Importing some o’ that Canada-style right-wing politics


A few weeks before our recent election unpleasantness began, I had lunch in Ottawa with Reihan Salam and Ross Douthat, two young U.S. Republican blogger/pundit types whose book, Grand New Party: How Republicans Can Win the Working Class and Save the American Dream competes with my own in the hard-fought category of Political Books With Really Long Subtitles. To caricature their argument, Douthat and Salam believe U.S. Republicans should seek to attract middle-class and working-class voters with families, roughly the kind of people who used to be called “Reagan Democrats,” with narrowly targeted bits of small-scale interventionist government policy, often tax benefits. In other words, they argue for Harper-Muttart micro-policy along the lines of the tool-belt tax credit Patrick Muttart used to get “Dougie’s” attention in the 2006 election. Or the ban on candied tobacco that helped get the party noticed by mothers this time around.

I found Salam and Douthat fearsomely intelligent, humble about what they don’t know (Douthat has shown real class on his blog as he witnesses the flameout of the woman who was his preferred candidate for Vice President, Sarah Palin) (Oh, hush. Nobody’s perfect), and especially in Salam’s case, almost weirdly up on the details of Canadian politics.

Now, in a piece for the website of the Atlantic Monthly, Salam connects the dots and argues explicitly for Harper as a model for the U.S. Republicans. His article will confuse Canadian readers who believe Harper already gets all his ideas from south of the border — why reverse Niagara Falls? Why should Charlie Parker copy Sonny Stitt? — but it will provide a novel perspective for others.


Importing some o’ that Canada-style right-wing politics

  1. Good morning, Mr Wells! I am having this interesting (strange) blend of coffee that is apple-flavoured. You may be interested in some
    (more) coffee, too: your Atlantic Monthly link has two “http”s in it.

  2. Rats, foiled by shorter comments.

  3. More topically,

    the shift of middle-class married women in Ontario and British Columbia into the Conservative column, doubtless a response to Harper’s very effective tax-credit pandering

    the central feature of the Liberal domestic policy, a carbon tax, was essentially demagogued to death by Conservative candidates across the country. It is easy to imagine Republicans doing the same to a sweeping Democratic environmental plan.

    I can’t argue that “pandering” and “demagoguery” seem like useful words to summarize key elements on the Harper strategy, but this doesn’t really read as criticism. Is this just the reality of modern politics now? No pretending? I suppose that is refreshing… sort of…

  4. Harper’s template for creating a platform and campaign now has track records in Australia and Canada. In Australia, John Howard called his targeted voters “battlers”.

    My take is that Harper realizes that using the standard platform-creating template of, for example, offering up an income tax cut of 1 %, can be easily trumped by the Liberals, who can counter with a tax cut of 2 %.

  5. Mike G., considering Harper’s opponent touted a carbon-reduction plan that raised taxes on all kinds of things but not gasoline, I’d say there was a lot of pandering in the air, yes.

  6. Salam connects the dots and argues explicitly for Harper as a model for the U.S. Republicans.

    Frum already pushed this desperate theory that Harper will be the saviour of conservatism a couple of days ago.

  7. Gary: I’m not wondering if there’s pandering – Harper panders, it’s pretty clear, and I’m glad Mr Salam is calling it what it is. What surprises me, is that it seems to read as “Pandering: it works! Let’s do more of it.” It’s true, but it’s sad.

    I probably should have written “I can’t argue against”, in that last comment, instead of “I can’t argue that”.

  8. Definitely worth a read, but Salam sure downplays Harper’s personal failure in Quebec. He raises tribalism as an explanation for the Bloc’s success and fails to acknowledge that even the Liberals did better than the Conservatives in the province.

  9. “Reagan Democrats,” with narrowly targeted bits of small-scale interventionist government policy, often tax benefits.”

    That was a perceptive article for an American. I think it’s highly unlikely the repubs can make that happen because Congressmen/women focus on their districts and don’t worry about the country as a whole. It seems they love earmarks/pork an awful lot but they don’t worry about the big picture.

    And Palin hasn’t been a ‘flameout’ as you sophisticated libs like to think. She’s the only thing that’s keeping McCain in the campaign at the moment.

    If we are talking flameouts, we should be looking at Biden but the press is so far in the tank for Obama. A few days ago Biden said ‘jobs’ was three letter word (Quayle II anyone???) and on the weekend he said a vote for Obama would guarantee a conflagration in the world that would dwarf the financial crisis within 6 months. But who cares about Biden when everyone can pile on the woman they find distasteful?

