Sunday, June 17, 2012

The Politics of Nostalgia

With Bob Rae's announcement that he won't contest the Liberal leadership, there is now considerable media speculation about Justin Trudeau as the great Liberal hope. 

Trudeau indeed has real political skills including strong performance skills (partly reflecting his dramatic training). His political potential first emerged when he delivered the eulogy at this father's funeral. He seems quite willing, according to the accounts one reads on Twitter and in the the Liberal blogs, to respond to speaking and appearance requests by party members. Ironically, this aspect of his character seems more reflective of his uninhibited mother than his shy father. However, the interest in his candidacy would be far more muted if his name was Justin Sinclair (or Justin Smith).

But the Trudeau era is gone, and Liberals need to recognize the sheer scale of their weakness to have any hope of revival.  TC wrote a series on Liberal decline in 2010, and said the following in the concluding segment:
The Liberals may find a way out of their current doldrums and a leadership change might serve as catalyst. However, the Liberal party is in crisis and it is possible that this will present an opportunity for the NDP to break out of the confines of third place. The Liberals need to identify their areas of strategic and demographic weakness and do something about them, but there is no evidence of that happening. So it is fair to describe the Liberal Party as being in a multi-dimensional crisis.
One area of "strategic and demographic" weakness is Quebec, particularly francophone Quebec. In 1980 Pierre Trudeau in his last election won 74 of 75 Quebec seats.  In 2011, in the 44 ridings in Quebec with a population more than 85% francophone, the Liberals won zero seats and just 8.8% of the vote.  Only one Liberal, Denis Coderre of Bourassa, won a majority francophone district.

Justin Trudeau strongly supports his father's vision of federalism.  In the eulogy noted above he said:
He left politics in '84. But he came back for Meech. He came back for Charlottetown. He came back to remind us of who we are and we're all capable of. But he won't be coming back anymore. It's all up to us, all of us, now.
However, the Trudeau vision of federalism has not won an election in francophone Quebec since 1980. The Chr├ętien Liberals did finish first in vote share in Quebec in the 2000 election but that largely reflected unhappiness with the Bouchard PQ government in Quebec City and in particular, its municipal amalgamations. Moreover, the Liberal success was based on overwhelming anglophone and allophone success. A plurality of francophones voted for the BQ, which actually increased its vote share from the 1997 election (See the 2000 Canadian Election Study on p. 6 for some details on vote share).
The NDP's success in Quebec in 2011 has been unduly attributed to Jack Layton's personality. While his personal appeal was quite important, one cannot ignore Layton's long term wooing of soft nationalists in Quebec including support for asymmetrical federalism, and policies on Quebec-Canada relations included in the 2005 Sherbrooke statement. The NDP approach to federalism in Quebec, which has just demonstrated its success, is completely at odds with the Trudeau vision and legacy.  What are the thoughts of Liberals on these issues?  We hear nothing except bland assurances that the Liberals can somehow easily grow their support in Quebec.
Will the Liberals now try to appeal to this segment of the Quebec electorate and if so, how? If their objective is to rebuild support for Trudeauism in Quebec, how do they expect to succeed? What strategic premises underpin such an approach?  These questions need answers.  To ignore the problems or assume them away is wishful thinking.
As TC noted a couple of months ago in discussing Thomas Mulcair, in addition to performance skills and ideology there are other "important aspects of leadership: the role of the party chief as motivator, cheerleader, reconciler of the inevitable party factions, lead party organizer, most important fund raiser and chief executive officer". 
However, the leadership quality that matters most to Liberals now is figuring out what to do about the party's long-term strategic failure. Instead of coming to grips with reality, one sees wishful thinking and a politics of nostalgia. That seems to be what the Justin Trudeau candidacy represents.