Political Communication in Canada

Political Communication in Canada

by

Howard Adelman

Brand Command: Canadian Politics and Democracy in the Age of Message Control [Brand] (Alex Marland) – continued:

Brand won the $50,000 2017 Canadian Donner Book Prize.

Any communications strategy will vary according to the material or information at hand, the approach to using that information, the media available for employing the data, and the logic and structures specifically correlated with that media. Thus, before we even do anything on a communications strategy, the content, approach, media available and its forms, must all be grasped. Taken together, the above will almost but not quite dictate the techniques available to be employed in a communications strategy, techniques which also must be identified, analyzed and understood. Once we understand the material and the media, our approach and techniques available, the utilization for its most efficacious impact must be assessed and then translated into strategies and tactics.

Our communications age is identifiable by a unique set of materials previously unavailable: mass data bases, public opinion research and market intelligence.  However, in politics only a small range of mass data is relevant. We have no use for mass spectral databases available through spectrometry that help astronomers identify planets which might support life. Nor are communication junkies interested in the mass collection of DNA material used to identify sources for organ transplants or to trace one’s ancestry. Nor, on a more human scale, and surprisingly, is there much interest in the mass data used to assess performance, a data base popularized in the baseball movie, Moneyball, which perhaps best made the pollster, Nathan Silver, a household name. In the field of electoral politics and governance, the focus is on human predispositions, preferences and priorities; the collection of mass data allows pollsters to mine this platinum.

It was rather surprising, then, when I could not find one reference to Nathan Silver in Brand or to Nathan’s own famous brand, Five Thirty Eight or 538. There are many discussions of public opinion research, the sampling of a cross section of the population to measure the public’s views of issues, policies, parties and leaders. However, if you look up the long list of references used, there is no citation of The Signal and the Noise, Silver’s account of the techniques he developed and used, including mathematical algorithms, to very accurately predict the outcome of the American election in 2012, an election that was purportedly too close to call.

To adumbrate, there is no discussion of mathematical modelling as a technique for more accurately assessing how preferences and priorities of voters can be assessed to interpret their voting preferences. Silver proved that opinion surveys and focus groups were inadequate. If you do not seek out certain types of data in the mass data bases, or even try to develop those much deeper data bases, if you do not employ the more sophisticated techniques of mathematical analysis, then you may not be able to comprehend how Stephen Harper attempted to manipulate the public. Marland’s nostalgic approach will not likely reveal the shortcomings and superficiality of both his and Harper’s approach and their inherent limitations as well questionable results.

The market research, the quantitative and qualitative data, can include, in addition to polls, opinion surveys and focus groups, a wider spectrum from role playing to census data analysis. However, if a political party simply maps its political program onto this market intelligence to prioritize issues, the results may be shallow and misdirected. One of the shortcomings of Marland’s book is his failure to adopt a much more critical model that could also help explain Harper’s failures.

I think there is an explanation for this shortcoming. Alex Marland, like Stephen Harper, was never really interested in the role data has played and continues to play in the daily lives of citizens that allow those citizens to better understand, grasp and operate in the world. He, like Harper, was preoccupied with advertising, with a market and sales orientation, that is with manipulating the public to buy a specific brand in a crowded field. Advertising, as Marland acknowledges, is the effort to influence the opinion, choices and behaviour of the voting public. It is not an effort to understand those choices and help guide them for purposes of self-realization. Hence, the focus on market intelligence and the willingness and determination to use that market intelligence for sales purposes to stimulate emotional reactions rather than an effort to understand and identify public anxieties.

Marland in his book clearly understands the difference between a sales and market orientation (see p. 33), but as much as he wants to have the latter supersede the former, as long as the concerns of citizens are tabulated within a market frame, that is, where mass data is used to sell one’s party as best able to address issues of concern, then the goal will simply be developing pain relief and then advertising why Aleve is better than Tylenol. There will be no real effort to understand the underlying sources of that pain and the various available ways to address that pain. Responding to pain (or desire) is not the same as understanding its roots.

For Marland, the message is the media – the mass and new social media available to engage in marketing a political party. Mass media refers to traditional forms, such as newspapers, magazines, radio and TV, whereas social media refers to the digital media and internet-based applications where users as much as professionals create the content, as in Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube and Wikipedia. Marland subscribes to the Canadian school of communication analysis of Harold Innis, Donald Creighton and Marshall McLuhan who held that, “communications technology is more influential than its content.” (p. 51) Whether the issue was the fur trade, the St. Lawrence River (versus the Erie Canal) or modern mass print and then electronic followed by digital media, the nature of that media will shape not only how we communicate, but what is communicated.

Media in the digital age emphasizes speed, unlimited expansion, almost instant access, as well as an ephemeral quality. It is decentralized and purportedly lacks an authentic source of authority to adjudicate between and among contending interpretations. Hence, it is easily subject to manipulation and facilitates wide swings in voter response. However, when Marland quotes my friend Peter Russell, who pointed to the “emergence of political parties whose leaders employ the techniques of mass advertising to win and retain power,” (p. 52) he was really reciting what had been the case before the prominence of social media. The new social media allows communication to be far more targeted, to eschew advertising in favour of the development of images, scenes and actions that try to evade the sense of advertising as manipulation.

While Marland seems to grasp the critical differences between social and historic mass media, it is in terms of the latter that he frames his approach to the former.  Manipulation of voters rather than a dialogue among citizens of different political stripes is the emphasis when discussing narrowcasting and microtargeting, sound and image bites, and spin. Media logic is defined as the view that institutional actors change their behaviour in response to how journalists gather and report news, but Donald Trump, the master tweeter and traditional rabble-rouser in public rallies, seems to totally belie this presumption.

If we shift to the analysis of technique rather than material content, then branding and framing are perhaps the two most important. Marland, while not ignoring framing, emphasizes branding. “Framing,” he claims, “is narrow whereas branding is all-encompassing.” A brand is the result of the entirety of all framing. “Branding is addictive, it is circular and it is a seemingly unstoppable force.” Further, Marland argues that, “A branding lens is a good theoretical tool because it offers predictive power and an explanatory mechanism beyond left/right ideology.”  