  10. jwl: oh *snap!*

    Biden must be a total “flameout” if you can provide two (TWO!) examples of him flubbing a line on the campaign trail!

    As opposed to Palin who continues to be very effective at firing up the hardcore Repub base. Of course, these people were going to vote for McCain anyway. Meanwhile she’s driving away the undecided/soft Repub voters that McCain desperately needs to attract.

    I don’t know what “flameout” means to you, but Palin meets the definition of “failure” as I understand it, being so sophisticated and all.

  11. Palin […] the only thing that’s keeping McCain in the campaign at the moment.

    I’m not sure how you can say that. Here’s a poll: favorable views of Sarah Palin have fallen 5 points in the past month, from 35 to 30, 8 points among declared Republicans; only 2 among Democrats. (Though dropping from 11 to “only” 9 is hardly worth throwing a party over.)

    Views of McCain have actually gone up among women and under-45s, though for an overall average of 0 points movement.

  12. And the official PDF from NYT/CBS is here, with bonus questions.

    Here’s one: “What is the main reason your opinion of John McCain has changed over the past couple of weeks?”
    32%: Attacks on opponent
    14%: Sarah Palin
    12%: Debate Performance
    11%: Erratic/unsteady

    It’s a pretty good poll, you should check it out. Science helps keep us honest.

  13. er, that didn’t work. sorry about the comment spam guys. real PDF link(?)

  14. jwl,

    To an extent, your point about the anti-Palin hyperbole is well taken. You’ve previously pointed out that becoming the governor of Alaska is a significant office that is too easily dismissed. But let’s not make this a liberal media thing, because that’s less than accurate. A lot of high-profile Republicans have expressed exactly the same concerns about her. To say that Palin has kept McCain in the race is an interesting assertion, since it seems like a significant number of folks (Dems and Reps alike) see the naming of Palin as a serious cause for concern about McCain’s judgement and sincerity. And while Biden is far from perfect, he’s at least shown the occasional glimpse of competence and intelligence since being named to the ticket. Palin, not so much.

  15. No no no. This is clearly wrong. Everyone knows Harper’s playbook is written by the Bush administration. Any theory that doesn’t explicity recognize the puppet strings connecting Harper to Bush’s Neocon Cabal is obviously just right-wing apologist propaganda from the corporate media.


    Or something like that.

  16. TJ Cook

    The list of Biden’s ‘mis-statements’ is endless, I just choose ‘jobs is a three letter word’ because it is his latest one. I will give him credit though because he did manage to verbally spell it correctly, it’s just too bad he can’t count. He didn’t even have the excuse of not having enough fingers to figure it out.

    Biden said Obama’s election would cause a conflagration in the world because other countries would want to test his mettle to a private gathering of donors. Biden wasn’t misspeaking, he was just talking the truth to well-heeled donors in private while having a completely different message when he’s in public talking to hoi polloi.

    Mike G

    Well, if the NY Times claims something about McCain/Palin it must be the truth or ‘science’ as you call it. It’s not like the NY Times has a track record of being completely in the tank for Obama and doing all it can to get him across the finish line. Polls with MoE of +-7, and heavily weighted towards Dem respondents, don’t interest me all that much either.

  17. You have not truly experienced Reihan Salam until you view some of his short youtube videos. This is his attempt at interpreting the Democratic primary “through sight and sound”:

  18. Sean S

    I read a lot of US conservative media sources and I can tell you that Palin is the sole reason the repub base will vote in a couple of weeks. McCain is not all that conservative, except for his push for tax cuts/balanced budget, and the base hate him because he seems to go out of his way to poke them in the eye. Many repubs think McCain believes bi-partisanship, collegiality are more important than sticking to your principles and they just don’t trust him.

    Some paper claimed someone shouted ‘kill him’ at McCain rally a couple of weeks ago. I read a few right wing sources that said the comment was as likely to have been directed at McCain as it was Obama. And look at the rallies, Palin is attracting way more people than McCain is. Palin represents real conservatism as normal people know it, while the chattering class repubs look down their noses at her because she’s uncouth and not Ivy League educated.

