Friday, December 10, 2010

Canadian political science: MIA?

You can read some typical fare today on essentially the same old topics. Or, consider this very useful and thought-provoking read on the current state of our politics and a lot of what might be going on with the progressive side of the debate: Canadian Political Science: Missing in Action? by Sylvia Bashevkin.

Bashevkin contrasts the absence of progressive political science voices on the current Canadian scene with the abundance of conservative ones, pointing out the investments that are being made by conservatives in "foundations, think tanks, conferences, media outlets and so on to promote a particular point of view, and to train like-minded folks to sing with impact from the conservative hymnal." That's just one minor but salient offering from the piece. 

She also suggests the absence of the progressive political science part of the spectrum in the public realm (or not enough of it, at least) is hurting the Canadian political debate at the moment:
To demonstrate the extent to which progressive political science is absent in contemporary Canada, let’s pursue three brief counterfactual thought experiments that imagine what public debate would look like if this part of the discipline were present, which in turn permits us to understand why it is weak or entirely absent.

First, if the concepts of power, representation, justice, equality, citizenship and human rights figured more prominently in public debate, then we would have at our fingertips an analytically rigorous set of ideas that both reveal and explain the uneven distribution of influence and resources that undermines democracy at this time. Taking transformative action to rebuild our political fabric would follow from each of those starting points. Yet all six themes have lost traction relative to the totemic markers of our time, notably competitiveness, productivity and economic growth.

Second, with the latter three desiderata depriving the former six of oxygen, it is not surprising that we have to enter the realm of fantasy to imagine a second scenario: reforming the “post-crisis” international economic system in ways that would enhance the well-being of citizens. (I place the phrase post-crisis in quotation marks because the strain on global markets, alongside pressures the world credit collapse and its various knock-on effects have imposed on the legitimacy of democratic governments, arguably continues.) As things stand, discussions of how to move forward usually elevate the regulatory preferences of large financial institutions above all else, leaving little room for the fundamental point that liberal states and markets are ideally tools for improving the lives of human beings.

Third, if the House of Commons operated as a representative chamber that communicated voters’ voices to elected MPs, then the leader of our Official Opposition would not have had to travel roughly 40,000 kilometres this summer to discover that Canadians are worried about the fate of democracy. The same earnest, concerned people who came out to meet Michael Ignatieff from coast to coast to coast would have channelled their views to their local representatives, and then those perspectives would have found their way into party deliberations and parliamentary debates involving all sides of the House.
There is much more to digest from the piece that deserves a full read which I am not doing justice here. She really is saying that there is much that is missing on the progressive side of the spectrum in terms of resources and in terms of meeting conservatives in the present day debate which is skewed to the right.

That skewed debate gives us a climate in which the Nortel disabled workers get the shaft with little public outcry. That skewed debate gives us a climate in which the false choice between the economy and the environment is offered to us and the economy prevails. (My examples, not hers.)

In other words, her piece is not just about the responsibility of political scientists to contribute, it's also about a larger political climate in Canada with multiple ailments, particularly on the progressive side of the spectrum. Arguably, there are bigger undercurrents at play that dwarf who is the leader of any of our political parties at the moment.