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Sean Speer: Radical activists are a problem on the Left, too

Commentary

I recently wrote a lament about the state of Canadian conservatism that generated some attention, including among progressives who disagreed with my positive characterization of Jason Kenney’s policy accomplishments but fully agreed with my critique of the rise of grievance politics on the Right. 

Progressives shouldn’t judge too much though. They face different yet related challenges on their left flank which is home to a growing set of propositions about race, gender, sexuality, and the historic character of the country that represent their own problems. 

That is to say, the Canadian Left has a similar small yet spirited group of grassroots progressives who have eschewed their movement’s working-class roots and replaced it with a hardened form of identity politics. These developments represent a threat to the long-term prospects for progressive politics in Canada and elsewhere. 

As a starting point, it’s important to recognize that these two groups—what one might describe as progressive radicals and conservative reactionaries—are in something of a political dialogue even if they’re often characterized and perceived in different terms by the mainstream media. 

If conservative reactionaries are motivated by the increasing leftward shift of major institutions (such as corporations, universities, and the media), progressive radicals are agitated because these intellectual and cultural trends aren’t moving fast enough. They’re animated by an outrage about the supposed heteronormative and systematically racist underpinnings of modern society and are critical of cultural and political leaders who fail to confront these foundational failings firmly and directly. 

They use language and express ideas about biology and sexuality (including swapping “birthing people” for ”mothers”), the overriding importance of immutable characteristics such as gender and race (think, for instance, of the odd notion of “equity-deserving groups” as if some aren’t deserving), and Western society’s irredeemable history of colonialism and racism that may be incongruous for most people but are increasingly reflected in our major institutions. 

This is the main difference between these two sides: while right-wing reactionism is roundly condemned, left-wing radicalism has made tremendous strides in permeating our culture and politics through elite opinion and mainstream institutions. 

Language is a good proxy here. Just consider, for instance, that Merriam Webster added the singular “they” to its online dictionary in September 2019,Merriam-Webster adds nonbinary ‘they’ pronoun to dictionary https://www.nbcnews.com/feature/nbc-out/merriam-webster-adds-nonbinary-they-pronoun-dictionary-n1055976 and the Biden Administration recently adopted “birthing people” in various public health guidelines. 

These linguistic developments may have started on the left-wing fringe but they’ve since come to be represented in mainstream institutions, including the National Institutes of Health and the New York State Department of Health in the United States, and in high-profile research at major Canadian universities or news reporting at the CBC.

Yet the overrepresentation of these ideas in elite circles can create a false sense of their broader public support. Herein lies the risk for progressives. As well-known Democratic pollster David Shor has argued, it can lead to an echo chamber that misreads the public’s appetite for the Left’s ideological excesses.The Democrats’ Privileged College-Kid Problem https://www.politico.com/news/magazine/2021/10/09/david-shor-democrats-privileged-college-kid-problem-514992  

Two recent examples in Canada may portend a future scenario in which progressive politics is undermined by an acquiescence to its left-wing flank on these issues of identity and culture. 

The first is the BC government’s controversial decision to demolish the province’s highly-regarded Royal British Columbia Museum because it is “shot through with systemic racism.” Never mind that it welcomes roughly 800,000 visitors per year and is one of the top-ranked museums in the country, the government has opted against simply changing or expanding its exhibits and now plans to spend more than $800 million to replace the 136-year institution with one that’s “safer and more inclusive.” The project, which will be by far the most expensive museum in Canadian history, is expected to be complete in 2030. 

BC’s New Democratic government is predictably under fire for destroying what Premier John Horgan himself has called the “jewel of our collective history” and the replacement museum’s extraordinary price tag. A former NDP Cabinet minister has rightly described the decision as “tone deaf.”

It’s an interesting case study precisely because Horgan and his government have been highly successful to this point by resisting the left-wing overreach that has bedevilled other progressive governments. There are some political commentators now even speculating that the project may ultimately be their undoing. 

