What the Case Against Stephen Harper Is Really About

Chris Wattie / Reuters
Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Now we’re getting somewhere.

A month ago, The New York Times posted an oped by a Canadian novelist, Stephen Marche, warning that the country’s prime minister, Stephen Harper, was waging a “war against science” in service of his larger purpose “to prevent democracy.”

I held this claim to scrutiny here at The Atlantic a few days later, and found it lacking, to put it mildly. The accusations against Harper presented by Marche and those who think like him ranged, I said, from the true but trivial (more formal manners at press conferences) to the overwrought verging on hysterical.

Here’s an especially outlandish version of the latter, postdating Marche’s article but endorsed by him in his Twitter feed: In late August, many media sources across Canada—including Canada’s state broadcaster, the CBC—lent credence to the claim that Harper was “targeting science” because the federal Department of Agriculture was digitizing farm research libraries and then recycling or pulping obsolete and redundant printed materials. This claim was magnified and publicized by left-of-center social media into a veritable Fahrenheit 451 bonfire of precious knowledge:

People have gone pretty far over the cliff when they can believe that an update to modern technology constitutes a war on science. The truth of the matter was less far-fetched and more squalid. Demand for materials-on-paper from the Lethbridge library had plunged by more than 80 percent over recent years. Digitization of the library threatened public-sector jobs. What was at issue here was not know-nothingism. It was unionized Luddism.

Pretty obviously, the Marche version of the argument has become an embarrassment even to its former proponents. So now we have a 2.0 release of the anti-Harper case, this time by a retired newsman and Canadian radio personality, Parker Donham.

What’s useful in the re-released version of the anti-Harper case is that it dispenses with Marche-style heavy breathing about Canada’s road to serfdom, and cuts right to the chase: Stephen Harper’s obstinate and perverse insistence on governing in ways not to the liking of Parker Donham.

The “ever lengthening list of grievances” that Donham presents involve central issues of how Canada should be governed. He wants a more activist approach to climate change, more resettlement of Syrian refugees in Canada, and an approach to domestic security more in line with the left-wing NDP than with the Conservative and Liberal Parties that together enacted the 2015 anti-terrorism act 183 votes to 96 in the House of Commons. He wants to see a less friendly attitude to the United States than Harper has expressed, more Canadian troops detailed to UN peacekeeping missions, and more frequent conferences with the provincial premiers. He wants fewer prisons, less development of fossil fuel resources, and a looser policy on voter ID.

Those are his views, he’s certainly entitled to them, and I expect he’ll cast his vote on October 19 accordingly. That’s democracy, and fair enough. What’s not so fair is the obdurate refusal to accept that democracy means that other people are equally entitled to their views—and, if they are numerous enough, to elect a government that represents their views in the same way that Donham believes himself entitled to be represented.

Atlantic readers may remember how in 2008 Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin was excoriated for rhetoric that seemed to divide “real Americans” (rural, religious, conservative) from other Americans (urban, secular, liberal). Parker Donham’s piece is an extended exercise in Palinism in reverse. There’s the real Canada—which Donham believes he’s speaking for—and then there’s an illegitimate Harper government and its “many offenses to the country’s long tradition of political and social liberalism.”

And with that, I think, the cat is out of the bag.

The indictment against Harper is not about democracy. It’s not about science. The “intense animosity” to which Donham confesses is the emotion of those who got used to seeing Canada run a certain way in most of the period since the mid-1960s. For nine years, Stephen Harper has run Canada a different way. That’s the unforgivable thing, and all the rest is just so much overhyped publicity.

It’s apt that Donham describes Harper’s differences from Canadian liberalism as “offenses.” The Gospeller wrote, “For it need be that offenses come, but woe to him by whom the offense cometh.” These latter day upholders of Canada’s liberal orthodoxy feel just the same way. ​