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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.

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.)

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