The news, when we get around to it


I’m still digesting this extraordinary piece by New Yorker writer George Packer about what he believes is the terminal crumbling of the conservative coalition that has dominated U.S. politics for most of my lifetime. As prognosis it’s arguable but at least plausible. As diagnosis it’s fantastic — the first third of the piece, on what Pat Buchanan and Dick Nixon were up to, is a tale told a thousand times but still full of lessons for students of politics. And as a metaphor for what Patrick Muttart, Stephen Harper and a few others have been up to, it is invaluable, and helps explain why events like this one deserve more attention than they sometimes get. I’ll share a few more thoughts after the jump, but first I want to complain about why you almost certainly haven’t had a chance to read Packer’s article in print yet.

In New York and most large U.S. cities, Packer’s article and the entire rest of that issue of the New Yorker has been on newsstands for six days and will come down tomorrow, to be replaced by the next issue. That’s the case with most weekly magazines, which come out on Monday. (Maclean‘s comes out on Thursdays lately, Time and The Economist on Fridays, but New York, Newsweek and a bunch of others are Monday weeklies.)

In Canada when I left for France last year, the same was true: magazines were hitting the stands in Ottawa, Montreal and most other large cities on the same day as in Manhattan. It’s one of the perks of living in a large civilized country. Or so I used to think, because when I got back home this spring, I was floored to discover that almost all large U.S. weeklies are now getting to Ottawa, not on the day they’re published; not three days later, so the Mondays would be sharing space with the Thursdays (i.e., Maclean’s); nor even a week after publication date… but a week and three days after their U.S. street date. So if you don’t like reading Packer’s article online, you’re going to have to either fly to Manhattan tonight or wait until Thursday, ten days after it was published, for it to get onto magazine shelves in Ottawa.

Blame these guys. Jimmy Pattison’s News Group is, my local retailer tells me, responding to the general collapse in sales of print magazines by not working so hard to get the product to market. It used to be so hard to get a magazine to you on the day it was published. So now they’re gonna take 10 days to get a weekly magazine to you. At least that’s the situation in Ottawa. I’d be obliged if frequent magazine buyers in other cities would use the comment section to fill me in on the situation in your town.

As an employee of a magazine that has lately deployed significant resources to improve its historically very spotty distribution coast-to-coast, I’m delighted that a magazine distributor is so eager to kneecap so much of my competition. As a consumer, I’m less thrilled. As a backseat driver, I’m baffled: if the consumer base for your product is declining, why would you want to alienate buyers with radically deteriorating service? When I arrived at The Gazette in 1989, that newspaper’s reader base had been fleeing down the 401 for years. The response from circulation was to build the hungriest, fastest-responding, most customer-oriented reader sales department in Quebec. Perhaps it was a naive response. Anyway, thanks to The News Group for driving so many readers of U.S. weeklies to the internet and to the Canadian alternative. I guess.

Anyway. Back to Packer. One reason I’m not sure his analysis is directly translatable to the Canadian scene is that our federal politics has been dominated by the major left-leaning party, not the major right-leaning party, for the past 40 years. So Harper’s game is new and relatively fresh here, and simple fatigue is less of an obstacle to conservative Canadian strategists than it is to conservative American strategists. So the Buchanan-Nixon experiment is, at this late date, more germane here (I’m only guessing, frankly, but this feels right to me) than it is in the U.S. From Packer’s story:

“’What we talked about, basically, [Buchanan says,] was shearing off huge segments of
F.D.R.’s New Deal coalition, which L.B.J. had held together: Northern
Catholic ethnics and Southern Protestant conservatives…’ Buchanan grew up in Washington, D.C., among the first group—men like his father, an accountant and a father of
nine, who had supported Roosevelt but also revered Joseph McCarthy. The
Southerners were the kind of men whom Nixon whipped into a frenzy one
night in the fall of 1966, at the Wade Hampton Hotel, in Columbia,
South Carolina. …
“In order to seize the Presidency in 1968, Nixon had to live down his
history of nasty politicking, and he ran that year as a uniter. But his
Administration adopted an undercover strategy for building a Republican
majority, working to create the impression that there were two
Americas: the quiet, ordinary, patriotic, religious, law-abiding Many,
and the noisy, élitist, amoral, disorderly, condescending Few…

“It was Nixon’s particular political genius to rouse simultaneously the contempt of the bien-pensants and the admiration of those who felt the sting of that contempt in their own lives… Buchanan urged Nixon to enlist his Vice-President, Spiro Agnew, in a
battle against the press. In November, Nixon sent Agnew—despised as
dull-witted by the media—on the road, where he denounced “this small
and unelected élite” of editors, anchormen, and analysts… When Agnew finished his
diatribe, [one White House aide] said two words: ‘Positive polarization.'”

Does this not sound like what Harper is up to, right down to the fights with the press gallery? Is it not the sort of story the bien-pensants will simply miss because they won’t even know where to look? And is Harper not ensured at least relative success — not necessarily a parliamentary majority, but a continuation of plurality and cowed Liberal opposition, which is functionally all but identical to a majority — as long as Conservatives are the only party that thinks in terms of “shearing off huge segments” of people who used to vote for the other team but might be persuaded to change sides?

Up near the top of this post I linked to a story about Harper attending a ceremony for tradespeople and apprentices in Sarnia. My home town is a swing riding, not the purest bellwether in Canada but pretty close: it tends to return Liberals when Liberals are in government and Conservatives when Conservatives are. And in 1993, a roomful of skilled young tradespeople in Sarnia would have been Chrétien Liberals.

What changed? A Liberal party that does not even think that’s an interesting question will not get those voters back.

UPDATE: At first glance (and it’s only a glance), basically Harper and Muttart seem to have been about three years ahead of the philosophy of this book, which is mentioned in Packer’s piece. And, yes, I do regard an endorsement by Bill Kristol as rather unfortunate. Of course, it’s entirely possible Kristol meant to endorse another book and got confused. But I digress. My point today, if I have one at all, is that any analysis that either (a) blindly endorses whatever the guy wearing the “Conservative” team jersey says or does or (b) writes off half the country’s politics as “right wing” and unworthy of serious consideration will miss most of what’s been interesting in Canadian politics in the last five years.

UPPERDATE: Christmas just came early for fans of political strategy: Packer delivers a .pdf of the 1971 Buchanan memo on dividing the Democrats that he mentions in his piece. In my book, which I have been so good about not mentioning before now, I point out that Muttart’s models for the 2006 campaign were Nixon ’68, Reagan ’80, Thatcher ‘Whenever she got elected (1979? brain freeze) and John Howard ’96. So if Muttart hasn’t already read the memo here, he’s about to. So is Jason Kenney.


The news, when we get around to it

  1. It absolutely is an interesting, and crucial question.

    Another big question is whether the “shearing” is an absolute necessity for both sides, or whether it’s something that only works when the other side doesn’t have a strong, positive message and vision for society to put forward.

  2. I see Jesse has been mulling over a lot of this over on his group blog, which is new to me and which you can get to by clicking on his name. It seems to be a thoughtful blog from a broadly left-Liberal perspective.

    One thing I’d like to point out is that the *very definition of politics* is that groups of voters will often disagree sharply about what even constitutes a strong, positive message. Today millions of Canadians believe they’re getting one from Stephen Harper.

    In the Liberal leadership race, Ken Dryden used to say Harper isn’t governing for the whole country. It used to floor me every time. Did Dryden think the Liberals had been governing for the whole country? One very short analysis of Paul Martin’s quick downfall, essentially a caricature with a grain of truth, is that he tried to govern for the whole country, and his coalition didn’t last three months. Chrétien, on the other hand, ran a majority government from 1997 to 2000 with a share of the popular vote that was only 2.19 points higher than what Harper won on Jan. 23, 2006.

  3. About the magazine distribution…. in my part of the country, it’s awful. You actually can’t buy Macleans anywhere, but (usually) a single copy arrives at the library and two to the high school about two weeks after publication. I just returned home from school in Montreal, where you can usually purchase Macleans before the date on the cover, which has always seemed strange.

  4. We really hope you can get it before the cover date. It’s a convention in magazine publishing that the cover date of a weekly is a week after the street date. So we hit the newsstands in Toronto and most of Ontario and selected other choice locations on, say, Oct. 10 with a cover dated Oct. 17.

    So it’s seriously haywire when the May 26 New Yorker won’t be available before May 29.

  5. The thing that puzzles me about all this is not
    the conservative dynamic but the tendency to
    describe the Libs as centre-left. Certainly the
    national leadership is at least centre-right …
    until circumstances demand they make a brief lurch
    leftward from to time.
    I would recommend an article by George Fetherling?
    in a recent Walrus (sorry,can’t find the issue nor
    a link)about the “think tank”/media relationship
    over the years.

  6. Amazing. This post is almost identical to one on http://www.talkingpointsmemo.com. Amazing how two different writers can think the same things on the same Packer article!

  7. Yeah, you’re right. They are not “identical”, except for similarities in the preamble. You & Josh draw different conclusions from it for different contexts.

  8. Mmmm, smell that? That’s the sweet smell of populism, my friends.

    Of course, the man on the CBC on Thursday night told me that populism is disingenuous, and it got the Democrats in trouble in Ohio thanks to those leaks that they so deserved.

    The bottom line is, this analysis makes handy fodder for discussions of campaigning, but it doesn’t matter much for how the country is actually governed. And nothing will turn the roomful of Sarnians faster than if a party governs in a way that doesn’t live up to their campaign rhetoric. So perhaps this blog will one day return to discussions of actual policy instead of crass strategery.

  9. On strong positive messages, I think that, in the last election, those millions of voters had a point. The Prime Minister presented 5 clear priorities (on which he’s 4/5ish) and argued he would clean up and change government, in a Reform-y kind of way.

    A lot of that case is either dealt with or a lot more questionable now, and I think it’s going to be more difficult to make a similar case that there is a positive message. But the Liberals certainly haven’t formulated one either.

    But, my first paragraph may be the point; in the last election Harper was able to come close to a majority because he did, in fact, formulate a message, in addition to tearing into the Liberal coalition. Martin failed to formulate a message or a vision, and played a whole lot of defence. So Harper had both a message and the shears. Packer’s piece, to my mind, highlighted that Reagan had both too.

    The real test case would be to set a party with a real vision for its country against a party which only tries to shear its opponent’s coalition, wouldn’t it?

  10. You can only market a bad product so far. After 38 years of Tory rule at Queen’s Park, David Peterson began “moving” the Ontario Liberal Party away from its traditional rural and mid-size Ontario town base towards urban Toronto. Five years later, he was out of office. In the early 1990s, Tom Long (remember him?) and his CSR misfits tried a similar tack for the PCs with suburban voters. I seem to recall them hitting the floor pretty hard the past two Ontario elections.

    The critical part is that Nixon and his successors tapped into an EXISTING anxiety brought about by widespread economic shifts and social upheaval that began in the 1960s. Margaret Thatcher tapped the same sentiment in the UK, and it was repeated in other Western societies.

    Is Stephen Harper tapping into a great “conservative” social movement sweeping over Canada? Are people protesting in the streets demanding an elected Senate? Is the number one issue facing individuals in communities like Sarnia “media bias?”

    The closest thing to the type of widespread social change that brought Nixon to power in the 1960s at present is environmentalism writ large. Being able to transfer this into electoral politics is difficult – but it will be a far stronger factor in electoral campaigns in Canada and other countries than anything Patrick Muttart is doing.

  11. ‘visions’ are never a good idea. Strong, positive, realistic messages? Yes. Solid, understandable platforms? Sounds good. But ‘vision’ is one person’s dream of what the country should be, and in all probability it conflicts with the million sof other visions of what Canada is and what it should be. Obviously, creating a mood, exciting people and making them hopeful is important, but the public will se right through an election run on vision or political rhetoric. Or at least I sincerely hope so.

  12. While the idea of “positive polarization” is fascinating, a thought: Canada is not a mirror image of the USA, but an alternate reality.

    As the USA can let “positive polarization” do its thing across the many media outlets in their 40 major metropolitan areas, in Canada we’re far more concentrated in 3-5 major markets.

    To be uncooperative with an outlet like the Toronto Star is a tactical error, especially when the 905 area is coveted and has swing potential. This is the paper 905ers read.

    The demographics of the Star reader I’m sure reflect the demographics of potential Conservatives voters: family-oriented and cost conscious.

    It’s one thing for US Republicans to brand the New York Times and Washington Post as liberal and elitist – because those papers appeal to the upper crust “limousine liberal” set anyway. To do the same with a newspaper with the highest distribution #s in Canada, and the most populist distribution, will have quite a different result. This could be part of what keeps the Tories from breaking through in the meaty parts of Ontario.

  13. I used to have a subscription to the economist which hits newstands on Fridays (but the entire content is online in the late afternoon on the previous before). If I was lucky I would have it delivered to my home in Kingston by the following Wednesday but usually it would not arrive until Thursday or Friday. One time after a holiday Monday I was unable to get it until the following Tuesday (11-12 days after publication).

    My understanding was that the newspaper was delivered to major Canada Post centres on Friday where presumably it sat all weekend awaiting sorting by a lazy union employee early the next week. Arrgh. Online content all the way! Yay Macleans.ca

  14. Maybe a harpermaniac should put a word or two in, just so the right-fanatics who do seem to be cheering Mr. Harper on, can be better understood:

    Yes, 5 priorities was a big hit. But the 5 priorities are often painted as little snippets of stuff that add up to not much. Well, from the “hard right” perspective, they add up to a lot.

    Fr’instance, reconciling Quebec with Canada is big, happening and happy. We are moving to a place where a national concensus around jurisdictions – federal powers, federal taxaction vs. provincial and municipal – will happen. This is agreat.

    Having a strong military and forceful, independent voice ensures that Canada does the maximum to secure a world in Canada’s interests.

    Reducing the federal surplus so that no large, objectionable entitlement programs spring, fully-formed from a Liberal leader’s head is wonderful.

    Taxes have come down. I know Andrew Coyne hates this, but it makes me happy to receive credits for my children’s sports programs and my bus passes! My federal government has the same values as I do. Supports the same things I believe in.

    The above sketch is only to insert in this discussion the notion that everywhere from foreign policy down to my life at home, me and the government jibe. Me, the government and, I add, a plurality of Canadians. Toss in the bluest Liberals in the bunch who might, for tribal reasons, stay away from us, and you probably have a majority of Canadians on these issues.

  15. “Did Dryden think the Liberals had been governing for the whole country?”

    I would argue he probably does. I am Libertarian or Conservative, depending on the issue, and one of the things that gets me wound up most is the Liberals talking about Canadian values and Liberal values interchangeably. I have lost count the number of times when it seemed like a Liberal politician was saying that I wasn’t Canadian, even tho I was born and raised here, or I was a bad Canadian for thinking the way I do.

  16. Ah yes, very similar strategies, except that Harper is not able to enlist Quebec nationalists as effectively as Nixon did Southern Democrats.

    If Harper & Co. want to pick up the BQ vote, they need an equivalent to Nixon’s “Law and Order” anti-black codewords. Anti-Anglo sentiment from the Tories would not be credible, and Bible-thumping wouldn’t fit with Quebec’s laiciousness. So I’m afraid a Buchanan-style coalition would have to be anti-immigration (hmm, quelle surprise!).

    Problem is, that means losing every single seat in urban Canada until the end of time.

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