Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Harper Denounces Belief in Inherent Extremism of Latin American Politics

Opponents could learn from Harper's advice to Latin America

To say that Latin America has had a tumultuous political history is more than a bit of an understatement.

Political violence unthinkable in the modern western world has often become so commonplace in Latin America that it could be described as routine. Consider a recent episode in which Venezualan President Hugo Chavez ordered a radio station that had criticized him shut down. Demonstrators marching in favour of the station's freedom of speech were attacked by Venezualan police with water cannons.

Consider also the popular historical example of the attempted assassination of Bob Marley shortly before the legendary "Smile Jamaica" concert supporting Richard Manley's People's National Party. A bullet penetrated Marley's chest and grazed his heart in the attack at his home the night before the concert.

Part of the underlying cause of such violence has been the inherent extremism in Latin American politics, in which most countries alternate between far-right and far-left governments -- often violently.

On 17 July, Prime Minister Stephen Harper spoke to this phenomenon in a speech at the Canada-Chile Chamber of Commerce in Santiago.

"Too often some in the hemisphere are led to believe that their only choices are — if I can be so bold to say — to return to the syndrome of economic nationalism, political authoritarianism and class warfare, or to become, quote, just like the United States," Harper said. "This is, of course, utter nonsense."

"Canada's very existence demonstrates that the choice is a false one. Canada's political structures differ substantially from those in the United States," Harper added. "Our cultural and social models have been shaped by unique forces, and we've made our own policy choices to meet our own needs."

Of course, Harper is right about this. Someone may want to send a memo to his primary political opponents, the Liberal party.

The alternation between political extremes in Latin America can be traced to a belief that political parties in this region are "great parties"--that is, the belief that political parties are not merely political entities, but also moral entities, and the contests between these parties are battles between good and evil. Adocates of great party politics ensure that their opponents are viewed as dangerous extremists with insidious agendas that are destructive of the proper political order.

In Canada, the Liberal party has promoted such a belief numerous times throughout its history. Most recently the party distributed a fundraising letter in which Stephane Dion described the Conservative party as an extremist threat to the 'legacies of the Liberal party'. "The legacy of Mackenzie, Laurier, Mackenzie-King, St-Laurent, Pearson, Trudeau, Turner, Chr├ętien and Martin lives today in Canadian treasures like our health care system and other cherished social programs, our economic stability, and our place in the world," Dion wrote. "We need your help to continue this legacy from being lost under the federal Tory’s misguided neo-Conservative agenda."

Ironically, the tendency to define the political landscape in terms of great parties is typical of neo-Conservative parties.

"We can not allow the Conservatives to win their majority and begin the dismantling of our cherished institutions," Dion's leter continues. "We are in the fight of our lives and I ask for your help to help us win."

If one accept's Dion's belief that Canada's political landscape is marked by a conflict between "two great parties", then the assertions of his letter may pass without further scrutiny. Yet, the alleged imminent attack on Canada's social programs has never materialized. Nor did the attacks ever happen when Louis St Laurent lobbed the same accusations against John Diefenbaker, arguably the most progressive Prime Minister in Canadian history.

Of course, there is another side to Canadian politics that Stephen Harper may be overlooking. While the Canadian political landscape has been blessed with numerous historical third parties (the NDP, it's predecessor the CCF, Social Credit, the Progressives), these parties have all been just that: third parties in a two-plus party system. No third party has ever governed federally. While in this sense the "two extremes" vision may be slightly more accurate it only underscores the fact that there is plently of partisan and ideological middle ground in the Canadian system--more so than the Liberals would like to admit.

Latin America could only benefit from developing this same ideological and partisan middle ground.

Hopefully, the Liberal party will never succeed in stamping out that middle ground here in Canada.

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