Trudeaumania Redux: Like Father, Like Son?

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by Christo Aivalis

hLPImdRLess than two weeks ago, Justin Trudeau led a small parliamentary contingent from a distant third to majority government, overcoming an image of aloofness and style before substance. He stands poised to rule Canada for at least the next four years, carrying in the footsteps of his father Pierre, who stormed to victory nearly 50 years ago in a 1968 wave of Trudeaumania. Both father and son came about for similar reasons, namely that the public and punditry saw them as young, ambitious, and sexy arbiters of change. Indeed, both men have been sexualized in the media, sold as ‘pretty boys,’ after whom young women swoon.

While nearly every major news source has written comparative pieces of the two, I wish to focus on how both men, as per the Gramscian concept of passive revolution, were and are forces for the status quo. We can do this by examining their common motivations for reform, as well as the effect such manoeuvers had on the left and the New Democratic Party.

During their ascents to power, both Justin and Pierre emphasized the desire for new ideas and motivations that characterized the swinging 1960s and the post-crisis 2010s. In this desire to project change, Justin and Pierre combine both positive and negative rationales and language in their calls for reform.

In Justin’s case, his victory speech included the claim that “in Canada, better is always possible,” while speeches earlier this year to business crowds took a cautionary tone.

Justin would defend his calls for tax increases by saying that “if we don’t deliver fairness, Canadians will eventually entertain more radical options…The status quo is not sustainable. Change is coming, my friends. What we need is leadership and a plan to shape that change responsibly, for the benefit of all.” The implication is that reform must be on terms ultimately amenable to the capitalist class, but must also prevent more extreme alternatives from being accepted by the electorate. In other words, give the people something, or they might take much, much more.

Like Justin, Pierre had his own progressive moment, where he called for a “Just Society” which would “move forward towards a more equal division of our abundance, towards better relations between the various groups which make up our ethnic mosaic, towards a more vital democratic system and towards more certain guarantees of our fundamental freedom.”[1]

Pierre’s pragmatic motivations for reform were deeply rooted, going as far back as the 1950s. In those times, he defended labour unions and workers because he feared that the capitalist class’ greed was leaving them unequipped “to prevent the current industrial revolution from turning into a violent one.” Trudeau supported labour reform as a way to placate workers, and to save capital from itself. Similarly, Trudeau would note that “when too many people understand there is nothing inevitable about their filthy slums, their inadequate food, or their degrading conditions of work…when order cannot be reconciled with justice and when hatred has stifled love, the time for negotiations is over.” Ultimately, Trudeau argued that without piecemeal reform, the economically disenfranchised would refuse to uphold the liberal and capitalist values essential to a free society.[2]

Many have argued that in the 2015 election, the rapid decline of the NDP, along with Trudeau’s rise, had to do with the latter’s ability to encroach upon traditional NDP policies and voter bases. In this view, what turned this election was that the Liberals tacked to the left to capture progressive voters ceded by the NDP’s cautious centrism. Such a tactic by Justin and the Liberals can be related to Pierre’s era, where he himself worried about an emergent NDP making the Liberals obsolete:

And…we said look, we’re not going to be pushed into a conservative position and then see the NDP come up as the Labo[u]r Party came up in Britain, and the Liberals will disappear and there will be a right and a left, as was happening in some provinces…The Liberals were withering away everywhere, and we were determined that it wouldn’t happen to us. And the danger to the Liberal Party as a party of the establishment and an old historic party, was that we would be too right-wing; so we made sure that it was on the left.[3]

These fears were echoed by Liberals in private correspondence. A 1982 report for cabinet argued that the Liberals could stave off the NDP via a process of “pre-emption,” whereby they adopted the NDP’s moderate policies to starve it of “its sensible, middle of the road programmes.” This would leave NDPers with either radical positions unpalatable to the electorate, or slightly altered Liberal initiatives—giving little reason to elect them in the first place.[4]

Trudeau understood and saw how left-leaning legislation ate away at the NDP platform. He knew “the social-democratic faction of the Opposition was forced to support” many of his policies, for they were so similar to their own. Such views would be corroborated by contemporary NDPers like MP Max Saltsman noting “a situation of having the Liberals adopt what ostensibly is part our policy, but which is in fact none of it—a situation it would be hard to talk ourselves out of.”[5]

Today’s NDP, via Justin’s tactics, was in a similar position, where the Liberals staked out ground on NDP turf, leaving Mulcair with few options besides competing with Trudeau at the centre, or veering left. He chose the former, and was trounced at the polls.

But this isn’t to say, in my view, that the Liberals have become a new progressive force. Rather, I feel Justin and Pierre’s efforts are examples of how centre-right voices can convince the electorate, if only until the polls close, that they are voices for change.

Only time will tell, but if history is an indicator, one might fear Justin breaking progressive promises and mindsets as the Liberals did in the 1990s, or as his father did in the 1970s and 1980s. As philosopher and former NDP candidate (against Pierre in 1965) Charles Taylor has noted, Trudeaumania carries the unmistakable aroma of change, but such change is the sort amenable to right-leaning figures like Conrad Black in a way the NDP has never been:

The Trudeau image offered all the excitement of change…while offering the reassurance…that no serious challenge would be offered to the way things are. The act looked terrific, but everyone knew that no crockery was going to be broken. Everyone could relax and indulge the yearning for change without arousing the fear of novelty.

