Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Politics: Nixonian Stephen Harper

TORONTO, ONTARIO - Earlier this month, columnist Paul Krugman received considerable attention in the United States for a piece in the New York Times, echoing historian Rick Perlstein's book “Nixonland,” claiming that Republican politics in the United States had been exploiting the resentments and fears of voters toward various other Americans ever since Richard Nixon came onto the scene. George W. Bush's anti-intellectual, anti-elitist, anti-government campaigns, so effective against both Al Gore and John Kerry, could be directly traced to Nixon's establishment of the "Orthogonians" at Whittier College to counter the Franklin Society that had rejected him.

Any doubt that Conservative Party of Canada leader Stephen Harper had learned from the Republican tactic should have been dispelled this week. Yesterday, Harper defended his controversial recent cut of $45 million in arts funding by saying that "ordinary Canadians" did not appreciate people attending "rich galas" (Harper felt the need to repeat the word "rich" throughout the speech) complaining about the loss of subsidies. He also stated that "cultural funding" had increased under his government.

On that final point, Harper is technically correct. Government spending on "culture" has increased under his administration. The problem with the statement is that "culture" is quite broadly defined in official terms. It includes institutions such as the CBC and other government funding of the media, and sports funding. Most Canadians would probably agree that hockey and curling count as culture. However, the increases in "culture" funding have mostly been directed at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, in the realm of sports, and into "new media" ventures in the media. Funding for items that would be considered "arts" has gone down modestly, though even the CBC has had trouble pinning down the exact amount.

Skepticism of the Conservative government on arts spending has been largely driven by a provision of Bill C-10 from the recent parliament, which gave the Heritage Minister the right to refuse tax credits for a project deemed "offensive or not in the public interest"--after the completion of the project. C-10 was expected to lead to considerable self-censorship amongst artists out of fear of losing the tax credit. The passage of C-10 in the House of Commons led many artists to turn against the Harper government, and Harper's recent comments seem to reinforce the impression that the Conservatives are not interested in maintaining the current arts atmosphere in Canada.

Backlash against C-10 and Harper's recent comments seems to building, especially in Quebec. A popular and hilarious You Tube video (the linked version has English subtitles) paints the Conservative government as hopelessly unable to understand Quebecois culture. If any resentment is incited in Quebec, it may be against the Conservatives.

The use of resentment seems to have become a real theme of the Conservative campaign. About two weeks ago, I received campaign mail that stated "Why should thugs, drug dealers, and sexual offenders serve their sentences at home watching TV, playing video games, and surfing...the Internet? They shouldn't. The Conservative Government Supports Ending House Arrest for Serious Offences." Yesterday, Harper himself started making this case in his speeches, apparently an attempt to make people resent certain criminals for having an easy lifestyle. It turns out that only 11,000 people nationwide are in house arrest, most of them in transition to release after having served much of their sentences in jail. Putting all of them in jail would not be likely to have any actual impact in the discouragement of crime. Thus, the point of the campaign is clearly more symbolic. At some level, building resentment against criminals may be preferable to inciting fear in the electorate. In this case, the campaign tactic chosen to sell the policy seems to be more revealing of the candidate than the substance of the policy.

Harper's Nixonian tactics have not been limited to the incitement of resentment. Nixon was well-known for using coarse language, especially in private, and Harper has taken to using surprisingly coarse language during this campaign. Referring to the Liberals' "Green Shift" environmental proposal, he has talked about the "Green Shaft" and stated that it will "screw everybody across the country." Whether intended as a sexual or carpentry reference, that's quite colloquial and graphic language to be using in a Canadian political campaign, and he's repeated it often enough that it can't be passed off as an off-the-cuff remark. That's the language Harper apparently wants associated with his campaign.

While a case could be made that there has been a shade of anti-elitism in American politics ever since the Declaration of Independence, Nixon and Republican strategists right through to George W. Bush's Karl Rove have taken it to new levels, creating a division in the electorate that has resulted in the deep "blue and red America" divide that has made centrist politics almost impossible to practice in the United States. In contrast, Canada has no such long-standing tradition, and the two largest political parties, the Conservatives and the Liberals, have traditionally tried to claim--and govern from--the political center. Canadians from all political stripes still talk to one another and seem to prefer centrist policies.

Many Canadians have found Stephen Harper to be a competent and centrist Prime Minister, as reflected in his positive leadership poll numbers. There seems to be far more to question in his campaign tactics than in his actual policies. The channeling of Richard Nixon by Harper should be closely examined by everyone in Canada, starting with Stephen Harper. One look down south should show where it could be taking Canada, and I don't believe that even Stephen Harper wants to end up with the divisions that exist in the US electorate.

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