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Liberal supporters react to early election results at Michael Ignatieff's headquarters in Toronto on May 2, 2011. (Peter Power/Peter Power/The Globe and Mail)
Liberal supporters react to early election results at Michael Ignatieff's headquarters in Toronto on May 2, 2011. (Peter Power/Peter Power/The Globe and Mail)

The Liberal culture of defeat Add to ...

There is an excellent book by Wolfgang Schivelbusch called The Culture of Defeat: On National Trauma, Mourning and Recovery. It looks at major Western societies that lost wars but survived, and how they coped with defeat.

Some nations, particularly the old Confederacy after 1865, the French after 1871 and the Germans after 1918, reacted by mythologizing their defeats, laying blame on scapegoats and perpetrating evils against them. Schivelbusch's thesis is that the surviving elites in those countries exploited mythology in order to retain power.

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The result was "creating myths that mitigated the psychological impact of defeat: the former Confederacy carefully tended the 'Lost Cause'; France scapegoated the empire of Napoleon III; Germany turned to legends of an army undefeated at the front but betrayed by domestic weakness." The evil of Jim Crow laws, the Dreyfus trial and rise of the Third Reich are attributable to this warped view of history, carefully tended by elites who needed a distraction from the structural causes of national failure.

In contrast, nations that confront the structural causes of their defeat can emerge stronger. Japan and Germany following the Second World War are excellent examples.

Avoiding the mythology of defeat is crucial if the Liberal Party is to recover from the past three elections and rebuild itself anew. Since 2006, party elites have fanned certain myths that distract the grassroots from the true causes of failure in an effort to gain or retain power.

Instead of revitalization and fundamental reform, the party has been subjected to the "one more big push" argument that we are just a slightly better ad away from government. Instead of expanding the party by attracting new people, we have excluded with a culture where history weighs too heavily to allow anyone else in the room. Instead of addressing the root causes of failure, we lost a decade of infighting and power grabs.

Here are some of the myths that must be abandoned if the Liberal Party is to thrive again.

1. The Liberal Party is 'Canada's natural governing party'

No myth gives Liberals more problems than this.Mackenzie King said "if some countries have too much history, we have too much geography." The Liberal Party has too much history and not enough geography.

The party is obsessed with past successes, to the point of fatally ignoring the future. Jean Chrétien's speech last week was a sterling example:

"Chrétien hearkened back to Canadian and Liberal icons, reminding supporters that when he was first elected in 1963, there was no Canada Pension Plan, no medicare and no national anthem. As well, the Constitution was a British law, there was no Charter of Rights, there were no official languages or multiculturalism and or a Canadian flag."

This is all true, and a tremendous legacy of Pearson, Trudeau, and Chretien that made the Canada of today. But 1963 is closer to the First World War than the present day.

Liberal history rallies the base, illustrates our values and needs to be protected. But it is not a vision for the future, any more than Republicans can run today on freeing the slaves.

2. Defeat in 2008 was Stephane Dion's fault

The amazing thing about the election before this one is how well the Liberals did.Despite a barrage of negative ads, a wonky tour, and a leader who had a difficult time connecting with English Canadian audiences, the party held to a reasonable showing.

The vote was remarkably efficient. The Liberals got 26 per cent of the vote and won 25 per cent of the seats. But the post-election thinking that we should just change leaders and everything would automatically improve was fundamentally flawed.

The party elites decided a leadership convention was too much trouble and essentially appointed Michael Ignatieff leader. He did a good job in the campaign, and should be proud of his work, but a new leader was no solution. Sadly, Mr. Ignatieff paid with his reputation for that myth by party elites.

The Liberal Party's problems are party problems. Leadership is an element of that, but there are deeper cultural, financial, organizational and policy challenges that must be confronted.

3. A new leader can be our savior

A corollary of the Dion myth is the myth that a leader can be our savior. There is no question that Canada is becoming a presidential system, where the leader acts as proxy for the party in the minds of voters. But a simple change in leader is not going to solve our problems.