This brings me to the second example: in an unprecedented development in the ongoing Ontario election campaign, eight trade unions—including the Ontario Pipe Trades Council and the International Brotherhood of Boilermakers—have endorsed the Progressive Conservative Party in its re-election bid. 

While major credit belongs to the government’s enterprising and innovative Labour Minister Monte McNaughton, a key reason for these unexpected endorsements is that the province’s progressive parties have mostly abandoned blue-collar voters in favour of the types of ideological issues and ideas that animate their left-wing bases. As McNaughton recently put it: “they’re more concerned about statues than they are about good jobs with pensions and benefits.”Construction unions are abandoning the Liberals for Ford https://torontosun.com/opinion/columnists/lilley-construction-unions-are-abandoning-the-liberals-for-ford-and-the-pcs

It’s hard to overstate what a significant political development this is in Ontario. It was only a couple of elections ago that the Working Families Coalition, which was funded in part by these same groups, spent millions of dollars in campaign-related advertising to defeat the Progressive Conservatives. Now those efforts have not only been neutralized but the unions are actively supporting them among their more than 50,000 members

There seems to be a salutary lesson for progressives between these two examples. Succumbing to the most radical voices within their political coalition will only hasten a growing realignment whereby more of their traditional working-class voters are pushed to the Right. This trend is evidentLow-income voters, the 2019 General Election and the future of British politics https://www.jrf.org.uk/report/low-income-voters-2019-general-election-and-future-british-politics in the United States, the United Kingdom, and elsewhere, and public opinion research by a group of progressive organizations warns that “certain identity-focused rhetoric” is a key part of the explanation. If Canadian progressives aren’t careful, it will accelerate here too. 

The key point though is as much as one laments the reactionary trend present in conservative politics, it’s wrong to think that it’s occurring in isolation. It reflects in large part a dialogue with radical developments within Canadian progressivism. 

The question for both sides is whether they have enough discipline and foresight to stand down and let the other follow their radical or reactionary voices into the political abyss. Kenney’s short-sighted sacking and Horgan’s misguided museum suggest the answer is assuredly no. 

Ben Woodfinden: Canada’s aspiring populists aren’t actually all that radical

Commentary

Pierre Poilievre has been compared to every current right-wing populist figure under the sun, from Donald Trump to Boris Johnson to Marine Le Pen. And it’s not unfair to call Poilievre a populist—if anything it’s probably a label he’d happily wear if you asked him. His attacks on the “gatekeepers” are a textbook example of populist rhetoric.Going after Canada’s elite gatekeepers could be a winning strategy for the next Conservative leader https://thehub.ca/2022-02-21/going-after-canadas-elite-gatekeepers-could-be-a-winning-strategy-for-the-next-conservative-leader/ Poilievre is still the clear favourite to win the Conservative leadership, and his ascendancy will represent something of a populist shift in the federal Conservatives. 

But if populism is about at least ostensibly challenging governing orthodoxies and dogmas, then what’s remarkable is how little challenge there actually is to the many third rails and off-limit topics of Canadian politics. More fundamentally, Canada’s various populist bubblings and challengers are all offering different varieties and flavours of small-l liberalism. Their challenges to Canadian orthodoxies are liberal challenges; there really aren’t any radical challenges that deviate from the hegemonic liberalism that dominates virtually all Canadian politics outside of Quebec.

Poilievre’s message and vision seem to be at their core a sort of idiosyncratic libertarian populism. He talks about wanting to make Canada the freest country in the world and wants to help people “take back control of their lives.” His campaign is increasingly dominated by attacks on the Bank of Canada, which can be seen as a populist attack on an elite institution. But what’s interesting about his criticisms of the Bank is that it’s not a populist “the people should control money” argument, which is often what you hear from anti-neoliberal populists in Europe.

Though, it must be conceded, that allowing people to take back control of their money is how Poilievre has defended his promotion and enthusiasm for cryptocurrencies. Instead, he’s arguing that the Bank has not behaved independently enough and that he wants to restore its independence. Whether or not you buy his criticisms of the bank and its behaviour during the pandemic, the point is that while this might be a populist attack on the bank, it isn’t a fundamentally anti-liberal one.

