The middle way

Tom Preston, a WSU political psychologist, was on The National the other night talking about what the deal is with Stephen Harper. Here’s my transcript of what he said (video is available here):

High complexity people are the people that see the shades of grey; they differentiate a lot in their environment. Less complex people tend to see the world in more absolute terms, more black and white terms. And the upshot of this for leaders is it affects how they set up their advisory systems and it set ups how they use information; so less complex leaders, like Harper, who don’t really have much diversity among their advisers, they tend to be very rigid, ideologically; they tend to surround themselves with people who have similar views; they don’t have–in other words, they just don’t have their antennae up. Leaders like this tend to not recognize some of the potholes, some of the dangers that are lurking ahead because they’re just so focused on what they think is the reality.

Although there are lots of good reasons to be skeptical about the utility of “personality profiles” like high and low complexity, I think it’s safe to assume that Preston’s assertion about Harper’s personality is based not so much on a definition of low complexity people as it is on a career spent observing the personalities of American politicians and how their decisions relate to patterns of personality traits. Harper’s demonstration of what Jim Travers called “a default of extreme partisanship” is characteristic of his tendency toward ideological rigidity–his tendency, in other words, to focus his energy turning discussions back to the issue he wants to discuss rather than considering a variety of options and opinions and picking the most utilitarian one. His constant regression to partisan politics, even outside of the context of an election, is a pertinent reminder of this tendency. It’s been fairly clear over the past two weeks that Harper’s number one priority is not doing what’s best for the Canadian taxpayer, as he repeatedly claims it is, but rather doing whatever he possibly can to stay in office for as long as possible.

In light of his tendency to wear partisan blinders, I’m about to argue that Stephen Harper has no one’s interests in mind but his own. A lot of people were surprised to hear about his announcement yesterday of his intention to appoint 18 people to the senate, despite his adamant desire to reform the senate into an elected body. Rex Murphy aptly expressed what a lot of people must have been thinking:

In the greatest financial chaos since the 30s, with a recession, jobs being lost, companies going bust, is stabilizing the Conservative Party of Canada over Christmas – by the addition of 18 well-connected buddies to the finest lounge in the country – the number one priority of the Prime Minister? […] Loading the patronage train while the Salvation Army is still ringing bells outside the nation’s stores is not going to charm the public, or convince it that Harper has finally learned his lesson.

Harper’s announcement about the senate was the latest in a long series of partisan decisions that have subordinated the recession on Harper’s list of priorities. First, during the election campaign, he repeated that the country was doing fine and there was no need to take any action, so that he wouldn’t be seen admitting that he might need to run a deficit despite claiming vehemently earlier in the year that he would never do so. Second, shortly after he was elected, he moved to take away the ability of the opposition parties to prepare for an election by cutting their public funding. Third, he decided to shut down parliament rather than face defeat in a confidence vote, which may have otherwise given opposition the opportunity to oust him from office by forming a coalition. Then, fourth, he decided to appoint 18 conservatives to the senate, despite the fact that he won’t even be able to get a Conservative majority in the senate until 2011. And he still hasn’t taken any directed action at addressing the financial crisis.

The interesting thread that ties all these things together in support of my thesis is that his approval ratings are still very high, probably as a result of the opposition parties playing he-said-she-said in the background rather than coming up with any stately, leader-like plans to create a viable alternative to the Conservatives. Considering Harper’s track record over the past couple of weeks, it appears that he is using the ineptness of the opposition parties as an opportunity to fortify his party’s power in the government, because as long as the opposition parties keep dancing around the maypole, so to speak, he doesn’t have to worry for the time being about losing power in a confidence vote or losing votes to the opposition by ignoring the recession.

Doing “what’s right for the taxpayer,” to use his words, would be a lot harder than hoarding his Conservative acorns at this point in time because it would take away valuable resources from his partisan activities. Perhaps John Ralston Saul said it best:

In Buddhism there is a phrase—the middle way—which has always fascinated Westerners dissatisfied with the direction our society has taken. On closer examination that middle way turns out to be extremely arduous.

Obviously the middle way–or any amount of nonpartisanship or cooperation for that matter–is too complex for Harper to handle.

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