From the “New Right” to the “Alt-Right”

What just happened this week American politics seems all too familiar to those who remember the past. Yet in another sense, we have never seen anything like this before.

Barry GoldwaterFifty-two years ago Barry Goldwater, backed by a populist grass-roots movement and skilled political operators, defeated his moderate rivals to win the Republican presidential nomination. It was a seminal turning point in American politics.

The Goldwater campaign took political ideals that until then had been promoted only by fringe groups like the John Birch Society and brought them into mainstream political discourse. It marked the creation of what soon came to be known as “The New Right.”

Goldwater’s campaign policies ultimately proved to be far too radical for the American public at the time. In the presidential election he carried only five states and suffered one of the worst political defeats in American history.

But activists for the New Right seized on the momentum that the Goldwater campaign had provided. A key handful of political operatives (notably Paul Weyrich, Richard Viguerie, Morton Blackwell, Howard Phillips and Terry Dolan) worked tirelessly to perpetuate the new movement. They founded a host of conservative political organizations, publications, media outlets, and think tanks to promote their right-wing agenda, and branded it as a genuinely populist movement. By 1980 their chosen candidate, Ronald Reagan not only won the Republican nomination, but went on to win the presidential election as well in a landslide victory.

220pxPresident_Reagan_1981Over the next three decades Reagan served as the public standard-bearer for the New Right, so much so that the movement became synonymous with his name. Fiscal conservatism (small government & lower taxes) and a strong military were the original twin pillars of the new right.

Unmentioned in polite political discourse, but well established in fact, was the en masse defection of Southern Democrats opposed to the Civil Rights legislation of President Johnson who gravitated to the Republican Party. The Republican Party proved quite willing to accommodate the racist attitudes of many of these Southerners.

During the Reagan years activists like Paul Weyrich also sought to formally add a third pillar to the New Right’s platform – that of social conservatism. It focused extensively on anti-abortion legislation, opposition to gay rights, abstinence education in schools, and defeating the Equal Rights Amendment.

falwell_ht_timeThese efforts were ultimately successful, creating a strong alliance with the Moral Majority (which spun off into a separate short-lived political movement in 1989) and a more long-lasting alliance with the Christian Right that continues today. During this time most moderate Republicans were either forced out of the party or voluntarily left on their own.

Since 1964 The Republican Party has continued to shift rightward in its policies, making many of Goldwater’s and Reagan’s policy ideals seem moderate by comparison. By the 1990s Barry Goldwater was being ostracized by other Republicans for being too moderate in his views.

As I reported in a previous blog,

In 1996, Barry Goldwater sat in his Paradise Valley home with Bob Dole [the Republican nominee that year] and joked about his strange new standing as a GOP outsider. ”We’re the new liberals of the Republican Party,” Goldwater told Dole, who was then facing criticisms from hard-line conservatives in the presidential campaign. ”Can you imagine that?”

Tea-Party-Polls-Show-Importance-To-GOP-BaseSince the election of Barack Obama as President in 2008, the Republican Party has shifted even further to the right, as evidenced in the rapid growth of a new populist faction known as the Tea Party in the 2010 mid-term elections.

When Bob Dole was asked in a 2013 interview with Mike Wallace,

Could people like Bob Dole, even Ronald Reagan, could you make it in today’s Republican Party?

he replied,

I doubt it. … Reagan wouldn’t have made it. Certainly Nixon couldn’t have made it.

Some have wondered what could be next in the Republican Party’s steady march to embrace ever more extreme right-wing policies.

Enter Donald Trump.

The New “Alt-Right”

donald-trump-1Since the beginning of his campaign to win the Republican presidential nomination, Donald Trump has mounted a distinctively populist campaign focused on winning the support of what has turned out to be a core group of older white voters who feel that their economic livelihoods and personal security are being threatened by “others” – those who are not like themselves. Often resorting to crude and vitriolic attacks, Trump has singled out Blacks, Hispanic migrants, and Muslims as being at the root of America’s problems.

Trump’s Campaign Chairman, Paul Manafort, has repeatedly tried to get Trump to tone down his rhetoric and start acting “more presidential” to broaden his appeal. But this week Trump declared in an interview with station WKBT in Wisconsin,

Everyone talks about, ‘Oh, well, you’re going to pivot. … I don’t want to pivot. I mean, you have to be you.

Another regular object of Trump’s attacks has been “the Republican establishment” in general and the RNC [the Republican National Committee] in particular. Tensions have been growing within the RNC for some time over Trump’s frequently erratic behaviour, emotional outbursts, and outrageous statements. Many prominent Republicans have refused to support him, and some have even left the Party. Yet Trump’s populist message continues to enjoy strong support within his supportive base.

Last week there seemed to be a resolution to the feuding between the RNC and the Trump camp. On August 12 it was reported that the Trump team would be meeting with Republican Party officials in what was termed a “come to Jesus” moment for the Trump team to “patch up a rift that just keeps unfolding.” RNC Chairman Reince Priebus personally introduced Trump at a rally later that day and even embraced him on stage.

steve-bannonThe RCN was subsequently taken by complete surprise with the bombshell announcement the following Wednesday that Steve Bannon, the Chairman of Breitbart News, had been recruited to be the new CEO for the Trump campaign. Two days later Paul Manafort announced his resignation as Campaign Chairman.

