What happened to liberal politicians? Sadly, they got smart.

Please chip in to support more articles like this. Support rabble.ca for as little as $5 per month!

PMO Photo by Adam Scotti

Whatever happened to liberals? Sadly, they got smart.

For this insight I'm indebted to U.S. journalist Thomas Frank, whose 2004 book, What's the Matter with Kansas? explained the success of right-wing populism in the George W. Bush years and whose recent, Listen, Liberal, described the Hillary Clinton debacle in advance. He lectured in Toronto last month. It served as a booster shot.

I was always perplexed by Obama's infatuation with "smart guys" like Bill Gates or Larry Summers. I'd assumed anyone who knows these certified smarties must also know they come with limits and are less than advertised.

Historically, the truly smart, starting with Socrates, know they don't know much. But Frank explains how, from the 1980s on, U.S. Democrats divested from their longtime attachment to the poor and exploited and shifted fealty to the new professional class: people with lots of degrees, innovators, especially in "knowledge industries," a.k.a. the creative class (a shout-out here to U of T's Richard Florida, who coined the term).

This switch had the added benefit of making leaders such as Obama and the Clintons part of the same group they were newly devoted to representing and advancing. Hey, we all have degrees.

So Obama must've felt he was in smart heaven when the richest U.S. bankers -- innovators of magnificent financial "devices" -- filed abashedly in to see him after the 2008 crash. They clearly expected a spanking but instead got a mammoth bailout, because then, maybe, they'd really really like him. Obama and his ilk assumed their previous core constituency -- workers, unions etc. -- would stick with the Democrats simply because they had "nowhere else to go." This explains Bill Clinton's fury, after Hillary's defeat, when he said the only thing Trump knew how to do was get "angry white men to vote for him."

When last seen, Obama was kitesurfing the Caribbean with uber-innovator Richard Branson, who tweets insights like, "Action breeds confidence and courage." The two of them looked happy as pigs in situ, while the nation that Obama meticulously prepped for Trump, stoically met its fate. Eat surf, voters.

This premium on smart also explains Trump's sputtering need to declare his own genius, since no one else will. "I was a good student. I understand things. I comprehend very well, OK? Better than I think almost anybody." (It's the "OK" that's telling, he's practically pleading.) He's in a field -- real estate -- that's basic, not innovative.

He knows some smart guys too, but they're shysters, like Carl Icahn, whose idea of smart is putting a deal over on some loser. It's the dumb version of smart, and in the end he's forced to retreat to the distressed souls who attend his rallies, telling them how smart he is since he's rich (though no one knows how rich -- those damn tax returns) and pledging to be their knight.

There's also a strong whiff of smartism in the Trudeau government. At the top, they're almost all smart professionals.

When Chrystia Freeland was an editor at the Globe, her highest term of praise was smart, not well-written or nice digging.

Bill Morneau isn't your stuffy old finance minister type. He's light and breezy. He cheerily tells youth to get used to job churn because he knows the story, it's not his task to empathize or ameliorate.

Dominic Barton, head of Morneau's advisory council, is a Rhodes scholar and director at McKinsey, which is as innovative as you can get. They consult, versus actually doing anything. They're keen on disruption, which is very creative, especially if it's not your life that's being disrupted. His council's reports are all giddy over innovation.

The Liberals just gave a big bailout to Bombardier, which is in a very smart sector. They did it to retain "high-quality jobs in Canada," not just any old jobs; and because it "puts Canada on the map in the aerospace sector."

I mean, who gives a crap if we get on the map unless you want other smart people to think you're smart too? And note it's for a sleek new jet. Why not -- since Bombardier is virtually a branch of government -- order them to invest in high-speed rail or public transit instead? Maybe because the smart guys take planes, not the TTC.

Thus does smartness subtly insinuate itself everywhere -- except, apparently, among voters. Smart won't ever replace fair; that's just stupid.

This column was first published in the Toronto Star.

PMO Photo by Adam Scotti

Like this article? rabble is reader-supported journalism.

Related Items

Thank you for reading this story…

More people are reading rabble.ca than ever and unlike many news organizations, we have never put up a paywall – at rabble we’ve always believed in making our reporting and analysis free to all, while striving to make it sustainable as well. Media isn’t free to produce. rabble’s total budget is likely less than what big corporate media spend on photocopying (we kid you not!) and we do not have any major foundation, sponsor or angel investor. Our main supporters are people and organizations -- like you. This is why we need your help. You are what keep us sustainable.

rabble.ca has staked its existence on you. We live or die on community support -- your support! We get hundreds of thousands of visitors and we believe in them. We believe in you. We believe people will put in what they can for the greater good. We call that sustainable.

So what is the easy answer for us? Depend on a community of visitors who care passionately about media that amplifies the voices of people struggling for change and justice. It really is that simple. When the people who visit rabble care enough to contribute a bit then it works for everyone.

And so we’re asking you if you could make a donation, right now, to help us carry forward on our mission. Make a donation today.


We welcome your comments! rabble.ca embraces a pro-human rights, pro-feminist, anti-racist, queer-positive, anti-imperialist and pro-labour stance, and encourages discussions which develop progressive thought. Our full comment policy can be found here. Learn more about Disqus on rabble.ca and your privacy here. Please keep in mind:


  • Tell the truth and avoid rumours.
  • Add context and background.
  • Report typos and logical fallacies.
  • Be respectful.
  • Respect copyright - link to articles.
  • Stay focused. Bring in-depth commentary to our discussion forum, babble.


  • Use oppressive/offensive language.
  • Libel or defame.
  • Bully or troll.
  • Post spam.
  • Engage trolls. Flag suspect activity instead.