Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Understanding Harper

Equal marriage legislation passed in the House of Commons in Ottawa yesterday, according to this article. It still has to pass the senate, but that is not expected to be difficult.

One of the most interesting features of this saga has been the stupid things that Stephen Harper, leader of the Conservative Party, has been saying. At times, despite initial intentions to avoid this, he has come across as homophobic, illogical, and even gratuitously anti-Quebec. I have also heard that even many members of his own party were embarassed by the viciousness of his opposition to the budget ammendment that passed last week (which moved a few billion dollars back from tax cuts and into things like housing and foreign aid, so that the Liberals could count on NDP support to pass the budget) even in the face of the ammendment's popularity.

One way to understand this behaviour is that Harper is screwing up. He is trying too hard to shift poll numbers in his favour for that day that is never far in the future for any minority government, election day. He is trying to ignite simplistic, polarizing "single issue" outrage that will cause large numbers of people to give up on the Liberals and vote for the Conservatives. The outcome thus far has been to cause his party to fade in the polls, but he keeps trying. In the process, he is making sure that lots of ridings that would vote for a red Tory or even a socially moderate blue Tory will not be interested in voting for candidates in any party headed by him, not to mention writing off all of the seats in Quebec.

But I worry that he has something else going on. I worry that he may, as unlikely as it sounds, have a longer term agenda. One of the big victories of the conservative movements in the United States is that they have managed to take a sizeable chunk of the electorate and shape their ways-of-knowing in such a way that any ridiculous thing said by someone on the right is accepted regardless of facts. This chunk is still a minority, but it is sufficiently well organized and mobilized that it has been wielding increasing influence over the media and educational institutions that comprise much of the ways-of-knowing for the rest of the population, thereby shifting the perceptions of a much larger group of people to be more in line with their own. Moreover, this proactive chunk has been mobilized in such a way that partially innoculates it against defeat -- every victory is a sign that Good is triumphing, but every defeat is a sign of a great liberal conspiracy that is ruining the nation and therefore requires everyone to struggle that much harder. Because of the warped ways-of-knowing that this proactive minority uses, the fact that they dominate the state apparatus and much of the rest of the institutional life of the country in no way makes the blether about a great liberal conspiracy any less effective in mobilizing its members.

So what I worry is that rather than ill-considered political grandstanding to try and win some kind of short-term gain, that this is part of a more deliberate plan by the Conservative Party to galvanize a portion of the electorate in ways that can try and duplicate the quasi-social movement power of the right in the United States. Sure, they might not gain much ground at first, but then Barry Goldwater didn't get too far in 1964, did he? Is the use of rhetoric around equal marriage that seems way out of proportion to much of the Canadian electorate part of some scheme to implement a Canadian version of the Southern Strategy, tied to conservative movement building? Are Harper's advisors egging him on knowing that they won't come to power in the next few years, but hoping to wage a "war of position" to build up a social base that can eventually come to dominate the Canadian political landscape in the way that the right does in the U.S.?

Beyond asking whether this is the intention, of course, we need to ask whether it will work. I'm skeptical. But I think we need to be aware of the possibility, and those of us who are keen to attack liberalism from the left need to take this threat seriously.

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