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Federal Politics

PM Spawns Literary Genre: The Political Horror Story

Brooke Jeffrey's book adds to 'Harperlit' canon.

Crawford Kilian 27 Apr

Crawford Kilian is a contributing editor of The Tyee.

So many books have been published about Stephen Harper (most of them hostile) that they have become a literary genre of their own. "Harperlit," as I call it, is a distinctly Canadian form of political horror story.

Like other horror genres, this one involves the release of some awful monster, which was long thought safely buried. In Harperlit books, the monster is his own record; Harper's early outrages have been forgotten under layers of more recent scandals. Harperlit authors know that the print and online news media have left us with 24-hour attention spans at best, so the old stuff has the nightmare shock of a PTSD (Post Tory Scandal Dismay) flashback: F-35s! Attawapiskat! Robocalls!

The effect of these nightmare flashbacks is to make Stephen Harper look not only omnipotent but like the fulfilment of ancient prophecy: we can see where he's going in those early years as he founded Reform, then took over its successor the Canadian Alliance, and devoured the vestiges of the once-great Progressive Conservatives. He couldn't be stopped then, and still less can he be stopped now in the last year of a majority government.

Harperlit springs from two ancient beliefs: First, that if you can name and explain your enemy, you can defeat him -- like guessing Rumpelstiltskin's name. Second is the superstition that "if only the Tsar knew," he would end the injustices we peasants suffer. In Harperlit the Tsar is the Canadian people, all-powerful yet willfully ignorant of what's being done in their name.

Baffled by the rise of this starkly anti-Canadian man, his opponents resort to the traditional defence of writing polemics against him. Like Crown prosecutors going after Mike Duffy, Harperlit authors dig into his known background, marshal their documentary evidence, summon their witnesses, and make the most logical argument they can to show how subversive Stephen Harper and his allies have been. That's how you're supposed to argue a case.

But Harper supporters don't read Harperlit. It's a genre confined to a specific audience: educated people who would never vote for Harper in the first place and don't even know the people who do.

So why review yet another Harperlit book by yet another academic?

Brooke Jeffrey's book is standard Harperlit in many ways, especially its summary of Harper's career since 2006. It's well written and well documented as she guides us through almost a decade of Harper horror stories. Her Liberal bias is visible but not excessive. She used to be the federal Liberals' research director and published an earlier book on the Liberals' Chrétien-Martin civil wars.

A key insight

Harper's critics have been quick to point out the cultish influence of the Austrian economist Friedrich von Hayek and the think-tanks inspired by Margaret Thatcher. Many have commented on his "visceral" hatred of the Liberal Party.

All true, no doubt, but only Jeffrey identifies the fatal implication of these influences, and that makes her book the best of the Harperlit polemics: Stephen Harper knows he's right, and being right is all he needs to justify his authoritarian style.

This certainly is what leads Conservatives to view opposing policy positions as not simply different, but wrong, and hence easily dismissed.

"The rigidity of [Conservatives'] policy positions," Jeffrey says, "can be traced back to a firm (and unprecedented) conviction in the rightness of their beliefs. This certainly is what leads them to see opposing policy positions as not simply different... but wrong, and hence easily dismissed. As a result, neither compromise nor conciliation are acceptable or even possible.... Thus the phrase 'not letting the facts get in the way of their opinions' is literally correct in describing the new Conservatives' approach to governing.

"As a result, neither compromise nor conciliation are acceptable or even possible. Thus the phrase 'not letting the facts get in the way of their opinions' is literally correct in describing the new Conservatives' approach to governing."

Because Harper's right, everyone against him must be wrong -- not just the Liberal Party, but all opposition, as well as the institutions that have supported liberal democratic Canada over the past two centuries.

Jeffrey argues that the whole idea of a liberal parliamentary Canada is alien to him because it's based on respect for your opponents and a willingness to compromise. When you're absolutely right, though, any compromise is a falling-away toward wrongness. Parliament, the Supreme Court, elections, even science and history mean nothing when you're right and everyone else is wrong.

