How Did It Come to This?

For progressives facing conservative victories, the question looms large

If you are a Canadian conservative, these are good times to be in federal politics. Stephen Harper’s Tories have been in power for six years and three elections, and are now well into the second year of their long-coveted majority government. The Bloc Québécois has been obliterated, thanks to a 101-seat NDP opposition that draws over half its base from Quebec. The NDP’s ascent also decimated the Liberals, Canada’s erstwhile Natural Governing Party, which has been reduced to 35 seats and third-party status, and is looking for its fourth leader in nine years.

For Canadian “progressives,” the loose term that encapsulates anyone who is not a conservative these days, life is not that much fun. The last decade has seen the gradual erosion not only of their power position, but of their dominance in the realm of ideas. The centrist Liberals are grasping for a raison d’être, squeezed by a growing left-right political polarization. And while the left-wing NDP can see government from where they are sitting, on their own they do not have the numbers to get there.

Enter Warren Kinsella, one-time Liberal strategist and spinner, present-day columnist, lobbyist and political provocateur. The author of Kicking Ass in Canadian Politics (written in 2001, when things were going far better for his party) has penned a new opus, Fight the Right: A Manual for Surviving the Coming Conservative Apocalypse, which offers a prescription for dispirited progressives. With its hyperbolic subtitle, it offers an analysis of the problems facing liberal and leftist politicos, and suggestions for how to overcome them.

Kinsella’s most important piece of analysis and advice involves language, specifically the term “values.” The author interviews many of the masters of conservative political communication, including American Frank Luntz, and concludes that progressives lost power when they lost control of that word, and what it represents. In Chapter 3, “How Conservatives Stole Values,” Kinsella sets out his central argument:

The challenges facing progressives extend to more than mere linguistics. Values are the ineffable, keenly felt issues that hit folks at a primordial level. Not the stuff we think about—the stuff we feel. The stuff that attracts the attention of hearts, not heads. Values: in political terms, that means morals.

The values/morals of conservatives are easy to sum up: faith, family and free enterprise. As Kinsella notes, these values pepper the speeches of politicians such as Harper and former U.S. president George W. Bush. From them flow policy positions: conservatives are generally pro–traditional family, anti–gay marriage, anti-abortion, pro–small government, pro-capitalism, anti–big bureaucracy.

Kinsella traces back the right’s usurpation of the values discourse to 1960s America. He claims that conservatives, guided by communications experts like Luntz and politicians such as Ronald Reagan—the Great Communicator—made it appear that not only were their values superior to those of progressives, but that progressives did not have values to begin with. “Values, morals. In short, conservatives have them, and progressives don’t—or at least, that’s what an increasing number of voters believe.”

Kinsella’s argument does ring true—conservatives have become obsessed with marketing, communications and language—but does it tell the whole story? Did conservatives “steal” the notion of values from progressives or, rather, have progressive “values” simply fallen out of favour because they, well, failed? And is it perhaps true that progressives do not have as many convictions because one of their main tenets—relativism—naturally leads to a less absolute view of the world?

Back in the 1960s, values—at least those which were popular—were largely the purview of the left. The anti-war movement worked for world peace, environmentalists toiled for a greener planet, civil rights advocates sought equality for all regardless of colour or gender. These relativist, egalitarian, anti-corporate values resonated with a younger, hipper (and hippy) generation, as well as groups who did not share the middle class North American dream, such as minorities. The left also drew on fear of global annihilation: Kinsella cites the infamous “Daisy” ad in which a young girl plucks the petals off a daisy, until her reverie is interrupted by the explosion of an atomic bomb.

But for the average white middle class voter—the lynchpin of political victory in American and Canadian elections—close to two decades of progressive politicians left a legacy more negative than positive. By the 1980s this voter was sick of stagflation, unemployment and the perception of a growing communist threat. Witness the election of conservatives across the Anglosphere: Reagan in the United States, Brian Mulroney in Canada and Margaret Thatcher in Great Britain.

The policies of these three leaders boosted job growth, facilitated the collapse of the Iron Curtain and primed their countries’ economies for prosperity—which ironically was not fully realized until their progressive successors, Bill Clinton, Jean Chrétien and Tony Blair, took the reins as the political pendulum swung once again. Those leaders implemented many policies traditionally championed by the right (balanced budgets, free trade, welfare reform), but with a “friendlier,” centre-left veneer—confirming the old saying that only Nixon could go to China.

These leaders were then followed by another crop of conservatives: Bush, Harper and Britain’s David Cameron. And while the United States is led, once again, by Democratic president Barack Obama, it is worth noting that the U.S. Congress was under Republican control from 1995 to 2007, and that the House of Representatives returned to the Republicans in 2011.

