When Justin Trudeau, back in October of last year, began his campaign to lead the once great, once natural governing party of Canada, the Liberal Party, he did so with a vision statement that is worth returning to, now that he is the party’s leader, if we wish to really understand what he represents in our politics.
Easy to deride in parts, it began with some genuine groaners such as:
So I’m here to ask for your help, because this road will be one long, Canadian highway. We will have ups and downs. Breathtaking vistas and a few boring stretches. And with winter coming, icy patches.
But we will match the size of this challenge with hard, honest work.
Because hard work is what’s required. Always has been.
It also had the broad strokes of rhetoric, which many see as his hallmark, that say much less than they at first seem to as with:
The Liberal Party was their [Canadians] vehicle of choice. It was the platform for their aspirations, not their source.
When we were at our best, we were in touch, open to our fellow citizens and confident enough in them to take their ideas and work with them to build a successful country.
If there is a lesson to be drawn from our party’s past it is not where we landed but how we got there. We were deeply connected to Canadians. We made their values our values, their dreams our dreams, their fights our fights.
Who Trudeau means when he says “Canadians” is made abundantly, indeed almost absurdly clear throughout the speech with its constant repetitive reference to the middle class; a class that is set up as the beating heart of Canada and as its “hard working”, no nonsense, moral compass.
We need to get it right. We need to open our minds to new solutions, to listen to Canadians, to trust them…
…Solutions can come from the left or the right, all that matters is that they work. That they help us live – and thrive – true to our values.
Because middle class growth is much more than an economic imperative.
As if this was not enough, Trudeau goes on to assure us that “It is the middle class, not the political class, that unites this country. It is the middle class that makes this country great.”
The middle class, that amorphous, apparently vast group is not simply the backbone of Canada; in Trudeau’s vision it is Canada. Its class needs, ideals and prosperity are what should be the primary needs and ideals that will ensure Canada’s prosperity and they should be the frames of reference of its governance.
Trudeau wants not only to fight for the middle class, he wishes to embody it politically. And embodying a class so disparate that it lacks any kind of cohesion ideologically or even in terms of mutual interest, other than an overwhelming consumerist impulse to equate personal material milestones like owning a house or two cars with the “public interest”, is an impossibility if one is unduly specific as to policy.
This has, understandably, led Trudeau to be seemingly vague on this front and has led his opponents to label him as a “lightweight” or to contrast him unfavourably with his father. Both the NDP and the Conservatives, as well as many political pundits in the media, have written him off saying that once the public has seen him bested in both ideas and in policy debates by Mulcair and Harper, and they feel it is inevitable that this will happen, Trudeau will come crashing back down to Earth as the “fashion dandy”, empty-headed pretty boy who is only where he is due to the fortune of birth.
He will fail as all he ultimately has are platitudes.
Yet, one has to ask, what if that is, in fact, the strategy? What if Trudeau’s politics are intentionally devoid of ideas and of substance?
Policy wonks, political junkies and party partisans like to think that, at least to some degree, citizens pay attention to and care about the details of the daily goings-on on Parliament Hill and in committee rooms as they themselves do. They are also certain that citizens will eventually fixate, in making their voting choices, on the increasingly minor differences that exist between the parties in terms of program ahead of factors like image, personality or the ability to inspire.
But politics in Canada has been dumbed down for a generation now already and both the Tories and the NDP are keen to appear “moderate” to those wings of the electorate that they feel might vote for them. These are different wings, and thus their appeal to “moderation” is different. In the case of the NDP it is renouncing publicly its already largely meaningless connection to its distant socialist past and desperately trying to prove to everyone that they are “ready to govern”. In the case of Harper it is to convince the public, in spite of all the evidence, that the unbridled lunatic social conservatives in the party are not anxiously trying to pry open the closet door and create the Republic of Gilead.
Into this race to jettison outward differentiation comes a likable and attractive figure who promises to people that he will reflect back to them in his leadership the best things they feel about themselves and wax poetic to them about the great things that can be achieved through positive thinking and believing in yourself, the middle-class and the country.
Trudeau is only seemingly devoid of substance, despite what his opponents say. It is this apparent emptiness that is his ideology. He is aiming at inspirational banality that looks to appeal to those tired of the harsh reality of Harper and tired of what they have been led to believe is the “harsh tone” of a politics where often relatively little seems to change when the government changes. .
Thus, going back to his speech above, he states:
To millions and millions of Canadians, their government has become irrelevant, remote from their daily lives, let alone their hopes and dreams. To them, Ottawa is just a place where people play politics as if it were a game open to a small group, and that appeals to an even smaller one.
He is not really wrong. Government has become increasingly irrelevant under neo-liberalism. Maybe “hopes and dreams” are the new “bread and circuses” of democratic discourse. Trudeau is especially talented at conveying these in a suitably Obamaesque fashion.
During his campaign for leadership, he disavowed any fixation on the deadweight of policy, which is always a proverbial “buzzkill”, with a call to others to do the thinking for him:
This campaign is about conversations, not one-way monologues…We believe that good ideas can come from any corner, and that Canadians deserve the opportunity to share their concerns and offer up their ideas.
In his acceptance speech after his coronation he lashed out at the supposed politics of division, while invoking the memory of a Liberal Prime Minister dead so long that only fifteen history nerds somewhere could take exception:
We are fed up with leaders who pit Canadians against Canadians. West against East, rich against poor, Quebec against the rest of the country, urban against rural…
Canadians are looking to us, my friends. They are giving us a chance, hopeful that the party of Wilfrid Laurier can rediscover its sunny ways.
And, of course, his first foray in parliament as leader led off with a lament for the poor middle class. “The fact is when middle-class Canadians go to a store to buy a tricycle, school supplies … or a little red wagon for their kids they will pay more because of a tax in this government’s budget.”
His is a politics that is aimed squarely at the all-encompassing middle class. This inevitably has a vacuous, “what about the children” quality to it, as what else can it have? If your aim is to pander, then one has to distill what is felt to be what your target audience wants to hear and release uplifting statements that are slightly less complex and slightly dumber than that. Trudeau is highly adept at this.
Trudeau has made a calculation that the winning strategy for him and the Liberal Party is eloquent vapidity.
In the end this makes him the Celine Dion of Canadian politics. His rhetoric, like her music, is soaring, emotional, seemingly inspirational, sometimes almost moving, and basically meaningless and hollow in any lasting sense.
Celine Dion, not unlike Trudeau, is held in complete contempt by her many critics. She is also the best selling female musical artist of all time. Whether Trudeau can do the equivalent in the political arena with pleasant superficiality remains to be seen. But given the obsessively image driven, sound-bite based political culture the parties have created, there is little reason to think it is not at least possible.