Under Steve Bannon’s editorship Breitbart News has savagely attacked the RNC and its leadership on many issues including failing to take a strong stance against Muslims and immigrants. One Republican House member was quoted as saying,

Breitbart has no credibility outside of the most extreme conservative wing of our party. … This would seem to signal that Trump is ready to go double-barrel against all of Washington, Republicans and Democrats alike.

He then added,

Breitbart takes a flamethrower to Washington and plays very loose with the facts. I would anticipate an even more bellicose, even less-connected-to-the-facts approach from the Trump campaign moving forward.

AltRightIt should also be noted that Bannon, who took over Breitbart News in 2012, has since then built the news service into a major voice for what is termed the “alt-right,” peddling a steady stream of “white identity, misogyny, anti-Semitism, and Clinton conspiracies.”

In fact, a former Breitbart News spokesperson (who has since resigned in protest) has complained to ABC News that Bannon “regularly disparaged minorities, women and immigrants during daily editorial calls” at Breitbart and that editorial meetings presided over by Bannon sounded “like a white supremacist rally.”

Meanwhile, white nationalists and white supremacists speak glowingly of Breitbart News. Richard Spencer, who heads a white supremacist think tank (the National Policy Institute), has proudly claimed that

Breitbart and Bannon have helped Alt Right ideas gain legitimacy—and, more importantly, exponentially expand their audiences.

Steve Bannon and Donald Trump see eye to eye on most matters. Trump has long depended on Breitbart News for many of the “facts” he quotes at his rallies and the conspiracy theories he embraces. It is expected to be an enduring partnership, even if Trump looses the presidential race. Bannon will be in an excellent position to expand his “news” network with the backing of Trump much as the now disgraced Roger Ailes did in creating Fox News after playing a key role in Ronald Reagan’s and George H. W. Bush’s presidential campaigns.

With Ailes departing the Fox Network, could Bannon become the new media voice for a newly branded Republican Party? That’s not such a far-fetched idea. We have already seen in the original “New Right” movement just how effective media outlets run by well-placed conservative operatives can be in creating a durable political movement.

In his own version of populist rhetoric, Donald Trump has repeatedly announced his refusal to be “politically correct.” He has made it acceptable at his political rallies to demean women, to denounce Hispanic migrants, to attack Muslims, to assault Blacks, and to spread conspiracies, lies and falsehoods at will.

Trump has campaigned on a platform of misogyny, xenophobia, hatred and bullying. He is directing his campaign toward a growing base of older white voters who share his racist, nativist views. He has become the new face of the Republican Party as he personally takes it into its next phase of right-wing extremism. Welcome to the Republican Party of the future.

Who would have imagined 52 years ago that it would come to this?

Photo credit: Danny Moloshok/Invision/AP

Preparing for President Trump

Trump - RNCThis week Donald J. Trump was formally declared to be the Republican nominee for President of the United States. In his acceptance speech Trump capitalized on fear, presenting a dystopian view of America, and blaming blacks, Hispanic migrants, Muslims, and foreign actors for America’s woes.

KKK leader David Duke claimed that he could not have said it any better. A fact check of Trump’s statements reveals nearly every one to be a distortion of the facts.  It is well worth reading.

Throughout his campaign for the presidency, Trump has promised to bring a grand solution to America’s problems without supplying any details and without providing any kind of roadmap for getting there. In his acceptance speech he presented himself as the “law and order” candidate, the strongman America needs in its hour of peril who will singlehandedly deliver America from its internal and external enemies.

His message was simple and direct: Trust me. I am the only one who can save America. “I am the only one who can do this.” trump-stagejpg-d661c16fd81ea8d7Against the massive backdrop of the stage – changed overnight from RNC silver to Trump gold – and with his name emblazoned bigger than anyone could imagine, the message was clear that this event marked the coronation of “King Trump.”

To be quite honest, I genuinely fear for America’s future. The fact that 40% or more of Americans polled say they actually support Donald Trump for president scares me. I still believe that he will not win the election. He is far too divisive, polarizing, narcissistic, bombastic, nasty, and erratic to win the confidence of the majority of Americans. (At least I fervently hope this is the case.)

Donald Trump-aBut Donald Trump has accomplished one very important thing. He has (likely permanently) changed ground rules of campaigning.

In making his statement that “we will not be politically correct” a near constant theme in his campaign (and in not being called out on it by a timid media),

Trump has succeeded in normalizing hate speech in American politics.

He has normalized lying and deception.

He has normalized scapegoating and personal attacks.

He has normalized demonizing one’s opponents.

He has normalized misogyny and xenophobia.

He has normalized fear mongering and physical attacks on other.

He has made all of these things “acceptable.”

We can expect to see these tactics employed again in future campaigns. I am not so much worried that Donald Trump will be able to use them to go all the way to the White House. I am worried about what a future, less abrasive and controversial candidate may do with these tools.

America has never been closer to embracing authoritarian fascist-like leadership than at this moment. I am not saying that Donald Trump is a fascist. I am not name-calling. I am merely pointing out, as others have before me [see here and here], that he has been using a standard set of tools from the fascist playbook from the very beginning. We have seen it played out before in the populist rise of Mussolini, Hitler, and Franco two generations ago.

The great battle on the world stage at that time was to defeat this right-wing authoritarian autocratic form of government known as fascism. Now, under the banner of “Make America Strong,” Americans seem willing to embrace it on their own soil. As Alan Gopnik recently warned in the New Yorker,

If Trump came to power, there is a decent chance that the American experiment would be over. This is not a hyperbolic prediction; it is not a hysterical prediction; it is simply a candid reading of what history tells us happens in countries with leaders like Trump. Countries don’t really recover from being taken over by unstable authoritarian nationalists of any political bent, left or right—not by Peróns or Castros or Putins or Francos or Lenins or fill in the blanks. The nation may survive, but the wound to hope and order will never fully heal. Ask Argentinians or Chileans or Venezuelans or Russians or Italians—or Germans. The national psyche never gets over learning that its institutions are that fragile and their ability to resist a dictator that weak. If he can rout the Republican Party in a week by having effectively secured the nomination, ask yourself what Trump could do with the American government if he had a mandate.

With the events of this last week, and the endorsement of Donald Trump for the presidency, I truly fear for America’s future. It has embarked on a very, very dark path from which it may be impossible to emerge.

Photo credits: Gus Chan / The Plain Dealer; Brian Snyder/Reuters/Landov

Donald Trump’s Appeal

Donald Trump-1

I am not all that surprised to see an egotistical demagogue like Donald Trump run for the U.S. presidency. It has happened before, usually without any serious consequences.

The literal definition of a demagogue, by the way, is “a political leader who seeks support by appealing to popular desires and prejudices rather than by using rational argument.” The definition fits Donald Trump to a tee.

What has alarmed me to no end, however, is to see so many Americans enthusiastically supporting him and his rabid claims. Nothing he says ever offends them; it simply makes him more popular. It’s like throwing red meat to a pack of wild animals. He keeps ratcheting up the kind of rhetoric that in any previous election would have destroyed a candidate. But he seems to enjoy total immunity.

As Kevin Drum recently wrote for Mother Jones,

He started off slow with wild claims about immigrant Mexican rapists, knowing it would draw in the rubes. Then he laughably claimed that he’d get Mexico to pay for a border wall. Nothing happened. He insulted John McCain for being a POW. Nothing happened. He started telling obvious lies. Nothing. He lied on national TV and was called on it a few minutes later. Nothing. … He claimed that thousands of Muslims in Jersey City celebrated 9/11. Nothing. He mocked a disabled reporter in front of the cameras. Nothing. He suggested taking out terrorist families. Nothing. He appeared on the radio show of a crackpot conspiracy theorist. Nothing. [He then] insulted an audience of conservative Jews. [Still nothing.]

On Monday Trump called for a blanket ban on all Muslims entering the United States. The media has strongly criticized him for this, as have some other candidates, but Trump’s own audience responded with loud cheers.

Donald Trump-2

Many commentators have tried to explain Trump’s sustained appeal to such a large and enthusiastic audience. The best analysis that I have come across to date comes from Glenn Thrush writing for Politico. He put it this way:

The mystery of why Republican voters love Donald Trump more each time he makes up a story about Muslims dancing on rooftops after 9/11 or slimes a disabled reporter isn’t really very mysterious after all. All that engineered outrageousness isn’t about fact, or politics, or messaging, it’s about channeling the rawest emotions of his fans (and they are fans, not political supporters in a conventional sense). …

The base is seething, for real, with a recent Pew poll finding three times as many Republican voters describing themselves as anger-motivated compared with Democrats. Trump may be the ultimate it’s-all-about-me candidate, but the piercing paradox of 2016 is that it actually isn’t about him — but about his ability to capture the mood of his voters, and that, more than anything, explains his pundit-defying durability. …

Trump may not be telling the truth, but he’s sure as hell telling their truth. This allows him to shatter most conventions of presidential campaigning. … Trump has ridden up to 30 percent on almost unrelentingly negative, Reagan-on-downers message: Build a wall to keep out Mexicans; my opponents are fat, stupid, ugly, nasty, sweaty and poor; keep your “Morning in America,” I’m calling my campaign book “Crippled America.”

The question is no longer whether Trump can win the GOP nomination. He can. It’s whether his message will appeal to general election voters … who don’t share his anger or definition of the truth.

As I said at the beginning, I am not overly concerned with Donald Trump’s demagoguery. But I am absolutely appalled at the enthusiastic support his message has with such a broad swath of conservative American voters. A Bloomberg Poll released on Wednesday showed that

Almost two-thirds of likely 2016 Republican primary voters favor Donald Trump’s call to temporarily ban Muslims from entering the U.S., while more than a third say it makes them more likely to vote for him.

