The news, when we get around to it

I’m still digesting this extraordinary piece by New Yorker writer George Packer about what he believes is the terminal crumbling of the conservative coalition that has dominated U.S. politics for most of my lifetime. As prognosis it’s arguable but at least plausible. As diagnosis it’s fantastic — the first third of the piece, on what Pat Buchanan and Dick Nixon were up to, is a tale told a thousand times but still full of lessons for students of politics. And as a metaphor for what Patrick Muttart, Stephen Harper and a few others have been up to, it is invaluable, and helps explain why events like this one deserve more attention than they sometimes get. I’ll share a few more thoughts after the jump, but first I want to complain about why you almost certainly haven’t had a chance to read Packer’s article in print yet.

In New York and most large U.S. cities, Packer’s article and the entire rest of that issue of the New Yorker has been on newsstands for six days and will come down tomorrow, to be replaced by the next issue. That’s the case with most weekly magazines, which come out on Monday. (Maclean‘s comes out on Thursdays lately, Time and The Economist on Fridays, but New York, Newsweek and a bunch of others are Monday weeklies.)

In Canada when I left for France last year, the same was true: magazines were hitting the stands in Ottawa, Montreal and most other large cities on the same day as in Manhattan. It’s one of the perks of living in a large civilized country. Or so I used to think, because when I got back home this spring, I was floored to discover that almost all large U.S. weeklies are now getting to Ottawa, not on the day they’re published; not three days later, so the Mondays would be sharing space with the Thursdays (i.e., Maclean’s); nor even a week after publication date… but a week and three days after their U.S. street date. So if you don’t like reading Packer’s article online, you’re going to have to either fly to Manhattan tonight or wait until Thursday, ten days after it was published, for it to get onto magazine shelves in Ottawa.

Blame these guys. Jimmy Pattison’s News Group is, my local retailer tells me, responding to the general collapse in sales of print magazines by not working so hard to get the product to market. It used to be so hard to get a magazine to you on the day it was published. So now they’re gonna take 10 days to get a weekly magazine to you. At least that’s the situation in Ottawa. I’d be obliged if frequent magazine buyers in other cities would use the comment section to fill me in on the situation in your town.

As an employee of a magazine that has lately deployed significant resources to improve its historically very spotty distribution coast-to-coast, I’m delighted that a magazine distributor is so eager to kneecap so much of my competition. As a consumer, I’m less thrilled. As a backseat driver, I’m baffled: if the consumer base for your product is declining, why would you want to alienate buyers with radically deteriorating service? When I arrived at The Gazette in 1989, that newspaper’s reader base had been fleeing down the 401 for years. The response from circulation was to build the hungriest, fastest-responding, most customer-oriented reader sales department in Quebec. Perhaps it was a naive response. Anyway, thanks to The News Group for driving so many readers of U.S. weeklies to the internet and to the Canadian alternative. I guess.

Anyway. Back to Packer. One reason I’m not sure his analysis is directly translatable to the Canadian scene is that our federal politics has been dominated by the major left-leaning party, not the major right-leaning party, for the past 40 years. So Harper’s game is new and relatively fresh here, and simple fatigue is less of an obstacle to conservative Canadian strategists than it is to conservative American strategists. So the Buchanan-Nixon experiment is, at this late date, more germane here (I’m only guessing, frankly, but this feels right to me) than it is in the U.S. From Packer’s story:

“’What we talked about, basically, [Buchanan says,] was shearing off huge segments of
F.D.R.’s New Deal coalition, which L.B.J. had held together: Northern
Catholic ethnics and Southern Protestant conservatives…’ Buchanan grew up in Washington, D.C., among the first group—men like his father, an accountant and a father of
nine, who had supported Roosevelt but also revered Joseph McCarthy. The
Southerners were the kind of men whom Nixon whipped into a frenzy one
night in the fall of 1966, at the Wade Hampton Hotel, in Columbia,
South Carolina. …
“In order to seize the Presidency in 1968, Nixon had to live down his
history of nasty politicking, and he ran that year as a uniter. But his
Administration adopted an undercover strategy for building a Republican
majority, working to create the impression that there were two
Americas: the quiet, ordinary, patriotic, religious, law-abiding Many,
and the noisy, élitist, amoral, disorderly, condescending Few…

“It was Nixon’s particular political genius to rouse simultaneously the contempt of the bien-pensants and the admiration of those who felt the sting of that contempt in their own lives… Buchanan urged Nixon to enlist his Vice-President, Spiro Agnew, in a
battle against the press. In November, Nixon sent Agnew—despised as
dull-witted by the media—on the road, where he denounced “this small
and unelected élite” of editors, anchormen, and analysts… When Agnew finished his
diatribe, [one White House aide] said two words: ‘Positive polarization.'”

Does this not sound like what Harper is up to, right down to the fights with the press gallery? Is it not the sort of story the bien-pensants will simply miss because they won’t even know where to look? And is Harper not ensured at least relative success — not necessarily a parliamentary majority, but a continuation of plurality and cowed Liberal opposition, which is functionally all but identical to a majority — as long as Conservatives are the only party that thinks in terms of “shearing off huge segments” of people who used to vote for the other team but might be persuaded to change sides?

Up near the top of this post I linked to a story about Harper attending a ceremony for tradespeople and apprentices in Sarnia. My home town is a swing riding, not the purest bellwether in Canada but pretty close: it tends to return Liberals when Liberals are in government and Conservatives when Conservatives are. And in 1993, a roomful of skilled young tradespeople in Sarnia would have been Chrétien Liberals.

What changed? A Liberal party that does not even think that’s an interesting question will not get those voters back.

UPDATE: At first glance (and it’s only a glance), basically Harper and Muttart seem to have been about three years ahead of the philosophy of this book, which is mentioned in Packer’s piece. And, yes, I do regard an endorsement by Bill Kristol as rather unfortunate. Of course, it’s entirely possible Kristol meant to endorse another book and got confused. But I digress. My point today, if I have one at all, is that any analysis that either (a) blindly endorses whatever the guy wearing the “Conservative” team jersey says or does or (b) writes off half the country’s politics as “right wing” and unworthy of serious consideration will miss most of what’s been interesting in Canadian politics in the last five years.

UPPERDATE: Christmas just came early for fans of political strategy: Packer delivers a .pdf of the 1971 Buchanan memo on dividing the Democrats that he mentions in his piece. In my book, which I have been so good about not mentioning before now, I point out that Muttart’s models for the 2006 campaign were Nixon ’68, Reagan ’80, Thatcher ‘Whenever she got elected (1979? brain freeze) and John Howard ’96. So if Muttart hasn’t already read the memo here, he’s about to. So is Jason Kenney.

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