  19. The “working class” have been engaged in “circular firing squad” mode ever since Nixon and,especially, Reagan appealed to their fears and worst instincts.
    Our Leader’s “elite galas” musings were just more of the same.
    Any pretense that Republicans or Democrats or Conservatives or Liberals really give a damn about the fate of the working class is silly and worthy of punishment. That punishment being locked in a room with Lou Dobbs for a week.

    And I seem to recall (maybe a decade or so ago) that the class system no longer existed.
    Mr. Douthat is probably too young to remember that. He probably barely remembers History is Dead.

  20. jwl: Seriously, you chalk that up to innumeracy? Biden can’t count? Give your head a shake. Or are you just calling him stupid in the general sense?

    All this is an attempt to change the topic from Palin’s increasingly obvious unpreparedness for the role she’s seeking. I’ve never met her – she could be a freakin’ genius for all we know – but I’ve been watching her and she’s neither prepared nor qualified to be president. She never, ever, has an unscripted moment. She’s never given a press conference and the softball interviews she’s done have been unmitigated disasters.

    I say again: she’s a disaster for McCain not because she fails to rile up the base (she sure does that, you betcha) but because she’s turning off the undecided voters that McCain needs to win. If McCain needs her just to hang on to the Republican die-hards, he lost this election the day of the convention.

  21. I saw the Atlantic article the other day and was shocked to find an astute and accurate piece about Canadian politics in an American publication. “Wow!” said I, “I didn’t know Reihan was a Canadian expat like Frum and Steyn.” After Google revealed he isn’t I said, “Wow! Reihan must be talking to some smart Canadian friends.” But then it turned out he was talking to Paul Wells.

    Aw, that was just a cheap shot. Great work Paul. Now call up the Washington Times and help them sort out their shit.

  22. I have to agree, this is an amazing article – easily the most perceptive American piece about Canadian politics I’ve ever seen – and it about triples my respect for Reihan Salam (already very high). I mean, it’s really uncanny what a solid grip he has on the whole deal.

  23. Good grief – all they need is Frank Luntz again and wedge issues.

  24. jwl – the difference between Biden and Palin – and why American’s don’t care – is that when Biden makes little mistakes it’s that they are clearly mistakes – e.g. FDR’s TV broadcast – these are viewed as verbal typos.

    When Palin claims Obama is ‘pallin’ around with terrorists’ or that proximity to Russia is tantamount to foreign policy experience or the campaign claims she is a top energy expert or has more experience than Obama because of her “executive experience” voters view this as deliberate spin and BS – which of course, it is.

  25. “The “working class” have been engaged in “circular firing squad” mode ever since Nixon and,especially, Reagan appealed to their fears and worst instincts.”

    I don’t buy that argument – remember you are rarely talking about the actually poor when discussing the “working class”. Lots of people work in factories or construction and make decent wages, close to the national average (some – plumbers for instance – can make well above the average income). They are working class because of the jobs they do, not because of how much money they make. How many interns or art gallery employees do you know that consider themselves upper middle class on low 5-figure incomes? Plenty, I would imagine.

    Upper middle class people are either wealthy enough that tax cuts make little difference in their lives (if you make 90,000/year you can but anything you need), or they are poor but have post-material values (so you can distinguish between say, professors and hipsters that work in bookstores if you want).

    Working class people have lower (but often not the absolute lowest) incomes. They are lower down on Maslow’s hierarchy – not so much seeking income security but rather greater income to keep up with the Joneses. Social programs and taxes harm their ability to do so. In some cases working class people are rich, but lack post-material values (Joe the plumber).

    So when they vote Republican it isn’t just because the Republicans invoke god, welfare queens and crime, but also because the Republicans speak to the economic aspirations of the working class for higher incomes (for conspicuous consumption). The chattering classes prefer Democrats because Democrats seek to use tax money on quality of life issues, that help them further their own self-actualization and feel smug (isn’t it rich that people make such a big deal about poor people supposedly voting against their economic interests by backing the GOP, when far less ink is spilled about wealthy northeastern Democrats doing the same?).

    Anyhow, I propose a four-quadrant model of class, based on the interplay of two variables: income and post-material values…

    1. Poor and non-postmaterial: this is the classical working class lunchbucket crowd. Typically this group is competitive between the GOP and Dems.

    2. Rich and non-postmaterial: this includes the heartless businessmen, but also the aspirational folks like Joe the Plumber. They are the most reliably Republican one can get.