However, I will start with framing and I trust it will become self-evident why I do so. Thus, building infrastructure can be framed in terms of higher taxes or critical long term investments. Marihuana use can be framed as a law and order or as a health and consumer enjoyment issue. The Conservative government initiated bills to increase penalties for drug distribution whereas the Liberals initiated steps to decriminalize the smoking of pot and regulate its growth and distribution.

In their attack ads, Conservatives accused Liberals of encouraging the sale of marihuana to children, whereas the Liberals denounced giving criminal records to individuals who were no danger to the public, especially when scientific evidence demonstrated that pot had health benefits, particularly in pain relief, and did not cause nearly the amount of harm of alcohol and tobacco, two legalized forms of drug sales for pleasure purposes. The Conservatives used public funds from Health Canada to advance their agenda while ignoring and even suppressing scientific input, much to the chagrin of Marland who deplores the use of public funds for partisan gain.

Moralizing, however much one might agree with it, is no substitute for in-depth analysis. Again, it is a surprise when reading Marland’s discussion of framing that there is no reference to the Berkeley linguist, the high priest of understanding political framing, George Lakoff, and his bestseller, Don’t Think of an Elephant. (His previous volume, Moral Politics, is a broader and more in-depth study.) It is noteworthy that, whereas Marland subordinated framing to branding as the overarching mode of synthesis, Lakoff insists that politicians, to be successful, must integrate their daily discussions on policy issues into an overall philosophy of governance in terms of fundamental principles that frame the debate. It is also noteworthy that Marland defends the priority of branding because of its predictive power, but it is George Lakoff who has the stellar reputation of predicting outcomes of presidential elections accurately.

Lakoff traced the rhetorical edge Republican presidential candidates take with respect to the underlying philosophical debate between paternalism and maternalism, between strict discipline versus nurturing in raising children. The former is associated with limited government and an emphasis on individual responsibility with priority given to defence, law and order and the responsibility of the head of a household for bringing an income into the family and ensuring prosperity. Poverty results from lack of initiative. Social welfare is counterproductive as it undermines self-reliance and fosters dependence. It was easy for Stephen Harper to marry this frame to a branding strategy based on discipline, control and micromanagement.

In contrast, a nurturing government aims at helping individuals maximize their potential while providing a safety blanket when life deals a damaging blow. Therefore, the stress is on providing equality of opportunity as well as a cushion. Since poll after poll indicates that the majority of Canadians favour the latter frame, that the latter serves their self-interest, why do electorates put paternalistic governments in power?

As Lakoff explains, it is because voters decide based more on framing an issue in terms of moral identity rather than self-interest. The Liberals (and the New Democrats) base their party platforms on serving the interests of the citizens of Canada. The Conservatives fight on a foundation of moral self-identity, really three contradictory identities, two of which are dominant: the tough, aggressive free enterpriser and the community conservative. There is also a peripheral moral superego stemming from a doctrine of moral virtues, which is where I suspect Marland is rooted.

The frame, the timing and the communication of that frame, not the discipline and control of delivering a message (the brand), helps determine outcomes. When Liberals or New Democrats or Democrats in the U.S. push only the issue of self-interest, they undermine a larger frame for liberalism. Success depends on enhancing that larger frame. Bernie Sanders understood that; Hilary Clinton and her campaign did not. Trudeau and his campaign understood that; Mulcair did not.

It is one thing to inverse the tension between framing and branding, between the general structure and the image or core message left with a citizen. It is another not to indicate that he is doing this in the face of the dominant lexicon. But the inversion does offer a clue to his position that stresses advertising, media management and manipulation versus a position that insists on the priority of establishing the basic principles upon which you stand. The brand should reflect principles instead of allowing the principles to exist as a by-product of an effort at branding.

Look at what Marland stresses: brand ambassadors rather than self-critical reflection, marketing, as if a political agenda was simply a shopping list in which political goods and services substituted for consumer ones. Very few consumer advertisers engage in distraction, defamation and attempts to de-brand the opposition or competition. Is consumer motivation an equivalent to voter mobilization? Why do we not call advertising partisan and why do we not label it as propaganda? Politics and a consumer culture occupy two different realms. We distinguish branding from framing, the consumer world from the political one, rather than melding them. When we make political reporting a form of infotainment and turn it into a realm of alt-facts and scandal mongering, often tied to pseudo-events, we pervert the field of politics.

While Marland is clearly aware of how branding works as well as how it was reflected in the Harper government, he seems to endorse sound and image bites as necessary outcomes of the need to retain mastery of the process through centralized control and the avoidance of tumult. The consequence of a politician who is great at simplifying and communicating his brand but lacks the discipline and the control elements in place to manage tumult, as can be seen if one compares the effort executed by the dry-as-dust Stephen Harper and the flamboyant mendacious narcissist, Donald Trump.

One cannot imagine Donald adopting a “Whole of Government” (WOG) approach to both governance and communicating a message, but, unlike Harper, Trump really runs a permanent political campaign. Marland seems to believe that permanent campaigning and control to ensure the communication stays on point are both outcomes as a result of prioritizing, but the Harper regime indicated that discipline and control could be one outcome and turning the project of governance into a permanent campaign could be another.

Top down centralized control may be necessary if you are going to turn politics into branding, but if politics is to be based on principles arrived at through reflection and debate, principles reflected in a common frame for a variety of approaches and outcomes that share only a family resemblance, then it may be preferable to work for a politics of dialogue and persuasion rather than a politics of top down messaging. With all of Marland’s proposals for fixing the system by, for example, separating government versus party branding (repaint the Liberal colours) and other distinctly side issues, his efforts of analysis of the communication strategies of the Harper government may be industrious and enormously detailed and documented, but given his own intellectual frame, he only delivers laboratory mice rather than significant policies for the political process.

Marland fails to show why the Harper style of governing is a necessary output of prioritizing branding, even if it is one possible outcome of the effort. Marland also cannot demonstrate how the analysis of the new media and new modes of communication necessitates a position prioritizing top-down versus bottom-up governance as was used in the Bernie Saunders campaign.

