Team Martin Liberals are trying to give Canadians lessons in anger management by focusing on the extremism of the Conservative alternative. Better the anger we know than the anger we don't. The long-governing Liberals have probably been pressured into campaigning on their main opponents' demerits because they can't find a way to to campaign on their own merits. Neither Liberal experience nor promises make for a good platform when there's no apparent bottom to the rage many feel about corruption and broken promises.
What will keep pledges to fund childcare, medicare and city-building from ending up on the same cutting-room floor as previous Liberal vows to fund childcare, medicare and city-building and to nix the GST or North American free trade? many feel.
The Tory-bashing strategy uses emotional abuse to put the squeeze on Canada's defining political demographic, stably employed working-class and lower-middle-class people, decent folk who look to government to provide security from the mishaps and misfortunes of life.
If you're thinking of bolting from the Liberals and toying with the NDP, the Bloc or the Greens as a way of hobbling Liberal arrogance with a minority government, think again. Liberal campaign strategists are telling such voters that the only option to a moderate-left Liberal majority is a far-right Conservative majority.
It's a challenge to develop a methodology that can put this argument through some tests. Comparing Liberal and Conservative promises makes little sense, since there's no guarantee any of them will ever become reality.
Comparing Conservative allegations to Liberal allegations makes less sense. The Liberals can complain that the Conservatives are too pro-American, but it's the Liberals who signed on to NAFTA, and it's Paul Martin who's on the verge of signing on to a Star Wars-lite version of George Bush's militarization of space and who promoted a pro-U.S. hawk to minister of defence.
The Liberal theory that rightist extremists can be kept from office by huddling around liberal moderation has been subject to over 40 years of crash-testing in the U.S., where Democrats have used the same lesser-evil argument to monopolize the anti-Republican vote. Americans, it will be remembered, were at least as politically progressive in their domestic political views as Canadians a mere 40 years ago.
The lesser-evil argument led to a resounding victory for Democrat LBJ against Republican extremist Barry Goldwater in 1964. It's been downhill ever since. In every election after, both Democrats and Republicans have moved further to the right. We should only wish for a Democratic presidential candidate as moderate as the late Ronald Reagan, and we can only dream of a Democrat as proactive in social and environmental policy as Richard Nixon. The loathed Tricky Dick introduced clean water and clean air legislation that set standards for the rest of the century, and abolished the draft.
Nixon also recognized China. No Democrat has ever dared do the same for Cuba. And it's easy to forget that it was Bill Clinton who abolished welfare as an entitlement program.
Politics, like nature, abhors a vacuum. The liberal (and Liberal) embrace of the dead centre gives extreme conservatives room to propose their full program without fear of a populist economic critique from the left side of the spectrum. Over time, U.S. experience indicates, the strategy of basing politics on a negative anti-rightist call to action can only move the centre of gravity in politics to the right.
In the last analysis, extreme conservatism can't be fended off with liberal moderation because it comes from political economy, not politics. During the 1970s and 80s, the far right fringe represented by the National Citizens Coalition, Harper's old political buddies, came out of the insurance industry of London, Ontario. Extreme conservatism had a narrow base in the insurance sector, which saw trends such as public hospitals and medical insurance as the death knell for the private industry.
Since then, the economic base of extremism has widened exponentially, thanks to the impact of globalization on elite strategies for growth. Before a globalized economy became the norm during the 1980s, most responsible business leaders had reconciled themselves to some variant of what's now called "Fordism" - an economy based on a working population that mass-produces basic commodities and earns enough to buy a goodly number of them.
The Fordist formula meant that most capitalists had some interest in maintaining the buying power of their consumers.
In a globalized world, by contrast, a 0.2 per cent slice of the market in India is as good for business as 2 million sales in Canada. Interest in maintaining Canadian consumer power dwindles, and sympathy for the welfare state withers away. Linked to this shift, sociologist Saskia Sassen has shown, is the rise of a group of economic and political hustlers, the chattering classes of the right: currency traders, stock speculators, mining and oil extractors, legal and accounting fraternities associated with the new way of doing business.
The merger of the old Progressive- Conservative party with the Alliance revealed the power of this new yahoo fragment within the business community, and the marginalization of business groups with a longer-term sense of community responsibility.
Voting for the Liberals, arch-promoters of globalized economies, does zilch to stop the spread of this social trend among business leaders. Nor does it speak to the anger of the battalions who like the sound and fury of right-wing government-bashing because of economic frustrations in their own lives. Only good old left-wing populism can address those needs, and such populism won't be coming from the Liberals.
Worse than an empty threat, it's an empty promise for Team Martin Liberals to present themselves as the one alternative to socially unresponsive and irresponsible conservatism. Healthy alternatives rely on a diversity of options, all of which deserve a fair hearing and decent vote in this election.