« Radical Chic Occupies the Catwalk | Main | Populism is not authenticity: The case of Larry O'Brien »

Justin Trudeau and the myth of shared values

I feel a bit sorry for Justin Trudeau. He has spent the last two days being roasted for doing nothing more than make explicit the consequences of a set of beliefs that are held by many, perhaps even most, Canadians, including most of the people who are crapping on him. 


First things first, what did he say? Last Sunday, he said (in French) to a Radio-Canada host:
"I always say, if at a certain point, I believe that Canada was really the Canada of Stephen Harper — that we were going against abortion, and we were going against gay marriage, and we were going backwards in 10,000 different ways — maybe I would think about making Quebec a country."


Lots of people -- including me -- went a bit nuts. Trudeau, after all, is the son of Pierre Trudeau, the arch anti-nationalist loved by (some) anglophone Canadians for putting separatists in their place. What Justin Trudeau appeared to be doing was outing himself as yet another conditional Quebecer, yet another adherent of "profitable federalism." Typical was Colby Cosh of Maclean's, who wrote that Justin Trudeau "is like most other Quebecers in regarding separation as a negotiating position, adopted or discarded according to circumstances." 


Oh please. Justin Trudeau has never given any indication that he's a Bourrassa-style federalist (or even Charest-style federalist, for that matter), and I doubt he has any dream of using federalism as nothing more than a device for extracting better terms for Quebec. I honestly don't think Justin Trudeau has any more sympathy for conditional federalism than I do, or Stephane Dion does, or Andrew Coyne does. If Justin Trudeau did have any such leanings, he'd be a hell of a lot more popular in his home province. 


What Trudeau was doing was expressing his understanding of the theory of shared values. According to this theory, what guarantees the social and political cohesion of a country like Canada -- what ensures that the country hangs together -- is that the population has shared values. What Canadians have in common, what makes Canadians Canadians, is that they share a set of strong values that underwrite the national identity. 


Shared values talk is everywhere in this country, and has been for decades. Jean Chretien never shut up about Canadian values. Ken Dryden never shuts up about Canadian values. Stephen Harper and his ministers never shut up about Canadian values. Roy Romanow's Future of Health Care report was entitled "Building on Values". Michael Adams' best-selling book Fire and Ice was one long argument that what makes Canadians distinct from Americans is that we have different values than they do. I doubt any of these people have the same values in mind when they invoke Canadian values. 


Shared values talk also permeates the discourse of not just Quebec separatism, but most forms of regional alienation. Stephen Harper's firewall letter is filled with shared-values language, in the negative: "They" don't share "our" values, therefore "we" need to take steps to protect ourselves from "them". 


So what was Justin Trudeau getting at? Basically he was saying: Look, there is a set of shared values, bestowed upon the country by the Liberal Party of Canada between 1965 and 2005, that collectively define what it means to be Canadian. And (thinks Trudeau), those values are not consistent or compatible with the social conservatism of Stephen Harper's Conservative Party. (Set aside the issue of whether this is an accurate picture of Tory policies; the issue is what Trudeau thinks). And so, thinks Justin, if the values expressed and represented by Harper's Conservatives are the new, genuine "shared values" of Canadians, then he draws the logical conclusion: The Canada that Justin Trudeau loves and feels allegiance to no longer exists. Justin Trudeau has no country. 


And so he says look, if that Canada is really and truly gone, then maybe he might find a reasonable replacement for it in the political collectivity that best expresses his preferred Canadian shared values, namely, those of Quebecers (again, accuracy is not the issue here).
To sum up then, what Justin Trudeau was getting at was something like: If Harper's Canada is the new genuine Canada, then the only place you might find a political community based on the old shared values of Trudeauvian Liberalism is in Quebec. That is, Quebec could become a country, in the name of defending and protecting the shared values of the Canada of Pierre Trudeau. In which case, Justin Trudeau's remarks make him less like René Lévesque, and more like Alec Baldwin.


But here's the thing: If you accept the theory of shared values, then there is nothing remotely crazy about this line of thinking. Just the opposite: Justin Trudeau's argument follows directly from the theory of shared values. 


The good news is the theory of shared values is a myth. Canadians don’t have shared values. We never have, and we never will. But that’s not a problem, because  the ongoing cohesion of Canadian society is not seriously threatened by deep pluralism. If it was, we would never have got past the sectarian, linguistic, and cultural divides of the 19th century.


But the bad news is that a lot of people don't realize the shared values theory is bogus.


Canada is a liberal democracy, and like similar societies, it is designed to allow us to get along despite widespread and non-negotiable disagreements over values — that is, over how people should live their lives. Our political institutions, underwritten by constitutional declarations such as the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, don’t assume that citizens have shared values. Instead, they provide the legal and institutional scaffolding for allowing us to get along despite the absence of shared values. 


This is where some shared-values theorists try to get clever. "Oh look," they say. "You have just argued that we have no shared values, by pointing to the constitution and the Charter. You've clearly contradicted yourself." But the Charter doesn't express values, in the sense of a thick, comprehensive account of the good life. The Charter provides a framework of principles that are neutral with respect to controversial questions of value, that allows us to live in the same political space while pursuing highly divergent, contradictory, and even antagonistic visions of the good. 


The liberal requirement of neutrality with respect to the good is why we have freedoms of expression, of religion, and of association. It is also what motivated a young Pierre Trudeau to declare that the state has no business in the bedrooms of the nation, and which inevitably led to homosexuals winning the right to marry.


You can call these principles "values" if you like (though it has the effect of eliminating one of the most useful and relevant distinctions in political philosophy), but at the price of impaling yourself on one of two horns of a dilemma.


On the one hand, if you adopt "liberal principles" as your shared values, these values are so thin, and so general, that they don't distinguish Canadians from Americans or Europeans in any significant way. Going in the other direction, if you call liberal principles "values", it isn't clear why Quebec can't simply found its own state on these "values." 


But on the other hand, the more you thicken up these values, to make them express a comprehensive vision of the good, the fewer Canadians will actually share them. Tens of millions of Canadians share the "values" of the Charter. About thirteen million are Catholics. A few thousand share the values of Mennonites. The idea that there is a set of values thin enough to capture the hearts of all Canadians and bind the nation together, but thick enough to exclude all others, is forlorn.


So yes, Justin Trudeau was wrong, and what he said was dangerously misguided. But I think most of his critics have an equally misguided theory. if you're a shared values theorist, then you have a choice: Accept his conclusions, or abandon the theory. You can't believe that Canada is held together by shared values and keep crapping on Justin.