Canadian Political Science: Missing in Action?

A practitioner wonders why the progressive side of the discipline has gone mute.

Permit me to pose a provocative question, deliberately directed toward the progressive stream of Canadian political science: Is the discipline missing in action? Where are the centre-left voices?

What about the other side of the spectrum? you might ask. Simply stated, there is no doubt conservative colleagues have wielded considerable influence through direct as well as indirect ties since January 2006 to the Prime Minister’s Office, sustained partisan and governmental engagement at the provincial level (Alberta finance minister Ted Morton, for example, is on leave from his position at the University of Calgary) and impact via these channels on both Canadian public opinion and public policy.

Progressive political science, on the other hand, only appears to be alive and well if we focus on conference programs, scholarly publications as well as individual professors’ blogs and Facebook postings. What rests beneath this seemingly healthy veneer? In my view, a relatively narrow, shrunken conduit linking left-of-centre elements of the discipline with the wider general community. In fact, the public influence of progressive political science is arguably weaker than at any time in living memory.

By invoking comparisons with the past, we risk recreating an era—whether burnished in gold or shadowed in darkness—that never existed. In this instance, conservative scholars and their patrons in elected office have propagated a myth to the effect that left-of-centre ideas ruled and, eventually, nearly ruined the country during the Liberal years. I present no such case, since to the extent that a leftish social science perspective has registered in parliamentary debates during recent years, it has primarily done so from the far reaches of the opposition—notably in the interventions of federal NDP leaders (before they became members of Parliament, Ed Broadbent taught political science at York University and Jack Layton at Ryerson).

I will propose instead the far more compelling argument that during earlier decades, Canadian governments of all stripes drew expertise from multiple ideological sources. Ours was once a more consensus-based, less polarized political culture governed by norms of civility and balance that seem quaint, indeed antiquated, from the perspective of 2010. Contemporary political science students express shock when they learn that the federal Liberals appointed a former Ontario Conservative premier, John Robarts, to co-chair a commission on national unity in 1977. They find it even harder to believe that the key free trade recommendation of the Royal Commission on the Economic Union and Development Prospects for Canada, appointed by Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau in 1982, was adopted by Brian Mulroney’s government of the later 1980s.

Similarly, 20 and more years ago our political spectrum, as refracted through media outlets, pivoted on a fulcrum that was distinctly more progressive. Peter Gzowski’s popular CBC radio program Morningside, featured through 1993 a weekly political panel that current Mother Corp executives must shudder to recall because all three guests would now be tagged as pink or, more probable, downright red. At the time, Dalton Camp, Eric Kierans and Stephen Lewis represented the right, centre and left, respectively. They debated crucial issues of the day with a degree of interpersonal respect, commitment to core democratic values and interest in understanding other points of view that seems out of sync with the rise of quick-bite, “gotcha” journalism.

Universities were also different places back then. Social science professors were encouraged to engage as public intellectuals, since the prominence of individual scholars was seen as institutionally beneficial and, in the case of political scientists, integral to expectations that we would actively contribute to debates then unfolding in civil society. Academic leaders worried less if the funders of post-­secondary education—then primarily governments and now, more ominously, individual students and their families, research partners in the public and private sectors, plus individual and corporate donors—actually agreed with what we said.

Over time, shifts in our governmental, media and academic environments have blurred, and largely obscured, the progressive face of political science. On campus, sustained pressures to hold external research grants, publish specialized research in narrowly targeted academic journals, participate in an international conference circuit, fundraise to finance our home units and also teach larger and larger classes leave little time for much else. At a recent panel discussion on this subject, one youthful colleague highlighted a tension between the “big picture” thinking that journalists and members of the educated public properly expect of us and prevailing disciplinary norms. Empirical political scientists, she noted with regret, often avoid ­asking what is good or just because such questions are considered unscientific, hence unresearchable and, ultimately, unpublishable. In an age of publish or perish, who would choose such a path?

A second junior academic in the discussion described the effects of having scholarly versus practical enquiry proceed down separate tracks. At his university, efforts to create policy-relevant, useful knowledge for government were hampered by the large gap between A) what decision makers wanted—namely, workable solutions to pressing problems, and B) what contemporary political science generally produced—that is, research that was too theoretical and driven by internal academic debates to approximate A. Given that the signposts to promotion and recognition in universities do not flag problem-solving research, he observed, a vicious cycle has emerged whereby political scientists do not contribute and policy makers do not ask for our input as often as they might. The third panellist, a senior Quebec scholar, summarized the upshot of these trends as follows: many political scientists who take their social responsibilities seriously seem content to sign petitions about such matters as the proroguing of Parliament or electoral reform, while economists get on with the actual business of influencing public policy. Ouch.

This missing-in-action status remains more than just an anecdotal phenomenon, to be dissected and lamented by colleagues in conversations with each other. To demonstrate the extent to which progressive political science is absent in contemporary Canada, let’s pursue three brief counterfactual thought experiments that imagine what public debate would look like if this part of the discipline were present, which in turn permits us to understand why it is weak or entirely absent.

First, if the concepts of power, representation, justice, equality, citizenship and human rights figured more prominently in public debate, then we would have at our fingertips an analytically rigorous set of ideas that both reveal and explain the uneven distribution of influence and resources that undermines democracy at this time. Taking transformative action to rebuild our political fabric would follow from each of those starting points. Yet all six themes have lost traction relative to the totemic markers of our time, notably competitiveness, productivity and economic growth.

