The emergence of right wing populism—which I call postmodern conservatism—as a global political force has provoked a flurry of explanatory books (including two forthcoming by yours truly). These have ranged from the very good to the exceptionally provocative and have, of course, included the less than convincing. Stephen Harper’s book Right Here, Right Now: Politics and Leadership in the Age of Disruption falls somewhere in the middle of this pack. (For a more extensive introduction to its arguments, consult Harper’s interview with Ben Shapiro or the recent video he produced for Prager U.) Interestingly, the book follows the conversational tone set by these other media. Well-presented and often engaging, Right Here, Right Now offers some smart rejoinders to conservatives and liberals about the dangers of ignoring mass opinion. But the book is also often one sided, vague, and even evasive about how to deal with the larger issues.
Stephen Harper is no ordinary author writing on the subject of the political right. He was responsible for uniting Canada’s two major right-wing parties and became leader of the Conservative Party of Canada in 2004. In 2006, Harper led the new party to an initially modest electoral victory over the incumbent Liberal government, which had been in power since 1993. He continued to expand his support until the 2011 election, when the Conservative Party finally won a majority government. Harper’s tenure was wracked by its fair share of political scandals—including a constitutional crisis of legitimacy in late 2008—but also featured consistent economic growth and an emphasis on global trade deals. In 2015, after nearly a decade in power, the Conservatives were defeated by a resurgent Liberal Party led by Justin Trudeau. Since then, Harper has resigned as leader of the Conservative Party and set up a consulting firm which “helps its clients navigate global business risk.” These experiences both contribute to and undermine the analysis of the book. I myself did not vote for Harper at any point and was often critical of his philosophical positions and of many of the anti-democratic practices his government engaged in while in power. But nevertheless I find myself in agreement with some of the insights in this book. However, this only makes the book’s limitations all the more disappointing to me.
Stephen Harper is by all accounts an intelligent and erudite man. These qualities often shine through in his book, which is admirably well referenced and fairly broad in its intellectual horizons. Of course, despite having a Masters in Economics, Harper’s primary insights derive from his time as the political leader of a wealthy middle power. The book provides an atypical look at the rise of right-wing populism, from the viewpoint of someone who knows a great deal about the day-to-day workings of politics. But most of its practical references are to issues and historical facts which are probably only of interest to Canadians. In addition, it is written in a glossy manner that side steps many of the controversies and struggles Harper faced while in power. It would have been interesting to have learned something about Harper’s personal reflections or ideological struggles around some of the issues he engaged with. Such reflections might be edifying at a time when many conservatives are facing substantial ideological dilemmas. Of course, one would expect Harper to put a positive spin on his time in power. But this constant gloss also means that his writing lacks the philosophical depth of someone like Pierre Trudeau, the prime minister Harper spends a great deal of time criticizing.
The main argument of Right Here, Right Now is that populist uprisings emerged because political and business leaders in liberal democracies lost touch with the wishes of average citizenry. Interestingly, Harper observes that, though his book is largely supportive of conservatism, some of what he has to say is critical. The book is designed as “in a sense, a manual for conservative statecraft in a populist age.” Harper believes that only a practical and realistic conservatism is equipped to deal with the problems of the globalizing twenty-first century world:
I believe conservatives are uniquely positioned to advance an agenda that makes markets and globalization work better for everyone. Our respect for social institutions—namely the nation-state, community, faith, and family—is a big reason why this is so. But it is also because of conservatism’s focus on practical matters rooted in real-world experience. It is about seeing the world as it is rather than how we wish it to be.
This sounds a lot like an argument that the solution to global populism is restoring faith in a kind of ordered liberty approach to politics, in which one creates space for market interactions through minimal taxation and regulation, while simultaneously advancing a moderate moral agenda, which protects and entrenches the traditions and even—to invoke Edmund Burke—the prejudices of a given people. At points, Harper writes as though this is the position he wishes to endorse—perhaps not surprisingly, given his outlook. But, at other points, Harper changes course and makes the rather strange claim that the problem isn’t that conservatives have turned their backs on support for ordered liberty but that the major problem is lack of responsiveness to democratic pressure from below. In Harper’s words, in a democracy the voters are the customers and “the customer is always right.” At one point, he even claims that conservatism has always been inherently populist and that the consumer model of democratic legitimation is at the core of the right-wing outlook. As he puts it in a National Post article summarizing his position and previewing the book:
In a democratic system, the people are our customers. And, according to conservative market values, the customer is always right. Part of developing these alternatives involves challenging some preconceived ideas about populism. Populism is not entirely incompatible with markets, trade, globalization, and immigration. My own political career is proof.
