Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Useful discourse hard if one must defer to lunatic fringe

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It was noted in this space last week that Canadians have been considerably more enthusiastic about the election of Barack Obama than that of our own Stephen Harper. The observation, perhaps not surprisingly, brought angry and indignant responses from several Canadian conservatives who see Obama as something between the devil incarnate and the end of Western civilization as we have known it. If it is the latter, history will surely record that it was that conservative soothsayer, George W Bush, who got the ball rolling.

Obama's overriding sin -- if it is not that he is black -- is that he is a liberal and, as we know from the late election, some would have that he is a socialist and a few that he is a communist. It is difficult, however, to sustain any useful discourse if one is constantly to defer to the lunatic fringe even if, as in this case, it included the Republican vice-presidential nominee, Sarah Palin.

Nonetheless, one must acknowledge that one of the more remarkable aspects of the American culture wars is that, as terms of abuse, liberals, socialists and communists have achieved virtual equality in American right-wing political discourse. Liberalism, which has an honourable place in the history of western political thought -- and in the evolution of the United States -- has become a term of abuse and opprobrium, some of which slop has spilled into Canada.

This dumbing-down of political discourse is regrettable not only because it deprives words of their utility, but also because it suggests a kind of hardening of the categories in which nuance and real but subtle differences cannot survive.

There was a time in the United States when liberal Republicans such as Nelson Rockefeller were influential. Similarly, in Canada, there were not only progressive and Progressive Conservatives, but so-called Red Tories among whom were numbered such figures as John Diefenbaker, Robert Stanfield, Dalton Camp, Duff Roblin and Joe Clark.

In 2008, liberal Republicans in the U.S. and Red Tories in Canada are barely protected by the game laws, but their survival attests to the rugged independence of some people in both countries who respect differences, think for themselves, and refuse to be pigeonholed by partisan leaders who seek polarized, rather than intelligent, discourse.

In the modern United States there have been -- with numerous caveats and qualifications -- two periods in which profoundly different political philosophies held sway. The first, associated with Franklin Roosevelt, was a period of liberal ascendancy in which, during the Great Depression, Americans were introduced to the concept of big and activist government (think Social Security, the Tennessee Valley Authority and civil rights legislation) which endured until support began ebbing away, in the era of Richard Nixon.

But the most substantial swing of the pendulum against big government occurred under Ronald Reagan and reached a new high point under George W. Bush. One of the hallmarks of the latter period was not merely the devaluing of government, but the deification of the market.

In the gathering economic gloom of late 2008, the reliability of benevolent market forces has taken such a beating that it is now widely assumed that things have come full circle. Even before Obama assumes office, President Bush and the Congress have been required to do the ideologically unthinkable. Conservatives are calling upon the state to save the great corporations and thus redress the failures of the marketplace. Adam Smith is no doubt twirling in his grave.

The Obama administration will face challenges going well beyond those over which conservatives are making death-bed repentances. It does not follow, however, that Obama will prescribe the solutions of liberal Democrats of an earlier era. His instincts, particularly in areas such as health and education, are undoubtedly liberal. But unlike either Roosevelt (to whom he is compared) or Reagan (with whom he is contrasted), Obama is not an ideologue.

George Packer, in a recent issue of The New Yorker, writes that "people who have observed (Obama) in meetings describe him as a politician who solicits advice from a variety of sources (and) puts a high value on empirical evidence... A word that comes up again and again, from Obama himself and from people who know him, is 'pragmatic.'"

One of Obama's heroes and greatest influences, moreover, is Abraham Lincoln. Among American presidents there can be few who surpassed Lincoln in his understanding of the wellsprings of human behaviour.

Packer quotes a striking passage from Lincoln's first inaugural address: "Think calmly and well upon this whole subject. Nothing valuable can be lost by taking time. If there be an object to hurry any of you, in hot haste, to a step which you would never take deliberately, that object will be frustrated by taking time; but no good object can be frustrated by it."

Lincoln, he of great humanity and conservative instincts, understood profoundly the importance of making haste slowly and deliberately if the people and the country were to accommodate and survive great change.

So, one suspects, does Obama. The Americans have given themselves a Christmas present.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 19, 2008 A15

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