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The Circular Firing Squad Is Destroying the Left's Political Brand: A Case Study from Canada

Some of the sharpest blows delivered against Canadian progressives over the last month have been the result of poisonous civil wars within the progressive community itself.

· 10 min read
The Circular Firing Squad Is Destroying the Left's Political Brand: A Case Study from Canada
Doug Ford at the 2014 Good Friday procession in the East York neighbourhood of Toronto.

On last week’s Quillette podcast, I asked Marginal Revolution host and Mercatus Center director Tyler Cowen whether socialism could become a mainstream political movement in the United States. Cowen answered in the affirmative, though only insofar as socialism was presented in a constrained form—as “extreme discontent with capitalism, more redistribution, much more government regulation, [and] nationalization [of] the health sector.”

I believe Cowen is correct. As a Canadian who travels often to the United States, I often find myself shocked by the vast gulf between haves and have-nots in American society. Even here in Canada, where the class divisions are less stark, I’m a supporter of more aggressive measures aimed at helping people who are disabled, uneducated, mired in poverty, imprisoned (or recently released from prison), or burdened with care for the very old or very young. I believe income inequality is a real problem, and I’m troubled by the self-segregation of populations according to socioeconomic status, a phenomenon that has all sorts of toxic political repercussions. And at election time, I seek out parties that support these progressive ideas.

Since I live in Canada, you’d think I’d have plenty of electoral options. And insofar as the above-cited issues go, I do: The incumbent Liberals, New Democrats (NDP) and Green Party all broadly embrace this socialistic platform. But in the cultural sphere, the progressive movement they represent increasingly is being undercut by extremist grass-roots activists who repel moderates. Most progressive politicians either have ignored this phenomenon entirely, or have encouraged it in order to attract support from the media, which, on the most fashionable issues, has put its chips down with the activists.

Every week seems to bring fresh calls for conservative politicians to denounce white supremacism in Canada—which is fine, even if the subject now seems to be overwrought. But Canadian leftists generally have gotten a free pass in regard to the radicals on their own side. If this represents a “double standard,” as many conservatives complain, it’s a double standard that mostly hurts progressives themselves—since it blurs the ideological lines between extremists and the mainstream leftists who seek political office. Justin Trudeau exemplifies this trend, having never missed an opportunity to virtue signal gratuitously on issues related to identity politics.

The last month alone has brought a string of instructive vignettes. In mid-March, a single activist succeeded in cutting funding to a rape-crisis center in Vancouver reserved for females. The activist was not, as one might suspect, a Christian conservative who opposes feminist ideology. Rather, it was a trans activist named Morgane Oger who has long demanded that male-bodied individuals be granted full access to rape-crisis facilities. The idea that raped women should have to indulge the faddish identity-politics fixations of small groups of ideologues is massively unpopular among ordinary people. But Oger—who is listed as a vice-president of British Columbia’s provincial NDP—was able to attract enough support among city officials to pass the measure at council. And the Toronto Star, Canada’s biggest newspaper, published an article celebrating the defunding decision, authored by its “identity and equality” reporter.

The likely victims of this move will be raped women. But to my knowledge, no major progressive politician at the provincial or federal level has explicitly condemned it. In the case of the federal government, this isn’t surprising: The governing Liberals have explicitly embraced the doctrine of intersectionality, which is all about helping the most marginalized slivers of the population. On this axis, trans women—though they represent only about 0.35% of the Canadian population—outrank the roughly 50% of Canadians who would describe themselves merely as female. That kind of arithmetic has a way of turning off voters.

Some of the sharpest blows delivered against Canadian progressives over the last month have been the result of poisonous civil wars within the progressive community itself—what Barack Obama aptly calls the left’s “circular firing squad”: Trans vs. feminist, Indigenous group vs. Indigenous group, Black LGBT vs. White LGBT. This is no coincidence: Since the doctrine of intersectionality encourages the ranking of groups according to victim status, it turns suffering into a competitive sport. And Canada’s various victim groups are starting to get their elbows up in politically unattractive ways.

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As Quillette writer Neil Grey pointed out, the cultural-appropriation follies have become a particularly embarrassing farce. In this month’s instalment, one group of indigenous Canadians is boycotting an indigenous music-awards event because a member of a second indigenous group has been nominated for an award based on a musical style that allegedly was “appropriated” from the first group. The event is bankrolled by all three levels of Canadian government, but you will be hard-pressed to find a single mainstream politician willing to point out how silly this whole cultural witch-hunt has become. And since no one in the media wants to be accused of insensitivity, the coverage has been suffused with touchy-feely bafflegab that avoids accentuating the rather obvious absurdity of the situation.

In what may be an even more bizarre story, the city of Edmonton lost its 2019 pride parade this year, after members of the organizing committee became paralyzed in the face of demands from a corps of self-described “QTIBPOC” activists. That acronym stands for “Queer, Trans, Indigenous, Black and People of Colour,” but apparently excludes “mainstream LGBTQ+ communities” in which “whiteness is pervasive.” A full listing of the QTIBPOC demands can be found in this 2,000-word document. But to summarize: The activists demanded that the entire pride festivities be centered on a sort of QTIBPOC-run ideological boot camp. QTIBPOC also demanded more than $40,000 in new funding for its own use, a corps of volunteers to do the actual work required for these programs, the creation of a QTIBPOC-administered ideological litmus test to determine participation in certain activities, a race-segregated “dance party” (for which QTIBPOC wanted $1,500 in dedicated funding), and the institution of race-stratified protocols in pretty much all aspects of pride operations, including the “vigil to honour the lives of LGBTIQ2S+ activists and community members that were lost due to systemic oppression including transphobia, racism, classism, capitalism, etc…QTIBPOC+ and trans folx will lead this vigil, followed by white allies and supports.” The result is that Edmonton will lose one of the most popular events on the city’s civic calendar—all because of a small group of hyper-progressive activists making demands that ordinarily progressive people properly regard as insane but are afraid to call out as such.