A volume which appears on the surface to be a critique of the Harper regime in defence of democratic principles turns out to be an apologia arguing for tweaks to the inconsequential, such as getting the government to publish the costs of photo-ops or changing the political colours of the Liberal Party. It is not inevitable that message consistency will be interpreted in the same monochromatic manner as was offered by Harper, or that, in politics, control will always emerge supreme as distinct from consent to pursue common purposes. If Marland wants to congratulate himself for seeing past and through personalities to uncover the structure and nature of contemporary communications beneath it, then he will have to be far more self-critical in understanding the connection between his conclusions and the intellectual frame he adopted in approaching the subject matter. Like Paul Rand in the United States, he is a principled nineteenth century liberal, one who imposes an ideology on contemporary communications, just as Harper imposed “tight communications discipline to ensure conformity.”

 

With the help of Alex Zisman

Pierre Trudeau, Fidel Castro and Donald Trump

Pierre Trudeau, Fidel Castro and Donald Trump

by

Howard Adelman

I planned this morning to return to writing about the economy and Trump’s possible or likely contribution to a new economic financial collapse. However, one of the many responses to my blog on Justin Trudeau and Fidel Castro asked the following question:

“What would be the basis of the ‘love affair’ between the liberal PE Trudeau and the Marxist Castro? Their Jesuit upbringing? And that, literally in the shadow of the U.S. (for both) and during the cold war? This still sounds to me like defiance vis-à-vis the U.S. (but perhaps out of filial loyalty, rather than current calculations). Can you explain?”

I will add some partial notes to an attempted preliminary answer and explanation, in part because I want to draw out some comparisons between Pierre Trudeau and Donald Trump as a kind of introduction to the economic analysis I will undertake in my next blog. The comparison might seem very odd since Donald Trump, though he admires Putin, has only disdain for Fidel Castro and his brother, even though, when it was forbidden to do so, The Donald, in 1998 illegally under American law at the time, sent a team of his to investigate building a hotel and gambling casino in Havana, and this was well before this possibility of foreign investment in Cuba first opened up. His company spent $68,000 in Cuba illegally without the requisite U.S. treasury license.

Further, this offers me a chance to fill in some blanks. I had been intrigued about why Fidel Castro, a close personal friend of Pierre Trudeau and an honorary pallbearer at the latter’s funeral, had not granted Justin Trudeau an audience when Justin visited just a week or so earlier and when, just the day before, Castro had granted a visit to the leader of Vietnam. There had to be some serious explanation given Fidel Castro’s personal history with the Trudeau family. The explanation: Fidel was even sicker than anyone knew, for it is virtually impossible to imagine that he would not have wanted to see Justin given his personal connection to Justin’s father. After all, Fidel’s brother, Raúl, went out of the way to welcome Justin personally. Instead of a boring and very formal state dinner, Raúl took Justin and Sophie Grégoire Trudeau out to the Restaurante Café del Oriente in old Havana. It helped that Sophie was fluent in Spanish.

To demonstrate the close family connection, Justin Trudeau also met with three of Fidel’s sons where, as a present from the Cuban people and from the Castro family, Justin received a photo album of his father’s historic 1976 visit to Cuba and the adulation of the Cuban people for him. Remember, on that trip, Pierre had come with his wife, Margaret and his youngest son, Michel who was just under four months of age at the time. It was Michel who would years later die in an avalanche in British Columbia. The Justin Cuban visit had all kinds of nostalgia for Justin as it had in subsequent visits for his father. It just happened that many Cubans mistakenly thought that Justin was the grown-up Michel.

Professor Wright of Trent University (author of Three Nights in Havana) claimed that, “I had an impression that Justin was borrowing from his family’s history with Cuba to shore up the bilateral relationship.” I myself believe that the effort to pay “homage” to Pierre’s relationship with Cuba was not in service to advancing business interests, but was the real goal of the visit. Reinforcing family and the family connection came first. As Mark Entwistle, a former Canadian ambassador to and an expert on Cuba, opined, the Trudeau family connection with the Castros is a matter of deep affection, but it will have no effect on advancing Canadian business interests which will have to succeed or fail on their own merits.

This strength in the family connection, within and between families, is the first comparison I want to make between Pierre Elliot Trudeau and Donald Trump. Despite all the business that each of Pierre’s and Donald’s business and public lives required, both were very devoted to their children. Donald Trump remains so. And their children adored their own fathers in return as Pierre had respected his own father and as Donald Trump had admired his own father. Parent to child links were and are very important in both families. Justin replied to Tom Mulcair’s criticisms of his father, “Let me say very clearly, I’m incredibly proud to be Pierre Elliott Trudeau’s son. “And I’m incredibly lucky to be raised with those Liberal values” According to Justin, Pierre taught his sons “to believe in ourselves, to stand up for ourselves, to know ourselves and to accept responsibility for ourselves.” Donald used very similar words in describing what his father, Fred, had taught him. All the children in the respective families were devastated at the death of their fathers. Pierre’s father died when he was only fifteen, and he was admittedly wracked by that death. In addition, both fathers bequeathed an inheritance on their sons, though Pierre’s was much less than Donald Trump’s and Justin’s was even smaller again (1.4 million). But the Trudeau boys were taught to be frugal while Donald Trump acquired a taste for ostentation.

Justin’s father’s Jesuit upbringing partially explains his lifelong attraction to dogmatic and absolutist rulers. Among those, Castro was his most important friend. Pierre was the first NATO leader after the Cuban revolution to visit Cuba. Pierre’s huge portrait hung at Havana airport when he arrived and a quarter million Cubans, who had been given the day off, packed the streets of Havana waving Canadian flags as the entourage made its way through the city. Unlike virtually all Central and South American countries, Canada along with Mexico were the only countries in North and South America not to break off relations with Cuba.

The largest source of tourists to Cuba comes from Canada, and that has always been the case through thick and thin. Currently Canada sends 100,000 tourists per year to Cuba but American tourism will soon overwhelm the Canadian contingent. But the big difference came when Pierre Elliot Trudeau was elected Prime Minister of Canada. He and Castro formed a lasting bond. Pierre often took his family for holidays in Cuba. Pierre used to travel privately to Cuba and see Castro when there was no government business to do there. At home, Justin was passed this adoration of the Cuban leader by his father. After Pierre retired from politics, he continued to visit Cuba as a private citizen. Castro was not the only dictator Pierre felt he could do business with. His last international initiative was a visit to Nicolae Ceaușescu in Romania, the same dictator who was executed by his own people upon the overthrow of communism. Pierre in one of his flakiest efforts wanted to try to persuade Nicolae to partner with him in a joint effort to eliminate nuclear armaments totally.

