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Sam Routley: Canada needs new political experts

Commentary

Who are the “public intellectuals” of Canada? In the introduction to his 2013 edited volume The Public Intellectual in Canada, Nelson Wiseman argued that the initial difficulty with answering the question is in finding the people who identify as one. But today, nearly ten years later, it may be better to say that it is a challenge to find someone who doesn’t, at least implicitly, claim the role. Traditional media gatekeeping has lost its legitimacy, and now a direct, fragmented public space has produced quite literally thousands of voices who all compete for today’s most precious commodity: attention. 

The results have not been good for Canada.

In contrast to popular perception, we are not actually that polarized but, instead, have framed our politics around a staid and unproductive status quo. Mediocrity is a useful label—while very little is contested, we have produced few innovations to address our growing policy challenges. We often lack a multifaceted, contentious, and productive discourse around our core national values, history, and aspirations. Our politics consists of too many minor adjustments that are justified by appeals to increasingly unchallenged, but often vague or false, platitudes.The “median” or “moderate” voter, liberal cosmopolitanism, and “free” health care, among others.

The same can be said about the ongoing use of the related, and equally nebulous, role of the “political expert”. By expert, I mean those persons who by some sort of combination of experience, training, and practice can be relied upon as an effective—but not flawless—source of interpretation and judgment of novel information or events.

Formal expertise is not popular. Populist critiques, unexpected electoral results, and COVID-era technocratic overreach have diminished its claim to relevance. During political conversation, resorting to “experts say” is bound to elicit groans and eye-rolling; it often signifies poor argumentation and uncritical, directionally motivated reasoning. There is no shortage of experts who can back up almost any opinion. Perhaps worse is that to many, so-called “experts”—whether political scientists or political operatives—have nothing interesting to say. 

But political expertise, as with public intellectualism, is a necessary part of any vibrant polity. Not only should it encourage an informed and engaged public but, ideally, ought to perpetuate a more critical and deliberative state of affairs. A community without relatively independent intellectual arbiters is opaque, inaccessible, and risks reducing politics to a matter of raw power and self-interest. Established interests will always prefer the status quo, no matter how atrophied it is. This is good for them—and bad for the rest of us who desire a more productive politics. 

Yet, experts—short of being objective—also shape political discourse. That is, they not only communicate to the less informed a partial view of “what is going on” but are impactful precisely because they also interpret the events they comment on.Moynihan aside, several claims to “objectivity” are just an unacknowledged support for the status quo, its assumptions, and its power relations. Alternatively, however, experts who harness information to effectively challenge prevailing orthodoxies, produce creative and attainable solutions, and mobilize support, are indispensable.

To improve our politics, then, what matters is that we do not delegitimize expertise as much as we should better realize and clarify the value of these kinds of intellectual contributions. When it comes to politics, intellectuals must not be treated as unquestioned authorities, and they are not the objective arbiters of “fact” and “misinformation.” Rather, they ought to help produce and sustain a broader political and intellectual climate that is contentious, critical, and productive.Power is necessarily adversarial, as influence is always enjoyed by some at the expense of others. Ideally, intellectuals can still be partisan, and they ought to communicate their ideas in a way that is attentive to the realities of politics. 

But this type of intellectual does not really exist in large numbers in contemporary Canada, and the result has been a certain hollowness to our politics. Instead of well-developed and grounded discourse, we have social media hot takes and shallow political talking points.

Compare this to the United States, where there is a cascading array of publications, think tanks, foundations, and other media output of reasonably high-brow and impactful political discourse representing different partisan or ideological commitments. While not at all read by the average person, they facilitate discourse that is both contentious and public. 

In contrast, what often suffices as mainstream political intellectualism in Canada is an ongoing turf war between academics, who supply their “expertise” to the media, and political practitioners, who in turn attack them for lacking nuanced, real-world understandings of politics.This, of course, isn’t a watertight distinction, as many individuals occupy both spaces.

Neither in their current form produce an effective, mainstream intellectual space. Political operative commentary—such as the panels that are now a cornerstone of television news programs —has its place and is perfectly fine for the news, but it too often lacks the detached, measured, and critical evaluations necessary to improve Canadian politics.Indeed, its utility and its entertainment value are one of the same; at its best, it can provide a sort of “insider perspective” as to why politicians act the way they do.

