Will Canadian politics turn more polarized?

The gravitational pull of the Liberals toward the middle is gone

One of the big questions arising from the Liberal party’s ghastly result in Monday’s election is whether it might mean Canadian politics is about to enter a period of more pronounced polarization.

That’s at least a possibility. By so successfully occupying the centre of the ideological spectrum for so long, the Liberals often forced their adversaries to come to them. Now, that gravitational pull toward the middle is gone.

The Liberals’ brand of centrist politics was often derided as mere muddled thinking. Where to slot Jean Chrétien, for instance? His little-guy persona and social-justice rhetoric often made him sound like a left Liberal.  But he was mentored early on by Mitchell Sharp, a business-oriented Grit who pushed back in the 1960s against economic nationalism. True to his teacher, Chrétien’s deficit-fighting discipline in the mid-1990s wasn’t softened unduly by sentiment about social programs.

It was maddening to his opponents that Chétien, like other winning Liberals, sprawled across so much ideological real estate. If they could seem mushy and opportunistic, they also looked adaptable and ingenious. At least they weren’t hidebound or doctrinaire.

The U.S. and UK comparisons make one wonder which way Canada might now trend.

British politics has for two decades tended toward less ideologically stark choices than of old. The moderating shift started with Margaret Thatcher’s resignation in 1990, and accelerated when Tony Blair began diluting Labour’s lefty heritage in 1997. Interestingly, over about the same period, U.S. politics has go the opposite way, growing more stridently ideological and partisan, mainly on the Republican right, leaving less room in Washington for centre-straddling moderates.

There’s no question that many Conservatives and New Democrats are much more easily defined in ideological terms than are most Liberals. Those tendencies might be given freer expression now that the Liberals are, at least for a while, vanquished.

On the other hand, Stephen Harper won power and Jack Layton gained ground precisely by restraining those elements in their ranks. Maybe they’ll spend the next four years in a disciplined effort to permanently claim the bigger share of what was Liberal turf, rather than squaring off from more clearly delineated right and left corners.

As for the Liberals, they have to hope the other parties now revert to ideological form, leaving the centre to be recaptured. To me, the most puzzling thing about the Liberal party’s decline over the past four elections was their inability to accentuate and capitalize on what looked like an invaluable underlying brand strength: the ability to claim to represent a comfortable compromise.

Instead, Paul Martin desperately wanted to talk about big ideas; Stéphane Dion actually presented a daring policy vision; Michael Ignatieff seemed like the sort of guy who would be bold and inspiring. Maybe what the Liberals need now is the opposite of all that: a leader who seems as middle-of-the-road as the party once was.

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