Looking back over Stephen Harper’s time as Prime Minister, one can see two significant “discoveries” associated with his mandate. The first is that he discovered a way of ruling the country without any support in Quebec. The second is that he discovered a way of ruling the country without any support from the intellectual classes.
The latter trick is, of course, much easier to pull off, since intellectuals do not command many votes, and they tend to cluster together in a very small number of ridings. Republicans in the United States wrote them off a long time ago. (I can still remember a pathetic issue of the New York Review of Books published just before the 2004 presidential election, in which a who’s who of American intellectuals got together to say “please do not re-elect George W. Bush.” It made not a whit of difference.)
The reasons for this hostility toward Harper in Canada are manifold. And, I should note, the hostility is much deeper with Harper than it had been with previous governments, including Progressive Conservative governments. I have colleagues who are conservatives of one stripe or another, and none of them will say one word in defence of Harper. (The most that I’ve ever heard is, “well, the Liberals weren’t that great either.”)
There are some people out there who genuinely don’t understand why this is. (Konrad Yakabuski, writing in today’s Globe and Mail, suggests that it will take the service of psychiatrists to someday help us understand the “fits of hysteria” that Harper produces in otherwise reasonable people.) Others posit some sort of a plot within the academy, to shut out conservative voices (a plot that seems to be extending to much of the media as well).
Okay, some of this is just polemics. But for those who genuinely don’t understand why intellectuals hate Harper so much, and who genuinely would like to understand it better, I would highly recommend reading the following article, which appeared recently in Policy Options. It’s called “The Harper Revolution in Criminal Justice Policy,” by Anthony Doob and Cheryl Webster. In it, they try really really hard to avoid both polemics and hysteria. But what they’re trying to say, in their own measured way, is that nothing the Harper Government has done on the criminal justice file – and they have done a lot – bears any rational connection to any coherent policy objective. They start by sketching out what one might think of as the domain of reasonable disagreement – within that domain, there are right-wing “tough on crime” positions, and there are more lenient, “roots of crime” positions. In other words, they don’t start out saying “here is what we think the correct view is.” They say “here are the range of positions that people who take this problem seriously enough to study the evidence take.” They then try to show how the Harper Government has taken positions, and introduced policies, that are not just consistently outside the space of reasonable disagreement, but that are rather baffling in terms of their purpose.
I think it’s an interesting piece, both intrinsically and on a “meta” level, because you can see the undertone of despair in their discussion. What they find so frustrating about the government – what makes them a bit crazy – is that it’s impossible to get any intellectual traction with them. Nothing you say matters, because the government just doesn’t care about the sorts of things that academics who work on these issues care about (such as, the relative effectiveness of different policies). It’s like the law professors who went all the way to Ottawa to express their concerns over Bill C-51, only to have the Conservative committee members stare at them blankly and say “so you’re saying we should just let terrorists freely walk the streets?” Where do you even start with that?
All of this simmering discontent came to a boil this week, when Stephen Marche published an opinion piece in the New York Times, complaining about “The Closing of the Canadian mind.” Naturally everyone got excited and defensive, because after all, this was the New York Times. David Frum was first out of the blocks, with a hastily-written piece for the Atlantic, entitled “The Delusions of the Canadian Mind.” It started out sounding like it was going to be a full-throated defence of Harper and a critique of Marche. It began to wilt half-way though, particularly when Frum conceded that “There are things—many things—to criticize in Harper’s record.” Frum’s complaint, in other words, was not that there are no problems with Harper, it is just that Marche didn’t say enough about what they were in his article. So in the end, when Frum asks what all the fuss is about, despite intending it as a rhetorical question, he winds up coming across as someone who has been out of the country for too long, and so genuinely doesn’t know what the fuss is all about.
Yakabuski’s column, by contrast, which starts out looking as though it is going to be a knock-off of Frum’s (again, responding to Marche, whom he refers to merely as “an excitable critic”), actually goes further, offering a half-hearted defence of the Harper government’s record (along with an enormous amount of “the Liberals were just as bad!” or “Harper merely worsened a pre-existing trend!”).
The problem, according to Yakabuski, is that “elites in the media and academe have deemed Conservative supporters a less evolved species than the progressive subclass to which they themselves belong, they are beside themselves at the loss of their own influence.” This is something that could be true – intellectuals, after all, have class interests like everyone else. That’s why I would invite those who are curious to read the Doob & Webster piece that I linked to above. Ask yourself, while reading it, whether they sound like two people who care most about their own loss of influence.
What both Frum and Yakabuski ultimately claim is that the antagonism intellectuals feel toward Harper is a mixture of partisanship and class interest. I don’t think this really captures it. I myself have been accused, in the pages of the Globe and Mail, of suffering from “Harper derangement syndrome.” And I have to admit, a lot of stuff that Harper says and does makes me really crazy. But I don’t feel that it’s my loss of influence that disturbs me (since I’ve never had any influence with any political party). It’s that so much of what they do makes no sense to me.
Let me give just one example. Frum suggests that some people may dislike Harper because he has been “slow to act on climate change.” I think the phrase “slow to act” does not exactly capture the magnitude of the problem that we have been dealing with here in Canada. Not only has Harper not acted, he has criticized and attacked the provinces that have acted, and he has celebrated various setbacks that the fight against climate change has suffered. Mark Steyn used to joke about how he supported global warming, but Harper has actually been acting like a man who supports global warming. One of the most peculiar moments, for instance, was when he went out of his way to congratulate Tony Abbott, the Prime Minister of Australia, for repealing their “job-killing carbon tax.”
Now try to parse that out – why should the Prime Minister of Canada be happy that Australia is eliminating its carbon tax? I mean, I understand why, if you thought that a carbon tax created unemployment – which no one who has studied any economics does think, but set that aside for the moment – you would not want there to be a carbon tax in Canada. It’s because the costs would be borne here in Canada, while most of the benefits – in the form of reduced carbon emissions – would be enjoyed by other countries. But if Australia has a carbon tax, by this logic, they are shouldering the costs, while we and others are getting the benefits. So where is the problem in that for us?
This is a good example of how trying to work through what Harper is thinking can be a bit crazy-making. He doesn’t think that Canada should cooperate with other nations, to help solve the problem of global warming, that much is clear. This is morally reprehensible, but perhaps not so surprising, given the free-rider incentive that Canada has, by virtue of its fossil fuel resources. But then Harper doesn’t even have a coherent free-rider position – if he did, he would want other nations to be engaged in carbon abatement, while we do nothing. So what is he thinking? Is it that he thinks carbon pricing is a socialist plot, and as such, more dangerous than global warming? Or does he have no view at all, he’s just shilling for the interests of the Alberta oil patch? Or is the whole thing just about uttering sentences that have tested well in focus groups, with none of it intended to add up to a coherent view?
I’m not trying to score political points here. I’m walking you through my thought-process, in order to shed some light on why Harper makes people like me crazy. As an intellectual, I want there to be some idea there, that I can grasp and analyze. There are lots of different types of conservatives whose ideas make perfect sense to me. Libertarians make sense to me. Christian social conservatives make sense to me. Right-wing economists make sense to me. David Frum even makes sense to me. I may disagree with them, but I understand quite well why they think what they think. But the Harper Government just makes no sense to me. And yet I’m hesitant to write the whole thing off as a cynical ploy – even though this would be a way of making sense of it. So I wind up feeling like this guy: