THE SUBTLE ART OF LOWERING EXPECTATIONS

Posted in Rants on January 16th, 2017 by Ed

I have a lot of Canadian friends and readers (hi!) who have contributed to an increase in the amount of attention I pay to politics up in America's northern ally. Among Americans I am no doubt in the top 0.01% in knowledge of Canadian affairs, which sounds impressive until you realize it means that I can 1) Name the PM, 2) Locate Canada on a map, which some Americans seriously cannot do, and 3) Offer a basic description of the party system and type of governing institutions they use. And I've even been there – several times! American Knowledge of Outside World Level: Expert.

Post-Harper (a man whose sole purpose seemed to make Brian Mulroney look dashing in comparison) the Canadians elected Justin Trudeau. Here's what people know about Trudeau in the U.S. One, he's hot. Two, he and Obama are friendly (which is a heuristic device that probably leads people who know this to assume, correctly as it happens, that they have some ideological similarities). Three, he's some kind of progressive liberal messiah.

Were any American able to explain Justin Trudeau or any foreign leader in this much detail it would be a small miracle and a victory for the forces of cosmopolitanism. However, there is one problem with this summary of Mr. Trudeau, a problem that I suspect exists both in Canada and in the U.S. He's not really much of a progressive. Sure, in the American political spectrum he'd count as a flaming leftist, but…he's really pretty center-left. From what I read, I conceive of him as a sort of Canadian Clinton. Which Clinton? Eh, take your pick. Trudeau is likely to the left of either, yet his actions in office leave little doubt that he is cut from the same "We are all neoliberals now" cloth. His positions on cultural issues are pretty solidly left, but in many of the more practical areas of governing he lines up with, as the commies used to say, the moneyed interests of…Canadian Wall Street. Is Canada's Wall Street just Wall Street? Wait, it's Bay Street. Well isn't that the cutest!

Part of the mistaken impression that Trudeau is a Left Wing Dreamboat comes from the broad erosion of what liberalism is since 1990, the "New Labour / New Democrat" movement's long term effects on the rightward drift of the center point on the ideological spectrum. There are adults – adults with voting rights – who literally believe that people like Bill Clinton and Tony Blair are hardcore Communists, or whatever language they would use to describe the most extreme left-wing political positions imaginable. This is frightening and amusing in equal measures, and it is solely the fault of the mainstream liberal parties in the affected countries. The Democratic Party didn't just wake up one morning and find itself Republican Lite. They chose to throw in the towel and wrap their arms around NAFTA and "Welfare reform" and everything else that makes Bill Clinton literally the most effective Republican president of the 20th Century.

That said, one of the most worrying aspects of this new Age of Nationalism, with far right movements and their leaders flourishing in Europe, India, Asia, Russia, and now the United States, we will shift the ideological spectrum even further to the right. Far enough that basically anyone who isn't a fascist is going to look like a progressive. While it is fair and accurate for observers to claim that just about anyone would be better than Trump, when Paul Ryan starts to look like a reasonable statesman or Rick Perry stands out among the Cabinet as a voice of reason and professionalism, you've seriously lowered your standards. And just as the public got used to centrist Rockefeller Republican types like Bill Clinton and Tony Blair as the most extreme conceivable political left, give this five or ten years and we may be living in a world where Paul Ryan is a liberal firebrand. No, I don't mean that Ryan will be moving to the left. I mean that if you stare at the Le Pens and Trumps and Putins and Dudas and Modis of the world for long enough, just about anyone is going to look like Eugene Debs in comparison.

What this means, in essence, is that a further erosion of what "the left" and "liberal" mean is as likely to be the result of this as any kind of left wing rebirth and resurgence. I can attest that it is indeed possible to walk around comfortably in a t-shirt in 50 degree weather once the body has acclimated to several months of Chicago winter.