Political doomsayers usually have it wrong

Are mainstream political parties all the same in the end? Or are the new guys about to run the country off the cliff? It all depends on your perspective. In the lead up to the 2000 U.S.

Are mainstream political parties all the same in the end? Or are the new guys about to run the country off the cliff? It all depends on your perspective.

In the lead up to the 2000 U.S. presidential election, the rock-rap group Rage Against the Machine – known for its far left politics – produced a clever and emotionally powerful music video for the song “Testify.” The theme of the video was that the two then presidential nominees – Democrat Al Gore and Republican George Bush – were identical.

The video featured a number of clips of the two candidates making identical statements and for effect blended pictures of the two together to create a composite of what George Gore or Al Bush might look like. You can find the video on YouTube if you want to see what I mean.

To those of us who are less inclined to believe that a socialist revolution is inevitable, necessary or desirable the comparison seems asinine. This is especially so with the benefit of hindsight. Would America have committed the foreign policy blunder of invading Iraq if Al Gore had won that election? What would America’s finances look like without the deep Bush tax cuts that bestowed large benefits upon the wealthiest Americans?

Sure one could easily dig up some quotes of the candidates saying the same things, but I think most of us would agree that there were also substantial political differences between Bush and Gore.

So why did Rage Against the Machine think they were the same?

Picture yourself standing in a field a few feet in front of a long fence. The fence posts are spread several feet apart. From where you are standing the posts that are immediately in front of you look like they are spaced some distance apart. You can clearly see the gaps between them.

But if you look either left or right your perceptions become warped. Towards the other end of the fence the posts appear to be all jammed together, and if you look far enough down it may even look like there are no gaps between them at all.

Perceptions of political ideology operate in a similar way.

To Rage Against the Machine on the far “left” side of the fence, Bush and Gore were two posts off on the right virtually indistinguishable from one another. To mainstream Americans they were two posts right in front of them which appeared different and spaced apart.

Meanwhile, with the possibility of the NDP forming a federal government back here in Canada for the first time, the catastrophizing and doom-saying has begun in earnest. The NDP, viewed from certain points along that fence, after all, look a lot like socialists bent on making major changes to the way we run our country.

But if we question our perceptions, dial back the hyperbole a bit and look at a bit of history we would see that change will probably not be as dramatic as some fear.

Political scientists use the concept of political culture to partly understand the fact that change in a political system is generally quite incremental, despite the appearance of stark differences in the underlying values of the various political parties.

Political culture is a set of relatively stable (even rigid) underlying norms and values that prevail in a particular community. Our Canadian political culture is part of the reason why neither the Christian Heritage Party nor the Marxist-Leninist Party have historically enjoyed much electoral success in Canada. Both espouse values that are too outside the mainstream of Canadian political culture to catch on.

But mainstream parties are constrained by political culture as well. I would hazard a guess that if we could reach deep inside Stephen Harper’s brain there is probably some regret that after 10 years in office he hasn’t created a flat tax, substantially shrank the size of government, dismantled equalization, or invoked the notwithstanding clause. Judging by his statements from before he got serious about elected office, one might have expected that all or some of these would have happened by now. That Stephen Harper would have little time for boutique tax credits and “baby bonuses.”

But Harper knows that going too far outside the Canadian political culture would doom his party to the political wilderness. Yes, progressives may be displeased with the direction that Canada has taken during Harper’s term in office, but if they are being honest with themselves they should be somewhat relieved that the Canada he has created isn’t nearly as bad as it would have been if the Stephen Harper who ran the National Citizen’s Coalition had free reign with the place.

Those who are getting nervous about the prospects of the NDP forming a federal government for the first time should be cognizant that similar constraints would be placed on them. Despite what some of the rank-and-file New Democrats might say when they go off-script, the reality would probably be fairly moderate. Thomas Mulcair is an intelligent man and likely realizes that if he wants an NDP government to be more than a one-term phenomenon he has to temper the expectations of his more ideological devotees and work within the dominant political culture of the country.

This isn’t to say that there wouldn’t be change that you won’t like. But don’t expect European tax rates, nationalized oil companies, or the reneging on existing free trade agreements any time in the near future.

Kyle Carruthers is a born-and-raised Yukoner who lives and practises law in Whitehorse.