“Hard a’starbord Mister Starbuck. Thar she blows!”
Well Mr Harper has found his elusive majority and Mr Layton’s job just got a whole lot harder. Now he must to try to keep the captain from taking the ship over the edge of the known world. If you remember Moby Dick, you’ll remember that Ahab’s ship was a multicultural ark – America as it was beginning to become in 1850. Nothing Melville wrote was accidental, and it was no accident he named Ahab’s ship the Pequod, after an aboriginal tribe who rebelled against settlers’ greed and, in revenge, were nearly massacred into oblivion by Puritan Christians.
Perhaps the analogy to a Canadian election in 2011 is a bit of a stretch. But consider what politics in America have come to and that this election (like American elections since the 1980s) was not about choosing from reasonable and well-articulated platforms. This election was about culture.
It was about law and order vs soft on criminals, patriotism vs peacekeeping, free market vs regulated economy, family values vs individual rights, centralized authority vs parliamentary procedure. On May 2nd 2011, voters picked sides: roughly 40% of the votes went to the right, 40% to the left and 20% found themselves in no man’s land along with the Liberals.
Mr Harper still won most of the seats (such is the reality of first-past-the-post electoral systems), so he won the battle. Oh, and that’s another way we’re getting closer to American politics. We didn’t vote for the best candidate in our ridings, we voted for (or against) a leader. We lost a lot of good people on May 2nd.
Culture war is a term used to describe the American electoral battles in the 1980s. Starting with Ronald Reagan’s election, these saw the right, particularly the religious right, begin to define issues in terms of ideological differences rather differences of policy.
For example, the religious right went after academics, feminists and artists as elitist, subversive, blasphemous and corrosive of western civilization and families. And the secular left replied with charges the right was undemocratic, uncaring and bigoted. Debate congealed around a candidate’s “character” (code for holding to socially conservative Christian values) rather than his or her capabilities.
Each side still considers the other the devil incarnate (24% of Republicans think President Obama is the Antichrist) and political discourse has degenerated into truthy, quasi-theological debates over right and wrong, good and evil. We’re not quite there – Jesus hasn’t been dragged into our politics yet, but according to some observers, principally Marci McDonald in The Armageddon Factor, He’s in the House.
So what can Canadians expect from our 41st Parliament? The Conservatives will do what they said they would do: buy jails and jets and cut corporate taxes. And they will continue to re-shape Canada in their own image both in the House by legislation and outside Parliament by fiat. The left will snipe and complain and accuse but, stripped of its ability to defeat a minority government, it will be impotent. Acrimony and the search for sound bites will continue to pollute the evening news.
This state of affairs will continue until the left unites or until centre-right liberals get war-weary. That will take at least ten years – which is about how long it took for them in the US to decide to vote for Barak Obama in 2008. And it took ten years for centre-right Liberals in Ontario to wake up to the fact that Common Sense was perhaps not the best foundation for government policy and practice.
My guess, given the times and the trends, is that the Harper Government will be secure for at least that long, probably longer. It took Mr Harper ten years to unite the right. Unifying the left will be a lot harder and far scrappier, a bit like herding cats. The ginger cats won’t like sitting with the big red toms, and the tabby with green stripes will hiss at them both, everyone forgetting entirely that they are all cats.
So, to get the ball rolling, Elizabeth May should cross the floor of the House to sit with the NDP as soon as possible — their platforms are virtually identical anyway. And Bob Rae should knock on Jack Layton’s door to talk about merging the Liberals and the NDP.
Or, the left could wait and hope the Liberals who voted Conservative will return to the fold. But the left vote would still split against a united right and that will put us back into minority Conservative governments. By then the country’s personality will have been changed forever.
The political ground shifted on May 2nd in Canada. It wasn’t a green shift, or an orange crush. It was a cultural earthquake.