In short, the pendulum swings, and if progressives are to catch the next lurch, they do not need just to talk about values; they need to get some, likely by borrowing them again from conservatives. That reality has not escaped progressive hopefuls like Liberal leadership candidate Justin Trudeau, who mentioned the word “values” eleven times in his recent campaign launch speech, casting himself as a champion of modern conservative voter bastions: families, Main Street and the middle class.

Will it work? If Kinsella is right, it is the only way to succeed. But as he notes, it is not enough to talk the values talk: you have to walk it as well, or at least appear to, which brings us to Fight the Right’s next important observation: the HOAG theory.

HOAG stands for Hell Of A Guy, the type of person voters could picture themselves having a beer with, whom they can relate to and who, while he or she may be smart, educated and/or intellectual, hides it very well. HOAGs span both sides of the political spectrum: American presidents Clinton and Bush are both HOAGs, as are Canadians prime ministers Chrétien and Harper. Politicians who fail the HOAG test include Democratic American presidential candidate John Kerry and Canadian Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff. They come across as too patrician, too highbrow, too remote. They are to HOAGs as Starbucks is to Tim Horton’s, which, as Kinsella notes, has become the staging ground for countless Canadian Conservative photo ops.

Kinsella correctly observes that the nature of modern conservative political discourse—anti-intellectual, traditionalist, Main Street—means that conservatives have “cornered the market” on HOAGs. Their leaders may be Yalies or economics wonks, but come across as good ol’ boys and hockey dads. In the words of James Carville, who appropriated Kinsella’s HOAG term after hearing it at a speech he delivered in Toronto, “these country-club elitists have won over the country-music crowd.”

While Kinsella’s analysis is again correct, it leaves Canadian progressives in a quandary. The Liberals look poised to elect Trudeau, who is about as HOAG as his father was, while the NDP boasts the savvy—but unHOAGy—Thomas Mulcair. Trudeau Sr. was successful in a different—read, progressive—era and, as Kinsella notes, was seen as courageous, which compensated for his unHOAGiness. But neither Trudeau Jr. nor Mulcair can play as well as Harper, or the image Conservatives have created for him, to the sub- and ex-urban demographic that has elected three Tory governments in the last six years.

Kinsella’s third important observation and recommendation comes far earlier in the book, in the introduction, but I am saving it for last because in Canada, it provides the most concrete solution for dispirited progressives, if they were only to take him up on it. It again borrows a page from the conservative playbook: united, you win; divided, you lose.

Kinsella recounts a meeting with U.S. environmentalist and law professor Bobby Kennedy Jr. in New York, at which they discussed the issue facing Canadian progressives:

“So,” [Kennedy] said, “the New Democrats are off on their own, and you Liberals are off on your own, right?” I nodded … “Doesn’t that just mean that the Conservatives are going to win again?” he asked, rhetorically. “For sure,” I said … Bobby Kennedy Jr. shook his head, marvelling. He didn’t say anything else. He didn’t need to.

A merger would, statistically, be the ticket for progressives to return to power in Canada. But could it happen? On the Liberal side, after musing on the idea before running for leader, Trudeau has now discounted it. Of course, leadership promises mean little: consider the about-face done by former Progressive Conservative leader Peter MacKay, who pledged no merger with the Canadian Alliance during the race, only to facilitate it after winning.

As for the NDP, they naturally are not interested since they think they could perhaps go the distance themselves. But should their stock fall in the next election—or should it even remain in a holding pattern—they will face the same questions that the Alliance did ten years ago—and the same realization that strength lies in numbers.

A Liberal-NDP merger would be far different than the Alliance-PC merger of 2003, however, which many conservatives saw not as a union, but a reunion of estranged family members. As Robin Sears pointed out in his LRC review of Paul Adams’s Power Trap: How Fear and Loathing Between New Democrats and Liberals Keep Stephen Harper in Power—and What Can Be Done About It, which treated the subject in great detail, the Liberals and NDP have vastly different histories and power bases; the shared goal of power may not be enough to bridge those distances. But then again, hatred of a common enemy can unite strange bedfellows, and unless one of them manages to squelch the other, the mantra of “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” may become increasingly attractive.

These are the main—but not the only—points, of Fight the Right. Kinsella is to be commended for delivering a cogent analysis of progressives’ problems, but in Canada, it is not clear that they will a) listen to him or b) be able to change course without compromising who they are. While the book goes predictably heavy on conservative bashing (conservatives are black-hearted at best, racist at worst) and liberal cheering (“stable governance, fiscal reforms: it’s the Canadian liberal way”—um, unless you count the Trudeau years), Fight the Right makes for a thought-provoking, entertaining and engaging read—no matter what side of the political fence you are on.