    3. Poor and postmaterial: the guy with a phd in philosophy who works in a bookstore. If he is willing to accept the two-party duopoly you can bet he is a Democrat. I suspect there will be a whole lot more of these folks in my generation – extra bitter that their education has been made worthless by credential inflation.

    4. Rich and post-material: the upper middle class professional, which probably tends Democrat nowadays but not long ago could easily have voted for the GOP.

    In the 1960’s and thereafter, group 1 shifted GOP, while group 4 shifted towards the Dems. Obama looks to create a new working majority, and will probably succeed because 3 and 4 are growing the fastest.

  26. Interesting, horse. Has any written on this subject?

  27. Feel that tremor ? That was Maslow turning over in his grave.

  28. Paul S

    If you think Paul only has three articles up his sleeve, and doesn’t use his talent, what do you think of the rest of Canada’s political reporters/opinion writers?

    Wells is one of the few journalists in Canada who doesn’t come across as ‘couldn’t be bothered so I phoned it in’. I don’t always agree with him but he’s one of the few journalists who doesn’t write exactly what everyone else is writing and his weekly column always offers a unique slant on things.

  29. And god knows nobody wants to read yet more boring crap on University funding.

    I couldn’t disagree more (except for the “boring”). If not Paul, who else will write about this? Nobody that I have noticed. How can you consider post-secondary education unimportant?

  30. That was kind of bracing, actually. Smite me more, sir! Whee.

  31. Maclean’s readers might be interested to know that most Americans have no idea that a Canadian election has taken place. I can attest to that, having attended a conference in New York.

    So it’s good to see at least one person down there is writing about us.

  32. jwl — Good question. I think most Canadian political commentors suck. (This is a country where David Warren and Robert Sibley’s screeds are actually published, instead of being handed out on streetcorners! And Marcus Gee is considered a “thinker”!?!)

    As for phoning it in — do you remember Wells’ column about “what’s on my Ipod”? You can get paid to write that crap?

    But I do think Wells is talented. I used to look for him in the Gazette. I thought his columns were often the best part of the National Post. But since he arrived at Macleans, his themes have become repetitive, and his writing style has gotten too cutesy. I’d like him to make good on his early promise — I thought maybe the France gig would allow for that. But it hasn’t happened yet.

    Paul Wells — Hmph. Weak attempt at comment jiujitsu. Go read Yglesias — he’s the master at putting belittling commentors in their place. You just look thin-skinned. Which you are.

  33. Paul Wells,

    Some days, you must struggle to read through a comment thread on your blog, no? I certainly do, except to marvel at how someone can post comments that are both tedious and aggressive at the same time.

    So. To restore balance in the universe, allow this Neo-Theo-Geo-Brio Con, a true Quebec Harpermaniac, to say this:

    You’re the top. You’re the Tower of Pisa.
    You’re the top. You’re the Mona Lisa.
    You’re the purple light of a summer night in Spain.
    You’re the national gallery, you’re Garbo’s salary, you’re cellophane.

    Ach. I never want to be syrupy towards you again. But someone to trivialize your reporting on research and university funding made me steam. If only journalists did MORE of that stuff – you know, bring NEWS to our attention rather than report what already has our attention.

  34. Secum, I don’t think that you are impressing anyone.

  35. comment by jwl on Tuesday, October 21, 2008 at 6:06 pm:

    Eegads, I agree with jwl.

    A sign of the Apocolypse!

  36. I don’t know how intelligent Mr. Reihan Salam is but I’ll accept Paul’s say-so on that.

    However, after checking out a few of his videos on YouTube I can certainly say that his ego must be as big as his giant, bald head!

  37. Critiques aren’t the problem. Personal attacks are in poor taste.

    If you’re talking to Paul, use email. Posting here, you are talking to the rest of us. That can only lead me to believe you are trying to impress us with your disappointment in Wells.

  38. Paul Secam: “next time Paul writes something as good as his old National Post columns, I will write him a sonnet.”


    How merciless the right-wing comment creed!
    As Stephen’s smile makes Stéphane afraid,
    So one Paul goads another to succeed
    With poisoned carrots, pledges that dissuade!

    A harsh critique I’ll bear, the master’s rod
    Upon my tush, the meta-thread, and worse,
    But just as Job at last renounced his God,
    The staunchest pundit pales at Secam’s verse!

