Friday, June 18, 2010

Dan Gardner on "progressives"

You'll have noticed how often I'm irate at the left's attempts to construe differences of political degree as differences of political kind. Put this way, I'm struck by how incredibly fucking awesome it would be if it wasn't a fantasy:

... So what does "progressive" mean today in Canada? Yesterday in this newspaper, Matt Browne and Eugene Lang published an impassioned appeal for "progressives" to unite because, apparently, most Canadians are "progressives" and the government should reflect that. "While conservatives have governed this country for four years," they wrote, "election results and polling data show consistently two-thirds of the electorate support political parties with a progressive orientation."

But since they didn't define what a "progressive orientation" is, I was left with the suspicion that, to Browne and Lang, any party that is not the Conservative party is a "progressive" party and anyone who is not a Conservative is a "progressive." That suggests that "progressive" is whatever John Baird shouts at. Which isn't much of an orientation, it seems to me.

Now, I am being a little unfair. Browne and Lang did suggest en passant "progressives" are those who "wish to use government as a force for good." This is helpful. It distinguishes "progressives" from those who wish to use government as a force for evil, such as Emperor Palpatine from the Star Wars movies.

There I go being unfair again. What Browne and Lang meant, of course, is that "progressives" believe government has a constructive role to play in society, as opposed to conservatives, who believe, as Ronald Reagan put it, that "government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem." It was this ruthless political philosophy that led Reagan to dramatically reduce the roles and responsibilities of government and shrink the federal budget to a miniscule ...

Oh, right. Reagan's famous aphorism got lots of Alex P. Keatons totally stoked 30 years ago but it actually meant very little to how he governed: When Reagan left office, government spending as a percentage of GDP was higher than when he entered. In modern times, the only significant drop in the U.S. government's share of GDP happened during the administration of that heartless conservative, Bill Clinton.

Canada got the same savage treatment at the hands of Jean Chrétien. More recently, Stephen Harper has spent money at a clip not seen since the glory days of Pierre Trudeau, and often on positively Trudeauvian schemes like regional development agencies.

And yet it's Jean Chrétien who's now involved in talks to unite "progressives" against Conservatives who, we are told, hate government so much they are shoving money down its throat. Maybe they think it will asphyxiate. Or make a nice foie gras.

Look, step back a bit and it's obvious there are great swaths of consensus clear across the political spectrum. That's true in every developed country. It's especially true in Canada. Every party supports government-funded health care. Every party supports trade liberalization. Every party supports progressive taxation. Look closely at what parties actually propose and vote for and even something as divisive as the Conservative "tough on crime" agenda is not actually all that divisive, much as some of us wish it were.

Of course the Conservatives sometimes have different priorities and emphases than the other parties. But there are also significant differences between the Liberals, New Democrats, Bloquistes, and Greens. So aside from the direction of John Baird's shouting, what defines people and parties as "progressive"?

Forget political philosophy. I think the answer is found in psychology.

Dan Gardner, Progressives unite, whoever you are.