Is Stephen Harper a Straussian?

I'm talking political philosophy here, not Viennese waltzes. People keep asking why Stephen Harper acts as he does, it looks so buttheaded. He seems to muck up his own prospects: firing decent people, lashing out, raising the partisan rhetoric, proroguing Parliament haughtily, binging on military toys, mauling the census -- he's a bright boy, it's hard to figure.

I used to favour a theory of political Tourette's, the kind portrayed by Robert Redford in 1972's The Candidate. You suppress your political ideals for the sake of electability as long as you can; then the buildup leads to random outbursts. But there's another explanation: Straussianism.

Leo Strauss was a German-Jewish thinker who escaped Hitler for the U.S. but despaired over the depravity that liberalism might lead to there as it had in Germany, after the liberal 1920s. He felt almost any means were valid to save Western civilization but, due to liberalism's strength, the strategy had to be cautious, secretive, even duplicitous, with the truth confined to an elite. This rarefied vision became highly influential when it was spread by his students (and theirs) in government, think tanks and media during the Reagan and Bush years. It's a prominent force at Mr. Harper's intellectual home, the University of Calgary. What does it illuminate in his behaviour?

Secretiveness, an aura of manipulation and a sense of hidden agendas. From a Straussian view, these are good things as means to noble ends. When I studied in the U.S., Straussian students used to lurk, literally, around antiwar protests or demos. Some sneakiness is routine in politics but here it gets a high-minded intellectual justification. It's almost romantic.

Religion. Leo Strauss felt most people will never do the right thing for rational reasons; they need to be motivated by the myths and emotionality of religion. So his neocon disciples, many of them Jewish, built strong links to the Christian right. Stephen Harper attends an evangelical church, yet he doesn't seem much of a fit; he shows none of the passion there that he has for politics. Perhaps it just goes with the Straussian territory.

Nationalism. The PM may have shown his real feelings about Canada in 2000 when he called it "a second-tier socialistic country." Still, for Straussians, nationalism ranks alongside religion as a way to motivate people to great things beyond the vapidity of liberalism. This may help explain the Harper Arctic sovereignty initiatives, or even his curious focus on hockey.

Populism and democracy. Leo Strauss (like his man, Plato) never liked democracy much but his disciples are ready to use it against the real villain, liberalism. To this end, they appeal to the "anti-liberal" impulses of ordinary folk against the "liberal elites," via "wedge issues" like gun control, abortion or attacks on high art. (That one was especially self-destructive in Quebec.)

Contempt. There seem high levels of this, even for politics, among the Harperites (John Baird, Jason Kenney etc.). But Straussianism requires a strong sense of Us v. Them, to overcome the lassitude created through what it views as liberal notions such as tolerance and cultural relativism.

By way of comparison, take Preston Manning. His Christianity seems deeply felt, like his populism. They aren't elements of strategy. He appears to believe he can actually persuade voters, not just fool and control them. He's a conservative but he's no Straussian (unless he's a very devious one).

One can see the appeal of Canada to Straussians. The U.S. always had so much fevered religiosity, hypernationalism and paranoid individualism, you hardly needed to seed them there by stealth. Here, though, we still have liberals, Liberals, even social democrats. We may be Straussianism's happy hunting ground.

This article was originally published in the Globe and Mail.

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