He may be attacking the independence of the bank, but, at least on his account of what he’s doing, he’s not attacking the notion of an independent bank. Rather, he thinks he’s trying to restore it. In practice, what Poilievre seems to be offering is liberalism, albeit a different flavour of it—he doesn’t seem intent on challenging Canada’s liberal consensus in any meaningful way.

Take for example the great third rail of Canadian politics: immigration. The rise of populism around the world in recent years has many competing explanations, but a backlash against immigration is a common theme in many of the places where populism has caused political earthquakes. Poilievre, nor any major candidate in the race, has shown absolutely no interest in touching this. If anything, he has embraced the political consensus on immigration, making direct pitches and appeals to immigrant communities. This is probably a political necessity given the diversity of ridings in areas like Toronto that anyone who seeks to form government will need to win.

But the present moment might well be ripe for a populist challenge to this consensus. Over 400,000 immigrants came to Canada in 2021, a record number.Immigration and ethnocultural diversity statistics https://www.statcan.gc.ca/en/subjects-start/immigration_and_ethnocultural_diversity Yet with a growing number of younger Canadians locked out of the housing market due to skyrocketing prices, it’s a surprise a political entrepreneur hasn’t come along and pointed out, rightly or wrongly, that Canada’s high levels of immigration are likely to keep propping up what feels like to many young Canadians an economic pyramid scheme in which they pay exorbitant amounts for housing so that older Canadians can retire.The one factor in the housing bubble that our leaders won’t talk about https://thehub.ca/2021-07-23/howard-anglin-the-one-factor-in-the-housing-bubble-that-our-leaders-wont-talk-about/ While the PPC have made such arguments, and while you will see this kind of sentiment bubble up on social media, it’s probably more widespread than we generally assume. Thus far no serious figure has challenged the status quo on this.

Arguments in favour of immigration are often framed in economic terms. We need these immigrants to keep our population growing and to support an ageing society. But of course, there’s no real challenge or consideration given to the deeper reasons why this is necessary, namely that we need high levels of immigration because of our low, and still falling, birth rates.Fertility rate, total (births per woman) – Canada https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SP.DYN.TFRT.IN?locations=CA Our discourse and politics just accept this as a fact, given that having children is just entirely a personal choice. To suggest that we should try and increase birth rates and that having children and starting families are a social good we actively ought to be promoting and encouraging seems beyond the pale. Bring this up, and you’ll inevitably get accused of being a secret white supremacist who is motivated by racial concerns. For many pundits and elites, it is simply inconceivable that anyone could be legitimately concerned about birth rates and thus must have ulterior motives. 

Even the ways we talk about childcare, focused on things like workforce participation, generally exclude the radical possibility that perhaps having parents stay home with children might actually be a good thing. Interesting writers and thinkers challenge this on the margins, and some interesting family policy is sometimes proposed, but nothing radical enough to actively and directly make the case for more babies and families, or for making it easier for people to raise families on single incomes, is ever really considered or taken seriously. We are incapable of thinking about any of these things outside of the liberal language of choice.

And if you want a really clear example of the dominance of liberalism in Canada and the hegemony of basic liberal ideas like freedom and individual rights, look no further than the recent Ottawa trucker protest and the broader anti-lockdown/mandate movement. There were undoubtedly fringe and conspiratorial elements that wove their way into this movement. But to suggest that what really motivated most of the people opposed to vaccine mandates and lockdown restrictions were conspiracy theories or, as some academics and pundits have tried to suggest, that cries for freedom were really just a veiled form of white supremacy, is asinine. As George Orwell said, “there are some ideas so absurd that only an intellectual could believe them.” The rallying cries for these protests and movements were freedom and liberty. Their populism and rejection of the elite consensus is a fundamentally liberal rejection of what is perceived by these populists as an anti-liberal restriction of basic rights.

