Musings —01.08.2015 11:55 PM—
The morning of the Paris massacre, this surfaced on the Internet:
“Stephen Harper’s willingness to be tough with terrorists and dictators – in effect, punching above Canada’s foreign policy weight class – is something to be admired, whether you agree with him or not. But will it pay electoral dividends? Can Harper actually win an election against the surging Trudeau Liberals with foreign policy?
Not a chance.”
“Not a chance.” The author of that pithy observation was me. I wrote it in July, and – as the world this week contemplates the enormous implications of the atrocity in Paris – I am increasingly of the view that I was mistaken.
The events of recent months – the assassinations of two members of our Armed Forces by self-styled Muslim avengers, most notably – have me (and likely others) reassessing positions. In dangerous times like these, people make important political choices. In Canada, the choice is presently between, on the one hand, two Opposition leaders who seemingly oppose confronting and defeating terror in every possible circumstance – and, on the other hand, a Prime Minister who believes humanitarian aid alone is insufficient.
Some might argue that characterization is too simplistic. Perhaps. But as I argue in my book Fight The Right, the political brain is an emotional organ, not a rational one. On voting day, passion generally defeats reason. Values, as simplistic as they may seem to progressives, rule.
Values – that is, hopes, dreams, fears, the ineffable stuff of life – are deeply-held, deeply-emotional notions. Mountains of data make clear that conservatives are very good at values-based debates, and progressives usually are not.
Conservatives have achieved supremacy in the European Union, Canada and the United States – jurisdictions where the majority of voters identify themselves as progressive – by expertly dominating the values debate, whether the subject-matter is class resentments or fighting terror. Progressives, meanwhile, too often become tongue-tied when talking about values. They’re not good at it.
As a result, voters (even progressive ones) drift towards conservative politicians and parties – because they equate a progressives’ (a) reluctance to talk about values with (b) having no values at all.
Foreign affairs, however nuanced diplomats consider it to be, is mainly an unending debate about values. Who is right, and who is wrong; who is wearing a black hat, and who is wearing a white one.
There are exceptions, some might say. And, to be sure, the 1988 Free Trade election showcased some thoughtful debates about policy. But when we distil that rather important Canadian campaign down to its base elements, it’s evident that 1988 was simply a values debate about Canadian sovereignty: keeping it, or losing it. And, as historians will note, the Conservatives won that one pretty convincingly, too.
Presently, Conservatives are winning the values debate in Canada because of foreign affairs. The Tories’ position is clear and comprehensible to the electorate. The shifting positions of the Liberals/New Democrats are not. Juvenile jokes about our military, and our military capacity, haven’t helped.
Timing is critical, of course. Our current preoccupation with foreign affairs may well fade by the Spring. But as a very senior Liberal said to me the morning of the Paris slaughter: “These attacks are happening all the time, now. And they’re happening in the West, not just in Afghanistan.”
That, mainly, is why the Conservative Party is competitive again. Canadians understand that the world has become a much more dangerous place, and they don’t consider handing out box lunches to the many victims of ISIS/ISIL – and nothing else – to be thoughtful foreign policy. They consider it to be mistaken.
I was mistaken, too, it seems. Improbably, foreign affairs has become top-of-mind for voters in this election year. And, because debates about foreign affairs are really just debates about values in disguise, the Conservative Party is getting undeniably closer to what was once considered completely impossible: