‘Something intellectuals fantasize about but rarely do’

by Aaron Wherry

Jordan Michael Smith reviews the rise and fall of Michael Ignatieff.

This is a tale with many morals. But one clear takeaway from Michael Ignatieff’s attempt to storm the citadel of power in Canada is that makeovers, particularly by intellectuals trying to transform themselves into politicians, have limits. Once Ignatieff established himself as a cosmopolitan free thinker and intellectual entrepreneur, it was difficult for him ever to posture as an ordinary Canadian pol. Most intellectuals looking to enter politics presumably would not hamstring themselves by living outside their native country for nearly three decades and then return only to aim so soon for the top job. And perhaps only an intellectual would be detached enough to believe such a track record would not be an impediment to leading a country. But if Ignatieff’s palpable erudition provided an occasional warning sign for his ambitions, as seen in those Hamlet-like meditations on power, it also gave him a sense that he was not subject to the rules that govern more mundane careers.

One quibble: I’m not sure how many would have described Stephane Dion as a “politician waiting to happen” before he joined the Liberal government of the day.

Taking into account the failure of the last two Liberal leaders and the success of Stephen Harper and Jack Layton—both of whom, mind you, can claim some “intellectual” credentials—there is probably something to be said for the career politician. Not necessarily that the public consciously prefers the “career politician,” but that it simply takes time and experience to both figure out how to be a political leader and win the public’s trust.




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‘Something intellectuals fantasize about but rarely do’

  1. A fairly good overview for the American readers for whom it was intended.

    Even those who love the guy would never describe Stéphane Dion as “a politican waiting to happen.”

    I do disagree with the blanket statement that living abroad is always a negative for a politican.  In countries that suffered under left or right-wing dictatorships  (Greece, Lithuania etc.) ex-pats have returned and been elected as Leaders.  Canada is obviously a different kettle of fish.

    Also, while Mr. Ignaiateff first had difficulty figuring out the political game he was certainly quite amazing on the stump once he did, but by then it was pretty much too late.

    I also disagree that Mr. Ignatieff will be leaving the country soon.  I think at the very least he will be here for the next five years and at his age I doubt he would then go somewhere else after that.

  2. I don’t think it has anything to do with intellectuals except in the larger sense,  or left/right ideology or where you live when you run….it has to do with your worldview.

    We are transitioning to globalization. And we still only have local politicians for the most part.

    For the Libs, it began with Pearson.  He didn’t win a Nobel peace prize because he created a solution to something in Gopher Hole Sask….he did it because of Suez….in faraway Egypt. Trudeau travelled the world. Martin had world-wide shipping interests. Dion lived in France.  And Iggy lived and worked all over the world.

    After doing that it’s hard to don a red plaid shirt and cowboy hat and pretend you love flipping burgers at some local rodeo.

    Hasn’t anybody noticed that Harper has changed after his world travel?  He came on the scene wanting a firewall around Alberta…and ‘Alberta values’.  He was astonished to discover….and said so…that being PM meant dealing with what used to be called ‘foreign affairs’…and that they are now huge everyday matters demanding his attention before all else.

    Suddenly we are good buddies with China, and we’re negotiating a trade deal with Europe….those ‘horrible’ places that used to be ‘commies and pinkos’.

    Colombia trade will not be stopped by ‘protectionists’  hiding behind a human rights excuse he says.

    Harper has changed….and some of his ministers have changed as well because of their travel…although most of them are trying their best to remain local stumps. But Cow Belly, Alberta or Muskrat Elbow BC  is not the world, and it’s the… world… they now have to deal with. Rigid ideology doesn’t help you with that.

    However they still, for political purposes, sneer at intellectuals, and writers  and world travellers etc as ‘elitists’….and try and convince Canadians we are not yet ready for prime time.

    And maybe we’re not.

    • As the TwinFordMayors have shown in the most recent example there is still some who try to get political mileage out of “intellectual-baiting.”

      Doug Ford wanting to close “liberries” and not recognising Margaret Atwood might his idea of playing to his base but there does seem to be a backlash now.

      Klein, Harris, and Chrétien all played the homespun populist “anti-intllectual” and were able to gain wide spread support.

      However if things get carried too far then you risk ending up with a Sarah Palin or a Michelle Bachmann.  Go too far the other way and you get a Michael Ignatieff circa 2006.

      • Americans have certainly gone this route. Carter was well-educated in nuclear physics, but they sold him as a ‘peanut-farmer’.  Dubya is from a wealthy east-coast family, and graduated Yale and Harvard…but they sold him as a drawling Texan who was big on clearing brush at a ‘ranch’.

        From selling an ‘image’….which some politicians manage better than others….they’ve now dropped to the real morons like Palin and Bachmann ….and Huckabee and Perry etc…and are in serious trouble because of it.

        I’d hate to see us do the same.

  3. Something to be said about getting a job at a big corporation starting in the “mailroom” and working your way up to CEO.

    I think many Canadians have lived this experience somewhat – think baby-boomers and older.

    Can’t remember where I read Iggy commenting on his surprise that everybody didn’t just automatically support him as he was so perfectly Canadian – successful immigrant roots, educated at the best schools, well-travelled, etc.   Gotta be willing to do some time in the mailroom to learn the job, lol!!! 

    • I think it was the group of back-room power brokers who were mostly convinced of that and sold him on it (something which he was quite willing to buy, by the way).

      They also imagined that other Canadians would be just as willing to see things the same way.

      Results have since shown otherwise.

  4. I’m also uncomfortable with generalizing from Ignatieff’s failure as a politician to say all “intellectuals” are not welcome. As you hint at, Layton & Dion certainly have the membership card of the intelligentisa (i.e., a Ph.D.), and Harper himself has an M.A. and during his time at the NCC might’ve been considered a public intellectual.

    The notion of a “makeover” is probably what’s wrong. Harper, Dion, and esp. Layton accepted the realities of retail politics, and for sure Harper and Layton worked very hard at it.

    • That sounds pretty good to me.  Most of our senior elected politicians are pretty educated.

      What I think hurt the recent Liberal leadership was a failure to understand that having adequate fund-raising and a serious campaign organisation is at least if not more important than what you debate inside your own party.  Most of the Liberals who knew how to do this kind of stuff got lost in the Chretien-Martin infighting.

      As a related note, I suspect the movement of Toronto’s left-wing municipal election machine to the federal NDP with Layton had more to do with Mr. Ford’s victory than anything Mr. Ford did himself.

      • Agreed…there have been nothing but complaints since Ford got elected, and there’ll be even more when the layoffs begin.

        And I’ll also agree that the Libs lost a lot of people and organization over the infighting, and have yet to set it right.

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