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From Trudeau to the U.S. election: It's all about the 'middle class'

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South of the border, the Democratic Convention happened almost a month ago and we are now just over a month away from the election. The never-ending campaign is in its final chapter. In Canada this last chapter would be about the duration of the entire official election campaign, from start to finish.

One speech during last month's Democratic Convention impressed many as expressing the populist, progressive impulse of the Democratic Party. 

It was the warm-up speech to Bill Clinton's by Harvard professor and Massachusetts Senatorial candidate Elizabeth Warren. Here it is.

One Canadian businessperson who watched that speech says that he found it to be "shocking." Why shocking? Well, presumably because of its strident, "class warfare" rhetoric. If you listen to it you might agree; or you might not.

The speech does indeed have a rallying-cry tone, especially when Ms. Warren evokes her own hard scrabble working-class background. But it contains no radical policy proposals.  And, like most of these rhetorical events, it is full of its share of that slightly cloying, patriotic, isn't-America-great stuff.

It's getting to the point where a U.S. politician can't get away with merely talking about policy, values and vision. He or she must include generous dollops of his/her family and personal life story. 

As one wag put it: "All American politicians want you to believe they were born in log cabins they built themselves, with their bare hands!"

Some are better at that confessional/inspirational stuff than others. Mitt Romney still has some work to do on that front. 

That personal quest theme is still mostly an American phenomenon; but it is making inroads elsewhere.

In Britain, Labour Leader Ed Miliband just delivered what reviewers are calling a bravura, without-notes performance. 

In his address earlier this week to Labour's annual conference in Manchester, Miliband invoked his childhood as the progeny of Jews who fled Nazism and the fact that, unlike PM David Cameron, he is the product of what Canadians would call "public" schools, not exclusive private ones. 

The party faithful loved it, and the press called it his best speech ever. 

To be fair to Miliband, the speech is also fairly rich in detailed policy prescriptions, and traces a clear and coherent vision that links values to Labour’s political program.

No ideology; respite for the 'middle class'

 The same could not be said of Justin Trudeau's debut performance as a leadership candidate. 

His scripted, prepared statement was mostly a personal evocation of some sort of mystical relationship with the country, with almost nothing in the way of substantive policies.

Aside from a bit of requisite genuflection before the almighty "middle class" (which is becoming an obligatory auto-da-fé for politicians of all stripes in Canada, as in the U.S.), one of the very few policy-related affirmations Trudeau did make was a negative one. 

As have other Liberals of late, Trudeau underscored the fact that the Liberal party is not overly burdened with something he called "ideology." And when Trudeau says "ideology" it is not in the sense of the sociologist Mannheim, that is, to mean 'a world-view determined by social class.' Trudeau seems to simply mean anything resembling a set of principles or a political philosophy or, even, perhaps, core values.

It is an odd thing to emphasize something you do not have. 

Indeed, the Liberals risk becoming, in the words of the Yiddish expression, the "Nisht ahin un nisht aher" party -- the party that is neither here nor there, stuck in some sort of limbo.

(Another way of saying much the same thing in Yiddish is more cutting: "Nisht geshtoygen, nisht gefloygen" – literally: "It won't fit, it won't fly.")

Financial regulation = socialism?

 Even if her Convention speech to fellow Democrats was hardly policy-heavy, Elizabeth Warren did not shy away from drawing distinctions -- taking sides, as it were.   

On substantive matters, the Harvard professor spoke most forcefully in defence of the federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), which was created in the wake of the 2008 crisis. Her populist defence of financial regulation and the CFPB is understandable. She was a major architect of that Obama administration initiative. 

However, all that being said, there was not a word in Warren's supposedly radical speech about the United States' global responsibilities. 

There was nary a word about global inequality, nor about the planetary environment.  

In fact, outside of the autobiographical part, the speech did not even address the issue of poverty in the U.S. itself. 

It seems that the only people who evoke the poor in the U.S. these days are on the Right, and they only talk about them to complain that they're freeloaders who pay no federal income taxes and have no sense of personal responsibility. 

The focus for Ms. Warren, as for the rest of the Democratic Party, was (here we go again) the great American Middle Class, however that might be defined. 

She had no radical redistributive proposals, and suggested nothing that might be interpreted as fettering the free market -- unless one sees the very notion of prudent financial regulation to prevent a repetition of 2008 as some kind of "socialism." 

A large number of white, male voters -- some affluent, a good many not -- apparently do sincerely believe that even modest and prudent financial regulation is some kind of collectivist plot.

Appealing to fear and narrow self-interest

 Tonight, Obama and Romney go at it in the first of the current campaign's televised debates. 

You can expect that "hard working Middle Class" to crop up a fair bit in the rhetoric of both candidates. 

But don't expect to hear much, if anything, about the significant slice of the US population living in poverty. And you will hear even less about the planet's billions of poor. In the words (not in Yiddish) of the New Testament, the poor may "always be with us" -- but they are not a salient issue in U.S. politics. 

In his inaugural address in 2009, Obama did say: "...a nation cannot prosper long when it favours only the prosperous." But he didn't dare go much further in addressing matters of inequality and redistribution of wealth. We'll see if he is politically reckless enough to even allude to that subject tonight.

Climate change? What's that?

And don't hold your breath waiting for any serious discussion tonight of the multiple environmental crises facing the U.S. and the whole planet. 

In the U.S., as in Canada, it is the militantly and openly anti-environment camp that is on the attack, advocating for prosperity above all, even if it means more pollution. 

In Canada, the Conservatives devote enormous energy trying to paint Tom Mulcair as a high-taxing radical environmentalist. This statement that rookie Conservative MP Eve Adams sent to journalists last Friday is typical:

"Today in Toronto, Thomas Mulcair gave a speech at the Canadian Club, where he avoided mentioning the only clear economic policy his party has put forward: a $21 billion, job-killing carbon tax. Mr. Mulcair’s job-killing carbon tax will stifle our region’s economy and will drive up the cost of living for hardworking families everywhere..."

Virtually the only occasions on which Conservatives ever allude to the environment are when they invent a non-existent NDP policy. 

The environment is becoming the new political demon of the Right. 

We are seeing the beginnings of something resembling McCarthyism, with radical environmentalism standing in for communism. Witness the Canada Revenue Agency getting special funding to "investigate" environmental NGOs and Conservative Senator Nicole Eaton presiding over an inquiry to look into the "foreign" connections of Canadian environmentalists.

In the U.S., the Romney-ites ardently tout their candidate's pledges to throw open the doors to off-shore drilling, relax pollution controls for coal mines and proceed with the Keystone pipeline. When asked in interviews about Romney's job creation ideas, those are just about the only ones they can come up with.  

Four years ago, Republican candidate McCain portrayed himself as a supporter of strong measures to combat climate change, despite the contrary views of many in his own party.  

The current Republican candidate refuses to make even the most perfunctory gesture toward environmental responsibility. In fact, in his acceptance speech, Romney's only words on the environment were to mock Obama’s near-forgotten pledge during the last campaign to halt the rising of the oceans. 

Obama did have high ambitions for the environment four years ago. When he couldn't even get enough support for those ambitions from his own party’s members in Congress, he turned his focus elsewhere. 

If the U.S. President still nurtures hopes that that his country might rouse itself from its environmental apathy and show some leadership on climate change, he will not likely be sharing those hopes during tonight’s debate. 

Sadly, in the current political environment it would not be prudent to do so.


Karl Nerenberg covers news for the rest of us from Parliament Hill. Donate to support his efforts todayKarl has been a journalist for over 25 years including eight years as the producer of the CBC show The House. 


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