable future spokesmodel will actually tap into the force that elected Justin’s dad in ’68 and re-elected him in three times thereafter. And the contrast he presents to Justin — and yes, I am using the first name rather than surname technique typically used to demean female politicians here (more about that shortly) — will actually aid him in channeling that legacy.

When Mulcair won the leadership of the NDP, Canada’s political class waited with great anticipation to see what ads the Harper attack machine would run against him. The consensus, before the “risky theories” ads came out, was that the Tories would go for the most talked-about of Mulcair’s supposed character flaws, an angry, bullying, gruff nature combined with a short temper. And yet the Conservatives have made no mention of it; instead they have sought to portray him as professorial, secretive and distant.

For the same reason, I don’t expect to see any future attack ads using the December 5th 2012 footage of Mulcair bodily interposing himself between an enraged Peter van Loan and his house leader in the floor of the Commons. From the footage, it is clear that Mulcair is cussing-out van Loan and informing him that he would be only too happy to lead the next day’s news cycle being dragged out of the House for personally beating him to a bloody pulp in front of his chicken hawk Tory colleagues.

The last thing that the Tories want is to draw attention to what continues to make French Canadian men a potent force in English Canadian politics, even as the electoral relevance of Québec declines.

English Canada fell in love with Pierre Trudeau in 1968 because he angrily seated himself in the direct line of fire of bottle-throwing separatists, not with calm and decorum but in an obviously enraged response both to the separatist rioters and to the handlers who sought to whisk him off to safety. Trudeau’s healthy libido, ability to shamelessly date (and even marry) mentally unstable women less than half his age, his willingness to order the assault of protesters and roll out tanks in the streets of Montréal and his expressions of contempt, punctuated with the odd obscene gesture endeared him to crucial voting blocs in English Canada.

It was the actual Trudeau legacy that gave Jean Chretien three back-to-back majority governments, and would have given him a fourth if the Liberal Party constitution had allowed him the option of handling Paul Martin’s challenge through a single combat rather than a convention vote. It was not Chretien’s association with the Charter that won him all those seats in Ontario; it was his ability to beat intruders senseless with soapstone sculptures, joke about pepper-spraying people in unconstitutional mass arrests and put protesters in chokeholds that won him the respect of so much of English Canada.

It was not the intellect of Trudeau or the savvy political tactics of Chretien that made these men such towering figures in late twentieth-century Canada. These guys were elected and re-elected, first and foremost, for their public performance masculinity.

Since first wave maternal feminism gripped English Canada in the Victorian Era, our patriarchal authorities have come to a different cultural accommodation between ongoing rule by a male elite and the demands of feminists than those in French Canada. While both cultures remain patriarchal societies in which women fight to make inroads into the financial and political elite, the on-the-ground manifestation of this is very different.

In English Canada, men’s eligibility to join the elite is conditioned, in large measure, by their capacity to reflect the Victorian ideal of manliness exemplified in Upper Canadian culture. Like Hawaiians, Upper Canadians build their patriarchal culture around understated theatrical demonstrations of restraint, physical, emotional and sexual. Elite English Canadian men are not to shout; they are not to brawl; and, if they must engage in it, they keep their promiscuity invisible. Just ask the mayoral candidate who could have saved us from Rob Ford, Adam Giambrone, felled by what Torontonians called a sex scandal and what Parisians wouldn’t have called anything.

While I would never suggest that restraint and sensitivity have nothing to do with elite masculine status in Québec, I will suggest that they have much less to do with it. To non-elite men and women in English Canada, the relative freedom of powerful Québecois men from these standards is a powerful force, especially for non-elite men descended from Southern European immigrant communities that struggle to identify with the smallness and coldness of Anglo nuclear families and the disturbing bloodlessness of the surrounding culture. For Anglo chickenshits like Harper, aggression is often celebrated but when it is, it is always “serious business,” an exotic phenomenon; it takes a Chretien or Trudeau to indicate a real comfort with it by joking about violence (e.g. “I put pepper on my plate…”).

We remain a culture that is rooted in millennia of patriarchy. And generally, Canadians only hand majority governments to a party when one leader is able to embody the multiple definitions of masculinity that, together, comprise a majority, while the others are not. And, overall, the more bellicose, less restrained kind masculinity we find in French Canadian culture has resonance with more people in more places. It has resonance amongst working class Anglos in industrial towns; it has resonance on reserves; it has resonance in immigrant communities not yet domesticated to the passive-aggressive, restrained masculinity of neo-Victorian elites with its slut-shaming and excessive concern over female modesty. Really, the only place it doesn’t sell especially is Québec, where people are more used to it and, consequently, a good deal more tired.

But to us Anglos, a Trudeau, Chretien or Mulcair is a Tarzanesque figure, a creature from a world of which we know little, who has swung in on a vine to right wrongs and expose the hypocrisy, emptiness and veiled rage of the smug, little chess club patriarchs like Harper who run Anglo society. He can slam his fist on the table and threaten to break Peter van Loan’s nose if he steps an inch closer to Nathan Cullen — you know, that nice, mild-mannered House Leader, half a head taller than Mulcair and nearly a generation his junior.

Now, I’m sure some people will suggest this post secretly celebrates patriarchy through Mulcair and the other Francophones for whom, repressed, bourgeois Anglo men like me enviously vote from time to time. Others might suggest that I’m insulting my party and its leader by suggesting that we’ve turned against feminism. Neither is the case.

As Leonard Cohen wrote, “There is a crack in everything / That’s how the light gets in.” Just as Trudeau presided over the largest expansion of women’s rights and opportunities since the achievement of suffrage, I have great hopes for the NDP when it comes to stopping the decline in women’s fortunes under Harper and creating the kinds of material innovations that lead to real gender equality, like the nationalization of Québec’s public childcare program. It’s just kind of funny that our best shot at that in our history comes from the fact that our leader, in the eyes of more and more Canadians, “knows how to be a man.”