Second, with the latter three desiderata depriving the former six of oxygen, it is not surprising that we have to enter the realm of fantasy to imagine a second scenario: reforming the “post-crisis” international economic system in ways that would enhance the well-being of citizens. (I place the phrase post-crisis in quotation marks because the strain on global markets, alongside pressures the world credit collapse and its various knock-on effects have imposed on the legitimacy of democratic governments, arguably continues.) As things stand, discussions of how to move forward usually elevate the regulatory preferences of large financial institutions above all else, leaving little room for the fundamental point that liberal states and markets are ideally tools for improving the lives of human beings.

Third, if the House of Commons operated as a representative chamber that communicated voters’ voices to elected MPs, then the leader of our Official Opposition would not have had to travel roughly 40,000 kilometres this summer to discover that Canadians are worried about the fate of democracy. The same earnest, concerned people who came out to meet Michael Ignatieff from coast to coast to coast would have channelled their views to their local representatives, and then those perspectives would have found their way into party deliberations and parliamentary debates involving all sides of the House.

But, of course, that is the kicker. If institutions worked the way that political theories and textbooks say they should, then the results of each thought experiment would exactly parallel our lived experience. The point is that they deviate to such an extent as to be more perpendicular than parallel.

Why has progressive political science not been there to highlight and explain the disparity? Like the proverbial historian who seeks to understand why war broke out or guns went silent at a particular juncture, this political scientist sees more than one causal factor at work. Some of the reasons I would propose can be traced to origins outside the discipline, while others have internal sources.

Let’s begin with the larger environment in which we talk about politics. In 1987, Margaret Thatcher famously declared in a magazine interview: “Who is society? There is no such thing! There are individual men and women and there are families and no government can do anything except through people and people look to themselves first.” The core belief that civil society exists, and that it operates in part as an essential check on the actions of democratic states, has been endangered for decades—or for so long that we risk forgetting this foundational idea. One crucial reason why progressive political science enjoys minimal public profile is because it is grounded in the valuation of a highly oppositional idea, one that has been seriously on the defensive since the rise of neoconservatism, namely the belief that citizen mobilization and government action can produce positive improvements in the lives of individuals and for the collective entity we call society.

Given the dominant view since the 1980s that markets matter, while states and societies (if the latter even exist) do not, it is hardly surprising to find low rates of voter turnout among citizens who came of age in that decade and following. Eroded levels of electoral participation and declining public trust in political institutions and leaders have spread to middle-aged and older voters as well. Moreover, a dangerous feedback loop has evolved to reinforce this pattern, since diminishing the importance of government means fewer and fewer of the best and the brightest are attracted to run for office or join the public service. The tenor of parliamentary debates has arguably declined as well, with civil behaviour and meaningful policy debates increasingly rare in our aptly named question periods (that produce few answers to the problems facing Canadians). What citizen realistically believes, particularly in an age of such dauntingly complex policy challenges, that democratic government can provide solutions to problems when both the A and B teams have deserted the polis?

The same influences shaping citizens in general also affect people who study politics as a career. My informal observations since the late 1970s (when I was in graduate school) suggest it is rare to find a political science PhD student who wants to write a thesis about the Canadian House of Commons, political parties or cabinets at federal or provincial levels. If multiple generations of political scientists view these institutions as in large part irrelevant, boring or both, then our discipline generates a minimal supply of scholarly perspectives to satisfy public interest—if and when such interest were to materialize.

The demand for political science analysis is, of course, the flip side of the supply problem. It is true that progressive perspectives have been diluted by a rightward shift in print and electronic media organizations since the 1980s, but this is only part of the story. The more troubling piece is that conservative advocates have been better communicators, finding new ways to dress up old ideas such as laissez-faire capitalism and patriarchal family organization in spiffy new outfits for each debating season. Even with rising levels of formal education in Canada and most of the industrialized world, those concepts are still easier to explain than Keynesianism or gender equality and, in anxious times, they enjoy the advantage of evoking nostalgic ties to a shared (however imperfect) past.

The crucial edge the right enjoys, however, follows from a conscious, decisive push to invest in foundations, think tanks, conferences, media outlets and so on to promote a particular point of view, and to train like-minded folks to sing with impact from the conservative hymnal. Alas, nothing close to matching funds has materialized in the rest of the political spectrum—a phenomenon that underpins the absence of fresh, compelling voices that could champion consumer rights or affordable housing, with these perspectives creatively repackaged in attractive ways.

Even if such views burst onto the public scene, who would pay attention? We live in an age when narrow-casting via the internet and, especially, newer social media have crowded out broadcasting, leaving few incentives to pay attention to other points of view or, for that matter, to politics of any variety. Much of what passes for political communications, as a result, is fundamentally insular, an inwardly directed preaching to the converted. At the same time, the art of engaging in serious issue discussions has also gone AWOL; leaders rarely display powers of persuasion designed to draw citizens into vibrant debate with each other, because such skills have been eclipsed by a cynical reliance on driving voters apart via wedge issues and negative advertising—each of which undermines the social cohesion necessary to sustain democratic politics.

The wounds that progressive political science has inflicted on itself are all too obvious: our work is often so theoretically inclined and academically focused as to be publicly inaccessible. We have permitted the key concepts that matter to democratic politics to appear tarnished and dated, even though they are arguably far more uplifting, inspiring and essential to our collective future than any combination of Ayn Rand, Friedrich Hayek, Milton Friedman and Margaret Thatcher. Worst of all is a pervasive sense that we are powerless to do anything about our MIA status.

In a curious twist on Lord Acton’s dictum, an American comedian once posed the following question: “If absolute power corrupts absolutely, does absolute powerlessness make you pure?” I doubt it, but feeling that way sure makes you purely academic.