Political Colour-Coding, Past and Future

Political Colour-Coding, Past and Future.

American political reporting has lately adopted a practice confusing to the rest of the English-speaking world, by using ‘red states’ for those voting predominantly to the right, ‘blue states’ for those mainly voting to the left, the opposite of the way these colours are used elsewhere. Everyone, however, still agrees on the political meaning of ‘green’. Colour political labels sometimes cover some oddly mixed peoples and ideas, but can be instructive, especially if they are provided with historical context.

Even in the U. S., outside this recent odd classification of states on electoral maps, ‘red’ has long been the term, both approving and derisory, for radical and socialist political ideas and movements, both democratic and more hardline Marxist, pressing for ‘redistribution’, or sometimes uncompensated expropriation, of assets and income from a rather vaguely-defined ‘rich’ to an equally ill-defined larger population. ‘Blue’ can be most consistently defined as simple opposition to the notions and policies of the reds. In its mainly British and historical use, it has been more a term for conservative traditionalism than for ardent pro-capitalism; even in post-Thatcher England, blue Toryism still retains a touch of aristocratic opposition to modernism in general, capitalist as well as socialist. ‘Green’ is roughly synonymous with ‘environmentalism’, which implies considerable governmental control over private enterprises, in the energy and resource sectors especially, although it is also sometimes assumed that greenery can be compatible with a suitably regulated capitalist economy.

No matter which political colour most appeals to particular individuals, or whether, as is sometimes the case, two or three struggle with each other in their minds and hearts, it is less often realized that all of them have been permanent features of the democratic political landscape for at least a century, and that they have waxed and waned for other reasons than the enthusiasm and activism of their particular champions. Recalling just why this has been the case can provide some helpful guidance about likely political directions in the future.

Favouring blue has been something of a loser’s game for at least a century and a half. Capitalist society, industrialized or post-industrialized and heavily urbanized, is permanently revolutionary by its very nature. Constant scientific and technological innovation, and the attraction of novelty itself in a society of mass consumption, assure this endless movement. Hence conservative traditionalists, even when they have good philosophical and practical arguments, nearly always find themselves engaged in a constant struggle with the Zeitgeist, and are compelled to an ironic and stoic pessimism, somewhat relieved by amusement at the latest human follies.

But matters have seldom gone all that well for reds and greens either. Both like to assume that they are oriented to the future, and both usually get it wrong, partly due to frequent misunderstanding or outright dismissal of any lessons from the historical past. Real democratic politics, past, present, and future, is above all about priorities, and top priorities, which may not correspond to any of the colours, have a strong tendency to stifle other ones altogether. The priorities change above all due to the effects of war and peace, of prosperity or recession, of shifting population demographics or of pervasive new technologies, sometimes quickly, more often so gradually that the change may not at first be recognized at all.

There was a substantial green political movement in the early years of the 20th century, then called ‘conservationism’, with some differences in both supporters and purposes from the present environmentalist wave, but still with a lot of overlap. It had its most famous champion in President Teddy Roosevelt, and had several lasting consequences, like the creation of national parks, restrictions on hunting and fishing, and the first legislation curbing industrial pollution. Many of the favourite ideas that went with it, everything from worship of the outdoors to eugenics, endured for the next couple of decades, showing up in the platforms of everyone from Boy Scouts and nudists to Nazis. But green was still a largely declining political enthusiasm from 1914 to at least the 1960s, in some ways even up to the last years of the 20th century.

In historical retrospect, the reasons for green decline are obvious: the two World Wars, the Great Depression of the 1930s, and the Cold War for the half-century following World War II. Red politics had been a major factor from the start of the century, was given an additional boost by the worldwide impact of the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, and another one by the mass unemployment of the 1930s. But the Western world’s blues largely survived the red assault for four reasons. The first was that the Marxist-Leninist version of socialism was more and more revealed, decade after decade, to be more of a nightmare than a dream come true, frequently finding its bitterest opponents among disillusioned onetime believers; the second was that the general expansion of the welfare state in the 1930s and 1940s reduced or eliminated many of the discontents of democratic majorities; the third was that both hot war and cold war concentrated antagonisms in national, rather than class terms; and the fourth was that an increasingly consumer-oriented capitalism acquired its own powerful appeal in providing a cornucopia of new goods and services, and many years of full and well-paid employment as well.

All of these factors had already gone through large changes by the 1990s, and in a way that initially gave new impetus to green politics. The greens could absorb from the reds a great deal of youthful idealism, and of the portrayal of the future as a stark choice between apocalyptic darkness and a and better-‘designed’ future. Ironically enough, the very prosperity being provided by a now globally expanding capitalism, along with a brief respite from wars and fears of wars, provided an apparent opportunity for an expanding and intensified environmental concern, given a central focus with claims about the threat of global warming.

However, the continuing effects of ‘low level warfare’ since 9/11 and the post-2008 revelation of a weak and fragile economy, presently unable to restore full employment, both suggest that political colour-coding is probably now entering another shift. Terrorism and localized wars now appear as an unpleasant but durable feature of the new century, difficult to end with either decisive victory or diplomatic negotiation, and inescapable as central concerns of policymakers. Environmentalists, meanwhile, will resist the surprising new possibilities of vast increases in energy production through shale fracking for natural gas, but are much less likely to prevail than they might have a decade ago. Just as, in the 1930s, factory chimneys puffing black smoke were more often seen as an indicator of jobs in the offing than of deplorable pollution, shale gas offers a similar prospect now, with only secondary concern about consequent CO2 emissions.

The reds may be coming back as well, for the moment repeating the anarchist follies of almost exactly a century ago rather than rediscovering Lenin, but in any case, getting more of a hearing with calls for the redistribution of wealth than has been the case for many decades. But it is difficult to reconcile demands that capitalism spread its wealth more equitably and offer more jobs with demands that it reduce or eliminate its most promising sources of future profits altogether in the name of cleaner air. An make angry split is likely to open between green leftism and red leftism. Should this be the case, blues may continue to sleep soundly in their beds.


The Hinge of 1980 and Tomorrow’s Federal Conservative Politics

The Hinge of 1980 and Tomorrow’s Federal Conservative Politics.

In the era of Louis Saint-Laurent, 1948-57, the Ottawa parliamentary journalists were a boozy but deferential crew. They used to line up daily in a row outside 24 Sussex Drive, notepads and pencils in hand, in descending order of clout, with the Globe & Mail correspondent in pole position, and when Saint-Laurent emerged, the G & M man would ask him, “Do you have any words for us today, Mr. Prime Minister?” Sometimes, he would deign to provide a few; at others, he would merely sweep on to his waiting car.

In those days, even scholarly biographies about Prime Ministers safely dead were still discreet about their private lives. Juicier gossip circulated only among personal intimates, or among journalists quaffing after-hours libations. But a new age was inaugurated in 1963 by Peter Newman’s Renegade in Power, an entertaining and heartless portrait of John Diefenbaker and his government, which appeared not only when Diefenbaker was still alive, but would still be House Opposition Leader for another decade. Mixing psychological pontification and gossipy revelation, it was the first Canadian book of its kind, and provided the template for many later ones over the next five decades by writers like Jeffrey Simpson and Lawrence Martin.

Most such books are quickly forgotten, largely written for their political moment. The combined impacts of the 1965-75 arrival of the baby boom, and the two subsequent decades of pop culture hegemony by the television networks, alike created a synthetic reality in which there was no past and no future, only an eternal present. While the newer generations of journalists by then were all university graduates, many came from undergraduate studies in political science and psychology. Since so much of politics is about current events and opinion, the historical intellectual formation of leading politicians usually received only cursory coverage.

However, there are some instructive lessons that can be learned from looking at the main personal influences on Prime Ministers in general; not those of the moment, but those that shaped them in their youth, usually about three decades preceding their arrival in power. Mackenzie King, for example, never entirely ceased to be an eccentric Edwardian. Lester Pearson was shaped by his experience of the First World War and the 1920s. Pierre Trudeau, after a youthful Quebec flirtation with Catholic political corporatism, drew his more enduring prejudices from French and British Marxist intellectuals he encountered in London and Paris in the late 1940s. Brian Mulroney drew on his own recollection of the Diefenbaker years.

In this light, the years from 1979 to 1984 now appear as a fateful hinge. The fumbling ineptness of the Joe Clark Conservative minority government of 1979 concluded with the loss of a Commons confidence vote, and an election that returned Pierre Trudeau to power one more time. He had shown his continuing attachment to Marxism in his approach to international affairs, but in domestic matters, his first decade in office had been preoccupied by the stagflation economy of the 1970s, and by the problem of PQ nationalism. However, in his unexpected last hurrah, he saw his last opportunity to apply what he had learned at the feet of Harold Laski at LSE in the late 1940s. He could at least apply socialist policy to the energy sector, to the fury of Albertans.

FIRA and NEP were, however, very rapidly revealed as disastrous failures. Their inherent difficulties aside, Trudeau’s timing could scarcely have been worse.. The 1960s wave of Canadian popular enthusiasm for economic nationalism had faded. Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher were convincing, not only many of their own citizens, but many Canadians, that a more lightly-taxed and deregulated capitalism was a better path to domestic well-being than state ownership. Worse, a dive in the world oil price took the schemes of Trudeau and Marc Lalonde down with it. Their statist policies in the end led to an actual increase in American ownership in the oil and gas industry. By Trudeau’s last years, the Royal Commission that he had launched to find a different economic course was reporting the advisability of something closer to free trade with the U. S., to which Brian Mulroney became a late but enthusiastic convert.

Stephen Harper, it is also worth recalling, was twenty-one in 1980, and was in the course of going through a double conversion. Once a young Ontario Liberal and Trudeau admirer, he switched to becoming an Albertan, an Imperial Oil employee like his accountant father, and a free-market economist policy wonk. He and other small-c conservatives could learn in detail about the failure of Trudeau statism in Peter Foster’s The Sorcerer’s Apprentices. Less often recalled, he and his politically activist contemporaries drew at least as important a lesson from another book of the time, Jeffrey Simpson’s Discipline of Power.

Simpson’s book above all instructed bright young wonkish conservatives about the prerogatives and pitfalls of Prime Ministerial leadership. Trudeau had fully understood the new political world, one in which the constant greatest threat to the government in power no longer came from the party opposition in the House of Commons, but from the media itself. He had greatly expanded and further empowered the PMO and PCO, allowing him to conduct something of a Divine Right quasi-monarchy, dealing directly with the public and sailing by Parliament and even his own Cabinet. The great secret was ‘discipline’ and ‘control of the message’. Clark’s complete failure in this regard did far more to damage his government than its policy choices.

Twenty-five years later, the lesson that Harper carried into his own minority governments was nicely matched to his personal temperament. He would create a Conservative government that would never again be made a media laughing stock, not by attempting Mulroney’s pursuit of consensus and somewhat unsuccessful cultivation of journalists, but by still further expanding and strengthening the PMO and PCO, and imposing a level of discipline and message control that would make Trudeau look like an amiable populist. Or to be more Machiavellian, he concluded that fear worked better than attempts to win affection. It is tempting to suggest that he may also eventually stumble, in his continuing Black Mass of the Trudeau years, by eventually making a return to the pure market ideology that was as firmly fixed in his own ideas thirty years earlier as Trudeau remained firmly fixed at the feet of Harold Laski, and try to do so at a time when unregulated capitalism has fallen into as much ill repute as statist socialism had in 1980.

This suggests a lesson for young conservatives today, small-c or large-C They may be already dividing themselves between ‘anti-ideological’ pragmatists and principled quasi-libertarians, a division that has gone on for a century or more. But both could learn something by looking at Trudeau and Harper together, and the 30-year time lag, and keeping a sense of historical perspective on the three decades that lie ahead. It is quite possible that, by 2040 or earlier, both the Canadian general public and the intellectual vanguard may have become as iiritated by rising Alberta as Alberta has long been irritated by Ontario and Quebec,, and equally fatigued with Harper’s dictatorially centralized control. The essence of true conservatism is a constant sense of history, including the realization that politics should be neither exclusively a matter of economic efficiency or equity, nor a mere rhetorically-shrouded opportunism. It should always recognize its obligations to the living, the dead, and the not-yet born.