The role of academics,Specifically but not exclusively political scientists. on the other hand, is more nuanced. Academics have served effective intellectual and political roles: Charles Taylor, David McGrane, Ian Brodie, Stephen Clarkson, and the “Calgary school” are a few examples. The problem, instead, has to do with the sort of public engagement that has gotten more pervasive over time. 

While the academy is often accused of being the voice of left-wing revolutionaries, it can also be a powerful force for legitimizing and normalizing an established regime. While Canadian political science has had its share of critics, much of the discipline in the 20th century was preoccupied with the practical tasks of Canadian nation-building, specifically when it came to articulating, understanding, and defending Canadian political institutions against centrifugal forces like Quebec nationalism. More than anything, scholars have moved away from their previously predominant role in shaping public opinion on the big questions of Canadian political life. 

Instead, the more recent trend is that the rapid growth and professionalization of academia has turned it, for better and worse, into a more insular occupation that follows its own parochial norms and career incentives. Academic publishing is laborious, and the need to fill CVs with enough peer-reviewed publications tends to narrow down one’s focus at the expense of more big-picture thinking. It has meant that, for the most part, academics can only really contribute to the public conversation through their research. But, while this can inform certain elements of public conversation, there are increasingly fewer resources and incentives to engage in more systematic analysis. Their ultimate loyalties are to their discipline, university, and scientific profession. 

Meanwhile, despite its reputation as an excuse for punditry, political science has undergone something of a methodological revolution over the last couple of decades, and its ability to contribute data, falsifiability, and empirical findings to Canadian political discourse is improved and increasingly valuable.

But it does not ultimately alleviate this problem. Information is not in and of itself freeing, and the nearly limitless amount of content only creates decision fatigue and a reversion back to prior predispositions, identities, and interests. Detached scientific analysis is also wholly inadequate for the art of politics itself and cannot on its own build support for and mobilize effective change. 

Instead, moving forward, the emphasis needs to be made on carving out a space for slow, detached, and reflective political thought and dialogue. I am talking here about a deliberate re-engagement with the role of the national intelligentsia. In Europe, this has continued to operate as an occupation in and of itself that, in rejecting the claim of scientific objectivity, engages in intellectual activity for the purposes of developing and persuading others of stated political goals.  

Given the current size of Canada, this effort will continue to be limited. The reality is that given sparse financial resources, very few people are able to engage in this kind of activity full-time. This means that for the time being, most of these organizations will have to be layered onto pre-existing institutions within academia, long-form journalism, and the parties themselves. Still, Canada is on the precipice of considerable growth. It is time to lay the groundwork and show that by overcoming the pervasive mediocrity of our contemporary politics, this country can better realize the opportunities of the coming decades.

Ginny Roth: The Israel-Hamas war is uniting conservatives even as it fractures the Left

Commentary

As news broke that Hamas terrorists had attacked Israel, and as it became clear Israel would have to fight back, pro-Israel advocates awaited Canadian reactions with trepidation. It shouldn’t be shocking, perhaps, that Zionists would be concerned about the response from progressive Canada, including its chief political representatives in the Liberal and New Democratic parties.

But it may surprise some—especially those who oversimplify and caricature the Canadian Right—to know that pro-Israel advocates harboured some concern about how conservatives, and their political representatives in the Conservative Party, would react. It shouldn’t be hard to understand why. For at least a decade, longer in the United States, the three-legged stool that made up a coherent, durable right-of-centre voting coalition—fiscal conservatives, social conservatives, and foreign policy hawks—has been kicked over.

Intra-conservative ideological debates have split in two, pitting inward-looking populists against globalist elites, and leaving advocates for assertive foreign policy—like a strong stance in favour of Israel—concerned that when the going got tough, the populist conservatives would be indifferent, or worse, opposed. 

One only has to look at the fractured response of American Republicans to the war in Ukraine to see this dynamic realized. Broad-based support for Ukraine amongst various conservative commentators, political leadership, and the party’s base has been shaky even from the outset of the initial invasion, and as the conflict persists there are growing calls, incoherent though they may be, from some corners of the American Right for the withdrawal of all aid whatsoever. Would this aversion to foreign engagement of any kind carry over to the West’s response to the Israel-Hamas war?