Trump’s message to the masses is deliberately inflammatory, intolerant, xenophobic and racist. He is articulating a kind of populist vitriol and scapegoating that we have not seen since the rise of fascist Europe in the 1930s. And his base seems completely OK with that.

glenn_becks_white_nationalist_fansIt is not as if we are talking about a few out of touch radicals championing some marginal extremist cause. This is a broad groundswell movement endorsing the kind of virulent nationalism that was seen in Nazi Germany. It has been nurtured by a throng right-wing talk radio hosts and Fox News, and by a broad network of committed local activists.

It has grown from an easy to dismiss fringe phenomenon into a successful “main stream” movement that now occupies center stage in the political arena. It is nothing less than a homegrown fascist, white nationalist populist movement.

It is extremely dangerous. And it has found its home within the Republican Party.

Photo credits: Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images; Chalrie Lright/ Getty Images; Mike Mergen/AP

Revelations from the Republican Debate

On Tuesday evening I listened to the Republican candidates’ debate on economic issues hosted by the Fox Business network and the Wall Street Journal – two bastions of conservative economic ideology.

It felt rather strange to briefly enter the conservative bubble with the moderators giving tacit approval to the candidates’ views during the debate and the hosts applauding them for their views in the personal interviews afterward.

If one accepts the candidates’ premises (which in my view are quite erroneous), their proposed fixes to the economy look very sound.

Just lower taxes and magically create more employment and prosperity for all (hooray!).

Keep wages low and America can successfully compete with China and other countries (paying only $1 a day?).

Expel 11 million undocumented immigrants and build a wall to keep them out to solve … well basically, all of America’s economic and social ills!

Talk tough to Putin, flex some military muscle, and your opponents will back down (sure they will; nothing could go wrong there).

To me it all sounds alarmingly crazy.

Ted Cruz’ interview afterward was perhaps the most illuminating. He divided the field of Republican candidates into two categories – the remaining large number of ‘moderate’ candidates, as he called them, and the diminishing number of truly ‘conservative’ candidates like himself. I suppose that within the Republican feedback loop that might seem an accurate description. But that is certainly not the way many others see it.

As it happens, I had just a few hours earlier listened to a recent interview with the noted leftist linguist, philosopher, social justice activist, and political commentator Noam Chomsky. Here is a transcription from that interview as he described the current gamut of political positions in American politics:

The spectrum is broad, but in an odd sense. The spectrum is basically from center to extreme right – extreme right – way off the spectrum.

The Republican Party about 20 years ago basically abandoned any pretense of being a normal political party. …What happened is that the party – during the whole neo-liberal period [actually] both parties – shifted to the right … and the Republicans just went off the spectrum.

They became so dedicated to the interests of the extreme wealthy and powerful that they couldn’t get votes. So they had to turn to other constituencies which were there but were never politically mobilized: the Christian evangelicals, nativists [who] were are afraid that ‘they’ are taking our country away from us, people who are so terrified that they carry a gun into the coffee shop – and that’s their base essentially.

He went on to say that

The Democrats have shifted to the right as well. Today’s mainstream Democrats are pretty much what you used to call moderate Republicans.

Dwight_D._Eisenhower,_official_photo_portrait,_May_29,_1959Chomsky then paraphrased Eisenhower’s famous statement in a letter to his brother Edgar in 1954,

Should any political party attempt to abolish social security, unemployment insurance, and eliminate labor laws and farm programs, you would not hear of that party again in our political history. There is a tiny splinter group, of course, that believes you can do these things. … Their number is negligible and they are stupid.

Chomsky continued,

Well by now [Eisenhower’s position] is a left-wing program – basically Bernie Sanders’ program. … So the spectrum is – it’s true that it’s broad – but in a very strange sense.

While this is the view of a noted leftist, it echoes the consensus of a broad range of recent academic scholarship on American political history [detailed my previous post, The Demise of Moderate Republicans]. Chomsky’s language may be a bit sharper than others, but he forms the same conclusion.
By their measure and historically speaking, Barack Obama occupies a space slightly to the right of Eisenhower and Nixon.
And Bernie Sanders – the “radical socialist” from Vermont – is the sole remaining advocate of the kind of liberal New Deal programs that for more than a generation defined the standard for American economic and social policy.

In contrast, the small but determined insurgent “New Right” of the Goldwater campaign which lost so badly in 1964 finally triumphed in 1980 with the election of their chosen candidate Ronald Reagan. Reagan subsequently became the “patron saint” and standard bearer for the New Right.

However, after George H. W. Bush and George W. Bush disappointed conservatives in not carrying forward Reagan’s economic policies strongly enough, the new “New Right” has pushed the ideological standard far beyond that of Reagan.

Emboldened by right-wing talk radio hosts and Fox News commentators and under the guise of opposing Obama’s “left-wing” policies (really?), this new insurgency backed nativist Tea Party candidates espousing much more radical views in the 2010 midterm elections. They have also supported a large field of extremist candidates in both the 2012 and 2016 primaries. This is where, in Chomsky’s words, the Republican Party “went off the spectrum.” These are some of the same extremist candidates that the staunch traditional conservative John McCain called “wacko birds” in 2013.

Heaven help us if any of these candidates win the presidency in 2016.

