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For Harper government, bad policy is great politics

The Harper government’s recently proposed prostitution law has been widely condemned as unworkable, unconstitutional and hazardous to those working in the sex trade; that it is, in short, bad policy. To criticize the Harper government on policy grounds, however, is to miss the point that it is not actually interested in sound, rational policy. Its sole interest is staying in power. The proposed law on prostitution joins dozens of other questionable Conservative initiatives, on such things as climate change, crime, drugs, education, electoral reform, information access, military procurement, statistics, surveillance, and taxes, whose single attribute is their appeal to the Conservative base. Bad policy, in the view of government strategists, makes for great politics.

To be fair, every party caters to some degree to its core supporters. In the words of former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, “You dance with the one that brung ya.” But most governing parties understand that, over time, they will lose some supporters and need to gain others; and in any case, why be satisfied with only gaining the bare minimum of support? Why not build a broad coalition? Moreover, most political parties, of every stripe, their hubris curtailed, feel a moral responsibility to represent all Canadians, even those with whom they disagree.

Not so, however, the Harper Conservatives. Inverting Clausewitz’ famous dictum, they see politics as war by other means. Moreover, it is a perpetual war without end; a war of wedge politics designed to establish new vantage points; a war, above all, that requires one’s troops always be at the ready, dedicated and battle hardened.

The need to harden one’s troops for battle explains not only the Harper government’s terrible policy record but also its endless efforts to delegitimize a host of Canadian institutions, such as the CBC, the Senate, Elections Canada, Statistics Canada and the Supreme Court. (Admittedly, some of these institutions have done grievous harm to their own credibility, but that is beside the point). In war, there can be no divided loyalties; in this case, there can be no allegiance to those institutions that might hold the Harper government – the PMO in particular – in check. Thus, the Harper base is enjoined at every turn to give unthinking support – indeed, trust – to the party and the leader.

How is it that we have come to be governed by a visionless warrior class whose sole purpose is marked by its will to power? Part of the reason is broadly cultural; we live, as the famous philosopher Jerry McGuire intoned, in a cynical age. But the current Conservative party takes much of its specific inspiration and strategy from the American Republicans.

Until the 1980s, mainstream parties in the United States, Britain and Canada clustered around the centre, often designing their policies to broaden their support. Following the Thatcher and Reagan revolutions in the U.K. and U.S. respectively, a strategy of polarization began to take hold, however. This was particularly the case in the U.S., where the Republican party’s strategists designed a clever pathway to electoral success based on abandoning the soft centre, which neo-conservatives despised, in favour of identifying and ensuring the support of its core conservative voters; its tribe, as it were.

To give an example of how the strategy works, the average turnout in the 2010 U.S. mid-term elections was just under 41 per cent, the lowest being just over 32 per cent in Texas. This means that, even if one’s core vote makes up only 25 per cent of the electorate, you can still easily win an election if you can mobilize the bulk of them – say, four-fifths – to cast a ballot; and conversely, the likelihood of victory goes up if you can discourage or prevent your opponent’s supporters from showing up. It may not be fair or genuinely democratic, but in a first-passed-the-post electoral system, as we have in the United States and Canada, it is an effective strategy for victory.

This strategy came to Canada after 1987 through various think tanks, pundits, and Republican party operatives who provided organizational and electoral advice to the nascent Reform Party, of which Stephen Harper was a key member. The well-known Republican strategist, Frank Luntz, was a regular attendee to Reform Party conventions and other meetings.

The strategy is not without peril, of course. Bad policies carry real costs; for example, many within the Republican Party now view its two decade-long “tough on crime” policies as a fiscal and social disaster. Constantly decrying the nation’s institutions as illegitimate also carries real threats to social cohesion.

But the strategy has also had long-term negative consequences for the Republican Party. Its tribe is shrinking, while the more ecumenical Democrats are growing in number, bolstered by young and Latino voters, among others. In time, the core vote erodes, as it must, and all the party is left with is a legacy of bad policies; dust in the wind.

Those who criticize the Harper government’s public policies may take some solace in this thought. But, while doing so, they must also understand the strategic calculations underpinning the Harper government’s decisions. Bad policies are made for a reason.

Trevor Harrison is a political sociologist at the University of Lethbridge and director of Parkland Institute.

Trevor Harrison

Trevor W. Harrison is a professor of sociology at the University of Lethbridge and director of Parkland Institute, an Alberta-wide research organization, of which he was a founding member and first research director. Dr. Harrison is best known for his studies in political sociology, political economy and public policy. He is the author, co-author or co-editor of nine books, numerous journal articles, chapters, and reports, and a frequent contributor to public media, including radio and television.

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