On this matter, though, concern turned out to be short-lived, at least here at home. Canadian conservatives have, by and large, responded in solidarity with Israel, supporting its right to self-defence, condemning Hamas terrorists, calling for Israeli hostages to be returned home, and fighting back against disturbing antisemitism. While a decade of domestic economic and cultural turmoil drove conservatives apart, pitting social conservatives against fiscal conservatives and blue-collar populists against corporate institutionalists, high-stakes geopolitical turmoil—and all its moral consequences—has brought the conservative coalition together, even as it has driven progressives apart.

Only a few years ago, as Donald Trump was governing the U.S. and the U.K. was exiting the European Union, young Canadian conservatives were questioning everything about the recipe for ideological coherence and political success we were raised on. As free trade and new technology hollowed out domestic manufacturing, the pro-globalization, anti-labour posture of our intellectual forebearers felt unfit for the times. As inflation rose because of bad monetary policy and civil liberties were abused during the global pandemic, the faith and trust in institutions that were so core to our traditions rang hollow.

Canadian conservatives knew the answers didn’t lie with the big-spending, high-regulation economic policy or virtue-signaling, equity-protecting social programs of the Liberals or the NDP, but we struggled to articulate a coherent and compelling alternative. Through three leadership campaigns, Conservatives split along various ideological lines, struggling to articulate a coherent, relevant vision in between. Ultimately, Pierre Poilievre developed a compelling synthesis: a FreeCon attack on big spending and a NatCon attack on the Left’s woke culture war, drawing libertarians, fiscal conservatives, and social conservatives into his coalition and crushing his leadership race competitors.

Poilievre’s command of the Conservative party, and the irrelevance of the right-wing PPC, speak to the power of his synthesizing political program. It’s not at all clear that the synthesis was inevitable, especially given the inability of American conservatives to agree to leadership in the House of Representatives, let alone to choose a unifying Republican party nominee, so his big tent ought to be applauded.

But during and since Poilievre’s big win, a certain kind of critic has remained. They are often men and almost always of a certain age. These concerned boomer elites are easy to mock and dismiss. And on domestic economic matters, the mocking is often warranted. These critics own homes (probably outright), live in urban centres, and are unlikely to have school-aged kids, so their discomfort with a political style that appeals to people in different, less fortunate circumstances isn’t exactly worth indulging. But recent events have created space for these critics in the conservative coalition, and have made the three-legged stool of Reagan fusionism, which so many young conservatives were willing to kick over in search of something new, suddenly seem relevant again.

Part of what made North America’s fusionist project of the 1980s so powerful as “both an ideological synthesis and a political coalition” was that at the time, foreign policy could not be ignored. Communism had wreaked havoc across the globe and the United States was putting the finishing touches on its decades-long struggle for supremacy over Soviet Russia. The foreign policy hawks in Reagan’s political coalition weren’t just comparative politics PhDs, they were regular Americans intent on the idea that a strong United States wasn’t just valuable in its own right but served as a bulwark against global chaos and as a signpost for civilization.

But just as the elite boomers have sounded out of touch these past number of years, such existential, principled foreign policy thinking might recently have sounded dramatic and irrelevant in the context of tough domestic economic times and relative global peace. Indeed, Donald Trump’s foreign policy was characterized by a kind of casual realpolitik, his American First mandate, to fix things at home. But Hamas’ attack on Israel a month ago, and the subsequent political fallout in countries all over the world, makes virtuous foreign policy seem pressing again, even as Canadians continue to struggle with the cost of living.

Despite the reasonable apprehension of pro-Israel advocates, and the unreasonable ramblings of others, support for Israel in the Middle East and Jews at home has united Canada’s Right—from social conservatives to fiscal conservatives, from young populists to our own aging boomer elite. Meanwhile, the Right’s fusion has been the Left’s fault line, as the government’s ostensible support for Israel is pitting what few Liberal centrists remain in the party against its much bigger progressive flank, breaking apart what very recently seemed like quite a durable voting coalition. Just as Reagan-era foreign policy united single-issue conservative voters, whether they were obsessed with debt-to-GDP-ratios or limits on abortion, in service of a bigger picture, today’s civilizational rupture seems to bring with it the potential to do the same.

As I’ve observed many of the same people I mocked for misunderstanding the challenges of our cost of living crisis stand solidly with Israel against terrorism and nihilism—even as their peers in academia have failed to do so—I am reminded that it took the existential threat of communism to set the stage for Regan-era fusionism. Similarly, it may take an equally terrifying global fight to join the elder centrists with the young conservatives like me who were impetuous enough to, only very recently, naively dismiss them.