Photo credits: Associated Press; Reuters/Gary Cameron; Reuters/Jorge Dan; AP/Andrew Harnik

A New Era in Canadian Politics

ballot boxThe federal election on October 19 dramatically changed the political map of Canada. Click here to see two overlapping maps of Canada, one showing the seats held by each party following the 2011 election and the other showing the results for 2015. In moving the cursor over the maps one sees the shift from one election to the other.

The Liberal Party under its new (and untested) leader Justin Trudeau, swept the Atlantic provinces, made major gains in Québec and Ontario, established inroads in the main urban centers across the Canadian prairies, and finished strong in British Columbia.

As a result, the Conservative Party has been confined to its traditional strongholds in Southern Ontario and the Canadian Prairies. It no longer represents all regions of Canada. And that is significant. Here’s why.

In Southern Ontario there used to be both “Blue Tories” and “Red Tories.” The Blue Tories (also known as “small ‘c’ conservatives) stood for lower taxes, small government, embraced neo-liberal economic policies, and leaned toward libertarian ideals.

The Red Tories, on the other hand, were knows as “progressive conservatives,” and argued that the wealthier members of society had a special responsibility (a noblesse oblige) to contribute to the common good. They endorsed broad social programs to assist the poor, fund education, and provide public health care. Both wings were housed within what was at that time called the Progressive Conservative Party of Canada.

KimCampbellBut in the 1993 federal election the Progressive Conservative government under Kim Campbell (Canada’s first female Prime Minister) imploded with the PCs going from 169 seats in Parliament to just 2 seats and losing their official party status. Replacing them on the conservative spectrum was the upstart Reform Party under Preston Manning based in Alberta, which went from 1 to 52 seats in Parliament.

The Reform Party was, generally speaking, a populist party representing Western conservative interests. By 2000 it had morphed into a decidedly right-wing populist party briefly known as the United Alternative, then the Canadian Reformed Alliance Party (until they realized that it spelled CRAP) so it was quickly changed to the Canadian Reform Conservative Alliance, and finally just the Canadian Alliance. In the 2000 federal election it campaigned on a platform of tax cuts, ending the federal gun registration program, and traditional “family values” (largely opposing gay rights and abortions).

After severe infighting within the party, Stephen Harper emerged as the leader of the Canadian Alliance party in 2002 (he had previously been its chief strategist). In December of 2003 it merged with the (eastern based) Progressive Conservative Party (which at that time held just 12 seats in Parliament), becoming known as Conservative Party of Canada in what some easterners viewed as a “hostile takeover.” In March 2004 Stephen Harper became the new national party’s leader.

Harper_2004Stephen Harper can be credited with building up the Conservative Party from the ground up; it is his creation and bears his personal stamp. Ever the strategist, and vigilant against the kind of inner-party dissidence that had plagued the earlier Canadian Alliance Party that he had headed, Harper held tight control over the party’s MPs. Everyone spoke from prepared scripts approved by Harper himself, and no one deviated from the official party line. Harper was widely seen as an impersonal calculating micromanager, and he certainly lived up to that reputation.

However, through calculated tactics, thoroughly managed messaging, and more than a bit of luck, Harper was able to revive the Conservative Party’s fortunes. After two short-lived minority governments in 2006 and 2008, he was finally able to win a majority in 2011, and began implementing his aggressively conservative platform.

Needless to say, Harper’s conservatism was very much in turn with present Republican conservatism in the United States. So closely was Stephen Harper aligned with the policies of his contemporary, George W. Bush, when he took office that some commentators have called his election loss the defeat of the last surviving Bush-era government in the West.

The writing has been on the wall for some time for Stephen Harper. When he first formed government in 2006 he made sure to appoint some leading Progressive Conservatives to key positions within his cabinet to keep peace within the party. By the time he had called the election at the beginning of August this year, his last remaining Progressive Conservative cabinet minister had resigned. Other incumbent former Progressive Conservatives declared that they would not be candidates in the election. They realized that they no longer had any place in Harper’s Conservative Party. Former Progressive Conservative Prime Ministers Bryan Mulroney and Joe Clark have been fairly scathing in their assessment of Harper’s leadership and policies.

In the wake of the election it became clear that the only long-term conservatives re-elected in Ontario were former Blue Tories; the Red Tory faction was not to be found. Overall, the moderate conservative faction has now disappeared from Canadian politics just as it has in the U.S.

During his time in government, Stephen Harper fought hard to crush his main political opponent – the Liberal Party of Canada – and he nearly succeeded. It plummeted from having 135 seats in Parliament in 2004 to only 34 seats in 2011, dropping to third-party status. The Liberal comeback under Justin Trudeau in this election was therefore all the more remarkable.

Justin_Trudeau-3After Trudeau was elected as party leader in 2013 he set about giving the party not only a new public face, but also a redefined identity. He was criticized for being absent from Parliament much of the time, but he spent that time travelling the country meeting constituents, listening their concerns, and consulting with a broad range of interested parties.

