Stephen Harper versus the intellectuals

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:



Stephen Harper versus the intellectuals — 12 Comments

    • Thanks, fixed that. A little voice in the back of my head was telling me I was probably confused, which you confirmed.

  1. The funny thing is that Harper has gotten quite a bit of support from conservative intellectuals, most notably Barry Cooper, Tom Flanagan (who’s served as CPC campaign director) and Ian Brodie (who also served as Harper’s first chief of staff when he formed the government).

    One possible explanation for many of Harper’s actions might be the “incrementalism” described by Tom Flanagan. The government makes small, gradual changes that build support for the party and its leadership, which in turn eventually pave the way for bigger reforms and ultimately make Canada a more conservative country.

    The catch with this strategy-and it’s one that’s driven other Tories nuts-is that Harper has had to do several things that are considered very un-conservative in order to stay in office. The situation is not unlike that encountered by the Bolsheviks under Lenin after they seized power, and Lenin initiated the New Economic Policy allowing a limited market economy to develop. The NEP served its purpose by creating some stability and allowing the Bolsheviks to cement their grip on power.

    The situations are different, of course, but there are some interesting parallels between the strategies.

  2. I think it is possible to make sense of Harper’s approach, but you have to be really, really, amazingly cynical. Harper’s policies are intended to increase the wealth, power and control of certain groups of elites, and the project is treated as a zero-sum or even negative-sum game in which their gain is everyone else’s loss. Yes, particularly the Canadian portion of the membership of those elites, but while these people may live a good part of the time in Canada and be Canadian citizens, they tend to be international in their outlook, e.g. be the CEOs of the Canadian branches of transnational corporations, invest internationally, keep much of their money in overseas tax havens, and so on and so forth.

    This has numerous implications. One is that they know their project goes against most of our interests, and yet they need our votes to keep on doing it. Hence the constant attempts to eliminate information, whether the census, stopping various kinds of scientists from talking, trashing national libraries and whatnot: The presumption is that knowledge, any knowledge, poses a risk of letting us know about the things that are getting worse because of their policies.
    On the criminal justice front (and the spy front), the result is that Harper policies have nothing to do with crime or security and so seem to make no sense. What they have to do with is social control; they know their policies are creating or will create an ever-larger underclass, and a major increase in insecurity and precarity for the “middle class”, the educated “class” if you want to call it that, and so on. The point of law-and-order policies, and “security” oriented stuff like Bill C-51, is to be able to lock away indigents, troublemakers and so forth and to be able to keep track of dissidents, non-establishment political enemies. There’s an interesting Canadian book called “Cops, Crime and Capitalism” which describes the remarkable similarity between modern tough-on-crime policies and moral panics, and policies used during other times of high social/income polarization. When your policy is to reduce wages and keep the low-waged from rebelling by making sure there are plenty of desperate people ready to take those jobs, you need to contain those desperate people. So the point of “tough on crime” policies is mainly to criminalize what people do if they are poor, jobless, homeless et cetera, so that those people can be kept out of sight, locked away if they create a nuisance and so on.

    In this light, global warming oddities such as the congratulation to Tony Abbott represent solidarity among global energy-capitalist elites, banding together to block any international policies that might threaten to bind them. Now and then, there are also policies that aren’t intended to do anything at all (such as laws written in the clear knowledge they will be struck down by the courts), crafted solely based on their saleability to groups of voters, out of the grudging realization that they must get someone to vote for them if they’re to continue robbing us. They would much rather pass doomed legislation to gain support than pass legislation that will help large enough blocks of voters to get elected on substantive grounds, because any resources used to help large blocks of voters are unavailable for their tiny upper elite constituency to plunder.

    It all looks senseless if you start by imagining that the policies are about governing Canada, for instance that crime policies are about reducing crime or helping victims or are about crime at all. But if you take it as part of a general package for advancing a quite different agenda, it all becomes surprisingly coherent.

  3. Oh, one thing I missed out: It is useful to this project for the jobless underclasses to actively suffer. The more miserable their lives are, the more the employed will do anything, suffer terrible pay and conditions, rather than join their ranks. Hence the many measures related to Employment Insurance, for instance, which actually cost far more money than they save, but whose major impact is to make the experience of joblessness as humiliating as possible. These measures, such as all the hoops and inspections supposedly to avoid fraud but which cost more than the fraud would, and all the mandatory bogus trainings and check-ins to prove that one is seeking work and so on, are there in part precisely to create that humiliation–that and to help create more social division, demonizing the poor so that the rest of society will keep voting for the party that mistreats them.
    So anyone looking at social safety net policies through the lens of making an effective social safety net that makes people less miserable, or helping people become employed, or things like that, will feel Harper-type policies are senseless if they do not realize that the point is almost the reverse: To keep the pool of unemployed fairly large and as miserable and destitute as possible, the better to depress wages among the employed and so increase profits.