The Pride committee’s official statement reads: “It is with heavy hearts that we inform you that the Board of Directors has voted to cancel the 2019 Edmonton Pride Festival. In light of the current political and social environment, it has been determined that any attempt to host a Festival will not be successful.” Media coverage has blandly repeated such euphemisms, along with the vague declaration that organizers “could no longer run a pride festival without creating further divisions within the community.” CTV News ran a softball interview with one of the activists, who lamented, “we were advocating to make changes, to make positive changes in the event. We don’t want this event to be cancelled. We care about Pride, otherwise we wouldn’t be putting in these efforts.” The whole thing comes off as mortifying kabuki aimed at diverting attention from the protestors’ jaw-dropping narcissism. To repeat a theme: If a single prominent, mainstream leftist has voiced exasperation with all this, I haven’t heard it.

Even when Canadian progressives try to escape these circular firing squads, their approach can be strangely parochial. Niki Ashton is one of the most prominent members of the federal NDP, having finished third in the party’s 2017 leadership race (during which she set the tone for the current iteration of progressive politics by apologizing to Black Lives Matter for Tweeting a three-word phrase from a Beyoncé song). Last week, she was on Twitter again, Tweeting about—what else?—Twitter. Embracing the sort of campaign that you typically see led by trolls and Reddit addicts, she pushedfor Twitter to eject an eccentric wing nut named Faith Goldy from its platform. Goldy is indeed a toxic presence in Canadian politics. But why in the world is a prominent member of a would-be governing political party demanding that an American social-media company throw a Canadian citizen off a private communication network?

Though it’s a small story, it shows the shrunken character of the progressive political universe. What now animates politicians such as Ashton most are passive aggressive power plays aimed at scoring points within the leftist social-media silo they never leave. The most attractive aspect of socialism is that it focuses attention on the real-world problems of real-world people—problems that have nothing to do with who’s on Twitter, who gets to sing what song, or the marching order in an LGBT parade. Far from dragging down the progressive image, honest-to-goodness socialism that actually improves the lives of ordinary working class people—regardless of their skin colour or pronouns (imagine that)—would actually be a far easier sell than Ashton’s faddish hashtags. Rather than ask whether the spectre of socialism is dragging down progressives, maybe the question should be reversed.

* * *

A week ago, David Brooks tweeted that “if somebody wants to start a new political party, they should make it economically left and culturally right. That’s the big unserved group in America right now.” He’s absolutely right. As Michael Shermer wrote in Quillette last year, what’s needed now is a political movement that combines the economic generosity of progressives with the cultural pluralism of enlightened conservatives. That’s true in Canada, too—and, I suspect, most other comparable western countries.

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Politics doesn’t always reduce to simple dyads, of course. And there are some areas of real and important policy conflict in Canada that don’t break down on either economic or cultural lines. (On climate change, for instance, the governing Liberals are pursuing an ambitious carbon-pricing plan, while Conservatives strike a populist posture that improperly downplays the urgency of the problem.) But in general, when I look around to see which politicians are locking down the unserved demand that Brooks and Shermer are talking about, it now tends to be conservatives who’ve made peace with the welfare state—because they’re the ones who seem more at liberty to reject social-media slogans and embrace common sense. Consider: Ontario premier Doug Ford may be caricatured as a conservative monster in the progressive media. But in last week’s Ontario budget announcement, his provincial Conservatives rolled out a new child-care tax credit and government-funded dental care for seniors—on top of a new $11-billion commitment to create four huge new transit projects in the Toronto area.

Later this week, Alberta voters will go the polls. The two front-runners are the incumbent NDP, led by premier Rachel Notley, and the United Conservative Party (UCP), led by former federal cabinet minister Jason Kenney. For the past month, my Twitter feed has consisted in large part of Canadian progressives charging Kenney with every species of bigotry imaginable, and parsing the social-media posts of UCP candidates for evidence of wrongthink. Since most reporters are inhabiting this same Twitter silo, these themes have naturally dominated their coverage, too. One would think that Alberta were under siege from fascists.

But these attacks against Kenney don’t seem to have made a whit of difference: According to the latest poll projections, his UCP will win a crushing majority. Perhaps that’s because progressives have by now rendered accusations of sexism, racism, homophobia and transphobia utterly banal and ineffective. Claims of bigotry have become their opening bid in every argument, including (and perhaps especially) when progressives are shrieking at each other. In a world where liking the wrong tweet or singing the wrong kind of music makes you a white supremacist, everyone is a white supremacist and no one is a white supremacist. I’m guessing that many Canadian voters—including an increasing number of people who call themselves progressives—are simply tired of being hectored, both by politicians and by the smug media allies who’ve stoked progressive social panic on their behalf. As the above-described controversies show, even Indigenous artists, lifelong feminists and mainstream LGBT activists now are subject to mobbing if their views diverge one iota from the most avante-garde postures.

If Jason Kenney does become Alberta premier, progressive politicians likely will greet his win the same way they responded to Doug Ford’s victory in Ontario, Donald Trump in the United States and the Brexit result in the UK—with the claim that this only proves that dark forces are on the ascent, and that progressives must be ever more vigilant, and ever more aggressive in responding to ideological deviations.

In other words: a perfect recipe for driving yet more supporters away.

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