Trudeau’s strategy as leader has been to redefine the party, working from the ground up, and also to redefine how it operates, just as Stephen Harper did with the party he was elected to lead. But Trudeau has chosen a very different model than Harper. Instead of tight management and strict ideological control, Trudeau has initiated a process to make the party more open and transparent, more consultative and inclusive, and more cooperative and engaging.

In speaking with Canadians from across the country over the past two years, Trudeau has worked hard to develop a new consensus around core policy issues and fresh policy initiatives. He has shown a keen political sense (in the best meaning of that term) for identifying the chief concerns of the majority of Canadians and then shaping them into policy positions that are positive, unifying, and non-polarizing.

This was especially seen during the election campaign. During the campaign Trudeau refused to engage in negative advertising (no personal attacks on candidates or leaders – just stick to the issues) or to exploit the “politics of fear” that defined Harper’s campaign. Instead, he presented a positive message of “hope” and “change” (one which had worked quite effectively for Obama in 2008).

Whereas Harper talked about constraints and what could not be done – warning of economic dangers, the threat of terrorism, and the need to cut social programs while maintaining military strength – Trudeau’s campaign capitalized on the phrase, “This is Canada. And in Canada we can always do better.” (Sounds a lot like Obama’s 2008 refrain of “Yes, we can!”) In fact, many are saying that with Justin’s election victory Canadians are now enjoying their own kind of “Obama” moment.

Can Justin deliver?

Justin_Trudeau-2Since the election results came in a week ago, many people have been asking, “Will Justin be able to deliver on his election promises?”

Just look at the uphill battle that Obama has faced in getting his legislative agenda through congress. Look at the refusal of the Republican-controlled House (and now Senate) to pursue the initiatives he has spelled out in his State of the Union addresses. Look at the ongoing efforts to repeal (or cripple) even the programs he did manage to get through Congress before the 2010 midterms. Could the same thing happen to Trudeau?

The answer, simply put, is NO. Not a chance. And to understand why, one needs to understand a bit about the Canadian parliamentary form of government.

Like Americans, Canadians have an Executive branch of government, a Senate, and a House, but they all operate quite different from the American system.

The first thing to do in comparing the two system of government is to forget about the Executive branch. The highest-ranking Canadian official is the Governor General, who acts as the Queen’s personal representative in Canada. This person is not elected, but is appointed (normally for a five year term) by the Prime Minister. They are to be strictly non-partisan, and they fill what is largely a ceremonial role in greeting foreign heads of state, and providing royal assent to all legislation passed by Parliament. Only then does it become law. But the Governor General neither proposes this legislation, not will he or she ever attempt to amend it. They simply give final assent, acting for the Queen who is the constitutional ruler of Canada.

Next, forget about the Senate. Members of the Canadian Senate are also not elected, but are appointed to their positions for life by the Prime Minister. (It’s kind of a Canadian adaptation to the British House of Lords.) Senators do not initiate legislation; only the House does that. Senators merely receive the bills passed by the House and review them (as the chamber of “sober second thought”) with the ability to suggest amendments and return the bill to the House if needed. Most of the time they do not do that, but simply ratify the bills, so that they can be passed on to the Governor General to be signed into law.

House of CommonsThat leaves only the House of Commons, which actually does function a lot like the House of Representatives in the United States. And this is the most important thing to know about the Canadian parliamentary system. The Canadian Prime Minister operates most closely like the Speaker of the House in the U.S. Congress.

Like the Speaker of the House, the Canadian Prime Minister is historically chosen by his own party members to lead the affairs of the legislative chamber. (In recent years this has been widened to a convention of party members rather than being limited to sitting parliamentarians.) Like the Speaker of the House, the Prime Minister chooses what legislation will be introduced on the floor of the House (and what will not be considered). The PM shepherds that legislation through its successive stages of debate (first and second readings) and through its final passage. All government-sponsored bills must go through committee (to be costed out and to establish their final wording) before being voted on, and the Prime Minister makes those committee appointments. So really, he holds all the cards.

One important difference between the Canadian and American systems of government is that in Canada whenever the party in power has a majority of the seats in Parliament, the opposition can do very little to hamper its operation. Neither the Senate nor the Executive branch can counter its will. This is much different than the American system.

The American founding Fathers, wary of the dictatorial dangers inherent to the British parliamentary system of government, designed an elaborate system of “checks and balances” to limit the power of any one branch of government. Canada follows the British system and does not have any such system of checks and balances. This means that the Prime Minister has far greater political power than either the Speaker of the House or the American President. On the plus side, it means that there is no danger of congressional gridlock as in the American system. On the negative side, it means that the Prime Minister is free to operate in a near-dictatorial manner if he or she wishes to do so.

