It was only in political theatres for 11 days, but “The Mooch,” an R-rated comedy starring the preening, inept Wall Street cockalorum Anthony Scaramucci as the White House communication director was pure box-office gold. As a follow-up to Sean Spicer, the original gabbler who was equally maladroit but somehow more likable—Spicey at least had the decency to look uncomfortable while arguing that Hitler didn’t use chemical weapons—The Mooch was one of those rare events where the sequel was superior to the original.
Politics as theatre has never been better. Politics as politics—an act of governance and of social policy—has never been worse.
This was on neon display during the collapse of Trump’s great political promise: the repeal and replacement of Obamacare, the Affordable Care Act. Even with the morass of the Russian investigation and his Boy Scout bloviating, Trump might have salvaged his diminishing Republican bona fides if he had done the one thing that has obsessed his party for so many years. He didn’t. A Republican president with a Republican House and Senate and still the great dealmaker couldn’t make a healthcare deal. Mar-a-Lago, we have a problem.
Why should Canadians care about this failure so much? America’s domestic politics is its business, not ours. Still, how politics is practiced in general and how expectations around social change are managed matters here too. With the shift in the political landscape in B.C., the uniting of the right in Alberta and the NDP leadership race snapping into focus, Canada is facing big political questions. Consequential natural resource projects like pipelines and LNG plants in the West and policies like a national price on carbon are suddenly very much in peril, and in some cases, like the Petronas cancellation of the $11.4-billion LNG plant near Prince Rupert, gone altogether. With that will go faith in political leadership and a rise in cynicism. But it doesn’t have to be like that.
Part of the issue has to do with understanding how political progress actually works. To a successful business person like Trump, progress is measured as the crow flies, finding the shortest distance between two points and getting there fast. That’s what the promise to “fix” Washington is all about. A political idealist of the left or right often has the same view. There can be no compromise. No side track.
The problem is, politics in a democracy doesn’t work like that. Political progress moves like a crab, not a crow. It appears inefficient, swerving right then left in an ungainly fashion, but ever so slowly, going forward. Progress means consultation, trade-offs, often making deep compromises to get things done. It is, to use the Trump phrase, the art of the deal.
Ironically, Trump has never understood this fundamental political dynamic. That’s why it was no surprise that after the health care debacle, he didn’t just avoid personal responsibility and turn on his fellow Republicans—that was predictable—he turned on the system itself. “Republican Senate must get rid of 60 vote NOW! It is killing R party, allows 8 Dems to control country,” he tweeted, citing the Senate rule that requires 60 votes to pass most major legislation.
To be fair, this threshold is a long standing dispute, but when a politician wants to quickly remake or exploit the system to expedite their political ends rather than learn to work with their opponents—like Stephen Harper’s use of prorogation in 2008 or the risible sham that was the Trudeau promise of election reform—it’s a democratic warning light. The rules protect the public from abuses of political leadership and guarantee that the opposition is more than just a symbolic position.
As the NDP chooses its own political leader, its fundamental attack on Justin Trudeau is that he is phoney progressive, at once championing action on climate change while green-lighting pipelines. Fair enough, but Trudeau’s plan has been that classic crab walk, getting Alberta to buy into his national carbon price in return for a pipeline. The NDP is struggling to maintain ideological purity federally while provincially, its governments in Alberta and B.C. are learning about the compromises of governance.
All opposition parties campaign like crows and govern like crabs. If it’s not inspiring, at least it’s democratic. The federal NDP under Jack Layton understood that, especially when he worked with Paul Martin to pass the budget in 2005. The current NDP leadership candidates have shown no signs they would do the same.
In 2010, the Brookings Institute’s Paul Light published a book called Government’s Greatest Achievements: From Civil Rights to Homeland Security, which examined 50 years of U.S. government legislation, from 1944 to 1999. As he wrote when he first published his survey in 2000, “Almost by definition the government’s greatest endeavours reflect a stunning level of bipartisan commitment, whether reflected in the minimum wage or the ongoing effort to contain communism. Great endeavours appear to require equally great consensus.”
That looks like an anachronism in present-day Trumpland, but here in Canada, where consequential debates about natural resources and the environment, Indigenous rights, NAFTA and democratic reform are ongoing, the circuitous route towards progress is still the only way to move.