In 2013, after the Boston Marathon bombings, Prime Minister Stephen Harper famously declared that “this is not a time to commit sociology.” But apparently this is the time to commit sociology, because private citizen Stephen Harper does a whole lot of it in Right Here, Right Now (2018). And he does it remarkably well.
The crux of his sociological analysis is an opposition between “Somewheres” (parochial people who are firmly rooted in a particular community in a particular place) and “Anywheres” (highly-educated cosmopolitans who travel often, speak multiple languages, and feel at home almost anywhere).
Harper’s political philosophy
Harper’s typology brings to mind Rousseau’s opposition between “patriots” and “cosmopolitans” in Émile (1762): “Every particular society, when it is narrow and unified, is estranged from the all-encompassing society. Every patriot is harsh to foreigners. … This is a drawback, inevitable but not compelling. The essential thing is to be good to the people with whom one lives. … Distrust those cosmopolitans who go to great length in their books to discover duties they do not deign to fulfill around them.”
Like Rousseau, Harper maintains that our governments ought to prioritize the needs of patriotic Somewheres who have a long-term commitment to our community. Instead, they’ve been bending over backwards to accommodate the needs of cosmopolitan Anywheres whose loyalties are at best suspect.
Populism is on the rise in the West, avers Harper, because globalization has been great for Anywheres and terrible for Somewheres. Donald Trump’s anti-globalization rhetoric is a case in point: “We will no longer surrender this country, or its people, to the false song of globalism.”
The greater tradition of conservatism
In Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), Edmund Burke argues in favor of a pragmatic conservatism that studiously avoids the Scylla and Charybdis of political life: thoughtless adherence to the past and unfounded faith in the future.
States need to change: “A state without the means of some change is without the means of its conservation.” But this change should happen carefully and cautiously. What’s more, argues Burke, this change should be forever tied, not to abstract principles like Liberté, Égalité, and Fraternité, but to its measurable effects on real people living in the real world.
Thinking along similar lines a century and a half later, Michael Oakeshott declares in “On Being Conservative” (1956): “To be conservative … is to prefer the familiar to the unknown, to prefer the tried to the untried, fact to mystery, the actual to the possible, the limited to the unbounded, the near to the distant, the sufficient to the superabundant, the convenient to the perfect, present laughter to utopian bliss.”
The older, wiser, and far less ideological Stephen J. Harper we meet in Right Here, Right Now is, like Oakeshott, a Burkean conservative:
“Conservatism begins with the issues it needs to address rather than the policies it wants to apply. Now that may seem logical, but there are a lot of voices in our politics today that claim to know the answer before the question has even been posed. It’s always more markets for some and more government programs for others. … Conservatism is not at its core about markets. It is about making an economy work. Markets will generally do that. But when they do not, as a conservative, you do what will work.”
Although Harper has plenty of harsh words for liberals and leftists in this book, his harshest and most surprising criticism is reserved for conservatives: “Many conservatives [have] fallen victim to a … market dogmatism. Capitalism [has] become an end rather than a means. Markets [have] ceased being viewed as a tool to solve problems, and instead [are] described as a moral objective in themselves. How else can we explain, for example, an obsession with over-regulation in the shadow of the financial crisis.”
Market fundamentalism stands in the way
If conservatives wish to stem the tide of populism in the West, they will have to stop listening to the market fundamentalists in their midst. These wide-eyed ideologues are for the twenty-first-century right what doctrinaire Marxists were to the twentieth-century left: namely, a menace. What’s more, they really aren’t conservatives; they’re radicals.
Harper maintains that market fundamentalists stand in the way of a sensible American immigration policy and a sensible American trade policy with China. Reagan would be appalled by them: “Contrary to what some in the GOP try to claim, it is impossible to imagine Ronald Reagan embracing today’s trade realities. Yes, he was a champion of free trade.
His role in the original Canada-U.S. free trade deal is proof enough of that. But as with other parts of his legacy, his views have been simplified, caricatured, and distorted by his successors. … Reagan was far from dogmatic on the issue. He supported open markets and free trade to the extent that he saw them as beneficial for working Americans. When this was not the case, and especially when he thought trade practices were unfair, he was not afraid to impose tariffs.”
Right Here, Right Now is an attempt to explain the results of the US election
If Right Here, Right Now has a purpose, it is, at least initially, to explain the results of the United States presidential election of 2016. Harper’s explanation is a kind of mea culpa:
“A large proportion of Americans, including many American conservatives, voted for Trump because they are really not doing very well. They’re not doing well in the world that we conservatives created after the Cold War. And they’re not doing well, in part, because of some of the policies we conservatives have advocated. In short, the world of globalization is not working for many of our own people. We can pretend that this is a false perception, but it is not. We now have a choice. We can keep trying to convince people that they misunderstand their own lives or we can try to understand what they are saying.”
Harper claims that the lack of legitimate choices is the result of a post-Cold War consensus. The leadership of most of the center-left parties in the West (e.g., Canada’s Liberal Party, America’s Democratic Party, Britain’s Labour Party), have moved significantly to the left on social and cultural issues (e.g., trans rights, gay marriage) precisely because, for the most part, they no longer disagree with the center-right parties in any substantial way on economic issues.
Since they gave up on the working class a long time ago, identity issues are the only way for these center-left parties to differentiate themselves. Incidentally, he claims that center-right parties have often done precisely the same thing (e.g., the pro-life issue, flag-burning). All of this chicanery has, he argues, paved the way for the rise of populism in the West.
Pundits from both parties would have us believe that those who vote for populists like Trump are idiots and bigots. But Harper says that they are in fact, more often than not, merely wise citizens who can see, through the smoke and mirrors, an elite consensus that does not serve their interests: “The populist trend will not stop until the issues driving it are being effectively addressed. . . . [It] will continue if traditional political options, both conservative and liberal, double down on existing approaches.” The sensible, plain-talking Stephen Harper we find in Right Here, Right Now could beat Justin Trudeau on Monday, October 21, 2019.
John Faithful Hamer is a father, husband, teacher, philosopher, poet, podcaster, and wannabe herpetologist.