In Praise of Stasis, Special Edition of the Canadian Elections
Stasis is perhaps an underestimated virtue in political life. We know the virtue of stasis in our private lives, because selling the house and divorcing the spouse and sending the children away rarely seems, on second thought, a good idea. But there is also something to be said for praising the stasis in our public life. Election rhetoric in democracies almost always advocates change, its necessity and its benefits, but there are times when a completely static result faithfully represents the opinions and even, in a way, the evanescent mood of a nation. , when you continue in the same way as before is the best result to want. This thought (in itself somewhat static) is inspired by the result of the early federal elections on Monday in Canada, which, after many back and forths, with moments of momentum and momentum stopped on all sides, came to an end. ended with almost exactly the same legislature he started with. Justin Trudeau’s Liberal Party has won the most seats and will form its third consecutive government, although it is still not the majority government it sought when Trudeau called the election a month ago; the Tories, now under the leadership of Erin O’Toole, a more progressive leader than her immediate predecessors, have the second-highest number of seats and a slightly larger share of the popular vote, due to their near-monopoly on the vote in the western provinces; Canadian oddity, the Bloc Québécois, separatist party which nevertheless sits in the federal Parliament, found itself in third place, with thirty-four seats, all in Quebec; and the New Democratic Left Party, led by the much-loved Jagmeet Singh, came fourth. (The final tally is not yet known, but the Conservatives’ advantage in the popular vote, which will likely end at around one percent, is real, if somewhat misleading: the center-left vote, the Liberals and the NPD together is still much broader than the center-right vote, and, anyway, a parliamentary system is the product of a series of local, not national, elections.)
Those with a long memory of the cycles of history may even see repeats in a larger spiral. In 1974, another Liberal leader named Trudeau sought a majority government against a popular NDP leader named David Lewis and a sober but progressive Conservative leader named Robert Stanfield, and made his way to the majority. Although Pierre Trudeau, the father of Justin Trudeau, was imagined in America as a much appreciated and charismatic leader, at the time he was unpopular in the press or the “media”, as Marshall McLuhan, another Canadian, had. recently popularized as his son is now: before the 1974 election, Toronto’s three dailies all supported the opposition. Yet fifty years ago the basic lines of Canadian politics were already evident. This election featured a powerful Liberal Party with strongholds in Montreal and Toronto, but not many in the western Prairie Provinces, and a popular Social Democratic figure but, due to the first past the post system, powerless in Lewis, with a few fringe politicians by his side. In 1974, Justin was a two-year-old, pictured swinging happily from his parents’ hands on the steps of Parliament. While a lot has changed – then no one could easily have imagined a Sikh leader of a major Canadian political party like Singh is – a lot remains the same. Trudeau son, perfectly bilingual and representing a Montreal riding, still supports Quebec for federalism, as his father did. The historic task of the Liberal Party of Canada, which the Trudeaus and the much forgotten but effective Jean Chrétien have accomplished, is to keep Quebec in confederation, a goal to which (although it has happened so slowly that few Canadians really see it) he essentially succeeded, shifting the independence of Quebec and the break-up of the country from an imminent threat to a now distant eventuality.
As far as there was a problem in this election, it meandered and turned COVID-19 and the political responses to it, recalling that no one understood the policy of the pandemic, which betrays even the leaders who seem to have approached it in the most responsible way. Canada under Trudeau got off to a good start, appearing to do better than the United States in the horrific first months, even leading this hopeful expat to believe that Canada’s social capital was the foundation for a productive response. But that took a dark turn on the downside last winter, when Montreal and Toronto, in particular, were sealed off, even as New York and Boston cautiously began to reopen, then seemed to get even worse when the vaccines were rolled out and Canada appeared to be far behind the United States and Europe in their distribution. (The general feeling was that Canada had made a serious mistake in giving up vaccine production itself, leaving it a contender rather than a vaccine manufacturer.)
At this point, however, things have turned out again, as they insist on in this unprecedented and twisted story. As anti-vax propaganda and the sheer irrationality of the Trumpist right flooded America, Canada surged in the proportion of citizens vaccinated; nearly seventy percent of the population is now fully immunized. (A new far-right group, the People’s Party of Canada, reflected anti-vax fury, and protesters appeared at election rallies – earlier this month in Ontario a small crowd, apparently inspired by the Party, threw stones – or, this being Canada, gravel – at Trudeau.)
The conservative premiers, equivalent to the governors, of the western provinces tried to apply a lighter, more libertarian touch to the pandemic, by reopening prematurely this summer, with largely catastrophic results. Alberta has called a health care emergency, and last week Premier Jason Kenney actually apologized for his conduct, saying he would order passports for vaccines and other restrictions – not having learned the Trumpist lesson of overtaking and challenging anyone to do anything about it. (There is no Murdoch press or television in Canada, which may seem like a secondary thought, but is in fact, as the experience of Britain, the United States and Australia shows , actually a primary thought.) It may be that Alberta’s apology, with its implicit warning of the dangers of a reckless right-wing government, helped seal the outcome in the major cities of the East for Trudeau. The larger moral seems to be that no one can ride the pandemic black cloud with any certainty or knowledge.
The other underlying regularity of the election is the largest, easily overlooked, that perhaps rules politics in all liberal democracies now, and that is the huge and ever-growing disjunction between urban and rural voters. Toronto and Montreal are solid blocks of liberal red; the rest of the countryside remains largely more to the right, repeating the same pattern found in France, Great Britain and the United States. (This is not an inevitable trend in Canada: The Social Democratic Co-operative Commonwealth Federation, the predecessor of the NDP, which is generally credited with the early efforts to bring national medicare to Canada, had its roots in the days of depression in rural areas and agrarian movements in the West.)
To praise stasis is to do the sort of thing that Canadians dislike, especially when it comes to expatriate Canadians, as condescending or appearing not to take the country’s problems – to climate change devastation in the North in the news Insufficient repentance for the wrongs committed against Indigenous peoples in so-called residential schools – seriously enough. The tone of the next day in Canadian media seemed, at least to this Montreal expat, strangely sour and cynical: Trudeau was criticized a lot for calling the election two years before he was, during the pandemic – when it was. was his right, and in a sense his duty, as a parliamentary politician, to try to turn a minority into a majority. (Canadian leaders must call an election every four years, but are free to gamble and do so sooner.) A shout out to LGBTQ voters in his not quite concession speech. There were also a lot of imprecations against the unnecessary stasis which is, after all, a fair portrait of the country, and which, paradoxically, has so far proved no particular obstacle to effective administration, which is the one of the reasons why it seemed to some frivolous for Trudeau to have called for a vote.
Of course, the ironic consequence of the attacks on Trudeau for triggering this election is that if he doesn’t call another for another four years, his critics will have a hard time condemning him for not doing so, after having thus condemned him strongly for having called this one. Stasis is locked. Yet, under any of the possible candidates, Canada would have had a decent, sane and responsible government: a low bar, yes, but the one we learned is not too low to defeat a democracy. Canada remains a lucky country, but not complacent. Much of his good fortune is that he constantly refuses to recognize how lucky he is.