A year ago I published a blog entry entitled “A Real Dictator?” comparing criticism from Republican ranks that Obama was acting as a dictator with the much more sweeping “dictatorial” powers of the Canadian Prime Minister (having in mind the way Stephen Harper operated). In that blog I summarized the powers of the Prime Minister as follows:

The Canadian Prime Minister appoints the Senators who give all legislation a “second reading” and can either approve the legislation or amend it and send it back to the House for reconsideration. He appoints the Governor General (the Queen’s representative in Canada) who provides the final signature passing any bill into law. The Prime Minister appoints members of the Supreme Court and all Federal Court judges. He appoints the ministers in his Cabinet, every Deputy Minister, and all parliamentary secretaries and committee chairs. In addition, he appoints the Governor of the Bank of Canada, the heads of all major crown corporations (national public utilities, etc.), and the Chief of the RCMP (the national police force). Even the (supposedly) independent officers of Parliament, such as the Auditor General, the Information Commissioner and the Privacy and Ethics Commissioners, are all appointed by the Prime Minister. These appointments are not subject to opposition, debate, or review. The decision is solely the Prime Minister’s.

So, returning to the question of whether or not Justin Trudeau will be able to make good on his election promises, the answer is – there is little to stop him.

He will, of course, face the same financial constraints in implementing some of his desired programs that any Prime Minister would face. He will have to face vocal opposition from his political opponents across the aisle (with no real power to alter his plans, however). And he will have to face the press and deal with public opinion. But basically, he is free to do whatever he wants (within constitutional limits) between now and when he chooses to face the electorate again in four or five years to ask for a renewed mandate.

Justin_Trudeau-1Judging from the leadership style that Justin Trudeau has consistently demonstrated in leading the Liberal Party for the last two years, I doubt that he will abuse his powers in the way that Stephen Harper was often accused of doing. Instead, I look forward to seeing him continue to operate in a manner that emphasizes openness and transparency, inclusiveness, and cooperation.

We shall see over time whether or not he lives up to the role model he has established for himself.

Photo credits: Canadian Press; Sean Kilpatrick/CP; Riziero Vertolli – Burlington Post

Dead Cat and Dog Whistle Politics

ca_election_2015The Conservative Party of Canada has just mounted a strategic ploy to try and salvage a win in the closing days of the federal election campaign.

Throughout the first half of the campaign the Conservatives were regularly on the defensive, with the media giving extensive coverage to three contentious issues: First came the Mike Duffy hearings and the Senate scandal (very bad for the ruling Conservative Party). Then came non-stop coverage of the drowning of 3-year-old Alan Kurdi and Canada’s appalling record in taking in refugees (another black eye for the Conservatives). This was followed by the economic news that Canada had just recorded its second consecutive quarter of negative growth and was technically in a recession (again, bad news for the Conservatives who were campaigning on experienced fiscal management).

But behind the scenes important changes were taking place.

LyntonCrosbyIn September Stephen Harper hired an Australian political consultant, Lynton Crosby (the so-called “Wizard of Oz”) who masterminded the political campaigns of the U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron and London Mayor Boris Johnson. Crosby has fine-tuned the art of “dog whistle” politics in securing his political wins. He is said to be especially skilled at finding issues that voters can suddenly seize upon to turn around a flagging campaign.

In 2013 Boris Johnson described one of the key campaign tactics he learned from Crosby.

Let us suppose you are losing an argument. The facts are overwhelmingly against you, and, the more people focus on the reality, the worse it is for you and your case. Your best bet in these circumstances is to perform a manoeuvre that a great campaigner describes as “throwing a dead cat on the table, mate.”

That is because there is one thing that is absolutely certain about throwing a dead cat on the dining room table—and I don’t mean that people will be outraged, alarmed, disgusted. That is true, but irrelevant. The key point, says my Australian friend, is that everyone will shout, “Jeez, mate, there’s a dead cat on the table!”; in other words, they will be talking about the dead cat, the thing you want them to talk about, and they will not be talking about the issue that has been causing you so much grief.

In the French language debate last Friday Harper threw “the dead cat” on the table. Suddenly everyone is taking about “the niqab issue.” As Evan Solomon reported in a feature article in McLean’s (Canada’s national news magazine),

The NDP, which was once riding high on polls that showed Quebecers were ready to turf Harper, have whiplash. It has lost control of the agenda. It’s all niqab, all the time.

So, what is the niqab issue?

In 2011 the Conservative government implemented a policy stating that candidates for citizenship must remove any kind of face covering that could conceal their identity when taking the public citizenship oath. Since then precisely two people have declined to go through the citizenship ceremony under those conditions. (So this deserves to be a major issue?)

niqab-citizenship-zunera-ishaqOne of these people is Zunera Ishaq, a Pakistani woman and devout Sunni Muslim who is seeking Canadian citizenship. Based on her religious beliefs, Ishaq wears a niqab, or veil, to cover most of her face when out in public.

She has stated that she is quite willing to remove her niqab in private before the ceremony for a female citizenship officer to verify her identity, but that she is opposed to appearing immodestly without the niqab for the lengthy public citizenship ceremony.

Ishaq took the federal government to court over the ban, and a Federal Court judge struck the ban down. The federal government applied for a stay of the ruling to prevent her from taking her citizenship oath and thus become eligible to vote in the October election. On September 18 the Federal Court of Appeal upheld the lower court’s decision, saying there was no basis for issuing a stay, and cleared the way for Ishaq to take her citizenship oath. The Conservatives threatened to take the case to the Supreme Court, to once again prevent her from voting in this fall’s election.