In fact, a quick change in leader may exacerbate our problems, by avoiding the debate about fundamental reform that would come from a leadership convention. (I'm not convinced that leadership races are the right place for a debate about party structure, but there aren't many other vehicles available.)

With a majority government, the Liberals actually have time to slow down, think things through and undertake the grassroots-driven reform needed as a first step toward recovery.

4. Merger is the only way forward

This is a newer myth, but it shares the "elites holding onto power" structure of earlier ones.

Simply put, the Liberal Party won't merge with the NDP. It would fracture even more than the Progressive Conservative Party did, with its organizers scattering to the NDP, Greens, Conservatives and some staying in the old vehicle or trying to form a new party.

The math simply doesn't work. NDP plus Liberals is not going to create 1+1. Both parties have partisans who won't work with the other.

More to the point, these two parties fight head-to-head in British Columbia, Northern Ontario, Windsor, Hamilton, Toronto, and Atlantic Canada.

What does the BC Liberal Party do, as a centre-right coalition? Or the Quebec Liberals, who are to the right of the social democrat Parti Québécois?

Brokering some kind of elite compact between elements of the two parties is unacceptable to significant portions of the grassroots of the two parties, and would result in a revolt on both sides.

There are many Liberals who are scared in the aftermath of Monday. The myth is designed to exploit their fear.

5. We just need to get the Chrétien and Martin guys working together

The 2002 quitting/firing of Paul Martin as finance minister was nine years, four elections and 138 seats ago. During that time, everyone has had a turn at driving, and it really hasn't gone so well. I agree that moving beyond past hurts is critical to the future of the party. But that's just starters.

Unifying the party elites is just a first step. It is an important one.

Having smart people who understand the technical aspects of policy, party organization, voting tracking, fundraising and strategy are vital to success. But we just ran a technically strong election campaign and got our asses turned into hats.

Far more critical is rejuvenating the grassroots by letting real democracy into the party and making a membership card mean something more than a tool for fundraising. Far more critical is standing for something, in good times and bad, that matters to Canadians. Far more critical is attracting new people who weren't active in politics ten years ago to feel a home in this party.

* * * * * * * * *

The message from Schievelbusch is ultimately hopeful. Many countries have faced defeat and recovered to find happiness, prosperity and strength. "The defeated ultimately emerge healthier, stronger, and smarter than ever before - that is, if they can avoid fantasies of denial and revenge and learn from their failure (and perhaps their conquerors)."

Liberals must abandon the fantasies of denial that have been our curse, really since 1984. The proud reality is that we are the party of minorities, be they religious, linguistic, cultural, gender or economic.

We held the West when they hated those Toronto bankers, until they got rich and became bankers. We held Quebec until francophones stopped thinking of themselves as minorities in Canada, and started thinking of themselves as majorities in Quebec. We held rural and Northern Ontario until they began to see us as too elite and downtown. We held the cultural and ethnic minorities of the Greater Toronto Area and Montreal and Vancouver until we stopped defending them and the Charter.

Now we are left with a handful of seats held through incumbency and organization and tribal loyalty, but without a regional base that unites them. The best choice for Liberals is to return to our core principal to protect the sanctity of the individual to be themselves.

In the past, we protected vulnerable people from government excess with the Charter and eliminating the deficit, and protected vulnerable people from economic catastrophe with pensions and medicare. We legalized same-sex marriage and produced a Canadian flag and introduced multiculturalism, acts that infuriated many people at the time, but made Canada a country where you can be proud and free to be yourself, as a minority or not. But mythologizing our past has made us forget the values that underlay it.

Being a Liberal is hard. We speak for the rights of minorities. Sometimes minorities are unpopular. But all of us are minorities, in some way. That makes our party the biggest tent possible.

The future of the Liberal Party comes from these values, this timeless defence of a person's right to be themselves. That is our foundation and the beginning of our path forward.

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