Preston Manning: Beyond Left and Right

Preston Manning: Beyond Left and Right
Party leaders take part in the English-language debate ahead of the 2021 federal election, in Gatineau, Que., on Sept. 9, 2021. (The Canadian Press/Justin Tang)
Preston Manning

Much of the current commentary on North American politics is still couched—too much so—within the old left-right-centre conceptualization of political ideology and parties.

The Biden Democrats in the United States and the Trudeau Liberals in Canada both denounce their principal opponents as “right-wing extremists.” Conservatives in both countries accuse their federal governments of “catering to the left” far too often. Political “moderates” in both counties claim to be representing an ever-shifting, ill-defined “centre” whose distinguishing feature is that it is “neither left nor right.” And political pundits of all stripes continue to overuse the terms of left, right, and centre despite their declining relevance.

Canadians, especially younger Canadians, can rightfully question why we insist on discussing 21st-century politics within an 18th-century conceptual framework. Why should we be conceptualizing contemporary politics within a framework derived from the seating arrangement in France’s 18th-century post-revolution assembly, where members of the land-owning aristocracy sat on the right and representatives of the working class and pro-revolutionary forces sat on the left?

Is there a more reasonable and relevant framework for conceptualizing and discussing contemporary North American politics? Yes, there is! And ironically it is a framework suggested by a Frenchman, Alexis de Tocqueville, in his famous book “Democracy in America.”

Although these words of De Tocqueville were written in 1840, they remain amazingly descriptive of the North American political landscape today:

“[T]he secret propensities that govern the factions of America, … (are) those two great divisions which have always existed in free communities … the object of the one is to limit and that of the other to extend the authority of the people. ... I affirm that aristocratic or democratic passions may easily be detected at the bottom of all parties, and that, although they escape a superficial observation, they are the main point and soul of every faction in the United States.”
A portrait of Alexis de Tocqueville by Théodore Chassériau, 1850. (Public domain)
A portrait of Alexis de Tocqueville by Théodore Chassériau, 1850. (Public domain)

And we might add, of every political faction in Canada also.

It is far more relevant today to categorize North American voters as “pro-establishment” or “anti-establishment” than it is to categorize them as left, right, or centrist—to separate the sheep from the goats by asking: Are you in favour of limiting or extending the influence of ordinary people in the political arena?

Today, the “aristocratic passion” resides politically, not so much in the old aristocracy of the wealthy but in an intellectual aristocracy that considers itself superior to the average voter, denounces bottom-up expression of political opinion at every opportunity, and seeks to limit rather than extend the authority of the people.

At the same time, the “democratic passion” is finding expression through a new breed of political leadership which draws its support from a growing segment of the electorate who feel increasingly disenfranchised by the political system and the elites who control its commanding heights. These voters resent having their opinions labelled as politically incorrect, their interests ignored or dismissed as illegitimate, and their political actions demeaned as misguided populism.

In Canada, we currently have a prime minister who typifies the modern political aristocrat: inclined to display his imagined intellectual superiority by lecturing the rabble at every opportunity and quite prepared to constrain “the authority of the people” whenever possible. But now, in the elevation of Pierre Poilievre to the leadership of the Conservative Party of Canada, we have an alternative leader arising from humble circumstances and inclined to trust rather than mistrust the rank and file of Canadians. In other words, a leader animated by the democratic rather than the aristocratic passion.

As a Canadian voter considering whom to vote for in the next federal election, which framework best describes your options—the old left-right-centre framework or the aristocratic/democratic framework? The champions of the aristocratic framework will of course tell you that expanding the authority of the people is dangerous and leads to extremism. But that charge is best answered in the words of Thomas Jefferson, one of the original framers of the U.S. Constitution, when he was asked near the end of his life where the ultimate political authority of a free society should be vested.

Jefferson replied: “I know no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves.” And anticipating the objections of the aristocratic elites, he added: “And if we think them (the people) not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion.”
Views expressed in this article are opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.
Preston Manning served as a member of the Canadian Parliament from 1993 to 2001, and as leader of the Opposition from 1997 to 2000. He founded two political parties: the Reform Party of Canada and the Canadian Reform Conservative Alliance. Both of these became the Official Opposition in Parliament and led to the creation of the Conservative Party of Canada, which formed the federal government from 2004-2015.
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