Pierre first was elected Prime Minister of Canada on a wave of Trudeaumania. Donald Trump has been elected president of the United States, almost fifty years later, on a wave of Trumpomania, this time coming from the right reinforced by the so-called Reagan democrats. In the Canadian case, personality and not just populism – Diefenbaker had also been a quasi-populist – dominated the political scene in Canada. This is what just took place in America. In the case of Trudeau, an intellectual who was deeply devoted to ideas and abstract theory, reason presumably trumped passion. But not in the public arena. There, like Trump today, Trudeau made an instinctual connection with Canadians. They either loved or hated him. And Trudeau thrived in that public applause while, always at the same time demonstrating he was his own man and could flout convention. Does that not seem similar to Donald Trump?

John English, Pierre Trudeau’s biographer, also his admirer, credited Trudeau with holding Canada together against the forces of provincialism, separatism and disintegration. He made bilingualism official and it is impossible today to imagine that we would ever again have a leader who was not fluent in both official languages. But Trudeau overreached as was his want. The vision of most Canadians being bilingual or even being able to receive goods and services in French in British Columbia was a pipedream foisted on Canadians. Trudeau did repatriate the constitution, but only by alienating Quebec and without Quebec’s formal assent. Further, Canada in transforming itself into a country with a written constitution as its base also lost the flexibility of its informal foundations though, admittedly at a gain in clarity. As we move into the future, we will have to see whether the British historical foundations or the American legal foundations are more adaptable to the changing demands on a polity.

Trudeau also introduced the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, but was the Prime Minister who most abused those rights and freedoms by imposing the War Measures Act in the face of two kidnappings and one murder by extremist Quebec separatists in the 1970 October Crisis. When Tom Mulcair in Parliament reminded Justin Trudeau as Prime Minister what his father had done, Justin became defensive and effusive in praise of his father just as he had launched his political career in 2000 with his emotional and very effective eulogy to his father at his father’s funeral. But in 1970, over five hundred Canadians were rounded up and imprisoned without charge or even the protection of Habeus Corpus. I could imagine Donald Trump doing the same. It is ironic, but perhaps not so ironic, that the terrorist killers were released from jail earlier provided that they accepted exile in Cuba.

In this regard, Pierre Trudeau is best known for his intellectual defence of federalism and the advantage of giving provinces semi-sovereign powers in areas that were closest to the desires and needs of the populace. But Pierre was a very strong defender of centralized power. Donald Trump is as well. He will not cede control of federal lands to states and believes that states cannot be trusted with administering federal lands. Their behaviour would be unpredictable. Pierre Trudeau alienated the West, and specifically Alberta by imposing federal control over the ownership and extraction of fossil fuels in his National Energy Policy (NEP). Donald Trump also sees energy policy as central to his administration and backs the continuation of drilling and fracking, including on federal lands, and rejects the efforts of some liberal states to promote renewable energy. Ironically, even in medical care, even with respect to Obamacare that he officially opposes, he would remove state barriers on insurance companies which, ironically, will allow a more centralized and unified medical care insurance system to emerge.

But isn’t Donald Trump an American firster – make America great again – and a hyper nationalist with isolationist propensities, while Pierre Trudeau was a cosmopolitan in support of free trade? I will go into that later when I deal with economic and foreign policy. But domestically, in terms of federalism, Donald Trump is a believer in a very strong central government. After security, the next two priorities for a Trump government will be education and health care, traditionally areas of state control. Even Pierre Trudeau never went that far in centralizing power in Ottawa. It will be ironic that the candidate most critical of the swamp in Washington will be the president that will most extend the reach of, and hence, bureaucracy in, the central government. On the issue of a federal state that shares sovereign powers with sub-states like provinces and American states, Trump will move even more power to Washington, perhaps more than any other president prior to his rule.

But Trudeau was a social democrat. Trump is a conservative Republican. But is he really? He is a populist primarily and will use the state to reinforce and strengthen his image in the eyes of the people. He may not pour his energies into a national energy policy – good for renewables – but he may very well throw money about on infrastructure, education and, ironically, even health. For though he denounced Obamacare as a bad system, he never denounced having a system that took care of the health of all Americans. A federal model of using money and spending to strengthen federal jurisdiction will make previous aims of former presidents seem totally modest in comparison.

Here again, Pierre was anti-nationalist and contended that nationalism evokes emotion and particularist obsessions, whereas cosmopolitanism builds its allegiances on a state serving and stressing the cohesion among all. For Trump, the all will be all Americans who follow and support him and thus a strong nationalism and a strong central government will be reinforcing. As with Pierre Trudeau, the rights of aboriginal nations will suffer under Donald Trump’s rule.

Pierre Trudeau undermined rather than advanced Canadian stability and its strength and presence in the world. While he ran as an intellectual federalist, he did more than any predecessor to undermine the federal nature of the Canadian polity. For Trudeau set a precedent for reducing the French role in the political life in Canada, not strengthening it. In terms of cultural presence, it was strengthened, but not in terms of political presence. Trump too will resist the tendency to advance multiculturalism through a political agenda and, especially resist the growth of the Hispanic community in the United States. After all, within two decades, America will have a larger percentage of Hispanics than Canada has of francophones. French may have been advanced under Trudeau but not the French political role. Culture is not politics. Trump too will more deliberately resist the growth of Hispanic culture as a political force. Of course, he will do the same for African Americans because he is a believer in the fact that an American is an American, full stop.

In foreign policy, Pierre Trudeau shuttled among many capitals to try to enhance Canada’s role and presence in the world continually shrank while he was Prime Minister even as he was cheered as a leader around the world in a way that Donald Trump will never be. I mentioned his flaky visit to Nicolae Ceaușescu in Romania not long before his downfall to enlist his aid in dismantling the system of mutual deterrence using nuclear weapons. Pierre Trudeau was convinced that the Americans, and its president, were leading the world forward to nuclear destruction. But it was Ronald Reagan, openly despised by Trudeau, who made the treaty with the Soviets to get rid of 90% of the tools of massive nuclear destruction. Further, and more significantly in light of the current controversy over Justin’s eulogy to Fidel Castro. The latter was both the instigator for bringing nuclear arms into Cuba and believed that even if Cuba engaged in a nuclear war over Cuba, Cubans would gladly be incinerated to help destroy capitalism.