Freedom is a contested idea. People have different understandings of what freedom means and how far it should extend, and these are reasonable disagreements. You can disagree with the freedom convoy, the blockades, and the various anti-lockdown and mandate movements, but even their rambunctious populism was mostly a disagreement within the liberal tent. These people were not set on some sort of illiberal fascism, as some suggested. Their complaints were precisely that freedom and liberty weren’t being taken seriously enough.

Even the Charter itself, the great symbol of modern Canadian liberalism, has undergone something of a transformation in the eyes of many would-be populists.The Charter at Forty: How the Charter has shaped society since 1982 https://thehub.ca/2022-04-18/charter-at-forty-how-canadas-charter-has-shaped-society-since-1982/ Thirty years ago, opposition to the Charter as a danger to Canada’s parliamentary system of government was a fairly widespread conservative belief. But during the pandemic what has really been clear is that the Charter is no longer opposed, if at all, because it constitutionally entrenches individual rights. Instead, criticism of the Charter is that it doesn’t fully protect individual rights, that courts and the “reasonable limits” clause mean that government violations of individual rights are upheld far too frequently. The populists and right more broadly no longer reject the Charter because of its liberalism—they criticise it for not being liberal enough.

The only place in Canada where liberalism really is challenged, and where there are alternative ways of thinking about political life, is Quebec. Quebec’s language laws and approach to secularism are undoubtedly at odds with the settled liberalism of the rest of Canada. They emphasize different understandings of rights and political values beyond the individual and autonomy-based liberalism of English Canada.

This is nothing new of course. Implicit in the bargain of the Canadian Confederation has been a recognition that Quebec’s distinctiveness meant it was going to do things that might sit uncomfortably with other parts of Canada. Quebec’s non-liberal approach to issues of language and culture still receives plenty of criticism outside of Quebec, but in rejecting the liberalism of English Canada, Quebec is an outlier within the country and not a harbinger of future developments elsewhere. And even then, on issues like abortion and euthanasia, Quebec has even more aggressively liberal views than the rest of Canada. Its rejection of English liberalism is limited and relatively focused on questions of cultural distinctiveness.

The point here is not to argue for a political figure who attacks the various third rails outlined above. The point is that whilst Canada might seem to be in a moment of political upheaval, the country’s narrow liberal consensus remains as strong as ever. Even opposition to Canada’s consensus tends to be a fundamentally liberal opposition. It tends to emphasize different understandings of freedom or autonomy. It attacks the liberal consensus in Canada as not being liberal enough and offers a different flavour of liberalism instead. Canada undoubtedly faces some political tumult and populist challenges, but nothing on offer challenges Canada’s hegemonic liberal consensus. At most these challengers seek to tinker at the technocratic edges of the consensus.

Whilst bloviating about the dangers of populism is a popular pundit pastime, populism has a long and storied tradition in Canada. Two of the three major parties at the federal level today, the NDP and the Conservatives, trace their origins to precursor populist parties in the CCF and the Reform Party respectively. The now-defunct social credit movement was a kind of agrarian populism obsessed with monetary policy and banking. Yet surveying the contemporary landscape, it’s not clear what the populists du jour actually challenge in a meaningful way. Yes, they want to stick a finger in the eye of a complacent elite and do seek change, but the alternatives they offer are simply different flavours of liberalism.

Political rhetoric and fearmongering try to make us think that there are radical differences between the various political options on offer to Canadians across the country and across the political spectrum, but the reality is that Canadian politics is stuck in a smug and complacent mediocrity where the differences between our major parties are relatively small. What the current batch of populists are most likely to offer is a satisfying finger in the eyes of our insular and mediocre elites. And whilst they might be able to change a few marginal things, and also potentially help further erode confidence in our public institutions, they won’t fundamentally challenge the Canadian consensus.

Canada actually does need something of a shakeup to wake us from this stupor and to address the growing challenges this country faces. The current batch of populists on offer aren’t the people to do that, and Canada’s narrow Laurentian liberal consensus remains strong.