Binders full of enemies

Of all the criticisms lodged against the current Conservative government in Canada, its penchant for identifying enemies is one of the most striking. The broad claim is that instead of understanding their foes simply as mere opponents or rivals, the Conservatives tend to define and treat them as categorical enemies. This is not a new critique; a number of publications and individuals have made this point (you can find examples of this charge here and here and here).

In terms of specific examples of this tendency, there are many to choose from. Internal enemies include critics of online surveillance, who are maligned as supporters of child pornography; environmentalists, who are smeared as “radical” operatives of “foreign” interests; government stakeholders, who are categorized and treated as either “friend” or “enemy”; and opposing parliamentarians, who are accused of being traitors engaged in plotting a “kind of coup d’état.”

The Conservatives are not short on external enemies either. Government rhetoric reminds us of the swath of enemies that pose an existential threat to Canada, such as Iran (“the world’s most serious threat to international peace and security”); Russia (a modern equivalent of Hitler’s Third Reich); and international communism (a metaphysical “evil” with seamless links to Nazism and terrorism).

Again, none of this is particularly newsworthy – many media outlets, editorials and bloggers have identified and decried this tendency. But much of this criticism ignores a crucial aspect of democratic politics that is imperiled by this tendency: legitimacy.

*     *     *

Carl Schmitt was a political theorist. He was also a Nazi. I am not sure which of the two associations he cleaved to more passionately.

Schmitt argued that enmity was foundational for politics and the state itself. From his perspective, the identification of an enemy provides the social cohesion that makes the very existence of the state possible. Therefore, it is the raison d’être of a political leader to define the enemies of the state. And, crucially, if a leader were for some reason reluctant or unable to identify and attack the enemy, others within the state who were willing would rise up and seize power for themselves.

To be clear, Schmitt wasn’t just describing his ideas in a detached and analytically neutral manner. For him, this wasn’t only “the way things are;” it was also “the way things ought to be.” He identified enemy-based politics as a normative good. He applauded it.

From this perspective, a leader’s willingness and initiative to identify and destroy enemies does more than simply grant him power; it also grants him legitimacy. Think about that. In this approach, a leader’s legitimacy derives from his willingness and ability to define and crush enemies.

*     *     *

Before I go any further, I should be absolutely clear about something: I am NOT saying the Conservatives are Nazis. That would be a ridiculous and offensive assertion. I find opponents of the Conservative government frequently adopt a Manichean rhetoric that is itself massively problematic. It is not my intention to follow in their footsteps here.

Rather, my point is to argue that the Conservatives seem to cling to the Schmittian understanding of politics. Like Thatcher and McCarthy, and like Reagan and Bush Jr., their default understanding of the political landscape is one littered with enemies.

This bleak and harrowing view of the world around us has important implications for our political culture. This perspective has a corrosive impact on politics. It removes the possibility of compromise, and it leads to cynicism and disengagement among the citizenry. Even more crucially, however, this approach to politics redefines the nature and wellspring of legitimacy. The basis of a leader’s claim to govern drifts away from standard notions of democratic mandates and effective stewardship. In this hollowing-out of democracy, the leader’s legitimacy derives increasingly from the zealotry and rigidity with which he defines his opponents. In this profoundly illiberal world, responding to threats becomes a substitute for responding to the electorate.

This transformation in how we understand legitimacy, and the broader shift in political culture on which it is based, is something that all Canadians should resist.

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One thought on “Binders full of enemies

  1. I read this post and am reminded of the chilling speeches from O’Brien to Winston in 1984. A world in which everyone is a friend or an enemy would really be terrifying. “A world of fear and treachery and torment, a world of trampling and being trampled upon, a world which will grow not less but more merciless as it refines itself.” (1984, Orwell.)

    Now, I’m not saying you’re Orwell, but I”m not NOT saying that, either. Or are you Winston, writing in the modern equivalent of a diary, aware the Thought Police will eventually be along to snatch you up?

    Another fine post; thank you!

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