"He believes his authority, and that of his government, are the source of legitimacy for all of his acts, and are sufficient justification for them," Jeffrey says.

Harper's genius, as Jeffrey sees it, lies in his pragmatic realism. He understands that Canada is a liberal parliamentary democracy. As such, it's bigger and stronger than he is. But just as a powerful and dangerous bull can be lured into the arena and dispatched by a weak but wily enemy, small-l liberal Canada can be distracted, crippled, and then finished off after a few careful manoeuvres.

Nixon as inspiration

Like many colonial Canadians before him, Stephen Harper turned to the U.S. for inspiration. Jeffrey shows that he was a close student of the Republican party under Richard Nixon and his successors.

Harper recognized the parallels. Nixon rebuilt his party on the southern whites who hated civil rights for blacks; Harper exploited the self-pity of Albertans with "The West wants in." (He was less successful in pandering to Quebec alienation.)

Harper was quick to develop Nixonian message control, intimidating his own caucus (inclined since the old Reform days to bozo eruptions about gays, abortion and evolution). He bullied the civil service and the mainstream media, both of which had too many connections to the Liberals and the old Progressive Conservatives. He also seized on Nixon-style attack ads, with spectacular success against Stéphane Dion and Michael Ignatieff.

Once in power, Harper continued in the Nixonian style of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney.

In opposition, he criticized the Liberals for not following Bush into Iraq. But once in power, he extended Canada's commitment in Afghanistan and has now launched his own air war in Iraq and Syria.

Working slowly and pragmatically, Harper has hollowed out Canadian institutions. He has cowed the civil service, silenced researchers, threatened advocacy groups with tax investigations, and reduced his caucus to robots, uttering endless talking points. Since the justice system has a known Liberal bias (in his view), he takes shots at the Supreme Court and games the judicial system with stalls and appeals from his defeats. In the case of Omar Khadr, Jeffrey cites right-wing columnist Dan Gardner, who was appalled by the Harper government's tactics: "The government has disregarded the Constitution and the Supreme Court. Arguably it has even been contemptuous of both."

Endorsing an 'un-Canadian'

The mainstream media buckled to Harper long ago. Jeffrey cites a Vancouver Sun commentary in 1994 that called the new Reform Party's policies so bizarre they were "un-Canadian." But the Sun (like the Globe and Mail and most Canadian papers) endorsed Harper in 2006, 2008 and 2011, and likely will again this year.

Perhaps his greatest triumph, in Jeffrey's view, has been to sell Canadians on the idea that Conservatives are economic wizards, when, in fact, they're economic incompetents. In the process of cutting taxes, Harper has also run up the national debt and cut services that are far more valuable than the few bucks taxpayers might get back. He's determined to make the state wither away to "night watchman" status by starving it of funds except what it needs to snoop on his own people.

For a decade, Jeffrey argues, Stephen Harper has had two advantages. First, his opponents still try to play by the liberal democratic rules, which he flouts as a matter of principle. He may despise those rules, but he understands them well enough to game them -- and to neutralize those who still respect them. Jeffrey mentions his unauthorized joyride on an ATV down an Arctic runway. When queried about this dangerous stunt, Harper replied, "I think I make the rules."

Second, Stephen Harper has millions of supporters, not only ambitious politicians but businesspeople, media moguls, and ordinary people who don't like liberal parliamentary democracy any better than he does. He and they belong to a long-ignored fringe in Canadian political life, the fringe that produced Ernest and Preston Manning and Maurice Duplessis. Harper's supporters love his contempt for his adversaries, and hate us at least as much as he does.

This is the real separatism in Canadian politics, the deepening gulf between the believers in democracy and the believers in an all-powerful, always-right prime minister.

Brooke Jeffrey concludes with a ray of hope, seeing Harper as not quite as brutally effective as he wishes he were. No doubt she's right. But until the democrats are prepared to confront their authoritarian-leaning fellow-Canadians and make them realize the nightmare they've supported, Stephen Harper will provide new horrors for the growing genre of Harperlit.  [Tyee]

Read more: Federal Politics, Media

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