American Proxy Wars

Our politics often resembles a phantasmic American politics proxy war. A fall election during a pandemic and before November 3rd could create proxy war politics like nothing we've seen before.

One of the reasons I decided to launch this newsletter was because of my own frustration with the state of Canadian public discourse. I won’t rehash my various gripes, you can read them here. But what I want to do in this piece is draw out in more depth one of the more fundamental issues I see in our discourse, namely the way our politics often resemble a kind of American proxy war. 

This isn’t the first time I’ve made this complaint, but it’s on my mind a lot these days because of the pandemic. Many of us are still working from or trapped at home and viewing the world largely through our phones and laptops. This exacerbates this problem, and my fear is what could happen if there is an election this fall where proxy war politics get magnified even more so than they already are.

There’s so much that could be said about the ways in which our political discourse and culture more broadly are shaped by our proximity to America. Needless to say, America has always played an outsized role in our national consciousness and political discourse. This is one of the few immutable things about our national identity and consciousness, and always will be. But I worry this problem is being exacerbated and made worse by the arrival of the digital age, and in a way in might actually be evolving into a situation where we are not only defining ourselves in reaction to America, but engaging in political debates where we are essentially adopting proxy identities mimicking American discourse.  

McLuhan and the Digital Medium 

I’m a Marshall McLuhan acolyte, and his description of the way that modern communication technology shapes our discourse and culture is more relevant now than ever. In Understanding Media McLuhan described television as a “cool medium” one that moves the viewer out of an entirely passive role as a spectator and into a role in which they participate. The quality of television in McLuhan’s day was much worse than today, and TV was blurrier image than the then superior picture that cinema provided. What this did, according to McLuhan, was invite the viewer to “complete” the medium and fill in the ambiguities between the blurry pixels. This created a new participatory medium that invites a whole new experience of viewer interaction.

But television, even though it brings us closer, pales in comparison to what digital media enables. This is from a piece I wrote in The Critic earlier in the summer: 

“But television keeps you largely as an observer. The gatekeepers get things in as much as they kept them out. You can watch, and you can yell at a screen, but you are still just observing what goes on. Perhaps you could call into a radio show, write a letter to an editor, or talk about it with your friends, family and neighbours. But it’s all a kind of second hand participation after the fact, which allowed you to keep your distance from it.

The rise of digital politics changed all this. Most of us increasingly get our news and consume our politics online, whether through social media platforms or other media sites and publications. We increasingly view the world through a digital lens. On social media platforms you can comment, share, and find ways to get the constant dopamine rush that comes with being a digital commentator or activist. The barriers to this as minimal, you just need an account. You cease to be an observer, and become an active digital participant. You offer your opinion, you don’t just passively consume the opinions of others, selected for you to hear.”

Participatory media increasingly defines and shapes our discourse. It submerges us in a broader reality but only does so by filtering it into a digital reality that offers a distorted reflection rather than picture of the real world. This has been going on for at least a decade now, but the pandemic has accelerated this transformation of our discourse and politics. By locking us in our homes the pandemic forces us to view the world through a digital lens even more than we already did, and in a world where we’re all viewing everything through our screens that digital reality becomes closer and closer to our primary reality. 

One of the specific, and most pernicious effects of this, as I lamented in The Critic is that it turns us all into online Americans participating in their politics through the digital medium, rendering us virtual participants and not just foreign observers. I won’t repeat myself too much, I’d recommend just reading the piece, but the online realm is American, and what digital politics does is make politics everywhere more American. We participate in it as a game and a form of entertainment. This bleeds back into our own politics. 

Americanized Discourse 

Gun politics is one particular political issue where Americanized discourse is most pronounced. It captures perfectly how Americanization plays out. Every time there is some sort of tragic shooting or discussion of gun violence in Canada the debates play out in depressingly predictable ways. Progressives and Liberals paint a picture in which Canada suffers from the kind of rampant gun violence and mass proliferation of firearms as in America. This is the framing used to justify often highly symbolic or ineffective new gun laws and restrictions that, while often not all that effective and treat law abiding gun owners like criminals, make the Liberals and progressives seem like the party for gun control in the face of this rampant violence. But only if you pretend we live in America. 

And it’s not just the Liberals and progressives who play this game. Listen to some of the more vocal advocates of “gun rights” in Canada and you’d think we have a second amendment in the Charter. One side wants to make it seem like Canadians are walking around with and easily able to acquire assault weapons, the other side wishes it were so! The reality of course lies somewhere in between. Gun possession is heavily regulated, but lawful citizens can still buy firearms if they want to, and there is no explicit right in the Charter that prevents the government from regulating and restricting firearms. Talking about gun “rights” in Canada is itself quite a foreign and imported concept. At the same time we don’t have an epidemic of gun violence, and while we have experienced some horrific mass shootings, like the recent Nova Scotia tragedy, gun violence in Canada pales in comparison to the United States. 

But because both sides are essentially happy to help paint a phantasmic picture of gun violence and/or gun regulations in Canada, we end up with a surreal politics around guns. Sensible debates around guns are made harder by this because debates take place on top of a framing and narrative that draws explicitly on American political culture more than it does Canada’s. Both sides want to take on American roles and are happy to contribute to this framing. 

Gun politics is just one example, and there are so many others. Our discourse is so often built around framings that make it seem as if the issues and political cleavages here are indistinguishable from American ones, but it only happens because we import American framing and narratives into our own discourse and then build are arguments around these phantasms. We, like many other countries around the world, are in the middle of a moment of racial reckoning, or whatever you want to call it, because of something that happened in Minneapolis, not in Canada. 

