Jon Stewart leaves us a model for a different political practice

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There was an irritating piece in last weekend's Globe by John Ibbitson called, "How Harper created a more conservative Canada." It ended, "Stephen Harper's Canada is everyone's Canada now." It made some desultory arguments for that thesis based on lower taxes, higher jail rates, anti-terror laws, shredding public programs, balanced budgets and "more belligerent," less wussy foreign policy. But his emphasis was on triumphantly declaring victory for the right, the team Ibbitson cheers for. "We are a more conservative land ... we are going to stay that way…  Stephen Harper's Canada is the Canada we have become."

I'll say briefly what I find wonky in this. It's not wrong about Canada moving right. But Harper didn't make the change, he capitalized on it. Much of it was there when he took power, largely due to Liberal governments of Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin. Back in 1995, wetting themselves over a Wall Street Journal editorial that called Canada bankrupt (like Mexico), they slashed programs their own party had created. They became deficit obsessives -- their only true public enthusiasm.

They weren't alone, left-claiming leaders everywhere did it: Bill Clinton, Tony Blair. Aside from wrecking people's lives unnecessarily to prove their faith, they killed hopes for a more social, humane reality in the process. By the time Martin became prime minister in 2003 and tried to reverse course, he was fighting what he'd engendered, and he failed. Instead of advocating the need to better fund aboriginal education these days, he should be wandering the public squares carrying a sign reading, Woe unto me, I brought this on.

Amazingly, and contra Ibbitson, Canadian voting habits have barely budged. Harper hovers around 33-39 per cent. Left-leaning parties (Liberals, NDP, Bloc, Greens) get roughly 60 per cent. Harper majorities don't reflect voters; they're entirely due to our undemocratic first-past-the-post system. Where a shift has happened is in news media. In 2011, every daily in Canada except the Star backed Harper -- a ratio to make fans of the old Soviet Union nostalgic, or envious.

What I find puerile in Ibbitson is the way he treats politics much like rooting for your team. I was at the Leafs 5-4 loss Tuesday and the crowd left fairly happy, simply for not being humiliated. Those passions are profound. But it's not the way history rolls. Human affairs lurch one way for awhile, due to good or bad leaders, the power of money or ideology -- whatever. Then as negative effects become apparent, things tend to lurch elsewhere.

It was Pierre Trudeau, embodiment of Canadian leftness, who declared military law and jailed hundreds without charge, to strangle terrorism on our soil! I hope Martin Luther King was right, that history's arc bends toward justice, but even he never said it was a straight line -- which absolves none of us from doing our best while we're around.

Here's where I think Jon Stewart is (soon to be was) instructive. He freely admitted his positions were "informed" by his leftishness but that's all, they weren't determined by it. He treated each issue in great detail on its merits and didn't fear siding against his own team if that's what the specifics warranted. The side you're on didn't matter much and whether it won was incidental. That's how he felt most people felt.

It suggested a different political practice. Your credibility depends on what you bring to the argument each time, not your team sweater. The fact his explorations were funny belied ways they were serious. He was self-deprecating about that seriousness, perhaps strategically but also because he may have been discovering his own kind of politics as he went. That process of discovery might have kept his work fresh for so many years on air.

I know people are mourning Stewart's departure, especially younger ones for whom he's always been there. There may be consolation in the way he didn't just build a career but a genre. That means successors await, some of whom, like John Oliver, have actually ratcheted up the prototype: less self-deprecation and even more analysis. It's a case of the arc of TV history bending benignly. It's also a model for future citizens (and journalists) to be less obsessed by the endless Stanley Cup playoffs between left and right.

This column was first published in the Toronto Star.

Photo: cliff1066™/flickr

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