“First of all, Cuba would have burned in the fires of war. Without a doubt the Cuban people would have fought courageously but, also without a doubt, the Cuban people would have perished heroically. We struggle against imperialism, not in order to die, but to draw on all of our potential, to lose as little as possible, and later to win more, so as to be a victor and make communism triumph.” As Che Guevara put it, we are “a people prepared to suffer nuclear immolation so that its ashes may serve as a foundation for new societies. When an agreement was reached by which the atomic missiles were removed, without asking our people, we were not relieved or thankful for the truce; instead we denounced the move with our own voice.”

One major difference between Trudeau and Trump is that while the Soviet leaders ignored or at best patronized Pierre Trudeau, Donald Trump will be feted by the Russians. In the history of Canadian foreign relations, Pierre Trudeau was exemplary in undermining our commitments to our allies and we have never recovered from the political and defense devastation that he bequeathed to Canadians. NATO was weakened under Trudeau. So was the international Organization for Tariffs and Trade. Donald Trump will follow in Pierre’s footsteps in this regard and pay little attention to the consequences of his policies on traditional alliances, though, unlike Pierre Trudeau, Donald Trump is likely to go on a spending spree on the military, an area on which Trudeau was a skinflint. But as Pierre Trudeau demonstrated in the past, Donald Trump in the future will demonstrate an extraordinary indifference, not only to authoritarianism, but to totalitarianism and its spread in the rest of the world.
Pierre Trudeau avoided military service in WWII. Donald Trump managed to evade the draft and military service in the United States. While Donald Trump will spend lavishly on defence, he will not use that strength to really challenge Russia and China in their areas of prime interest. The Ukraine recognizes it is being abandoned further to the maws of the Russian bear. The Baltic states fear it. Signals have already been sent to Japan and Korea that they will be more on their own and cannot rely on Pax America.

Perhaps the closest resemblance between Donald Trump and Pierre Trudeau is their disdain for journalists and the media. Donald’s is so fresh in our memory, we need hardly be reminded of it. But we should recall that when Pierre Trudeau left office and rode off into the sunset in his antique convertible Mercedes, he turned Richard Nixon’s words on their head. Nixon, when he lost his campaign for the presidency in 1960, told the press that he would no longer be around to be picked on. Pierre when he left office chuckled and said that the media would no longer have him around to beat up on them. Asked if he had any regrets, Pierre replied, “Yes. I regret that I won’t have you to kick around anymore.”

But it is on the economy that Pierre Trudeau and Donald Trump really resemble one another most. Pierre was and Donald Trump is an economic ignoramus. Donald Trump will inherit an economy that is well on the path to recovery from the 2007-08 financial collapse, even though the recovery remains halting and far from setting the U.S. on a solid financial foundation. That was the case in Canada in the early sixties. Canada was then an economic powerhouse. But in Canada in 1979, a year when both the Tory and the Liberal governments provided extraordinary initiative in bringing refugees to Canada, the foundations for the 1979 recession were set in motion as well as for the disaster of 1989-1994 that was the worst economic period in Canada since the Great Depression. Pierre Trudeau bore the major responsibility. He increased the Canadian debt from 1968 to 1984 to $157.2 billion, a 738.7% increase. He would not introduce the requisite taxes to pay for the government’s expenditures, which tripled. Canada went through the worst period of inflation in its history. Interest rates became sky high. In fact, by 1993, Canada was even flirting with defaulting on our debt. As in the United States, the middle class was left with greater burdens as their effective salaries stagnated. Brian Mulroney, with all his faults, but mainly the Chretien government with Paul Martin as finance minister, brought Canada back from the brink.

I suggest we can expect the same from Donald Trump and I will subsequently try to show why. But I want to add another note of comparison, this time applicable to both Pierre and Justin as well as Donald Trump. All gained power, in spite of being underrated as underdogs when they pursued the leadership of their own respective parties and then the leadership of the country. I end with one further remark. Pierre Elliot Trudeau at the rally in Cuba in 1976 that I referred to above, shouted out, “Viva Castro.” Justin in November 2016 was simply reiterating the sentiments of his father.

With the extraordinary help of Alex Zisman

Stephen Cohen Putin Apologist

Is Stephen Cohen a Putin Apologist?

by

Howard Adelman

 

My target today is not Vladimir Putin himself but those who act as voices for his position even though they are critical of both Putin and what he has done in Russia. My main target is the renowned American scholar on Russia, Stephen Cohen, but there are more modest and less bombastic Canadian versions such as Mark MacKinnon, senior international correspondent for The Globe and Mail who has been a bureau chief in Beijing, Moscow and the Middle East. MacKinnon has won the National Newspaper Award four times and is author of a 2007 study, The New Cold War Revolutions, Rigged Elections and Pipeline Politics in the Former Soviet Union. In Saturday’s Globe (8 March) he published a two-page spread entitled, “How the West Lost Putin” arguing that the bad blood between the West and Putin has been developing over the last fifteen years and has largely been the responsibility of the West which, over the years, never appreciated or offered any proper acknowledgement of Putin’s efforts to cooperate with the West.

Early on, Putin was torn between his KGB training and background and some attraction towards western democratic values expressed best in the early years when he was an aide to Anatoliy Sobchak, the reformist governor of St. Petersburg. He had expressed sympathy with George Bush after 9/11, shared intelligence and offered airspace for America’s war in Afghanistan, and even allowed the U.S. to create a no-fly zone over Libya. According to MacKinnon, he got bubkas (my expression, not his) in return and was gradually pushed into regarding the West as the enemy of Russia determined to hem Russia in, an interpretation that reinforced his view that the implosion of the USSR in 1991 was the greatest disaster to befall Russia.

However, my main concern is Stephen Cohen; I mention MacKinnon to indicate that Cohen is not alone in the position he adopts. In launching this criticism, I recognize that I am an amateur in contrast to the expertise of both Cohen and MacKinnon.

