Politics

Andrew Coyne: Stephen Harper comes across as banal in effort to claim mantle of populism

That presumably settles that.

Throughout his time as prime minister, theories abounded as to
what philosophy of government, if any, could explain Stephen
Harper’s apparently rudderless course. A few die-hards on the
left persisted in describing his government as ideological or
hard-right, even as it was borrowing billions, adding new
regional development agencies and nationalizing the auto
industry.

Others insisted he was a libertarian at heart who was either
forced or tempted, by reality or expediency, to alter his
approach once in power. A couple of loyalists essayed a
reconstruction after the fact, in which the Harper government’s
many disparate and contradictory policies were somehow made to
fit into a single philosophical template called “ordered
liberty.”

Well now we have it from the proverbial horse’s mouth. The
young firebrand who famously deserted Preston Manning for being
too populist and not enough of a conservative now claims the
mantle of populism for himself: if not as a whole-hearted
adherent, then as the statesman who understands where others
only condemn. His new book Right Here, Right Now, is indeed in
large part an attempt to portray his own government, not as the
cynical power-seeking machine it appeared to be, but as
populist before its time. In defending populism, he defends
himself.

And yet the mind it reveals is not that of the subtle,
sometimes rueful voice of experience he clearly wishes the
reader to imagine. It is, rather, all too conventional, even
banal. What are presented as iconoclastic insights, in which
the rise of populism is explained in terms of the failings of
conservatism — former Conservative prime minister breaks with
decades of conservative orthodoxy! — are a mix of received
wisdom and undergraduate shibboleths, many of them long
debunked.

Thus Trump’s appeal to his supporters is presented as being
primarily economic in nature: the familiar theory of the
industrial working class whom globalization had left behind,
which most observers have long since abandoned in the face of
compelling evidence that Trump’s supporters were neither so
economically dispossessed — the average Trump voter is in fact
better off than the average American — nor so motivated by
economic concerns as all that.

Rather, opinion research has shown, they are driven primarily
by cultural resentments and racial fears: resentment of
educated elites and their media allies, who are accused (not
without justice) of looking down their noses at the people in
“flyover country”; fears of losing their place in a society
that is rapidly changing. That Trump was adept at tapping into
those resentments is not in doubt, but it is less a matter of
his superior insight or willingness to challenge conventional
wisdom on matters such as trade, as Harper seems to imagine,
than unprecedented, unimaginable shamelessness.

So, too, Harper misrepresents populism, certainly of the kind
that Trump and his ilk practice. It is simply wrong to describe
it, as he does, as “any political movement that places the
wider interests of the common people ahead of the special
interests of the privileged few.” Indeed, as he himself
acknowledges, “every political party tends to frame its core
appeal in such terms.” A definition that could describe any
party or movement is without significance.

Rather, the term describes a view of “the people” as being
under siege: if the populist is famously “for the people,” it
invites the question of who is against — the Them that is
supposedly menacing Us. The populist is never short of Thems:
elites, foreigners, racial minorities, “globalists” — or in
Harper’s (borrowed) formulation, the cosmopolitan “Anywheres”
who owe no allegiance to nation-states, move between homes in
New York, London and Singapore, and hanker after a world
without borders: a description that would apply to perhaps
dozens of people but whom Harper is convinced now control “all
the main traditional political parties.”

The views on trade that Harper ascribes to Trump’s supporters
conveniently dovetail with his own. While careful to proclaim
his belief in trade – what critic of trade does not? — he
spends an entire chapter on the evils of trading with China,
showing how little he really does. The notion that trade
imbalances, such as the U.S. has with China, are due to unfair
trading practices (and not capital flows, mostly driven by U.S.
fiscal imbalances) — or that a trade deficit, as such matters a
whit — is again presented as a stunning repudiation of
conventional trade theory, and not the same
trade-must-be-reciprocal complaint with which protectionists
have always misrepresented the case for free trade.

What are presented as iconoclastic insights are a mix of
received wisdom and undergraduate shibboleths

Harper is right to say that conservatism, particularly as
practised by the Republican Party, with its insistence on
deregulation and tax cuts for the rich as the cure for every
ill, has become stale, doctrinaire and out of touch with the
concerns of ordinary people. He is wrong, however, to suppose
the “market dogmatism” of GOP rhetoric has been reflected in
the actual policies they have pursued, any more than Trump’s
policies — deregulation and tax cuts for the rich — have
matched his.

Likewise, while Harper is right to insist that conservatism
must apply itself to the real problems of today, not the
problems of a generation ago, that still leaves open the
question of how he defines conservatism. Statements such as
“conservatism is successful over time because conservatism
works” do not fill one with confidence, since what “works” is
itself a matter of definition.

Certainly it is true that markets are not enough — that mere
laissez-faire will not suffice. But that is an argument for
supplementing markets, not supplanting them; for redistributing
market outcomes, not distorting market processes; for
correcting genuine market failures, not intervening hither and
yon with a bit of hand-waving about the need to be pragmatic.

A serious critique of Conservative policy would produce
examples of intervention without market failure — supply
management, say — and of market failure requiring intervention,
such as unpriced carbon emissions, for which a carbon tax is
the proper corrective. Yet Harper supports supply management
and opposes the carbon tax. Because populism, I guess.

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