In Praise of Stasis, Special Canadian-Election Edition

Stasis is perhaps an underrated virtue in political life. We know the virtue of stasis in our private lives, since selling the house and divorcing the spouse and sending the kids away rarely seems, on reflection, like a good idea. But there is something to be said in praise of stasis in our public life,…

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Stasis is perhaps an underrated virtue in political life. We know the virtue of stasis in our private lives, since selling the house and divorcing the spouse and sending the kids away rarely seems, on reflection, like a good idea. But there is something to be said in praise of stasis in our public life, as well. Electioneering rhetoric in democracies almost always champions change, its necessity and its benefits, but there are moments when a completely static result accurately represents the views and even, in a way, the evanescent mood of a nation, when carrying on the same way as before is the best result to wish for. This thought (in itself somewhat static) is inspired by the result of Monday’s snap federal election in Canada, which, after much toing and froing, with moments of momentum and checked momentum on all sides, ended with almost exactly the same Parliament as that with which it began. The Liberal Party of Justin Trudeau won the most seats, and will form its third consecutive government, though still not the majority government it sought when Trudeau called the election, a month ago; the Conservatives, now under the leadership of Erin O’Toole, a more progressive-minded leader than his immediate predecessors, have the second-most seats and a slightly greater share of the popular vote, owing to their near-monopoly of the vote in the Western provinces; a Canadian oddity, the Bloc Québécois, a separatist party that nonetheless sits in the federal Parliament, ended up in third place, with thirty-four seats, all of them in Quebec; and the leftist New Democratic Party, led by the well-liked Jagmeet Singh, came in fourth. (The final counts are not yet in, but the Conservative edge in the popular vote, which will likely end up at about one per cent, is real, though somewhat misleading: the center-left vote, the Liberals and the N.D.P. together, is still much larger than the center-right vote, and, in any case, a parliamentary system is the product of a series of local elections, not a national one.)

Those with long memories for the cycles of history can even see repetitions in a broader spiral. In 1974, another Liberal leader named Trudeau sought a majority government against a popular N.D.P. leader named David Lewis and a sober-minded but progressive Conservative leader named Robert Stanfield, and made his way to a majority. Though Pierre Trudeau, Justin Trudeau’s father, is imagined in America as a much-loved and charismatic leader, at the time he was unpopular in the press—or the “media,” as Marshall McLuhan, another Canadian, had recently popularized it—just as his son is now: before the election in ’74, the three daily newspapers in Toronto all endorsed the opposition. Yet fifty years ago the basic lines of Canadian politics were already in evidence. That election featured a powerful Liberal Party with strongholds in Montreal and Toronto, but not much out in the prairie provinces of the West, and a popular but, owing to the first-past-the-post voting system, powerless social-democratic figure in Lewis, with some fringe politicians along the side. In 1974, Justin was a two-year-old, photographed swinging happily from his parents’ hands on the steps of the Parliament building. Though much has changed—no one then could easily have imagined a Sikh leader of a major Canadian political party, as Singh is—much remains the same. Trudeau fils, fluently bilingual and representing a Montreal riding, still holds down Quebec for federalism, as his father did. The historic task of the Liberal Party of Canada, which both Trudeaus and the largely forgotten but effective Jean Chrétien have fulfilled, is to keep Quebec within the confederation, a goal at which (though it has happened so slowly that few Canadians quite see it) it has essentially succeeded, taking Quebec independence and the breakup of the country from a looming threat to a now remote eventuality.

To the degree that there was an issue in this election, it snaked and ran around COVID-19 and the political responses to it, offering a reminder that no one has figured out the politics of the pandemic, which betrays even the leaders who seem to have most responsibly addressed it. Canada under Trudeau got off to a good start, seeming to do better than the United States in the early horrible months, even leading this hopeful expatriate to think that the social capital of Canada was a foundation for a productive response. But it took a dark downward turn last winter, when Montreal and Toronto, in particular, were shut down tight, even as New York and Boston cautiously started to reopen, and then seemed to worsen still more when the vaccines rolled out and Canada seemed well behind the United States and Europe in their distribution. (The general sense was that Canada had made a grave error in having given up on vaccine production itself, leaving it a suitor rather than a manufacturer of the vaccines.)

At that point, though, things turned yet again, as they insist on doing in this unprecedented and twisting tale. As anti-vax propaganda and the sheer irrationality of the Trumpist right flooded America, Canada surged ahead in the proportion of citizens vaccinated; nearly seventy per cent of the population is now fully vaccinated. (A new far-right group, the People’s Party of Canada, did reflect the anti-vax fury, and protesters did appear at campaign rallies—earlier this month, in Ontario, a small crowd, seemingly inspired by the Party, threw rocks—or, this being Canada, gravel—at Trudeau.)

The Conservative premiers, the equivalent of governors, in the Western provinces tried to apply a lighter, more libertarian touch to the pandemic, reopening prematurely this summer, with largely catastrophic results. Alberta called a health-care emergency, and last week the premier, Jason Kenney, actually apologized for his conduct, saying that he will order vaccine passports and other restrictions—not having learned the Trumpist lesson of doubling down and defying anyone to do anything about it. (There is no Murdoch press or television in Canada, which may seem like a secondary thought, but is actually, as the experience of Britain and the United States and Australia all show, actually a primary one.) It may be that the Alberta Apology, with its implicit warning of the dangers of reckless right-wing government, helped seal the result in the big Eastern cities for Trudeau. The larger moral seems to be that no one can ride the pandemic black cloud with any kind of certainty or knowledge.

The other underlying regularity of the election is the larger one, easily overlooked, which perhaps governs politics in all the liberal democracies now, and that is the enormous and ever-growing disjunction between urban and rural voters. Toronto and Montreal are solid blocks of Liberal red; the rural remainder largely remains much further right, repeating the same pattern that one finds in France, Britain, and in the United States. (This is not an inevitable pattern in Canada: the social-democratic Co-operative Commonwealth Federation, the predecessor of the N.D.P., which is generally credited with the first efforts at bringing national health insurance to Canada, had its Depression-era roots in rural and agrarian movements in the West.)

To speak in praise of stasis is to do the kind of thing that Canadians resent, particularly when it comes from expat Canadians, as condescending or not seeming to take the problems of the country—from the devastation of climate change in the North to the still inadequate repentance for the wrongs committed against indigenous peoples in the so-called residential schools—sufficiently seriously. The morning-after tone of the Canadian media seemed, at least to this expat Montrealer, oddly sour and cynical: there was much criticism of Trudeau for having called the election two years before he had to, during the pandemic—though it was his right, and in a sense his duty, as a parliamentary politician, to try and turn a minority into a majority. (Canadian leaders have to call an election every four years, but are free to gamble and do so earlier.) There was also much berating of O’Toole, for having failed to bring the Conservatives to the center—although he tried, and gave a shout-out to L.G.B.T.Q. voters in his not-quite concession speech. There were also many imprecations against the pointless stasis that is, after all, a fair portrait of the country, and which, paradoxically, has so far proved no particular barrier to effective administration, which is one reason that it seemed to some frivolous for Trudeau to have called for a vote.

Of course, the ironic consequence of the attacks on Trudeau for calling this election is that, if he doesn’t call another one for four more years, his critics will have a hard time condemning him for not doing so, after having condemned him so loudly for calling this one. The stasis is locked in. Still, under any of the possible candidates, Canada would have had a decent, sane, and responsible government: a low bar, yes, but one that we have learned is not too low to defeat a democracy. Canada remains a fortunate country, but not a complacent one. A large part of its good fortune is that it persistently refuses to recognize how fortunate it is.


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