Thinking about Michael Ignatieff and Barack Obama

Canada’s federal election Monday produced an unusual return. (Allow me to disclaim at the outset that my knowledge and experience of Canada and the politics of her people are very limited.) Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservative Party increased its number of seats in the 308-member House of Commons from 143 to 167, so it can now form a majority government. The separatist Bloc Quebecois was reduced from 47 seats to only 4, its leader Giles Duceppe among those unseated, and the left New Democrat Party nearly tripled its seats from 37 to 102. The Green Party won its first seat ever.

More noteworthy than all the above put together, the center-left Liberal Party of Canada finished third for the first time in a history going back to 1867. This is the party of Pierre Trudeau, Jean Chretian, and Paul Martin, which governed Canada for 69 years of the 20th Century and the first five years of the 21 Century. Among those losing seats as the Liberal share fell from 77 to 34 was party leader Michael Ignatieff.

Ignatieff’s political failure is interesting enough all by itself, but coming when it did, a week after the pseudo-controversy involving U.S. President Barack Obama’s birth certificate, some comparisons between the two politicians seem worth mulling over. Media outlets thought it would be good business to focus their cameras and microphones on sundry Republican buffoons—a celebrity seeking a presidential campaign spotlight, a former governor who quit to become a celebrity—and let them spout nonsense. Supporters of the President in turn figured it would be good politics to take this gift as an opportunity to label the opposition as racists, because no white politician would ever face mockery for attending a Swiss boarding school and looking French, and every black in American politics—Deval Patrick, Douglas Wilder, Maxine Waters, Charlie Rangel, you name it—would face the same opportunistic insinuations of foreignness if President. Another great week of American politics.

Consider, though, Michael Ignatieff. In some respects, Mr. Ignatieff’s career in academics and media is a more perfect version of Barack Obama’s as a public policy intellectual, more distinguished in his accomplishments, more to show for his years. If Ignatieff is a new name for you, a lengthy Globe and Mail profile “Being Michael Ignatieff” can fill you in. In brief, Mr. Ignatieff went to Harvard for graduate studies, returned to Canada from 1976 to 1978, then spent nearly all his adult life in England and the United States until in 2005, Liberal Party leaders recruited him to become a Canadian politician.

As might be imagined, there were many who questioned whether the lack of first-hand adult experience with his homeland might be too severe a handicap for someone aspiring to be its Prime Minister. An interview he gave the Guardian (link) goes into this. How much to lay the Liberal Party’s historically bad election on this one factor, I don’t know. That the party turned to Mr. Ignatieff probably means that it didn’t have anyone better. Also, Canada has a small population, so perhaps turning to Mr. Ignatieff shouldn’t seem any odder than a U.S. state electing as governor a Canadian or an Austrian. (Well, electing the Austrian was odd.)

I feel some sympathy for Mr. Ignatieff. I am a Nevadan who last lived in Nevada twenty years ago when I was twenty-five. No other place is attached to me like Nevada. The state has gone on just fine without me, though. When I visit—and I am now only a visitor when there—I connect with what I knew that remains and feel a bit passed up by the other half that has come to be since. I wouldn’t even be qualified to vote responsibly in a Nevada election, let alone hold office. Still, if I were three or four orders more impressive, and a group of leading citizens came to draft me to be a future governor, such flattery would likely convince me that, like Michael Ignatieff, I am the one my homeland needs.

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About John Mansfield

Mansfield in the desertA third-generation southern Nevadan, I have lived in exile most of my life in such places as Los Alamos, Baltimore, Los Angeles, the western suburbs of Detroit, and currently the northern suburbs of Washington, D.C. I work as a fluid dynamics engineer. I was baptized at age twelve in the font of the Las Vegas Nevada Central Stake Center, and on my nineteenth birthday I received the endowment in the St. George Temple. I served as a missionary mostly in the Patagonia of Argentina from 1985 to 1987. My true calling in the Church seems to be working with Cub Scouts, whom I have served in different capacities in four states most years since 1992. (My oldest boy turned eight in 2004.) I also currently teach Sunday School to the thirteen-year-olds. I hold degrees from two universities named for men who died in the 1870s, the Brigham Young University and the Johns Hopkins University. My wife is Elizabeth Pack Mansfield, who comes from New Mexico's north central mountains and studied molecular biology at the same two schools I attended. We have four sons, whose care and admonition, along with care of my aged father, require much of Elizabeth's time. She currently serves the Church as Mia-Maid advisor, ward music chairman, and choir director, and plays violin whenever she can. One day, I would like to make shoes.

14 thoughts on “Thinking about Michael Ignatieff and Barack Obama

  1. I am doubtful the Liberals did as poorly as they did because Iggy was gone from Canada for so long. They forgot how to connect with their members and the general population. As a result, the right leaning Liberals shifted to the Conservatives, and the left leaning Liberals shifted to the NDP.

  2. Kim Siever, thanks for providing us the opinion of a Canadian in Canada, and as bonus a Canadian who was a missionary to Nevada. Do you see Ignatieff’s foreign sojourn as a small factor, or as a sign of the Liberal Party’s lack of connection with Canada, or as something else? Or was it completely irrelevant to voters?

  3. By the way, the name of Mr. Ignatieff’s Hungarian wife, Zsuzsanna Zsohar, makes me smile. Terribly domestic of me, but the z’s are funny, and made me realize, “So, Zsa Zsa was an ordinary Hungarian name?”

  4. Wait, how’d you know I was in Nevada?

    I don’t think his sojourn made any meaningful difference. Perhaps the Liberals were just tired of getting lackluster leaders (the fourth in 8 years). Perhaps they were tired of the Liberals not getting anything done as the official opposition party. Either way, they have lost the decades-old connection with the populace, and their loss was so great, I am doubtful they will ever claw their way to the top.

  5. Keep in mind that in Canada the conservatives don’t really resemble our conservatives at all.

  6. On the other hand, Michael Ignatieff tried to get Canadians to vote for the Liberal Party instead of the NDP by warning that all the NDP’s promises would bust the budget, but now the NDP is the Official Opposition and the Liberal Party is out in the cold, its continued existence in question.

  7. It seems like a parallel to our own trends in the United States to me. Centrist Democrats are a dying breed, and conservative Democrats are almost extinct.

    If England is an example though, I imagine the Liberal Party in Canada might make a comeback several years from now, perhaps after the NDP gets a chance to run the country for a while.

  8. I think Mark above is confused. It’s the Republicans who have no diversity. The few moderates left, such as the female senators from Maine, are on the endangered species list. You may not like the Democratic Party, but there are plenty of centrist and conservative Democrats around in both the senate and the house. It’s one of the reasons they have a harder time uniting behind common pieces of legislation.

  9. Don, you should have watched the Republican presidential debates. You had two candidates arguing against all foreign intervention, and three arguing in favor. You had two candidates arguing in favor of legalizing MJ and other drugs, and you had three against. You had one pro-choice and pro-immigration candidate. The Republican party has a tremendous amount of diversity right now, and it’s a great thing because the Bush years nearly ruined the party.

    For most of the last century, there were northern and western liberal Dems and there were southern conservative Dems. The amount of diversity in the Democratic party, even during the 1930s, for example, was tremendous. There are very few conservative or moderate Dems left now, so Mark D’s point is accurate.

    I look up and notice this post is about Canada….

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