Friday, March 28, 2014

Michael Ignatieff and the psychodynamics of opportunism

Michael Ignatieff, has written a wonderful book, “Fire and Ashes: Success and Failure in Politics,” on his failed political career as the leader of the Liberal party in Canada. The son of a family committed to the liberal idea that government “could do great things,” he left Canada in 1974 for a very successful career in journalism, broadcasting and teaching in the UK and the US.  But in 2004, “Three Liberal Party organizers, travelled to Cambridge, Massachusetts to convince Ignatieff to move back to Canada, run for the Canadian House of Commons, and to consider a possible bid for the Liberal leadership should the then current leader of the party, Paul Martin, retire.” He won a seat in Parliament in 2006, became the party’s official leader in May of 2009, and then led his party to a disastrous and embarrassing defeat in 2011. The party lost more than half of its seats to the Conservative party on the right and the NDP the party on the left. With only 34 seats it had the fewest in its history. The Conservative party once a minority party in government, became the majority party. The book, written with candor, filled with insight, and containing little recrimination, is a disquisition on how and why he failed.

Ignatieff highlights two central themes: that the idea of “good government,” which he believes in fervently, may be passé, and that to succeed in politics one must be opportunistic. Politics, he notes is “a supreme encounter between skill and willpower and the forces of fortune and chance," and that “there no rules only strategies.” These two themes may suggest that he was in some degree the victim of circumstance, felled by forces beyond his control. His liberal ideals were outmoded, and fortune was not favorable. But the central issue the reader faces, is to assess if, how and to what degree Ignatieff was responsible for his own failure. 

Consider the following. In the run up to the 2011 election, the Conservative party, led by Stephen Harper, launched a successful media campaign to label Ignateff as an interloper. As the campaign slogan went, Ignatieff, who had been absent from Canada for 30 years, was “just visiting,"  and “he did not come back for you,” that is, his return was self-centered. The campaign’s impact,as Ignatieff notes, was devastating. As he writes, “My opponents had followed a cardinal rule of attack politics, go for an opponent’s strengths and his weaknesses will take care of themselves. In my case what drew Canadians to me was precisely that I was an outsider. I’d gone into the wider world and tried to make something of myself and I’d come home because I wanted to serve. The Conservatives went right at that narrative of homecoming and turned it on its head. I was a carpetbagger, an elitist with no fixed convictions, out for myself and not for Canadians.”  

A Canadian reviewer of his book doubts that in fact his outsider status was a source of strength. “As anyone who was in the country at the time could report,” the idea that he was an interloper, “was only what ordinary Canadians, in different words, were saying to each other.” Indeed, as Ignatieff himself acknowledges, “The just visiting ads contained enough truth to be credible. “The fact was, that I had been out of the country for thirty years before that. Most damagingly, the ad had included a clip of me telling an American interviewer on camera in 2004, [when he was in the US-LH], that ‘we had to decide what kind of country we were so we wouldn’t torture detainees in any circumstances.’ Using ‘we’ was the kind of mistake you make when you push an argument one word too far in order to win over an audience.” He goes on to add, “The irony of course was that I knew I could never be, would never be, an American. That was precisely why I had come home. But none of this mattered. I was convicting myself out of my own mouth and the effect on the morale of our troops was immediate.”

One question is why, as a student of politics and a professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School, did he not anticipate that a three-decade absence would be a political liability that had to be managed from the get-go. It should have led him to be wary about returning, and to focus on strategies for mitigating the risks he would face as a described carpetbagger. Instead, as he writes, “When the three strangers invited me to go into politics, it was if I had been waiting my whole life for them to show up.” In other words, he was destined for leadership and entitled to claim it.  

But why? What gave him his sense of destiny?  One hypothesis is that his sense of destiny was shaped in part by his immersion in the ideals of liberalism since he was child. As he notes, he imbibed the conception that "government is good" from this parents “at the dinner table.” His father, as a diplomat and aide to a Canadian prime minister, believed deeply in the merit of public service. His mother’s family, the Grants had been nation-builders. In addition, he notes that as a student he had been inspired by Pierre Trudeau, a future prime minister and then the Minister of Justice in the Pearson government. “I’d never felt such a wave of attraction for a political leader sweep over me. Here was a law professor and intellectual fresh from the battle to free his province from the dead hand of the Catholic Church and the reactionary union busting government of Maurice Duplessis… I see now how decisive his influence was upon me when forty years later I contemplated my entry into the ring. He had entered politics in his late forties right out of the university. If he could do it why couldn’t I?”

The dilemma of course was that his father and Trudeau were creatures of a vastly different era, his father from an era of civility and centrism, Trudeau as a symbol of the cultural revolution of the sixties. As he ruefully notes, “It never occurred to me when I returned home and entered politics” that his parents’ “liberal world and the Canada they had made, has long since vanished.” He goes on to add, “I saw my country as an example of civility, tolerance and international engagement for people the world over. I must have thought that the sheer romantic faith in the place of my birth would make up for the fact that I hadn’t actually lived there.” In short he idealized Canada, misunderstanding its recent history and evolution. This misunderstanding I suggest, created a sense of destiny based on unrealistic ideas.