Christo Aivalis is an Adjunct Professor of History at Queen’s University. His SSHRC-funded dissertation examined Pierre Elliott Trudeau’s relationship with organized labour and the CCF-NDP, and is being published by UBC Press. His work has appeared in the Canadian Historical Review, Labour/le Travail, Canadian Dimension, and Rankandfile.ca. He is a dedicated activist within the NDP, various labour bodies, and municipal governance, while also being a media contributor to multiple sources including the Toronto Star and CBC.

 [1] PET Fonds, 013, Vol. 30, file 7, “Statement by the Prime Minister on the Just Society.”

[2] PET Fonds, 02, Vol. 15, file 6, “Strikers Exploit Leisure Hours with Union Economics Course,” Rouyn-Noranda Press, 8 October 1953; PET Fonds, 02, Vol. 22, file 9, Trudeau, “Une Lettre Sur la Politique,” Le Devoir, 18 September 1954; Trudeau, ‘‘Economic Rights,’’ in Against the Current, 137; Trudeau quoted in Max and Monique Nemni, Trudeau Transformed, 98-9, 154-5; PET Fonds, 011, Vol. 63, file 1, “Address by the Prime Minister to a Convocation Ceremony,” 13 May 1968.

[3] PET Fonds, 03, Vol. 23, file 4, “Interview between Mr. Trudeau and Mr. Graham,” 29 April 1992.

[4] PET Fonds, 07, Vol. 578, file 280216.1-1, Jerry Grafstein to Trudeau, 11 June 1976; PET Fonds, 019, Vol. 42, file 2, David Kwavnick, “An Assessment of the Electoral Base and Prospects of the New Democratic Party,” 18 January 1982.

[5] Trudeau, Memoirs, 164-6; CCF-NDP Fonds, Vol. 571, file 7, Max Saltsman, “Some thoughts on Federal NDP Energy Policy.”

3 thoughts on “Trudeaumania Redux: Like Father, Like Son?

  1. Ed Dunsworth

    Hi Christo,

    Excellent piece, as always.

    2 things:

    1. I’m very wary of claims that any sort of Trudeaumania has occurred. 39.5% is not a “maniacal” proportion of the popular vote. I feel like the mania has mostly been driven, post-election, by a media attempting to give some broad meaning to the election results. This is obviously anecdotal, but as a person in the world I have also not gotten much of a Trudeaumania vibe. Where are the t-shirts and bumper stickers with an artistically rendered version of Justin’s face, accompanied with words like “hope” or “change”?
    2. Could Charles Taylor’s quote not be said with equal accuracy about the NDP? Did Alberta voters in the provincial election really fear broken crockery? At some point we need to stop talking about the NDP as containing any possibility for a left alternative. I’m not sure that we’re quite at that point, but we’re getting awfully close. If we take the NDP platform at its word, would Conrad Black really have all that much to fear in an NDP government?

  2. Christo Aivalis

    Ed,

    Thanks for the questions:

    1. I would say that though the Mania was different, it was there, even if only from portions from the media. I really feel that there was a push of this Trudeau on emotional and ‘destined’ grounds. Perhaps this Trudeaumania was less about Justin in particular, but in the Trudeau legacy. Still you make an excellent point in that is wasn’t the same manifestation as it was with Pierre or Barrack Obama.

    2. Pierre in ’68 did indeed get about 45% of the vote, and that was impressive, but was also running in a 4 party system, rather than a 5. He was also coming into the election as PM because he led a much stronger LPC. In fact, the 1965 Liberal result was stronger than Justin’s 2015 performance in percentage totals.

    I think we need to recognize that while the first Trudeau took the Liberals about 5% higher in ’68, Justin took his Liberals more than 20% points higher than in 2011, and more than 9% points higher than in 2008. Justin’s victory also stormed up during the election, while Pierre had a much more ‘coronation-like’ campaign. The latter indicates a sort of mania, but so, in my view, does the former.

    3. I actually agree with you in a lot of ways about the NDP, but sometimes perception doesn’t match reality. And while the average voter in Alberta may well have trusted the NDP as a responsible and moderate party, the capitalists of the province took some unprecedented steps as it was clear they were to win, including holding a major press conference asking people to not vote NDP, or they would be forced to curtail investment and charitable donations.

    So while you may be very well right that Black had little for fear from the NDP, I genuinely feel he and other Canadian elites don’t believe so. They still see the Liberals as beneficial for what the Liberals do best–acting as the steam valve for pent-up leftist and popular frustrations with Canada’s capitalist and liberal order. They don’t trust the NDP for such as task.

  3. Nikola

    Dear Mr. Aivalis,

    I’d like to contact you regarding a possible speaking engagement in Toronto. Is there an email address you could be reached at?

    Kind regards,

    Nikola

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