Racism is a real thing in Canada, no honest person should deny this, because there is racism in absolutely every country and society. But in the wake of George Floyd’s killing we ended up having a conversation about racism that reflected the particular ways racism works in America. Police brutality and issues with police accountability are again a problem here too, just take this example from last week. 

But in the wake of George Floyd’s death activists here seized on the tragic death of Regis Korchinski-Paquet as an example of the systemic racism in Canadian policing too. The problem is that her death, as we’ve now learned, wasn’t a result of police brutality. Activists seized upon it to try and fit us into an American picture, and have now politicized the tragic death of a young black women that was clearly not the result of police intervention. This did not stop Jagmeet Singh from irresponsibly claiming Korchinski-Paquet’s death was a result of police intervention after the SIU report came out. He does this because it fits an Americanized narrative about systemic racism in Canada. In the process this makes our discourse slightly less reflective of reality because it is built around an imported framing. 

This doesn’t just happen on specific political issues, it often gets transplanted onto existing political divisions. Liberals and progressives love to constantly try and paint Conservatives as the Republicans, and often conservatives are happy to play along with this. I’m going to write a longer piece on this unique challenge that Canadian conservatism faces soon, but my worry is what happens if there is a fall election here.

A Fall Election would Become a Proxy War

America is in the midst of a very important presidential election. The rhetoric and posturing happening on both sides reflects this. As we get closer and closer to November the rhetoric, and the collective meltdown that is happening because of the election will only intensify, and we are all going to be completely saturated in coverage of it. This will happen on news channels and older forms of media as well as social media. 

Because of the intensity and the supposed stakes of the election, the temptation to watch and participate in it as a form of entertainment increases as well. People all around the world, in Canada especially, will get themselves worked up about it. Social media enables this by making it easier for us to participate. 

Hopefully there isn’t a fall election, and in a few weeks we’ll all know whether or not there is going to be one. But in the event that there is, it will be impossible to separate our own election from the American election. It’s not just the intensity of the American election and our saturation of it that would make this hard, it’s that because of the pandemic and the moving of everything online would make this even harder. We may not be in lockdowns anymore (or for now) but the more time people spend online, the more they are drawn into this online reality, and the more this online world bleeds out into and shapes the real world. Twitter may not be real life, but it shapes the picture of the world that discourse shapers and drivers, in the media especially, and this means that online pictures get blurred with “real world” pictures.

It’s not just an accident of social media and cultural saturation that this would happen, in the event of an election there would be an active effort by the Liberals and progressives to turn it into a proxy of the American election. The Liberals have in the last few weeks started using the slogan “build back better,” which is identical to how the Biden team has been trying to frame their economic recovery. 

While there are a minority of conservatives here that delude themselves into thinking otherwise, Trump is extremely unpopular in Canada. If the Liberals could convince Canadians that the O’Toole and the Conservatives are somehow “Trump North” they’d almost certainly win the election. The Conservatives would have to waste inordinate amounts of energy and time trying to fight this narrative, which would make it much more difficult to craft a distinct and positive vision. 

I’ve been mostly encouraged by the O’Toole team’s approach since he won the leadership a few weeks ago, but one thing I do worry about is this new use of the term “Canada first.” Again because of our saturation in American politics, the first thing people think when they hear that is probably “America first,” which is not good for the Conservatives. I don’t haver issues with the slogan itself, my issue is that Liberal “Build Back Better” versus Conservative “Canada First” really is a replication of the Democratic versus Republican posturing in America, and an election fought on these grounds really would end up as proxy war politics that works to the benefit of the Liberals immensely. 

O’Toole’s approach appears to be a recognition of some of the realignments and new cleavages taking place in advanced industrial democracies around the world, and it will come as no surprise to some of you who have been following me for a while that I am pleased and encouraged to see this change. Lots more coming on this in the next few weeks in the newsletter. But for it to succeed, it needs to become a distinctly Canadian version of this realignment. If it becomes attached to Trump, it won’t succeed. 

If I had to bet, I’d still guess the Liberals won’t be able to convince the opposition to force an election (of course the Liberals could still call a snap election themselves). But if one does happen it would line up roughly with the American electoral calendar. The defining theme of this election would be proxy war politics in which the Liberals try and convince Canadians that a vote for them is a vote for the Democrats, while a vote for the Conservatives is a vote for Trump. 

It’s not just that the calendars would align and saturation in American politics would intensify, the pandemic will disrupt many of the ways traditional campaigning is done. This is going to heighten the importance of the digital campaign. This would encourage further blurring of the divides between a Canadian and American election. 

I’d like to think Canadians wouldn’t fall for this, and trying to make O’Toole ‘Trump North’ really is silly, but I’m not optimistic about it because of these structural features of our discourse that shapes the way political debates and discussions take place. Lets hope my fears are entirely misplaced, but if we do have a fall election get ready for an amplification of proxy war politics like nothing we’ve ever seen before. 

Weekly Recommendations

  • Brian Dijkema makes the conservative case for organized labour in this compelling and well written essay. Conservatives need to put a lot of intellectual energy into this to reimagine what organized labour that can and should look like in the 21st century. Brian, who works at Cardus, is going to be a big part of this here.

  • This American Affairs essay by Gladden Pappin offers a good overview and typology of the groupings on the new American right, and makes a compelling case for why the future of the American right lies down a different, post-fusionist path both in America and elsewhere. I’m planing on writing a few pieces about this over the next few months.

  • My friend Sean Speer, who writes a weekly column for the National Post, had an important column this week about an unfortunate incident that occurred in Canadian legal academia involving the widely respected and renowned constitutional scholar Dwight Newman. Read Sean’s column for yourself, and read Dwight’s reply to the piece in question here.