Several nights ago I watched and listened to Stephen Cohen on CNN and heard him describe two Ukraines: an eastern and southern Russian-oriented Ukraine and a western European-oriented Ukraine. He then went on to blame Obama specifically. He did not hold Putin responsible for the current crisis because, back in November, Obama, with the EU in tow, had “forced” the Viktor Yanukovych government to choose between Europe and Russia, playing an either/or game and not a both/and game. At the same time, Cohen criticised Obama and his predecessor for not paying sufficient attention to Russian sensitivities in the efforts to move NATO closer and closer to Russia’s borders and failing to understand that Russia had deep interests in the Ukraine and could not possibly tolerate a neighbour oriented against Russia. 

According to Cohen, “every informed observer knows—from Ukraine’s history, geography, languages, religions, culture, recent politics and opinion surveys—that the country is deeply divided as to whether it should join Europe or remain close politically and economically to Russia. [So far, no problem!] There is not one Ukraine or one ‘Ukrainian people’ but at least two, generally situated in its Western and Eastern regions.” Cohen repeats this claim over and over; it has become his mantra.  “Ukraine is splitting apart down the middle,” he repeats, “because Ukraine is not one country, contrary to what the American media, which speaks about the Ukraine and the Ukrainian people. Historically, ethnically, religiously, culturally, politically, economically, it’s two countries. One half wants to stay close to Russia; the other wants to go West.” 

After Cohen made his pitch on CNN, I heard a very articulate refutation of Stephen Cohen’s first point from a young protest leader in Kyiv, Katryna Krak, about whom I was unable to find out anything further, but she is, for Cohen, a priori, not a very informed observer for she refutes Cohen’s refrain about his “two Ukraines.” She conceded that Ukrainians were truly divided over policy in that some wanted a more pro-Russian policy and others wanted a more pro-European policy.  To her, Ukrainians were generally united in a) still being Ukrainian and b) wanting a democratic and honest government accountable and abiding by the rule of law. Indeed, the yearning for a democratic regime was a uniting force.  To describe Ukraine as consisting of two Ukraines was insulting to Ukrainians and blind to genuine fears they had of using this political difference to divide Ukraine politically. After all, the US is divided into red states and blue states, but this would be no justification for suggesting there are two different Americas and two different peoples inhabiting America, but only suggesting that there are different parts of America which tend to be differentially oriented politically. But they are all Americans.

In a recent article in The Nation, to which Stephen Cohen is a contributing editor and his wife an owner, entitled “Distorting Russia: How the American media misrepresent Putin, Sochi and Ukraine,” http://www.thenation.com/article/178344/distorting-russia#, he accused the American media of malpractice, “failing to provide essential facts and context” and refusing to print opposing opinions. (Not my experience – see MacKinnon above as an example.) He accused the American media of being as ideological as they were during the Cold War. The misrepresentation began with ignoring the looting of essential state assets in the early nineties in favour of a narrative that depicted Russia as undergoing a difficult transition from communism to democracy.  In doing so, the media supported the “armed destruction of a popularly elected Parliament and imposition of a ‘presidential’ Constitution, which dealt a crippling blow to democratization.”

Further, Cohen also repeated a claim he had made that the revolt in Kyiv was being controlled and orchestrated by fascist elements in Ukraine, a position Wolf Blitzer repeated only to be scolded vehemently by CNN’s Christiane Amanpour. Wolf Blitzer repeated a claim by Russia’s United Nations Ambassadoir Vitaly Churkin that Nazi sympathizers have taken power in Western Ukraine. Amanpour admonished Blitzer for repeating that charge. “You’ve got to be really careful putting that across as a fact,” Amanpour said. “Are you saying that the entire pro-European Ukrainians are anti-Semites? That’s what the Russians are saying and that’s what Professor Cohen is saying.” 

Is the whole revolt really controlled by anti-semitic fascists? Did the American media really support an “armed destruction of a popularly elected Parliament”, a position that MacKinnon also seems to endorse? Did the American media support the imposition of presidential constitution that undermined the process of democratization which abetted Putin’s choke-hold on the Russian polity? That is not what I recall, but I remain open to being convinced if the evidence is persuasive, particularly since I do not trust my memory at all. Unfortunately, Stephen Cohen levelled these sweeping accusations with little evidence. The media was also accused of supporting the war in Chechnya that gave rise to terrorism in Russia’s North Caucasus thus enabling Putin to rig his own re-election in 1996. According to Cohen, most media reports in America still “give the impression that Yeltsin was an ideal Russian leader”.

I had no idea the American media had such a powerful effect on domestic Russian politics! Since Cohen supplied no evidence, though he accused journalists of shameful unprofessional practices, inflammatory writing, and even malpractice for failing to provide essential facts and context (an accusation that Cohen in his writings allegedly went back to American anti-Red coverage at the time of the Russian revolution as documented by Walter Lippman and Charles Merz), I decided to do a quick and fairly arbitrary check. I would simply google key words and see what came up on the presumption that if Cohen was correct, most newspaper articles that came up would support his views.

I first typed in “1993 American media coverage of Russian economic privatization”. The first item that popped up was chapter one of Stephen Cohen’s own 2000 book, Failed Crusade: America and the Tragedy of Post Communist Russia that appeared in the New York Times apparently that year when Cohen levelled those charges in a book-length form, except in that chapter he went back to the Clinton years when he had to stand up single-handedly against the “Washington Consensus” and its crusade to convert Russia to a replica of American values in a condescending policy of American tutelage. I then recalled that it was true that America did adopt a policy of trying to teach the republics that broke away from the Soviet Union, including Russia itself, American democratic practices and the rule of law, the stability of political institutions and the values of free speech and democracy. I also noted how well they took in Hungary when I was there to help that country reform its refugee laws as well as in other former satellites such as Poland and the Baltic states.

However, as Cohen told the tale in 1990, that policy in Russia “crashed on the rock of reality”, Cohen’s reality that Russia was a very proud and great nation that resented such American chutzpah and, in turn, became more anti-American than it had been in the previous forty years that he had studied Russia. In turn, American investors, including his bête noir, George Soros, lost $80-100 billion in the 1998 crash, Soros’ Quantum Fund alone losing $2 billion. Why did this happen? Because, “according to a 1996 survey” Moscow correspondents reported on Moscow “through the prism of their own expectations and beliefs” resulting in a Manichaean and one-dimensional account as propounded by American officials in a tale told of the conflict between the liberal democratic economic and political reformers and “On the side of darkness was the always antireform horde of Communist, nationalist, and other political dragons ensconced in its malevolent parliamentary cave”. Yeltsin was the hero, “including Yeltsin’s designated successor, Vladimir Putin, a career KGB officer”.    

