Recently Canada’s major left-leaning political party, the NDP, opted to replace its leader Thomas Mulcair, in the aftermath of disappointing election results in the federal election of 2015. At the NDP convention in Edmonton, delegates also heard from party warhorse Stephen Lewis, who blasted the Liberal government of Justin Trudeau and touted the “Leap Manifesto,” an ambitious – many say farfetched – plan to eliminate the Canadian economy’s reliance on fossil fuels by 2050. Considered to have had a real chance of running the country just a few months ago, the NDP have once again relegated themselves to their traditional status of permanent opposition.
New Democrats have long debated where to place themselves on the political spectrum: remain faithful to their socialist origins, or move to a free-market centre? Too far to the left and they alienate mainstream voters; too far to the middle and they compete with the Liberals while losing their progressivist base. With the rejection of Mulcair, and in the angry rhetoric of Lewis, they have retreated to the smug, self-congratulatory fringe where their most strident members are most at home. Stephen Lewis himself, over his long career in Canadian politics, has always claimed full-time residency of the moral high ground; the Leap Manifesto was crafted in part by his celebrity activist son, Avi, and Avi’s even more celebrated activist partner, Naomi Klein, neither spouse spoiled by the taint of elected office nor likely to be in the future.
The threat posed by man-made climate change is real enough, but it is also a boon to the likes of Klein and the Lewises, for whom the biggest problems represent the greatest opportunities to propose the most idealistic and therefore least pragmatic solutions, the better to trumpet their ethical superiority over anyone unwilling to adopt them. Such figures cement the reputation of NDPers as pious scolds, forever berating the rest of us – especially those crass enough to hold any measure of governmental power – for being insufficiently pacifist / environmentally aware / feminist / antiglobalist / vegan / etc. The caricature is not limited to Canadian progressives alone. In the words of Dissent magazine’s Michael Kazin, “Disconnected as they are from any national or local constituency, global leftists now live at risk of being thrust to the margins – abstract sages of equity, operatives of nongovernmental organizations engaged in heroic but Sisyphean tasks, or demonstrators roving from continent to continent looking for bankers to heckle.”
It’s ironic that the NDP ideologues are still thinking in terms of a quasi-Marxist revolution, when at least two others are already going on around them: the Information Revolution, which has transformed the very development and dissemination of knowledge, and the social revolution that has witnessed a widespread shift in popular attitudes towards sexuality, drug use, abortion, and, lately, even physician-assisted suicide. Add to those the ongoing civil war between moderate and fundamentalist Islam, the relative decline of American power next to China’s and India’s, and the looming political crises in Europe and Russia, and the world is changing at a remarkable, even frightening, pace. And then there’s Canada’s New Democratic Party, still fighting mad over top-hatted capitalists in their SUVs. I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating: No one’s standards are higher than those who know theirs will never have to be enforced.