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Ray Pennings: Want to win elections in Canada? Read this Liberal playbook


A year ago, Canada2020 — a think tank mostly aligned with the federal Liberal government — participated in a Global Progress project that published Insurgents: Inside a New Generation of Progressive Leadership.  

This mostly ignored, 50-page online report contains five essays written by senior campaign officials for self-consciously progressive political campaigns in Italy, Canada, New Zealand, Hungary and France. It summarizes their collective lessons over the past decade with four major themes essential to successfully implementing a progressive agenda: “authentic leadership, a sense of insurgency with a clarity of purpose, the ability to unify, and a willingness to experiment with organizational innovation.”

Parsing this in detail requires more than a column, but briefly applying the template to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Canadian expression of progressivism is worthwhile. The authors suggest that Trudeau was able to achieve his “authentic relationship” with Canadian voters by building his coalition within the Liberal Party with an entirely new set of primary players by kicking out the Liberal Senators and opening up membership to anyone without even a membership fee.

Together with a clear sense of values that all Canadians understand him to have — agree or disagree — is core to his appeal, the authors argue.  

Trudeau has implemented “insurgency with purpose” especially with his economic policies, achieving power in 2015 by promising deficits when even the NDP was pushing the orthodoxy of balanced budgets. Since then, he has governed with an entirely new calculus regarding government’s fiscal capacity.

“Unity and Inclusion” in the global sense is understood as avoiding division. Indeed, the polling confirms that Trudeau has succeeded in maintaining the largest pool of accessible voters. He hasn’t quite achieved his goal of replacing the NDP (who were the official Opposition entering the 2015 election) and the Greens (who are capable of capturing the imagination of a segment of Canada’s progressive crowd between elections, but not their votes when it counts). But he’s not that far off.

The final component is “organizational innovation.” Here too Trudeau’s Liberals have been among the global leaders of using technology and big data to bypass traditional media outlets and directly reach a growing swath of Canadian voters through social media.

As op-eds reflect on the recent tenth anniversary of the 2011 election, as well as speculate on the almost inevitable 2021 election, there are some important parallels to note. In both cases, a prime minister will be seeking a third mandate from the electorate and entering a campaign from a minority government position. However, in 2021, it seems that those Canadians less inclined to embrace Trudeau’s “progressive” agenda may have a thing or two to consider if they are to succeed in their ambitions of removing him from power.

The day after Stephen Harper won his first minority in 2006, Michael Van Pelt and I penned a piece that suggested this was the beginning of a realignment of political arrangements that had represented a “pan-Canadian consensus” for several decades. We warned, however, that Conservatives should not be too hasty in expecting the implementation of a conservative agenda. At best, the 2006 victory represented a coalition victory. Getting beyond the immediate platform to lasting change in a conservative mold would prove difficult given the changing values in Canada.   

In 2011, Harper won his third election, though this time it was “a strong, stable, majority, national government.” At that time, Michael and I updated our analysis, predicting that the decade to come would be characterized by “dissensus” — the opposite of consensus. We suggested that a decade later, “Conservative infighting is likely to burst into a more public feud.” Meanwhile, the political left would coalesce around the attraction of power, even if they continued to debate certain values, possibly forging a new consensus in the process.

Trudeau’s Liberals have been among the global leaders of using technology and big data to bypass traditional media outlets.

This wasn’t the prevalent view at the time. Peter Newman wrote a book When the Gods Changed: The Death of Liberal Canada dismissing the Liberals as “yesterday’s party,” worrying that Canada was heading to the polarization of an American two-party system. “The plain fact is that for at least four years Stephen Harper can do anything that strikes his fancy: his post-election moves to cut the funding for political parties — his own having an established financing system — and his appointment of Tory senators who were rejected when they ran for office speak to power wielded without regard to the consequences to the democratic fabric.”  History clearly did not unfold in the manner Newman predicted. There are many who would blame Harper for this, and I am sure that even he, in his candid moments, would admit there are things he would have done differently.

However, and this is the central point, politics is downstream from culture and the range of options available to Harper were limited. Successful political movements can only work with the values that exist in the populace, organize coalitions, and inspire with big ideas that mobilize voters towards a particular action. During their decade of power, the Conservatives were dealing with a coalition of ideas but not a coherent philosophy. The Liberals have at least two things in their favour. They consistently signal a much more coherent set of populist values than the Conservatives do. They also employ a strategy that is tremendously effective in translating the appeal to populist values into votes (if the global playbook outlined in Insurgents above has any validity.)

The Conservative Party today does not represent any coherent bold ideas that inspire or are able to hold it together. They seem about to enter into a campaign arguing, “We don’t like Justin Trudeau and neither should you — trust us to govern better.” If that’s all that’s on offer, the results of the next election are easily predicable. The only question of consequence on the morning after the election will be how the growing disillusionment within Canada, particularly in the western provinces but also some other regions, will be managed and if the consequence will only be a radicalization of our politics or outright moves for separation.