    The rhyme is off – I’ll write like at the Post!
    The rhythm – no more postgrad funding stuff!
    Another misplaced emphasis – the ghost
    Of Mencken would himself cry out, “Enough!”

    Cruel conbot, show some mercy to your foes
    And kindly stick to flogging English prose.

  39. Andrew,

    To my knowledge no (that framework was made up by me to summarize my own subjective experiences). If you are interested in post-material values, Bob Inglehart is the main guy to read. His book Modernization and Postermodernization makes the case that post-material values are emerging in advanced industrial democracies, and looks at what is driving them. Certainly you do see value changes if you look at, for instance, the world value survey.

    What do I mean by postmaterial?
    Well these are folks that value/state
    -a less impersonal society
    -ideas counting more than money
    -more say in government
    -freedom of speech
    -more say on the job
    -more beautiful cities

    Over (or ranked much more highly) than
    -maintaining a stable economy
    -fighting rising prices
    -strong defense forces
    -fighting crime
    -economic growth
    -the maintenance of order

    (he does some factor analysis that suggests people tend to cluster towards one or the other, not that some people aren’t in-between)

    Here is the google books link to the book (you can read a good proportion of most books through google books).

  40. Thanks to all, without exception, for their comments and their careful reading. I’m grateful for compliments and criticism: they both make me want to do good work. Chuck, are those the real lyrics to You’re The Top? “You’re cellophane” is so goofy it could, a half-century ago, have been hip.

  41. In terms of emailing Maclean’s writers, is the email address a [first name].[last name]@macleans.rogers.com?

  42. yup.

  43. Just deleted a comment by somebody named bud. Hey folks: If you’re going to be insanely off topic, go somewhere else, okay?

  44. Er, yeah, I actually somewhat hope that Republicans believe this, so it blows up in their faces.

    Harper is successful principally because he has deployed Republican strategies and tactics against opponents (and a general public) that is unfamiliar with them. The Dems have already confronted and defeated those strategies and tactics—-witness Obama’s superb anti-smear efforts–and without those, I’ve never seen what Harper really has to offer.

    I mean, let’s be honest here: Obama and the modern Dems would absolutely crush Harper. Annihilate him. There’s absolutely no comparison. Never mind the fundraising differences or charisma differences, can you imagine Harper on the business end of ten thousand screaming Kossacks, repeating every idiotic “socialist” line he ever uttered ad nauseum while the progressive commentariat egged them on and repeated the best ones from their various alternate media sinecures?

    (Yes, I know this may seem weird, but America has something called progressive opinion journalism. It comes from having more than one newsmagazine, and opinion mags that aren’t hard-right outlets. It even has progressive think-tanks!)

    (No, really.)

    Oh, and Harper also benefits from the kind of split on the left that exceeds the wildest Naderite dreams. That’s kind of necessary too.

  45. Oh, and anybody who writes this:

    “not least because the 7 percent won by the flavor-of-the-month Green Party will dwindle to zero.”

    Doesn’t deserve to be taken seriously.

  46. “Harper is successful principally because he has deployed Republican strategies and tactics against opponents (and a general public) that is unfamiliar with them. The Dems have already confronted and defeated those strategies and tactics—-witness Obama’s superb anti-smear efforts–and without those, I’ve never seen what Harper really has to offer.”

    Elaborate. What tactics has Harper used that are “Republican”, and not used by almost every political party?

    Is it because they run negative ads?



    Is it because they imply their opponents are unpatriotic third columnists for another country?


    Is it because they suggest that their opponents have religious beliefs that are un-Canadian and make them unfit to lead?


    Or maybe it is because they are in the pockets of big business – the primary source of Liberal fundraising all through the 90’s and early 00’s (as opposed to Conservative/Reform/Alliance funding which has come from the grassroots).

    So yes, the Liberals have relied on negative ads in the past four elections, castigated their opponents as un-Canadian, mocking their religious beliefs among other things, and have traditionally relied on big business for fundraising. Clearly the Conservatives are the Bush wannabes.

  47. can you imagine Harper on the business end of ten thousand screaming Kossacks, repeating every idiotic “socialist” line he ever uttered ad nauseum while the progressive commentariat egged them on and repeated the best ones from their various alternate media sinecures?

    Yes, I’m sure he’d be just terrified of a bunch of crazy nutroots types who are best known to the general public for crazy stunts and theories that damage their own side (eg. the Trig Truthers).

    (Re-posted without the link, in case that was the problem.)

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