  4. Let’s suppose you believe that ideas matter, that norms matter, that they can gain a sense of inevitability, and that people around the world can loosely co-ordinate according to shared ideology. So for example, it’s not a coincidence that gay marriage passed by referendum in Ireland the same year the US Supreme Court decided Obergefell v Hodges. If you were campaigning for gay marriage in (let’s say) Austria, you’d cheer both decisions, not merely because you thought that those other countries were doing the right thing (in your opinion), but also because they make the same policy more likely in Austria, by providing both a descriptive and a normative model.

    So when Harper congratulates Abbott, he’s not just cheering him for making (in Harper’s opinion) the right decision for his country. He’s also pointing to Australia’s decision here as a model for Canada. Praising Abbott is (indirectly) praising himself, and saying to Canadian voters – look, Australia is getting this right, and we can too.

    It’s really not complicated. It only becomes complicated when you start (as you do here) from the principle that Abbott’s actions are obviously selfish and reprehensible and only make sense in terms of narrow Australian self-interest.

  5. Interesting piece. I thin however it misses an important point. I do not think that the actions and policies of the Harper Government can be understood from a rational public policy perspective. I, like you, also think they make little sense through that lens. What I think, however, is that they do have a rationale that can be understood. I am not at all a supporter of their policies, so do not read me wrong: this is not a plea to support their policies. It is rather a tentative explanation to understand how they think.

    I see their policies as a set of coherent actions to influence mentalities in the long run. They are terraforming the political landscape. They seek to change the minds of voters.

    For instance, consistently blaming the liberals, the centrist party, helps them forge a view of politics where right vs left is the natural alternance in Canada, as opposed to a longstanding tradition of the LPC as the “natural governing party”. As such, they favour their odds of returning to power, as it is probably easier to beat the “socialists” than the middle of the road.

    Following that train of thought, I think the CPC sees the surge of the NDP as a good sign. Even if they do not win the current campaign, they probably think it would be much easier for them to win the next round.

    Another good example is the abolition of the mandatory requirements of the long form census. My guess is not that they care that much about the privacy concerns. After all, from a public policy perspective, there are much more intrusive questionnaires conducted by Statistics Canada to be abolished before the (long-form) census.

    However, the census is the basis for accurate (weighted) data. By impairing this function, they weaken the very nature of data-driven policies. This, in turns, gives room for ideology based policies. Lack of any relevant data, criticizing any of their policy (building federal prisons, for instance) amounts simply to having different opinions.

    I could go on and on with perceptions on trade deals, terrorism, defense of tar sands, their behaviour with medias, socialism, and so on. but they would come back to the same point: the rationale for their behaviour is an afterthought of their long term goals. It bears little connection with the logic of a “good policy”. They are governing to win.

    If one acknowledges that the main driver for their policies as little to do with the rationale of good public policies, it seems to me that any argument with them in that sphere is pointless. It is not what will change their mind.

    As an intellectual who do not suppoer their policies, the next question is then the dilemma of active politics versus intellectual integrity. Is the prospect of having better policies in the long run better than the rhetorics required to defeat them? Or should rhetoric to convince the masess be avoided, at the price of having no influence in the game?

    This dilemma is perhaps too sharp: it might be possible, after all, to be both intellectually honest and influential at the same time. But I tend to agree with you that people in academia are averse to rhetoric, which makes them vastly irrelevant by the little number of votes they sway.

    The rhetoric path might also transform intellectuals into the beast they seek to defeat.

    In my case, I solved this dilemma a long time ago. And with a much simpler yardstick: I am tired of loosing.

  6. pab, the issue IMO is not that their policies are “ideologically based”. They’d be happy to gather the data if either
    (a) They could keep it secret, or
    (b) People didn’t get to vote.
    The point is that the particular ideology their decisions are based on is one which does not involve benefiting most people, which in fact believes in robbing the majority of people to benefit a few. Since the majority of people get to vote, it’s important to them that that majority doesn’t find out the truth. They’d be happy enough to have the data, but in general they already know what they need to do, so it’s more important to them that we don’t have information than that they do.

    If a government came along with an ideology that called for benefiting the majority, its desire for information on how to do that would go along with the desire to be elected rather than cutting against it, so such an “ideologically based” policy would call for gathering and publicizing much more information.

  7. Mr. Heath, I’m a fan. I like how you communicate your positions without being condescending to right-leaning Canadians. As a right-winger, I appreciate that.

    Anyways, I think I can help shed some light on the conflict between Harper and Intellectuals. I think you overlooked a core aspect behind Harper’s positions: the principles behind them.

    The reason why Harper doesn’t take “intellectual” policies seriously is because it doesn’t matter to him. For Harper and Conservatives (I’m including myself here) what matters is the principle behind mandatory minimums. Conservatives don’t care about the crime rate. They don’t care how the crime rate is affected by policy. What they care about is the principle of having long sentences for serious crimes.

    That same logic easily applies to our mission in Iraq. For Harper and Conservatives it doesn’t matter (to a certain extent) the consequences of bombing ISIS. What matters is the principle of doing something.

    Conservative policies tend to be heavily influenced by individual principles, or what Conservatives think the principles and values of the country should be.

    • I think I understand the point you’re trying to articulate, but three problems immediately present themselves to me. The first is that the point of confusion is not regarding what principle or set of principles the Harper Conservatives have or are trying to apply, it’s that the decisions being made by the Harper Conservatives don’t reveal any coherent set of principles at all. If someone isn’t consistently applying principles, then it’s not clear to me how they can be described as the “core aspect” of that person’s position. In fact, without the consistency, it’s not clear they should count as principles at all. Saying that the confusion results because the left doesn’t understand that the right acts on principles doesn’t really help if you don’t name those principles and then describe exactly how the actions taken reflect them.

      The second point is that it seems disingenuous to say that the crime rate doesn’t matter to the Harper Conservatives (or conservatives more generally) when one of the main selling points for the tough-on-crime position is the interest in public safety. Since Mr. Harper has made a point of reminding Canadians about his interest in their safety with regards to cyber-bullying and national security threats, I don’t understand how you can seriously maintain the position that the crime rate doesn’t matter to conservatives. Maintaining that position actually results in a rather cynical view of the party you’re trying to support: any appeal to public safety in advocating for harsher penalties could only be interpreted as some kind of populist appeal to get one’s own way, and devoid of any genuine concern.

      The third problem has to do with your comment about the mission in Iraq. You say that the motivation is “the principle of doing something”, and that the consequences don’t matter–well, they do, but just “to a certain extent”. To what extent? If life is made worse for the people the mission is attempting to rescue (say, by collateral damage or further political destabilization), should the mission be abandoned? There doesn’t appear to be any principle to determine that, based on what you’ve said. This is why the appeal to principle that you’re making is, at best, unhelpful: there isn’t any principle to actually point to. When you say the principle is “doing something”, then it seems that anything will do. I guess what I’m trying to say can be summed up as “We’ll know when we get there” isn’t a coherent principle, it’s just flying by the seat of your pants. That’s why Mr. Harper’s actions are so confusing. Unless, of course, you choose to write the whole thing off as a cynical ploy.

  8. As a full time academic/intellectual but only part time paid educator (hence the handle), I think the revealing comment by NorthernZealot — and the extent to which it reflects why conservative are stuck in 1980s — is the notion that countries are stable and singularly identifiable entities such that principles and values can apply to them.

    Advocates of many ideologies and religions but conservatives especially seem utterly oblivious to how radically new media technology over the past 30 years has created wholly new environments and contexts for human being — that is, the manifold and non-negotiably contingent ways in which each and every one of us makes sense of the world on their own terms.

    McLuhan was well on to this in the 1960s, when Canada in his view (and he meant this in a positive way that only an English professor could do) was a “backward country” — meaning it was still comfortably ensconced in its own very literate mythologies that, not coincidentally, were built on certain “principles” and other tropes (peace keepers; dutiful; polite; and the like).

    Non-backward countries like the United States were by contrast well lubricated by television, and had the JFK assassination and the Viet Nam war to play it out. No accident, then, that the personal computer revolution starts in the US at a time when we were still horsing around with Telidon (a kludgy teletex incarnation) — the contrast symbolic of a nation on fire with roll your own reality, compared to the Canadian impulse to institutionalize reality.

    Conservatives, to survive, need to first know what century they’re in. Failing that, their governance is bound to be reactive, dismissive and decidedly hostile to not just any purveyor of principles and idea not rigidly in alignment with their own, but to the notion especially that principles, ideas and values need to be responsive to necessarily evolving contexts.

  9. I think the question of understanding is a good one.

    I think that PM Harper and many of his supporters share a deep fear of Communism that was established during the Cold War, and rightly so for many reasons. Communism was an existential threat geopolitically and a formidable force intellectually. Perhaps some contemporary Conservatives developed their intellectual world views in reaction, by seeking out philosophies that provided especially potent alternatives.

    It seems like ‘Communism’ is rarely used in political discourse today but I see the word socialism often expressed with a certain fright by Conservative politicians. I see socialism as the current bête noire and inheritor of past emotion.

    The starting position of existential fear of socialism can drive a lot of disparate policies that might look unrelated at first glance. Any form of market regulation is socialist in nature and morally odious. The means are unacceptable no matter the ends. I think this is another way of saying the policy is principled like NorthernZealot explained. Plus urgent action is needed, always and continuously, to protect state sovereignty and security of the person from threats.

    J Heath, J Boyse, Doob and Webster are looking for coherence in ends in my view, i.e., an understandable narrative toward some final outcomes. I think most progressives take an outcome-based measure of policy success for granted but a fair number of Conservatives see it differently, where the means carry more weight.

    The very engaging Merchants of Doubt made me think of the intellectual lineage from Communism to socialism and forms of regulation and I strongly recommend it.