Conversation at the Hub has divided between the optimists and the pessimists, for which Howard Anglin’s critique of the founding essay has been the flagship where he encouraged Canadian conservatives to go local and cheer up, “since there’s nothing we can do.” If anything, the Global Insights project reinforces Anglin’s take that the core values at stake here are part of a western civilization drift in which Canada’s role will be no more than a footnote. 

But there is a danger of missing the reality between the binary alternatives of “act local in hope, since there is nothing you can do about the big picture” or “despair, the world is doomed and we need to fight with all our political might.” While virtues and strong institutions are indeed cultivated locally, the big ideas that shape our values are often given weight by the politics and structures that frame how we can act. If Conservatives want to succeed against the cultural forces that are aligned against them, especially in a context in which the Liberals are being smart and effective in translating their values into meaningful political coalitions, the solution is neither in a full-throated culture war against progressivism nor in a campaign that seeks to sidestep the core issues by simply arguing that the Liberals are managerially incompetent.

The lesson, both of a decade ago as well as in this moment, is that for long-term success, conservatives need to articulate big, inspiring ideas that paint a positive picture of how their view of the world both commends itself to and corresponds with reality. There probably isn’t much of a coalition that can be cobbled together for short-term Conservative success that wouldn’t end up with the same problem of ineffectiveness in government. But if the party continues only to dabble at the policy margins and sidesteps making positive arguments about what their values have to contribute in the long-term, the consequence of an election in 2021 will likely be long-lasting. It will solidify a political majority in this country, united around some inarticulate version of progressive ideals.

The question regarding the future of Canada, and whether this is but another chapter or the embedding of a longer direction, depends on whether Prime Minister Trudeau is more successful in using a third-term majority government to establish a direction than was Prime Minister Harper. 

If he is, the dissensus is over and those who don’t like it will only be left talking about what new arrangements make sense.

Garnett Genuis: On nationalism, globalism and what we can learn from ancient Athens


Conflict between ideas about “nationalism” and “globalism” are shaping many contemporary debates, here in Canada and throughout the world.

Globalization is breaking down more and more barriers, and global problems increasingly point to the need for global solutions. But we are also seeing plenty of failures in terms of global common endeavour and the ability of global institutions to actually deliver positive results. Increasing numbers of people on the left and the right are reacting to the inequalities associated with globalization and demanding that their leaders focus on the wellbeing of their own countries.

As we debate our response to various global crises and the degree to which our responses should be local, national, or global, it is important that we set clear categories and make clear distinctions between the different competing outlooks.

For me, a useful jumping off point for thinking about these very 21st century questions of nationalism and globalism has been the trajectory of Athens from its golden age of empire through its defeat in the Peloponnesian War and then into the subsequent era of Athens’ greatest philosophers. These are the circumstances that gave us the ideas of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. It is a fascinating story, and one that is particularly relevant today.

Ancient Athens itself does not really have a modern analog. It was a procedurally democratic society in which many were still excluded, populism was rampant, and the city itself formed the democratic center of an empire which was unapologetically exploitative of its periphery. In this sense, Athens was in reality what America’s most virulent far-left critics imagine America to be. Athenian democracy, in which the people voted to put Socrates to death, is frequently and legitimately invoked as demonstrating the problems with unbridled populism and the need for checks and balances. Ancient Athens is a warning about what democracy can become. And it was Athenian colonialism and abuse of its allies that sparked the Peloponnesian War.

In light of modern Sino-American competition for global dominance, the Peloponnesian War is most often invoked in the context of the notion of the “Thucydides Trap” — the idea that conflict is inevitable when a new power emerges to challenge another for dominance. Importantly, no such hypothesis about the inevitably of violent conflict between Athens and Sparta (or America and China) was actually advanced by Thucydides, the Athenian General after whom the term is named. The Thucydides Trap has about as much to do with Thucydides as modern Confucius Institute have to do with Confucius. Unlike the Thucydides Trap, though, there are lessons to be taken from this era that do draw from actual events.

Pericles’ Nationalism and Alcibiades’ Globalism

The two most important players during the war on the Athenian side were Pericles and his nephew Alcibiades.

Pericles, a brilliant strategist and orator, effectively led Athens in the early years of the war. He was what we would today identify as a devoted nationalist. For him, Athens itself was something like a great Homeric hero. Pericles saw his duty as being solely to the good of Athens and he saw justice itself as being whatever was good for his city.