These twin appeals—to a kind of ordered liberty conservatism and a democratic consumer model—create a strange tension in the book.
The bulk of Right Here, Right Now is taken up with an explanation of the emergence of right-wing populism and advice as to how conservatives can respond practically. Harper makes some very interesting observations. He points out that too many conservatives have been beholden to free market dogmas, which are antithetical to the fundamentally undogmatic outlook of conservatism. Globalization and automation have produced greater precarity in many industries, leading many to expect—rightly or wrongly—a lower standard of living than their parents. It has also resulted in many communities decaying, as jobs move overseas or are replaced by cheaper migrant labor and machines. This may not bother the cosmopolitan anywheres, who are capable of uprooting and adapting to the neoliberal economy, but produces profound, understandable anxieties on the part of the somewheres, who see their communities decline or transform unrecognizably. A realistic conservatism must be attentive to this, and be willing to eschew market dogmatism and use the state to intervene and provide a social safety net where necessary. Harper also observes that the problems with market dogmatism extend to the international arena as well—since many people think that trade is simply an unbridled good, although the reality is not so black and white. He argues that deals with manipulative countries like China may not be to the benefit of the average worker in the home country. As such, they should be rejected by conservatives keen to look after their constituents.
Harper then moves on to an extended defense of the nation state and of restrictions on immigration. He dismisses the claim that we are moving towards a post-national state, arguing that “not only are nationalism and the nation state far from dead, their relevance [is] not really in question.” Most of the people committed to a post-national world are anywheres, who stand to benefit from the end of borders, and who ignore the desires of the somewheres, who make up the bulk of the population, to maintain their national identity and traditions. Promoting a positive nationalism means adopting a shared sense of citizenship with enduring citizens, who recognize that their governments must put national interests over those of non-nationals or corporations, and champion a shared identity. This means that the purpose of immigration needs to be redefined. Harper is not opposed to immigration, but argues that any conservative immigration policy must be rooted in the “broader interests of our countries and their citizens.” This means not tolerating illegal immigration, and—more generally—not prioritizing the interests of non-citizens over those of nationals. It also means stressing that newcomers have a duty to integrate into the country, embrace national values and learn the language. Harper argues that such an approach to immigration will ensure that it remains broadly supported by the national population, while conserving the values and identity that attracted immigrants in the first place.
The book concludes on a somewhat odd note, defending the opportunities and challenges facing businesses in a populist epoch. This chapter contrasts glaringly with the earlier analysis, and reads more like a plug for Harper’s consultancy firm than anything else. There is a fair amount of discussion about public relations and communications, which is moderately interesting but doesn’t seem consistent with the more political analysis in the rest of the book. Right Here, Right Now is often very well written, but it would be much stronger and more interesting without the continuous drive to promote Stephen J. Harper in one form or another.
Harper’s book makes some interesting and welcome observations about the limitations of what we might call neoliberal twentieth-century forms of conservatism when dealing with twenty-first century problems. His discussion of the problems with market dogmatism is welcome, and grounded in a number of helpful examples drawn from his tenure as prime minister. Moreover, his argument that cosmopolitans of all sorts have underestimated the attachments of somewheres to concepts like the nation state is well taken. While we have good moral reasons to want to move away from the nation state as a form of political organization, not least because it remains such an abstract ideal, there is no doubt that rumors of its demise have been seriously exaggerated. Many people remain highly attached to the nation state ideal: both for emotional reasons and because they feel that the national governments with which they are affiliated are their best or only means to realize their interests and concerns. This is something both cosmopolitan conservatives and progressives such as myself need to heed. But the book also has several problems. I will focus here on two. (I’ll set aside, for now, the more complex problem of how we should frame moral obligations to non-citizens, such as immigrants and refugees, which I have discussed elsewhere).
The first problem with Right Here, Right Now is the vagueness and non-committal nature of Harper’s diagnoses and solutions, especially in his treatment of markets and their dynamics. Harper observes that there are points at which conservatives should endorse government intervention, in order to ameliorate the worst effects of globalization and automation on vulnerable populations, but he is frustratingly non-specific as to when and how much government intervention is advisable. Harper might protest that conservatism is not about abstract distributive principles, but common sense realism. But that is an appeal to intuition at best, or to the authority of someone with expertise in public expectations at worst. For instance, the last several decades have seen rollbacks in the welfare state in many countries. Was that a mistake? Should we return to the status quo of the 1950s, when federal taxes on the wealthiest were far higher, and use those funds to establish robust safety nets? Would Harper support granting greater powers to international institutions to regulate global finance and eliminate tax shelters? Can the nation state actually avoid neoliberalization without establishing such strong international institutions, given the competitive pressures pure capitalist globalization puts on states and corporations? The problem with unilateralism becomes obvious when one recognizes that Harper’s own efforts to prevent job losses through financials bailouts to GM and other automotive industries ultimately proved only a temporary fix. The clearest guidance Harper gives on any of these questions is agonistic, rather than constructive: apparently a line is crossed if one embraces the social-democratic proposals of left-wing populists like Bernie Sanders (though why that would be a problem if left-wing populism is what the customers choose is an issue never addressed). One finds very few constructive answers in Right Here, Right Now, and more than a few platitudes jazzed up by merely semantic appeals to common sense, realism and the needs of the citizenry.
The second major problem with Right Here, Right Now is its inconsistent approach to democracy and populism. At points, Harper claims that conservatism has always been populist because, according to conservative market values, the customer is always right. However, the history of conservatism has definitely not been one of support for greater democracy. At best, the consumer model of conservatism proposed by Harper sounds a great deal like the majoritarian utilitarianism of Bentham and other reformers: aka majority rule to secure the greatest happiness for the greatest number. This kind of majoritarianism was ridiculed throughout the nineteenth and mid twentieth centuries, by conservatives who saw the utility minded commodification of traditions and values as a step towards nihilistic materialism. A conservatism which conserves only until the customer wants something new isn’t a very principled position.
This points to a deeper difficulty. Harper is unwilling to contemplate the substantial barriers to democratic participation which persist in many Western countries, including those countries in the Anglosphere—Canada, the US and the UK—where, by design or the emergence of spontaneous order, there are many checks to the unadulterated expression of the democratic will. One of the most obvious is the various electoral systems, such as the first past the post system for electing representatives, which concentrates power in the hands of a few political parties, while marginalizing others. These features have consequences in the US, where the electoral design of the Senate enables smaller and often more conservative states to wield as much power as those with more than ten times their population. Or in Canada, where—despite the fact that more than 60% of voters cast their ballots for centrist or left-wing parties—a majority Conservative government was in power for four years. If the customer is always right, these electoral systems pose barriers to knowing what the majority what they want and giving it to them. There may be good reasons to have such checks and balances on the expression of democratic will, as many conservatives have argued for centuries. But these are all predicated on the belief that the citizenry are not simply customers, and that there are good reasons why they should not always get their way. I agree that we should be more attentive to the democratic will, and that the failure to do so has contributed to the rise of populists. But doing so sincerely would mean undertaking considerable reforms to engage the population more regularly: cutting back on the concentration of power in a few big parties, encouraging coalition building in representative polities, implementing electoral reform and so on. Otherwise, the people Harper wants government to listen to aren’t the general population, but only those willing to integrate into his understanding of what the nation and its values should be.
[…] about liberal democracy as a society where citizens are the customers, and the customers are always right. Indeed, it became so prominent that many accepted Margaret Thatcher’s arrogant dictum that […]
“Harper changes course and makes the rather strange claim that the problem isn’t that conservatives have turned their backs on support for ordered liberty but that the major problem is lack of responsiveness to democratic pressure from below.” Strange claim? One must live in a very high ivory tower indeed not to be aware that government has not paid attention to the needs of ordinary Americans for three decades or so. Back when the Democrats used to be pro-union and anti-illegal immigration (because cheap labor harms the working class). NAFTA was a disaster for us. Putting China in the WTO was an even greater disaster. Chinese were selling furniture at retail for cheaper than the cost of production in the Carolinas. Did you know they used to be a major center of furniture production, up until about 2003? I bet not. For the new, globally minded progressives, the mere well-being… Read more »
“In a democratic system, the people are our customers.” Therein is the failing of government and the confusion of the people who demand ever more from government, inventing rights that includes forcing others to provide for you. No country is a true democracy, and most are like the US where voting is simply to select representatives. It is fine that politicians represent the common good, but even that should represent the country’s constitution and laws, not wants of the majority (aka tyranny of the majority). If the people are customers, then politicians owe those people something in return rather than their focus on improving the fair playing field for its people (closer to a referee or umpire than the fans at a sporting event). If people are the customer, then politicians see no issue with accepting payment for services, aka, corruption. And what sort of “customer” is forced to pay… Read more »
“but he is frustratingly non-specific as to when and how much government intervention is advisable”
Of course, because every situation is different. All he can do is establish the general principle.