Democracy has many advantages, not least that nobody has to put up with leaders who don't like them.

Static in Politics, Lightning at the Border

by John Spragge

Not long before I wrote this, the current Liberal government of Canada survived (narrowly) a vote of confidence in the House of Commons. In a 152 to 152 vote (the speaker votes to break a tie, as the Vice President votes in the US Senate), the Commons decided that half of them do, indeed have confidence in the Liberal government. Since the Liberals have spent the last three years mired in a scandal that has grown to include allegations of bribes and kickbacks under the table, why exactly do Canadian politicians, and the voters who elect them, have confidence in these scoundrels?

Partly, we don't have much confidence in the Liberals; we just don't want to troop off to the polls again. Another election would only produce another minority government, one in which other parties put together can outvote the party in the government. That means a shaky coalition or a full-dress federal election every year. Most Canadians don't want an election if it won't settle anything. As well, the Prime Minister responsible for the worst of the scandal stepped down; the current Prime Minister called an inquiry (a judicial inquiry in Canada works in roughly the way a special Grand Jury does in the United States) to get to the bottom of the affair. Some of us would like to know how many scoundrels remain among the Liberals before we decide how to punish them at the polls. All this has helped to keep the government in place. But another factor has also kept Liberal support perversely high, and this factor, increasingly, poisons democratic politics in countries around the world.

I call this the internationalization of democratic politics; the idea that parties in particular countries stand for international political movements. For most of the Twentieth Century, the democratic Left in many countries had the Soviet Union hung around their necks like an albatross. Today, in an increasing number of countries, Conservative parties have to drag George W. Bush behind them like a ball and chain. Right or wrong, conservatism has morphed, perversely. into an international movement, and conservatives in many countries look to George Bush's Washington the way Leftists of earlier generations looked to Moscow.

Few people outside the United States know more about the Americans, or imitate them more effectively, than Canadians, which explains why movies set in Chicago and New York often get filmed in Toronto. It also explains why so many Canadians worry that if ever we elect the Conservative Party into government, it will immediately start playing “monkey see, monkey do” with George Bush's Washington, to ruinous effect. For ten years now, Canadians have worked and sacrificed to get rid of the federal deficit and pay down our debt, and now George Bush's admirers, both South of the border and in Canada, make light of the Bush Administration's red ink. Canadians who have spent the last ten years paying far more in taxes that we got back in services, courtesy of the deficits of the seventies and eighties, have a good reason to worry about ideologues who might throw away all we have sacrificed to accomplish for the sake of copying (on a smaller scale) George W's tax cuts. We also worry about Canadian conservatives who urge us to commit troops in any war the current occupant of the White House deems necessary. But beyond even the question of specific policies, Canadians have reason to worry that some conservative have so cast their lot with the international conservative movement that they put the interests of international conservatism, and its apparent seat, the United States, ahead of their own country. Canadians exposed to self-described “Canadian conservative” commentators who regularly describe Americans with admiration and their compatriots with disdain have to wonder how many Conservatives actually feel this way. And if they mean it, do we really want them in power?

Few situations match this one for sheer perversity. For one thing, American conservatives, unlike the Soviets, manifestly do not wish to lead an international movement. American conservatives do not intend, or want, to attract craven imitators from other countries. The best American conservatives expect us to believe in our country and stand up for ourselves, and respect us when we do. Nobody in the United States stands to gain when the Canadian conservatives turn from frustration to denigrating their country. Neither do Canadians, of any political stripe. For twelve years now, the Conservative Party has not succeeded in electing a government. That came about as a result of many problems, but their inability to detach themselves from American standards of conservatism did not help. I still hope the Conservative Party will return to an authentically Canadian conservatism, defined at least in part, by patriotism and a willingness to stand for Canadian interests. To do this, however, they may have to convince their current leader to apologize for editing a magazine in which an article described Canada as a “vicious little brother” in relation to the United States. Until they convince the majority of Canadians that when push comes to shove they will stand for Canadian values and interests, the conservatives will only put up a weak challenge to the governing Liberals. And that too I find both perverse and discouraging, since I can think of few things worse for Canada than having a weak and exhausted party in power because their opponents cannot win the trust of the voters.

The final perversity lies in the notion of an international conservative movement. Conservatism means conserving the best of a particular culture or a particular nation; it means thinking twice before sacrificing existing values to go along with the new and the fashionable. But the value of conservatism depends on what exists in a particular place: conservative means something quite different in Iran and Canada, for example. Attempting to build a global conservative amounts to an absurdity, and in fact, no international conservative movement really exists. The international face of conservatism really consists of writers who admire American military power and George Bush's willingness to use it. But by looking for inspiration to the United States, they kill the possibilities for genuine conservative government in their own countries. I would add that they also admire some of the least truly “conservative” (at least in American terms) aspects of the Bush Administration.

Problems such as this arise primarily because while we have yet to find a way to make government work outside national boundaries, ideas cross borders all the time. When political movements attach themselves too closely to imported ideas, they make themselves hard to elect, because political ideas in a democracy only work if the voters in a particular place trust them to work for them. This has a good many drawbacks; obviously, it puts ideas that will work best internationally at a disadvantage. Until we establish some more comprehensive and workable international institutions, this problem will persist.