Pericles would likely have led Athens to victory in the Peloponnesian War, if he had not died of a plague that devastated Athens in the second year of the war. Athens was protected by walls and maintained access to the sea. This allowed it to access vital necessities during a siege, but also left it very vulnerable to disease. Today’s pandemic is another element that makes the Peloponnesian War feel more resonant.

In always seeking the good for his city, Pericles was a true nationalist as opposed to a crowd-pleasing populist. He always sought what was in the Athenian interest, rather than indulging the public will. He initially convinced the Athenians to retreat within and stay behind their walls rather than face the Peloponnesians in open country, and he avoided calling a subsequent public meeting for fear that passions would drive the assembled people to an unwise course. He did all this for the sake of Athens, not for himself.

Like Pericles, Alcibiades served as an Athenian general and was recognized for his tactical prowess. Alcibiades also presented himself as a nationalist, though of a very different sort. During a debate about whether Athens should seek to conquer Sicily, Alcibiades was accused of only favouring the expedition in order to strengthen his own position. In his response, he argued that the glorification of a great man like himself carried with it the glorification of the city. The Sicily expedition championed by Alcibiades was ultimately disastrous and was the catalyst for ultimate Athenian defeat.

Alcibiades was also notable for defecting multiple times during the war when sensing personal danger. Facing allegations of sacrilege in Athens, he switched to the Spartan side, and then defected again to the Persians after his liaisons with the Spartan King’s wife put him in an awkward position. From his Persian perch, he managed to scheme and deceive his way back into the Athenians’ good graces and return home. In modern terms, if Pericles was a true nationalist, Alcibiades turned out to be something of a globalist, preserving a soft spot for home while plying his considerable talents and pursuing all manner of conquest under any flag.

The Great Philosophers

Following its defeat in the Peloponnesian War, Athens entered a period of declining geopolitical influence. But this political decline would happen alongside significant intellectual dynamism, marked by the emergence of great thinkers like Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. Ross Douthat argues in The Decadent Society that civilizational decline is often associated with a decline in creativity, but these great philosophers (as well as people like Augustine and Boethius who lived during Rome’s decline) show us that civilizational decline can actually provide great fuel for creative reflection. Thank goodness.

Is there a connection between Athenian defeat in the Peloponnesian War and the ideas of the great philosophers that followed? It seems to me that there is. The end of Athenian dominance in Greece necessarily forced a re-think of Periclean nationalism. It was no longer attractive for Athenians to contend that “might makes right,” since they had just lost most of their might. Perhaps, therefore, this loss of national power made new models of justice that were universal as opposed to national more necessary. These are the models of justice that we hear proposed by these great thinkers. For example, Plato recounts in The Republic how Socrates effectively refutes the idea that justice is simply “the advantage of the stronger.” In this, he opposes the most extreme expression of an “Athens first” nationalism.

Both Alcibiades and Socrates rejected the extreme form of nationalism represented by Pericles. But it is important that they did so in different ways and for different reasons. Alcibiades discarded his attachments and loyalty to his community in order to pursue a lower ideal — his own self-interest. Though Pericles’ faults are easy to identify in retrospect because of his ill-treatment of foreign peoples, Alcibiades was still clearly a lesser man. Pericles at least loved his country, but Alcibiades only loved himself. In debates about nationalism and its alternatives, we often miss that traditional nationalism is a kind of middle course. It is possible to do worse than Periclean nationalism, and also to do better.

In the 21st century, there is more than one way to be a citizen of the world. One path involves pursuing wealth and opportunity everywhere, working for and with any country or company that serves one’s own private interests, disregarding the interests of one’s own nation or even the people in other nations along the way. This sort of personal selfishness can easily dress itself up as open-minded cosmopolitanism. This is the road of Alcibiades. An alternative way to be a citizen of the world is to draw on the insights of Socrates, building on a love for one’s own community and nation by seeking to advance the common good of all peoples as well as one’s own. This commitment to the universal pursuit of justice builds on a patriotic commitment to one’s own nation by expanding one’s sphere of concern instead of narrowing it. The cosmopolitanism of “I can make it anywhere” is not the same as the cosmopolitanism of a commitment to universal human wellbeing.

These three men from antiquity, Alcibiades, Pericles, and Socrates, were characterized by differing views of the world and differing views about justice. For Alcibiades, justice was whatever served his own interests. For Pericles, justice was whatever served his country’s interests. For Socrates, justice was a universal concept. For those concerned about the tension between nationalism and globalism, Socrates offers a kind of synthesis, emphasizing both fidelity to immediate commitments and the enlightened cosmopolitanism that comes from universal solidarity.

Today’s debates about nationalism and globalism would be somewhat clearer if we recognized the existence of three distinct positions instead of just two. And the particular circumstances of our present challenges, the need for both sacrificial local engagement and universal global solidarity, should point us back to a consideration of the path of Socrates.