Home > Culture, Politics > Elections, Political Discourse, and the Historical Conquests of Stephen Harper

Elections, Political Discourse, and the Historical Conquests of Stephen Harper

Even though Canada’s 41st general election is still a solid week away, I’ve already done my civic duty and drawn a little ‘x’ with an eraserless pencil (so you can’t change your mind!). I suppose I ought not to discuss the specific vote itself, although my leanings should become fairly clear as my thoughts unfold here. Straight partisan loyalty is a sucker’s game, anyhow; one can’t begrudge the manufactured sense of unified belonging that goes with it, but if you’re too rigid in your allegiances, the betrayals and letdowns will hurt all that much more. I feel the same way about nationalism, but that’s a separate discussion (or maybe not).

He's comin' for your kittens, people.

But what’s this discussion going to be (besides one-sided, since I get first and mostly-last word on the subject)? I suppose that is always already the active ingredient in political discourse: the discourse itself. Most political analysis, and maybe most politics, is just discussing the discussion. What should political leaders discuss, how should they discuss it, how should they look and sound as they discuss it, etc. It’s a frightfully meta discursive sphere, but what underlies it is as un-meta as it gets: the best way to govern (or, sometimes, to rule). The nuts and bolts of policy, the hard matter of government, is often left to be assumed rather than elucidated in election campaigns and in political media relations in general. The assumption, it seems, is that the common voter could care less about the nitty-gritty daily grind of running a political state, and just wants to be wrapped in the flag and soaked in a hot, soothing bath of comforting metaphor juice. And I’m not sure that’s so far off. The media spends much of its time bemoaning the lies and the double talk and the negative tone of political interaction, but try talking facts and figures and policy detail and they label you dull and professorial and your opponents program animated puffins to poop on your image. It’s not ideal, but it’s where we are.

It isn’t too surprising, therefore, that in such a climate, Stephen Harper’s Conservative Party is flirting with the possibility of a majority government. It isn’t quite fair to suggest that the entire party and its many supporters are completely out of touch with Canada’s social reality, exactly. But there’s little question, at least to those who oppose the Conservatives’ political agenda (real and perceived), that they are creatures of ideological habit above all. And the intellectual tradition of that habit, embodied by Harper and his University of Calgary neoconservative inner circle, is inexorably linked to the Straussian strain of conservative ideology. To a dyed-in-the-wool Straussian like Harper, fact, truth, and public opinion are just so much putty to be handled until it assumes a form pleasing to its powerful elite sculptor.

I’ve hardly counted, but it sure feels like Harper employs some variation on the phrase “the Canadian people want/don’t want…” far more than anyone else. In his view, no doubt, it’s justified; he’s the Prime Minister, the big pimp himself, and he knows what his bitches really want at all times. But it’s also inherently about conditioning reality, about managing expectations and, yes, manufacturing consent.

This is the essence of the entire New Canadian Conservative Movement that started with the clumsy, crude Western populism of the Reform Party, transitioned into the mass pratfall of the Alliance era, and is now the formidable electoral (but not governing) machine of the CPC. All along, the mouth-frothing vitality of the American conservative movement has inspired Canuck righties to reach similar heights of total-culture-war excess and success. It is hardly a secret to anyone who watches them that Conservatives are the gawky earnest kids who want desperately to be invited to the cool-kid Republicans’ legendary clique-exclusive keggers. The wild-eye stranglehold that the right has on the direction of American political discourse is what they aspire to in their dream vision of the Great White North. The realization was made, at some time in the NAFTA-produced mists of the 1980s, that dominating government only mattered so much if you could dominate the discussion.

Because Canada, for whatever esoteric reasons we wish to cite, is not as vulnerable to demagoguery and apocalyptic cultural warfare as its southern neighbour, Conservatives need to take a more measured approach. Hence the Stewardship of Steve, he of the non-threatening sweatervests and economic reassurances, the Accountant-in-Chief, worshipped with creepy allegiance by his party acolytes, as if they hope their unreasonable loyalty will rub off on the unbelievers. Sure, in a perfect world, they’d love to close the borders, ban abortions, brutalize the poor, liberals, and gays (because, really, what’s the difference?), and criminalize any and all dissent, if they had their way. But this is not a perfect world, this is Canada. And unless you’re Michael Moore, it should be pretty clear to anyone that they are hardly the same thing. So some moderation on the part of Conservatives is key, even if the average Canadian Conservative’s efforts to suppress their wild ideological undercurrents is comparable to a small child trying to hold the leash of a hyperactive puppy (a topical mention of Brad Trost shall go right here).

Although the juxtaposition was not perhaps intended, the launch of the Sun News Network in the course of Harper’s latest attempt to convince Canada’s anxious electorate to give him the keys to this big old jalopy is somehow apt. Early reviews are rife with guffaws, but then Sun Media has always been far too heavy on the clownish tabloidism and hardly satisfying to supposed “reasonable conservatives” (the term that has supplanted “compassionate conservative” after 8 years of George W. Bush’s ineptness rendered it even more ludicrous than it originally was).

"Fake News and Crazy Talk" didn't do as well in focus groups...

But as a television network, Sun News will be useful in the same way it always has been in print: as a slow-motion penny-arcade view into the loopy carnival funhouse that is the common conservative lizard brain, or at least what cynical right-leaning publishers and broadcasters believe that lizard brain to be. All of the mainstays of conservatism – the outsized persecution complex, the smug, snarky digs at liberals and their perceived beliefs and interests, the simpleton’s enthusiasm for racism and xenophobia when swathed in amorphous terms like “freedom”, the chauvinistic sexualization of women – are blown up to such outlandish proportions in the Sun universe that they almost seem to be satirizing them. It is, in its way, even more extreme and ridiculous in its ideological overreach than the American cable news juggernaut it’s attempting to emulate, Fox News. In contrast to the CPC, with its aspirations of mainstream voter acceptance, Sun Media not only doesn’t water down its ideological content, it amplifies it until it’s deafening, numbing. It’s political discourse as white noise, attempting to conquer with overwhelming force rather than compromise and persuasion.

But will it work in Canada? Will Harper or his successors ever manage to mould this diverse, regionally-insular, and unquestionably left-leaning country into the modest northern Red State that they desire it to be? I obviously hope not, but they want it really, really bad, and overwhelming ambition is not something that Canadians are particularly well-adapted to resist. As I’ve said, it always begins with the discourse, and it seems like that has mostly slipped into the Conservative camp of fear-mongering, partisanship, and distrust of internal others. Harper’s persistent drumbeat of alarm about coalition governments may well subtly change the parliamentary flexibility of our system without the necessity of a constitutional crisis as well. And axing the vote subsidy would give the Conservatives and their wealthy corporate backers a nearly insurmountable advantage over the other parties in electoral fund-raising, maybe the most vital area of democratic politics. If these dominoes keep falling, maybe the country will go with them. Whether you think that’s a good thing or a bad thing probably depends greatly on which circle you’ve marked or plan to mark next Monday. And like all elections, everything and nothing depends on that choice.

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Categories: Culture, Politics
  1. Dangerous Person
    April 23, 2011 at 9:08 pm

    Harper is a weiner.

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