In telling of this massive one-sided tale, the support for his position, interesting enough, comes almost exclusively from the media itself, such as a 1999 study by two journalists that Chubais, one of the heroes of the so-called Washington consensus, had been “little more than a conduit for a corrupt regime”. Further, the Clinton administration and its media claque encouraged “Yeltsin’s unconstitutional shutdown of Russia’s Parliament and then cheering his armed assault on the elected body.” My own memory is that there had been a great deal of criticism of Yeltsin at the time and especially of the economic shock therapy in the transition from communism, criticism that, in particular, depicted the “unpaid wages and pensions, malnutrition, and decaying provinces”, but this may have been because I read the Canadian press or because my memory had been corrupted. Once again, it was an investigative reporter who, contrary to the Washington consensus revealed that, “The whole political struggle in Russia between 1992 and 1998 was between different groups trying to take control of state assets. It was not about democracy or market reforms.” It seems hard to prove a media consensus when it’s the media that offers the evidence of the criticism of that alleged consensus.

Robert Kaplan whose op-eds on the current crisis have appeared frequently, reviewed Stephen Cohen’s 2000 book. In that review, he began by focusing not on the errors of government officials, businessmen, academics and journalists, but on the difficulty in changing a country of 140 million people spread over seven time zones with seventy years of comprehensive totalitarianism following centuries of absolutism that “left an institutional and moral void”. This history, geography and demography when combined with the suddenness of the collapse made the problem of transformation “impossible to overcome”. However, then Kaplan departs from Cohen. “Cohen attacks people — including Richard Pipes and Zbigniew Brzezinski — who understood in the 1980’s, as he did not, that Soviet Communism could not be salvaged. He fails to emphasize that the Russians never implemented much of the advice of the very experts he attacks for losing Russia. And his own advice — that we should not have bombed Serbia or expanded NATO and that we should adopt instead the ‘collective approaches’ of the United Nations, all for the sake of courting Russia — amounts to capitulation, not engagement.”

But then Kaplan commends Cohen for recognizing that the shock therapy would never work. “According to Cohen, a people’s historical experience supersedes economic theory. Thus, as he explains, what worked for Poland — a small, ethnically homogeneous country exposed to the Enlightenment, with a rudimentary market infrastructure even before the collapse of the Berlin Wall — would not necessarily work for Russia. Cohen provides a stimulating counter-chronology to challenge the official Washington view of post-cold-war Russia as a string of qualified successes and disasters avoided, in which good democrats, led by former President Boris Yeltsin, have battled bad neo-communists, particularly Yevgeny Primakov, a former prime minister and foreign minister.”

Culture and history supersede economics. I, personally, could not agree more. On the other hand, culture and history do not quash economics and make change impossible. Within every culture can be found the elements of its own transformation. Cohen and Kaplan both point out that these were already present if they had not been blind-sided by the Chicago economic school, had trusted more in Mikhail Gorbachev’s belief in the rule of law and Primakov’s belief in the importance of institutional practices. Both of these Russian leaders opposed Yeltsin’s arnarchistic, bombastic propensities. As Kaplan concludes, “Cohen himself sounds somewhat like a missionary by ascribing so much importance to his own society’s impact on such a distant, vast and intractable country.”

In the next Google entry, Andrei Sheifer (a professor of economics at Harvard) and Daniel Treisman (Political Science, UCLA) in their study, “A Normal Country: Russia After Communism (Journal of Economic Perspectives 19:1, Winter, 151-174) write that Cohen’s viewpoint was the consensus, that the transformation in Russia from 1990 to 1999 had been a disastrous failure, particularly for the Russian people. The consensus depicts Russia not as a middle-income country but “as a collapsed and criminal state” a view supported by both left and right. President George Bush was a leading voice against this consensus when, in late 2003, he “praised President Putin’s efforts to make Russia into a ‘country in which democracy and freedom and the rule of law thrive’.”

Except, without the jingoism of George Bush, the two authors offer lots of evidence to conclude that, “We find a large gap between the common perception and the facts. After reviewing the evidence, the widespread image of Russia as a uniquely menacing disaster zone comes to seem like the reflection in a distorting mirror—the features are recognizable, but stretched and twisted out of all proportion. In fact, although Russia’s transition has been painful in many ways, and its economic and political systems remain far from perfect, the country has made remarkable economic and social progress. Russia’s remaining defects are typical of countries at its level of economic development. Both in 1990 and 2003, Russia was a middle-income country, with GDP per capita around $8,000 at purchasing power parity according to the UN International Comparison Project, a level comparable to that of Argentina in 1991 and Mexico in 1999. Countries in this income range have democracies that are rough around the edges, if they are democratic at all. Their governments suffer from corruption, and their press is almost never entirely free. Most also have high-income inequality, concentrated corporate ownership and turbulent macroeconomic performance. In all these regards, Russia is quite normal.” 

It appears that while the narrative was emerging as much more varied and nuanced, Cohen was still struck in the trope he had set down in 2000. Most commentators I read, whatever their many disagreements, do NOT ignore Russia having legitimate political and national interests as Cohen contends they do. They do object, however, to the means Putin resorts to express those interests or to any presumption that Russia’s interests a priori trump Ukraine’s national interests, especially to remain an independent and unified country oriented politically and economically west.

Finding logical consistency in Cohen’s argument is a challenge.  Cohen castigates Putin on the one hand but sympathizes with him on the other hand. When it comes to American thought processes, any complexity and nuance drops away.  Instead, he treats the media with a homogeneous, and wholly unsympathetic, portrait of a blind and one-sided industry while he repeatedly cites that same media to support his own views.  “Anyone relying on mainstream American media will not find there any of their origins or influences in Yeltsin’s Russia or in provocative US policies since the 1990s—only in the ‘autocrat’ Putin who, however authoritarian, in reality lacks such power. Nor is he credited with stabilizing a disintegrating nuclear-armed country, assisting US security pursuits from Afghanistan and Syria to Iran or even with granting amnesty, in December, to more than 1,000 jailed prisoners, including mothers of young children.” Sorry? Where else but in the media did I first find Cohen’s views expressed?  While I myself reflected many in giving credit to Putin re both Iran and the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons, Cohen goes far too far in giving credit to Putin for granting amnesty to the thousand jailed prisoners, many like the members of Russia’s Pussy Riot, two of whom are mothers, whose arrest and imprisonment he orchestrated and whom he allowed to be beaten up after their release by his thugs.  Shame on you for this alone Stephen Cohen!

