The totally apolitical ways in which elections are apparently won and lost
Here are a couple of stray thoughts, well past their sell-by date, about the less-than-useful conventional wisdoms drawn from the 2011 federal election — with two of the key players, Brian Topp and Michael Ignatieff wrapping up a news cycle, I thought it might be nice to jot down some thoughts for nobody to read. The prose may be a little off; earlier this evening I had a (prescription) benzo to take the edge off of… well, everything.
First up: Iggy. There’s a smartypants consensus among the centrist Twitterati and punditocracy that Ignatieff was unfairly but effectively defined by the Tory smear-machine as an out-of-touch, elite and elitist dilettante who was only interested in Canada if he could run it. As the story goes, the dumb-dumb public ate this all up with their Tim Hortons chili spoons because they were too stupid to see through it, and they harbour a distrust of intellectuals besides. This analysis is, itself, blinkered and elitist; can we not agree at this point — and I say this not only as no fan of Harper, but as a man generally about a notch to the right of Rosa Luxemburg and to the left of Edouard Bernstein — that the Tory ads landed because they were absolutely spot-on? “Just Visiting” was more than just an inspired bit of ad copy — Ignatieff unplugged from Canadian politics, the Liberals, and Canada so quickly after he lost that he was literally tweeting about friends coming to visit in Boston the weekend that Justin Trudeau was crowned the Lion King. So the “lesson” of 2011 to be drawn from the sad saga of Count Ignatieff (that the invincible Tories would define any Liberal leader howsoever they chose, boxing them in right out of the gate) has proved totally false. The big Tory volleys against Trudeau — that he is a studly intellectual lightweight who’s only famous because of his dad’s last name — seem to be the things that people actually like about the guy. He’s a handsome, less-terrifying and less-dangerous Dubya: the mimbo son of a cerebral patrician politician with whom you’d like to have a beer, or a long toke. He’s surrounded himself with smart people, who are feeding him some decent policy (if you like that whole ‘centrist’ thing). He’s probably going to be the next prime minister, particularly if great-uncle Mulcair stays as inspiring as he’s been.
Which flows into the second bit of conventional wisdom to come out of 2011: that, aided by the personal appeal of Jack Layton, pragmatic technocrats on a strong drive to the centre brought the NDP to an historic high, and could nudge it the rest of the way next time around.
Future historians of Canada — granting that there will be humanities programming in the future, or a Canada, or a future — will no doubt see the NDP’s electoral high-water mark as taking place within a worldwide crisis of legitimacy for orthodox parties-of-power in the wake of the Great Recession. The NDP did well in 2008 (despite Layton’s silly and ideological commitments against deficit spending; a display of how deep the neo-liberal rot went if ever there was one), and even better in 2011; the year that Slavoj Zizek called “The Year of Dreaming Dangerously,” citing global events like Occupy, the Arab Spring, uprisings against austerity in Greece and England. It may seem far-fetched to place a record showing for a middle-of-the-road Canadian social democratic party in this context — but we’re a tepid people, eh? In those heady years after the crash, we started to see a (mostly, as it’s turned out, dead-end) challenge to Hayekian free market fundamentalism. There was a fleeting hope that things wouldn’t be business as usual, and many of the parties of business as usual paid a price at the ballot box — the Liberals chief among them.
The alternative explanation involves Jack Layton’s undeniable charms (that somehow only became apparent to Canadians after a massive capitalist crisis) and Brian Topp being a strategic genius. This, remember, is the guy who brought the Bloc Québecois to the table to announce a coalition that they weren’t going to be a part of; the guy who burst out of the gates of the NDP leadership race with Ed Broadbent on his arm, then left a “who farted” look on the faces of everyone who saw him give a speech thereafter; the guy who led the dog-kickingly unloseable BC NDP campaign into a loss that felt like a kick to where the dog nuts used to be. Topp’s a strategic genius like I’m a pilates success story.
There’s a certain kind of smug, cynical, floating-centre wisdom that sees no room for what it calls “ideology” (and what should properly be called “politics”) in the electoral world. There can never be a political explanation for anything — it’s always some kind of point-shaving trick, some miracle of polling micro-data, some crescendo of ground-game brilliance that accounts for “wins” or “losses” — that, and whether leaders are telegenic, likeable, or beer-worthy. In this mode of thinking, Canadians couldn’t possibly have rejected Ignatieff because he was a waffling defender of American empire-building and the Iraq War, stuck in a Family Compact, Upper Canada elitism and entitlement, evincing no real interest in the country unless he could be the boss — no, it had to be the evil brilliance of Tory ads. Canadians couldn’t possibly have voted for a party that made its first real inroads into the country’s political culture during the Great Depression because the world was in the midst of the greatest crisis of capitalist ideological and material legitimacy since that time — it had to be that Jack Layton smiled good and Brian Topp is a giant, throbbing brain in a special jar labeled “The Greatest.”
But this wisdom may, in fact, be cheap, West Wing-fan, post-ideology horseshit. Checkered shirts and Blackberries may not be all she wrote when it comes to elections. Political insights and instincts on the part of the populace just may have something to do with the way elections turn out after all.