What accounts for his lack of realism particularly since as an academic, author and journalist, he was such a practiced and sharp thinker about politics and power? After all, he had taught Machiavelli at Harvard’s Kennedy school! Thinking psychologically, we can say that when someone idealizes or romanticizes another person or an institution he enhances his own self-esteem. His emotional ties to the ideal object are proof of his own ideal standing. This is one motive for idealizing someone or something in the first place. When Ignatieff draws on his image of Trudeau to make a critical decision, forty years after meeting him, he does so because his image or fantasy of Trudeau increases his own self esteem by giving him confidence. Psychoanalysts call this kind of internalized image the “grandiose self” and one school of thought in psychoanalysis posits that people must work through and relinquish this grandiose self if they are to exercise their talents and powers fully.  It is the process through which a person becomes realistic and relates to other people in the round.

This process of idealization may shed some light on one peculiar trope Ignatieff employed to rationalize his return to Canada.  Reflecting on his decision to return he writes, “My story had to turn my obvious liability, years out of the country, into strength. There was only one possibility. I would tell my story as a homecoming. It was one of the oldest ones in the book, the prodigal son returns. In the bible didn’t everyone turn out to embrace him when he showed up on the dusty road?”

But surely as a supremely educated man, he knows the back-story of the prodigal son, not just the episode of his return on the dusty road. The son, the younger of two, left home, wasted his father’s money was forced to become a swine herder and out of despair, returned home, to be greeted by a father who forgave him all his trespasses. In other words his father’s love was unconditional. The prodigal son would not be called to account. This enraged his older brother who had stayed home and worked dutifully for the father.

If we think psychoanalytically, we assume that what is omitted or forgotten, the lacunae, is in fact more meaningful than what is presented or noticed. Thinking in this way we can say that by evoking but only partly rendering the story of the prodigal son, both to himself at the time, and yet again in the book, Ignatieff tell us that he expected to be forgiven for his years away because people’s regard for him should have been justly unconditional. Indeed, this is precisely what Stephen Harper’s campaign slogan, “He did not come back for you,” was meant to convey. The unexpressed follow-on thought would be something like; “He came back for himself and still expects us to applaud him for it.” This is also why he was tarnished by the idea that he was an elitist despite his valiant attempts through personal campaigning throughout the country, to connect with the common folk of Canada. Elites expect to be honored for the status they hold, for who they are.

From a psychological point of view, we expect the unconditional love of others when we take ourselves as our own ideal. One question we can ask is, how does a person seduced by the fantasy of their own ideal standing cope with the dynamics of power plays and with politics as combat?

The short answer is,  “Not well.” A person who tends toward idealization, who in Ignatieff’s words “romanticizes” his conception of his setting and his own role within it, is inhibited from acting opportunistically when this may mean fighting “dirty.” He believes instead that his “goodness” makes “badness” unnecessary. But others may consequently see him as naïve and take advantage of him.  I am reminded here of Brutus in Shakespeare’s play Julius Caesar. He is honorable to a fault, foolishly permitting Marc Antony to speak at Caesar’s funeral, as the right and honorable thing to do, despite his colleague Cassius’ premonition that Mark Antony would stir up feelings against the conspirators that had assassinated Caesar. In this sense, his sense of honor is the flip side of his naiveté, particularly when Marc Antony and Octavius later murder a hundred Roman senators while horse-trading the killing of each other’s relatives. Indeed, Antony’s demagogic powers are strong enough to turn the phrase in his oration, “And Brutus is an honorable man,” into calumny.

Consider the following parallel.  Ignatieff reports that he had an opportunity to become prime minister by heading up a coalition of two parties with the support of a third, since the ruling Conservative party did not have the majority of seats in the parliament. This is a pivotal moment in his story as Liberal party leader, but strikingly, he passes over it too quickly, uncharacteristically justifying his decision without really considering it in the round.

As he writes, over Christmas, he and Jack Layton, the leader of the NDP --the party to the left of the Liberal party --met in “secret,” and “he implored me, to defeat the government and then govern in coalition with his party.” This was possible since the Parti Québécois, the party that represented the cultural and national aspirations of French Canadians, would support the coalition against votes of no confidence without joining it. As Ignatieff writes, “I can remember how eager Jack Layton was, how he talked about giving “a new politics” a chance. I told him that I would have difficulty bringing my caucus along. The problem was more fundamental than that. What kind of ‘new politics’ was it when it had emerged half-baked from secret deals with separatists (a reference to the Parti Québécois-LH) in backrooms? A coalition would widen into an abyss. I had a very clear idea of what awaited me if I were to become prime minister in these circumstances. At every public appearance I was sure to be greeted with demonstrations of citizens accusing me of stealing the job.”

