Canadian Politics

Liberal Baggage

David Eaves and I have a review of Peter C Neman’s When the Gods Changed, in this month’s Literary Review of Canada.  We use it to continue to explore the theme of progressive politics that has now been the basis of many joint articles, opeds and a forthcoming book. Our initial piece on this topic was also in the LRC, three years ago, called Progressivisms End.

A few key graphs from the Newman review, titled Liberal Baggage: The Party’s Greatest Burden May be its Past Success are below, but the whole thing is here:

Newman seems intent on forcing the Liberal Party’s troubles into a narrative of psychological disrepair. And it is certainly true that the cocksure certainty of governance among party faithful takes time to dissipate. But an author who spends years looking at the world through the eyes of his or her subjects can fall victim to a type of biographical determinism—a view of history that places far too much weight on the actions of those being written about. Herein lies the central problem with this book. Newman wants to see the recent decline of the Liberal Party exclusively through the thoughts and actions of his subjects, Michael Ignatieff and a few “kingmakers” around him.

The Liberal Party’s real baggage is not psychological; it is institutional. Over the course of a century, the party built a series of social institutions designed for an industrial world. As the information age has fundamentally changed citizens’ challenges and expectations, Liberals have been left defending the existence of institutions, some now broken or in disrepair, over the progressive values they were originally intended to promote.

While Davey is dismissive of his efforts to reform the party, the reality is that both he and Ignatieff brought a wide range of new people, energy and ideas into the Liberal fold. But these people will need to move beyond a rearticulation of 20th-century ideas, presented through a modernized campaign. They will need to rethink the place of liberal politics in Canadian society. Newman is right: a 21st-century Liberal party may not look anything like the 20th-century juggernaut. But that would be a good thing.