Brian Mulroney and the failure of Canadian conservatism in the 1980s (Part Two)
By Mark Wegierski
Had he wanted to take a different course, Mulroney would have had to have found a proper way of "handling" the media. During his two terms, instead of haggling over petty or ungermane issues, Mulroney could have charted a new course for Canada, establishing a new "National Policy", setting a new agenda, and emerged perhaps as one of Canada's greatest Prime Ministers, "the saviour of his country". Mulroney's combination of a lack of a systematic, principled conservative philosophy, along with his elements of visceral "small l-liberalism", meant that he failed to understand the nature of the mass media in modern society. The Canadian media of the 1980s did not exist to put on "Brian-and-Mila shows", but was generally adversarial and obstructionist to the core.
It could be said that the best course for any serious politician to follow when dealing with the media is to carry out what he or she thinks are the best policies regardless of media reaction; appeal to the people over the heads of the media; and find ways of short-circuiting the media information monopoly. Mulroney should have gone into office knowing that the media would be against him from the very beginning, recognized this fact, and sought to have found ways of working around it. His attempts to curry favour with the media were politically unsound and unrealistic. Mulroney should have realized that the media does not represent the general opinions of "the people", but rather of a handful of newspaper editors and broadcasting heads, who may be as mistaken and fallible as anyone else. Mulroney remained unaware (or pretended to remain unaware) of these fundamental political realities.
Faced with such a weak (towards them) opponent, the media lunged in with gusto to wreak maximum havoc upon Mulroney's government. It is a cardinal law of politics that vacuums of power will always be filled. (According to Marx's theories, this is the so-called "correlation of forces".) As the media, or any other social group, presses hard in a direction dictated by its own value-systems, this pressure can be held to reasonable limits only by a strong and significant counter-pressure, generated by the government, or other social groups. When a society remains unresistant to and largely unaware of these strong pressures, these pressures only intensify and grow more acute. Thus a state of "equilibrium" between social forces is quite rare -- either one side or the other will strive for victory. But such a victory is usually marked not by the cessation of the struggle, but by the desire to make the triumph as full and complete as possible. Thus, Mulroney, by refusing to ascertain that many in the media were his real opponents, and trying to curry favour with them, opened up the way for the complete rout of his position, in 1993, if not 1988.
In fact, Brian Mulroney's policies were virtually indistinguishable from those of the Liberals, and most of his government's "crises" were over personal, rather than serious policy issues. It is one thing to drop to 23% popularity because of the bold, new, unpopular initiatives one has taken, but quite another to do so on the basis of petty graft and a "do-nothing" policy. There is often nothing better than stating one's position strongly, and sticking to one's guns, as Ronald Reagan’s two-term triumph has shown. He proved to be one of the most successful democratic politicians of the Twentieth Century.
According to a poll taken in July 1987 about possible voting preferences in a federal election, the NDP had the support of 41% of decided voters; the Liberals, 35%; and the PCs, 23%. (31% of voters declared themselves undecided.) It was obviously because of the media (in particular, the CBC), that the puny formal Opposition of 40 Liberal and 30 NDP MPs, were able to present such a continuous and effective challenge to a numerically overwhelming majority government.
Given the enormous power of the media ("one thousand repetitions make one truth"), and Mulroney's lack of real political apprehension, and of a real ethos with which to arm and defend himself, it could be argued that Mulroney's government was headed towards doom.
Mulroney also did not realize (or probably, preferred to ignore) the extent to which the power of the government is today used to extract tax-money from the social mainstream, and direct it to the causes, groups, and programs of the social peripheries. Mulroney did not seem to realize that every dollar he gave to such individuals and groups was a dollar given to his ideological enemies, who were exerting maximum efforts to sweep him from power, and utterly defeat the PC party in general, and "small-c conservatism" in particular.
For all his supposed "Machiavellianism", it could be argued that Mulroney misunderstood what "power" really is. Power is not an inert thing, an end in itself, but rather a means to other ends. Power is the ability to effect the social and physical environment -- to strengthen, or introduce changes to, people's behaviour-patterns and attitudes -- using a wide range of coercive, utilitarian, and normative instrumentalities. Presumably, those effects one wishes to induce and introduce are those in accord with one's own value-systems and beliefs.
Mulroney's political problems emerged in the fact that he had no clear and coherent value-system, apart from the belief in pure self-aggrandizement and "power-in-itself", as well as a left-liberal sentiment and instinct more appropriate to the Liberals and NDP. (As on the capital punishment issue where, according to polls, over 80% of Canadians were at that time in favour of the death penalty. It is an open secret that Mulroney arm-twisted his Quebec MPs and generally did his best to undermine the parliamentary vote taken at that time, in regard to restoring capital punishment.)
To be continued.
Mark Wegierski is a Canadian writer and historical researcher.