The Insider's Outsider

This past weekend, Harvard Professor Michael Ignatieff failed in his bid to become the next leader of the federal Liberal Party of Canada. The Liberal Party is sometimes referred to as Canada’s “natural governing party,” and according to wikipedia, every federal Liberal Party leader since 1896 has gone on to serve as Prime Minister. (Stephane Dion, the party’s new leader, may run against current Prime Minister Stephen Harper in a general election as early as spring 2007.) Mr. Ignatieff’s leadership run, and its failure, say a good deal about Canadians’ ambivalent sentiments toward their prodigal sons and daughters who try to return home after success abroad. It also says a good deal about the “in-group” culture of Canadian politics, and the Liberal Party in particular – something that Mr. Ignatieff knows about, has written about, and ought to have been wary of.

Every country has its democratic foibles – think of electoral boundary gerrymandering in the United States, for example – but one of Canada’s greatest ones is a certain tradition of “backroom” governance, within which elite groups cut deals with each other, on very important issues, without public input. The Liberal Party, naturally, knows all about this kind of operation. According to the Canadian media, Mr. Ignatieff was essentially hand-picked for the leadership run by a small group of Liberal Party powerbrokers, at a dinner party in North Toronto in 2004. (Here's the standard story.) The not-unreasonable idea behind Mr. Ignatieff's run was that his intellectual heft, international profile, and photogenic good looks could recapture some of the spark the Liberals knew under Pierre Elliott Trudeau. From the beginning, though, his campaign was marred by hubris and inexperience. Most obviously, there were the inexplicable gaffes surrounding Israel’s bombing of Qana, Lebanon last summer. (First, Mr. Ignatieff stated that he was “not losing sleep” over the civilian deaths. A few months later, in an interview on French-language Radio Canada, to an audience sometimes thought to be more anti-Israel than the rest of the country, he did an about-face and labeled the bombings “war crimes.” Specifically, what he said was “I was a professor of human rights and I am also a professor of the laws of war, and what happened in Qana was a war crime and I should have said that.”)

Ultimately, though, what killed Mr. Ignatieff’s leadership bid was that none of the other leadership candidates threw their support his way at the Liberal Leadership Convention, as successive rounds of voting winnowed the candidates down. They did not do so, in large part, because of the impression that Mr. Ignatieff had been parachuted into a star leadership role by a group of Liberal Party insiders behind closed doors. Mr. Ignatieff’s leadership run triggered Canadian frustration at the persistence and seeming impenetrability of the country’s “insider” political power structure – and few convention delegates who were not actually at the famous dinner party in North Toronto wanted anything to do with the candidate those diners chose.

The irony is that Mr. Ignatieff wrote a book in 2000 called The Rights Revolution, which discussed the ways in which Canadian “executive federalism” had broken down in the 1990s in the face of more and more persistent demands for democratic inclusion by a broader range of interests. (This is my review of his book.) Speaking of national unity, Mr. Ignatieff colorfully suggested that the “high priests of federalism,” who for 125 years had “interpret[ed] the sacred texts and wave[d] the incense of rhetoric in the direction of the congregation,” had completely lost control of the “rituals of unity” by the time of the 1995 Quebec Referendum. Mr. Ignatieff should have realized, too, that the high priests of the natural governing party of Canada could no longer count on the obeisance of its members. They could, perhaps, even count on their rage.