by Chris Berger
The untimely death of the Hon. Jim Prentice came as sobering news. Having worked as a member of the staff for Premier Prentice’s caucus during the time of his leadership, I can attest personally that his passing deprives Albertans, and indeed Canadians, of a dedicated and gifted public servant.
In some ways, his passing is an untimely one in that it follows closely on the controversy of his foray into provincial politics. We love redemption stories, and this one was cut short before it could be told at all. In other ways, and as something of a saving grace, this untimeliness compels us to reflect on matters that desperately call for our careful reassessment – namely, of how we approach and do politics. While I cannot claim to have known the Premier nearly as well as many who worked more closely with him, what he worked for and represented came to mean something very special for me and influenced how I view the day-to-day of political interactions.
Premier Prentice in many ways embodied moderation, the cardinal virtue of centrism. The Centrist is a rare, underappreciated, and much-needed breed of public actor. Premier Prentice was a participant in party politics who put politics, understood as rationally-informed public deliberation about what is to be done, ahead of party, the ideological orthodoxy of the sect. He was a Conservative and Progressive Conservative who supported same-sex marriage, who advocated for cleaner energy alternatives, who sought to collaborate with and actively listen to Indigenous peoples, and who tried to bring together two groups of bitter political rivals. This man was no one’s stereotype.
Our political atmosphere is a highly charged one. It is one in which lines are constantly being drawn and re-drawn, ever more starkly, in an effort to define themselves. In too many cases, those lines come to demarcate unbridgeable, zero-sum alternatives. In the face of this animus, the centrist stands as a tightrope walker. And in today’s politics, that performer straddles a rope in a tug-of-war, in which neither side is about to loosen its pull. The example of Premier Prentice illustrates the difficulties inherent in the centrist position, and unfortunately, the ugly truth that it is not preordained for success. It is a precarious rope to navigate.
We in Canada have been mercifully spared some of the more tasteless antics south of the border, but it would be naïve to suppose we’re immune from the ailments of which they are the symptom. Left and right alike exhibit a dwindling appetite for compromise or dialogue with one another. Reflect for a moment on everyday talk: how often do we hear someone refer to everyone to her left as a politically correct socialist? Or to his right as a bigoted fascist?
The difficulty in which the centrist finds himself is that he cannot please either partisan. The centrist is right of the leftist, and left of the rightist, and for this he is scorned – as a rightist by the leftist, as a leftist by the rightist. Worse, when he seeks pragmatically to strike a middle way, drawing from, mediating, and ideally transcending both positions, he earns suspicion and ire for his arrogance and elitism.
It’s thankless ground to stake out, but it’s ground that nevertheless needs to be occupied. Look at any Western liberal democracy, and we see left and right gaining force and coming to blows with unprecedented ferocity. In America, this is plain enough in the right wing of the present election, as it is in many nations of Europe experiencing far-right resurgences. Despite our reputation for politeness, we Canadians can see the same beginning to occur here. Meanwhile, the centre withers, and this is no coincidence.
At least as disturbing is the disappearance of respect for centrism on post-secondary campuses, those supposed havens of free inquiry and open deliberation. An opposite partisan orthodoxy of the left has settled in there, rendering anything seemingly to the right as unforgivable and not worth listening to. One can only respond that it doesn’t take much to appear to the right of Genghis Khan when the crowd is to the left of Che Guevara. What’s concerning is the unwillingness to tolerate questioning – we’re used to that in the political sphere, but when it infects the institutions that are supposed to chip away at unquestioned dogma, we have reason to worry.
We desperately need alternatives, and when Jim Prentice entered the Alberta political landscape in the summer of 2014, I was hopeful. That environment was fraught with polarized divisions. For some years the right half of the political spectrum, once unifying the centre to the far right, had been divided into two camps: one seeking to combine social liberality with economic conservatism, the other asserting the value of old-time tradition and strict adherence to conservative principles. Who knows yet how this opposition will play out.
This proved to be Jim Prentice’s trial, and it was one he seems to have failed, but not for lack of trying. It remains unclear who could have resolved it, or how. Now, from the ashes of that failure, the left side of the spectrum has seen the pendulum swing strongly in its direction. Again, who knows for how long and, ultimately, to what extent. One question now being grappled with is whether to swing right again, as some have argued, or whether to make another attempt to stake out the middle, as others are trying to do in various parties. Time will tell if this last option stands any chance of whetting voters’ appetites when the time to act comes again.
Politics is about action, and action always presupposes some notion of the good. When we make the decision to act, we distinguish between better and worse – we are either preserving something or changing it. We can act with an eye to preservation of an acceptable status quo so as to avoid something worse, or to change a deficient status quo so as to achieve something better. Today, we associate these tendencies toward these two actions with conservatism and progressivism, respectively.
Conservatism, in the best case, recognizes the flawed nature of humanity, the limited powers of unassisted reason, the great unlikelihood of decisively solving the greatest questions or problems, and the danger of utopian projects that choose to disregard these limits. Progressivism at its best is innovative at making the best of reason and problem solving in less-than-satisfying status quos, at stoking hope for future improvement and tenacity for attaining it. Both of these heights hit on something true and necessary for human beings, but their truth and necessity, or in a word their justice, are inevitably partial. In their worst cases, the conservative errs toward rigid, pessimistic fundamentalism while the progressive errs toward reckless, domineering utopianism.
By contrast, the greatest virtue the centrist brings to the table is moderation. A moderate mind is capable of recognizing the partial justice of each of the competing alternatives, while simultaneously recognizing that none of them achieves perfection on its own. Moderate centrism borrows from conservatism and progressivism at their respective best while mitigating and avoiding their worst.
Centrists and their moderation are therefore often dismissed as either timid cop-outs or aloof eggheads by their left and right counterparts. Partisans of left and right are uncompromising in their ideological puritanism; pragmatic centrists can’t satisfy this moralistic lust for purity. Considering this, the centrists struggle to be taken seriously.
Diehard leftists will always decry Jim Prentice as a Tory, and the committed right will always dismiss him as a pie-in-the-sky, half-hearted appeaser. Both will, as they did in his time in provincial politics, be irked by his cerebral habits, by his insistence on open-endedly examining alternatives for the sake of bringing opposing sides together. Doubtless many will think they were right to react this way – after all, there’s no denying the effort fell short of garnering public approval.
They would be missing the point, though. What we need most in our hyperpartisan arena is to talk, and this cannot happen if we insist on caricaturing our counterparts. Not everyone to my left is a communist; not everyone to my right is a fascist. What seemed like a practical failure is to me the greatest success of our sixteenth premier. Jim Prentice sought to talk and to listen. His example showed how difficult and thankless is the centrist’s obligation, but more cheerily, that it survives as a political alternative and that thinking is not dead in politics. While the man will be missed, the example will remain a teachable one for posterity.
Thank you, Premier Prentice.
Illustration courtesy of Visual Editor Fren Mah.