Now the Conservative Party has made the ban on the niqab a major campaign issue. They have pledged that legislation will be introduced within 100 days of a re-elected Conservative government that will require one to show one’s face while swearing the oath of citizenship.

Chris AlexanderIn a news conference on Friday, The Conservative’s Immigration Minister, Chris Alexander, stated, “Let’s be clear. This practice of face covering reflects a misogynistic view of women which is grounded in medieval tribal culture.”

In this news conference Alexander also reminded voters of the Conservative government’s Zero Tolerance for Barbaric Cultural Practices Act passed last November. Alexander promised more government resources to uphold the act if re-elected, and also proposed a RCMP tip line where people could report “information about incidents of barbaric cultural practices in Canada.” 

As Edward Keenan pointed out on Saturday in The Star, when Stephen Harper refers to “barbaric culture,” that is dog-whistle terminology for “Islam,” and he is hoping that this appeal to Islamophobia will turn the election around and solidify his conservative base.

nun : niqabBut most Canadians are not Islamophobic, and outside that base, this tactic has resulted in an explosion of Twitter memes pointing out the hypocrisy of singling out face coverings worn by Muslim women as misogynistic and grounded in medieval tribal culture, but ignoring similar accepted face coverings worn by women in Western societies.

In addition, a host of satirical sites have sprung up such as accusing the Conservative government itself of promoting “barbaric cultural practices in Canada.”

The majority of Canadians are able to see through this rather desperate diversionary tactic being mounted by the Conservatives. Let’s hope the debate soon returns to real election issues that the Canadian public actually wants to debate.

Photo credits: Rex Features; Patrick Doyle/CP; Canadian Press

Applying Biblical Economics

U.S. Republican presidential candidate Dr. Ben Carson speaks during the Freedom Summit in Greenville, South Carolina May 9, 2015. REUTERS/Chris Keane

U.S. presidential candidate Ben Carson recently announced that, as a Christian, he is in favour of a simple “flat tax” based on the biblical system of tithing to replace the present convoluted American tax code.

It is not often that one finds a conservative Republican politician speaking in favor of a massive redistribution of wealth – from the business sector, the “job creators,” to those receiving entitlements, the “takers” to use a current political expression.

So what was actually involved in the biblical principle of tithing, and how would it apply today?


1) The economy of ancient Israel was agrarian, and the tithe was calculated as one tenth of the total produce from the land (grain and fruit as well as their manufactured by-products, e.g., wine and olive oil) and one tenth of the annual offspring of the flocks (Lev. 27:30-33).

Applying the principle to today’s diversified economy, the tithe would include a broader list of things produced from the land, i.e., not only through agriculture but also through resource extraction, manufacturing and so on.

2) It is important to note that the biblical tithe did not represent one tenth of the landowners’ net profits, but a tenth of their total gross production.

Applying this to our present situation, the latest estimate of America’s current Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is $17,985 trillion. A flat tax tithing system would yield just under $1.8 trillion in tax dollars annually.

3) In the biblical system only the landowners (the producers) paid the tithe. Merchants (selling the produce) and labourers (hired to facilitate production) did not owe a tithe.

Under the current system of taxation, it is projected that the total federal and state tax payable by the corporate sector will be $396 billion for 2015. Based on a GDP of $17,985 trillion, corporate taxes would need to go up by 454% to meet the tax levies required under a biblical tithe. Individual taxes on the other hand (currently at $1.818 trillion) would be greatly reduced.

4) What was the tithe used for? In ancient times the tithe supported the priestly class of Levites (who were landless), resident foreigners, orphans and widows (those who had inadequate means for supporting themselves) (Deut. 14:29).

Today the tithe would pay “entitlement” benefits to the elderly, the disabled, the poor and the unemployed (those who do not have the means for adequately supporting themselves).

In keeping with the original purpose of the tithe, revenues for defence, protection services, transportation, infrastructure, education, administration, debt servicing, etc., would need to be collected separately. In the 2015 U.S. budget those costs total $1.868 trillion.

Both individual and corporate taxpayers share in financing these services today. These costs would, therefore, further increase the total taxes to be paid by the corporate sector under a biblical flat tax tithe.

Although Ben Carson says he supports the biblical flat tax system of the tithe, I am not so sure he has thought through the full financial implications of such a taxation model. It is doubtful that the business community would back such a proposition, although individual taxpayers may welcome the corporate sector shouldering a larger share of the total tax burden.

The massive redistribution of wealth produced by a flat tax tithe on production would undoubtedly have major consequences for the American economy. But is it really the kind of tax reform that conservatives are seeking?

Oh … one more thing.

Immediately after prescribing the annual collection of the tithe in Deuteronomy 14, the text continues with the requirement that every seven years all outstanding debts are to be cancelled (Deut. 15:1-2). Applying this biblical principle to our modern economic system would, of course, quickly collapse the banking sector and financially ruin all those who invest in bank stocks, mortgage securities and bonds.

So perhaps one should think twice about applying biblical economic models to modern society. These principles may sound appealing to religious conservatives but are they practical when applied to modern economies?

That might be something else for Ben Carson to consider.

Photo credit: Reuters/Chris Keane