Why can’t we acknowledge that Putin has performed some commendable international diplomacy yet still regard Putin as a “thug”? Why do we have to be as simpleminded as the industry he finds so reprehensible, the very industry that gives him so much air time?  

This is not the first time that Western observers have gotten twisted up over a Russian thug.  Even Putin’s critics do not deny that he enjoys widespread support of 60-65% in Russia. But Stalin was also once a great hero of both the West and of Russians. Nor do such critics, again including amateurs such as myself, believe that democrats will necessarily succeed Putin. We are not unaware that even more formidable ultra-nationalists are in the wings and they would be a lot worse for the Russian people and for the West than Putin. But does this require apologizing for Putin, accepting his faults as an inconvenience?

The fact is that Cohen also operates within a Manichaean framework, only for him the greatest evil doers always seem to be American. Jeffrey Sachs is one of his targets. Sachs went to advise the Russians on reforms in 1991 and thus was part of America’s zealous missionary crusade in Russia. But here is Sachs’s defence in 2012. “I advised on how Russia could emulate the successful transformations underway in Eastern Europe.  My work in Russia lasted from December 1991 to December 1993 (and I publicly announced my resignation January 1994). I stress these points because there is a long-standing narrative that says that I was out to help impose the “Washington Consensus,” a Milton-Friedman-style free-market economy.  This is patently false.  Yet it is repeated.  It should stop being repeated. There is another narrative that says that I was ruthlessly in favor of a market economy and uninterested in the rule of law, institutions, or social justice.  This is even more patently wrongheaded.  I have always regarded economic reform, institution building, and social justice to go hand in hand.  I have always fought corruption, and resigned from Russia in 1993 because I found corruption to be growing and out of control.  I have always paid attention to the plight of the poor, and looked for progressive measures to support macroeconomic objectives (e.g. the end of hyperinflation) in ways that give sustenance and support for the poor.  For 27 years, since the start of my work in Bolivia, I have been a consistent champion of debt relief for over-indebted low-and-middle-income countries, precisely to help these countries find the economic and fiscal space to support the poor and the investments needed to end poverty.”

Sachs was successful in Bolivia and in Poland but largely failed in Russia. To Cohen, the failure was because Sachs belonged to a Washington monolithic consensus.

Cohen mis-reports facts. I personally did some detailed investigations of the depth and breadth of anti-semitism and Cohen’s charge about “the proliferation of anti-Semitic slogans by a significant number of anti-Yanukovych protesters.” I concluded that there were certainly some, but they were a very minor part of the protest movement. I offered a sample of evidence in a previous blog.

Stephen Cohen may be a retired professor of Russian studies from New York University, but he is also a dogmatist, deliberately hypocritical, and a quasi-apologist for the same positions as Putin. He is as caught up in as Manichaean a framework as those he dismisses.  But in his view, the really evil-doers are the Americans. His expertise does not trump my amateurism; it is flawed by contradictory assertions, unsupported claims, indifference to nuance, and sweeping oversimplifications.

 

Appendix on the Nuland-Pyatt Tape

As another example of America-bashing and Putin apologetics, Cohen cites the taped 11 December 2013 conversation between Victoria Nuland, the State Department Assistant Secretary of State for Europe, and the US Ambassador in Kyiv, Geoffrey Pyatt, that proved that “high-level officials were plotting to ‘midwife’ a new, anti-Russian Ukrainian government by ousting or neutralizing its democratically elected president – that is, a coup.” (Mark MacKinnon also alluded to this evidence supporting Putin’s position.) The conversation was posted on YouTube. http://rt.com/news/nuland-phone-chat-ukraine-927/

President Viktor Yanukovich had offered to make opposition leader Arseniy Yatsenyuk [leader of the fatherland opposition parliamentary faction] the new prime minister and award the position of deputy prime minister to Vitaly Klitschko [leader of the opposition United Democratic Alliance Reform (UDAR) party and a former heavyweight boxer – see Anderson Cooper’s interview with him on CNN 360 Live from Kiev, 6 March]. In that taped conversation, Nuland said: “I don’t think that Klitschko should go into the government. I don’t think it is necessary. I don’t think it is a good idea.” Pyatt replied: “In terms of him not going into the government, just let him stay out and do his political homework.” “In terms of the process moving ahead, we want to keep the moderate democrats together.

It is clear that Nuland and Pyatt were NOT strategizing about how to make this come about. They were asserting their preferences and the reasons for them. This is what state department and foreign affairs officers do all over the world. There is no suggestion of how they could influence such an outcome let alone of any discussion of a coup, that is, an appropriation of power or a takeover. It is the opposite of a coup in two respects. It is advice on who should stay out of power to keep the democratic forces united. Second, it is advice  and an indication of what Americans would support and not pressure, let alone coercive pressure, to bring about such an outcome. Observers, or rather listeners, seem to be exercised, not only about the use of “Fuck you” in referring to the use of the UN versus the EU, but the allegation that such talk and presumably advice is interference in the domestic affairs of another country.

When America expressed its preference for Pearson versus Diefenbaker, when Netanyahu signalled his preference for Romney rather than Obama – and these were not just officials – that did NOT constitute interference, let alone a coup, though in almost all cases, it is usually imprudent and poor diplomacy if such opinions are made public. But certainly they are the norm. The conversation nowhere implies that the United States “has been secretly plotting with the opposition”. That does not mean they were not, but the evidence does not support such an interpretation.

As Nuland sees it, Ukrainian opposition leader Arseniy Yatsenyuk should be in charge of the new government and Klitschko would not get along with him. “It’s just not going to work,” was her opinion. This cannot be construed as the US acting as the midwife of the new government unless it could be shown that the US was offering financial incentives to different Ukrainian politicians to support the American’s beliefs. In any case, the Ukarainians clearly did not accept the American advice.