My own reading of this passage is that Ignatieff is uncharacteristically moralistic, referring to secrecy, backrooms and separatists, while upholding his own honor as someone who would never “steal” the job of Prime Minister. This feels defensive to me since political combat almost always involves secrets and backroom deals. Indeed, in a different passage he writes cogently that, “A poor opportunist in politics is simply someone who looks, all too obviously, like he is exploiting an opportunity. A skillful opportunist is someone who persuades the public that he has created the opportunity." So the practical question is, if in fact he had become prime minster through a backroom deal, could he have been bold enough to propose a narrative, a story about his coming into power, which the Canadian voters would have seen as a new opportunity for themselves?  Of course this strategy would be risky, but when is political combat safe? As Machiavelli says, and as Ignatieff quotes him, “It is better to be headstrong than cautious, for Fortune is a lady.” Ultimately he turned down the coalition, “not knowing that as I did so, I had just given up my one chance to be the prime minister of my country."

One hypothesis is that had he acted opportunistically he would have felt dirtied, a feeling he could not have tolerated in light of his tendency to idealize his setting, his heroes and himself. If I am right -- that the above passage is moralistic and defensive -- this is because as a student of Machiavelli, he understands but is embarrassed by his own limitations. The fact that he relinquished his one opportunity to be prime minister also underlines the psychoanalytic idea that when we are caught up in our “grandiose selves,” our self-esteem is actually fragile, and we will go to extremes, even accepting powerlessness, to protect it. This is when people will seemingly act against their own best interests.

Strikingly, his adversary Stephen Harper, who headed up the Conservative party, harbored no such inhibition when in 2004, as the leader of a party then out of power, he “sent a letter to then Governor General Adrienne Clarkson, suggesting that, if the Liberal minority government fell, the Conservatives would be willing to form a government with the support of the Bloc Québécois and the NDP. During a subsequent press conference, Harper said, “In a minority parliament, if the government is defeated, the Governor-General should first consult widely before accepting any advice to dissolve parliament. So I would not want the prime minister to think that he can simply fail in the House of Commons as a route to a general election. That's not the way our system works."

Moreover, Ignatieff had a chance to seize power at a time when Harper and his Conservative party looked weak in the public’s eye.  In 2008, at the start of the global financial crisis, the Conservatives while in power, did not have a majority in parliament. “Ignatieff writes, When the house returned in November, Harper surprised everyone by failing to bring forward any measures to deal with the gathering economic crisis. He ignored the meltdown and instead proposed ludicrously partisan measures that were calculated to inflame the opposition. This was astonishingly combative and ill-advised political behavior from a prime minister who was supposed to be a master strategist. Within a month of securing an increased number of seats in the house he was provoking the opposition and jeopardizing his control of the House of Commons. For the first time in two years he had given us a real opportunity to counterattack.”

Ignatieff goes on to note, “In January Harper invited me to a meeting to discuss ideas for the budget, and when I showed up in his office, I got the impression of a once cocky leader now hanging by his fingernails, rattled by his mistakes and worried that he might not survive the upcoming vote in the house.”

To an opportunist this a moment to “go for the jugular.” Instead, as he later notes, he used the threat of a new coalition to ensure that Harper’s proposed legislation in response to the financial crisis was generous, with sufficient deficit spending to save the Canadian economy from a depression. In addition, as he writes, “before agreeing to vote in favor of the budget, however, we insisted that the government report to Parliament every quarter detailing how the stimulus money was spent. We feared that they would politicize the infrastructure money and spread it around their won constituencies. Once they agreed to this reporting requirement, which one minister later admitted did something to keep them honest, we voted in favor of the budge. The other opposition parties voted against. The coalition was dead and buried.”  In other words, he sacrificed his power under the cover of keeping the opposition honest, though his own words “did something to keep them honest,” suggests that his accomplishment was limited. 

There is a wonderful passage in Julius Caesar when Brutus, facing the armies of Antony and Octavius, counsels Cassius that they must strike at once, since, while their military power has peaked and can only decline, their enemy’s power is growing.

One way of reading this is to say that Brutus recognizes too late, the art of maneuver, the meaning of the power situation in the here and now, and the need to strike when the iron is hot, whether or not the preconditions are ideal and the results pure. 

Ignatieff understands this as well. When at the end of his book, in reflecting on Max Weber’s writings on politics he notes, “I would counsel you [readers interested in a political career-LH] to think of politics as a ‘calling.’ The term is usually reserved for priests, nuns, and mystics, but there is something appealing about using it for work as sinful and worldly as politics. It captures precisely what is so hard: to be worldly and sinful yet faithful and fearless at the same time. In the process you get your hands dirty for the sake of ends that are supposed to be clean. You use human vices, cunning and ruthlessness in the services of virtues, justice and decency.”

This passage has the ring of emotional truth, because it is born out of Ignatieff’s authentic learning from his experience, and for this accomplishment we surely should applaud him.  



  1. A fascinating analysis. One thing that seems missing is that, despite his experience, he was not a dynamic speaker.