Ottawa Protests Offer a Window Into Our Political Transformations
Remember when the left loved protests and the right loved law and order?
On Monday, Canadian Prime Minster Justin Trudeau invoked the Emergencies Act in order to clear out the trucker protests in Ottawa.
From the beginning, I’ve remained quietly fascinated by the whole spectacle. Quietly, because I’ve struggled to figure out what I think about them, fascinated because they are a window on the political transformations on both sides of the 49th parallel.
The protests began as a revolt against a new and ill-advised vaccine mandate in January requiring unvaccinated truckers to get the shot or isolate for two weeks each time they crossed the U.S. border. While I think everyone should get vaccinated, the rule made little sense in an 80 percent vaccinated country or for an occupation that involves almost no human interaction. Truckers aren’t nurses or schoolteachers. Solitude comes with the job. Besides, Canadian truckers are already 90 percent vaccinated.
Of course, the protesters’ passion came from the built-up frustration with two years of lockdowns and mandates. And, as often happens with mass protests, the demands metastasized over time. Now they want Justin Trudeau’s government to dissolve and hold new elections. The demand is merely impractical—the protests were never particularly popular in Canada. But illegally blockading streets and bridges as a kind of political extortion is indefensible—whether it’s Canadian truckers or Black Lives Matter protesters or any other group.
What truly fascinates me is the reactions to the Canadian protests here in the U.S. They highlight the way the coalitions that make up the left and right have changed profoundly, and how their attitudes and ideas are changing as a result.
If I were to describe these protests to a left-winger 50—or 150 years—ago, they would sound great. Proletarian laborers spontaneously using their class power to monkey-wrench the wheels of global capitalism to press their grievances! This was once the stuff of heroic socialist agitation. The fact that tow truck drivers refused to help remove the blockade would be seen as the very soul of worker solidarity. Now, when GoFundMe announced it would cut off donations to the truckers, liberals shrugged or cheered.
One explanation is that the pandemic has been subsumed into the pre-existing culture war fight. That’s why Trudeau, who is squarely on the liberal side of that divide, reflexively deployed every woke accusation imaginable at the largely peaceful strikers. Picking out a smattering of ugly signs—and one Confederate flag—Trudeau tried to tar the whole bunch with guilt by association as peddlers not just of racism and Nazism but “transphobia,” too. Rather than meet with the protesters, he chose scorn: “Hate can never be the answer,” he insisted.
This points to a larger explanation. The old prism of class has been supplanted by the prism of identity politics. As the Democratic Party is increasingly dominated by people with college and graduate degrees, the white working-class core of the old FDR coalition has steadily migrated rightward (and there are early signs of a non-white working class migration as well). Leading Democrats speak the language of “intersectionality,” using terms like “Latinx” that leave many Latinos cold. In the early days of the pandemic, mass protests in violation of lockdowns were acceptable—even laudatory—when done in the name of racial justice. But protests from truckers—or parents—who just want to return to normal? They’re derided as anti-science or worse.
Meanwhile, conservatives, traditionally the champions of law and order, never mind the free flow of commerce, fell in love with the truckers and their disobedience. Anti-mandate absolutism is, again, part of the story. But many on the right in the U.S. have also convinced themselves that the Republican Party must become a nationalistic “workers party.” The condescending liberal elites, undemocratic technocratic experts and woke globalists running the Democratic Party have made the GOP the natural home of the working stiff, they argue. This stuff can be exaggerated, of course, but there’s an underlying truth to it as well.
These domestic tectonic cultural changes turned the Ottawa protesters into a kind of Rashomon story or Spanish Civil War—a foreign conflict that illuminates how culture war combatants see the fight at home.
It’s a confusing transition, and neither side has quite figured out how to adapt to their new coalitional imperatives, never mind adopt public policies that fit them. Perhaps to compensate for this fact, the rhetoric has outstripped the reality. Each side glibly accuses the other of being an existential threat, pitting transphobic Nazis according to one side against totalitarians according to the other.
Neither side is right about the other, but it’s unlikely the two will realize that any time soon.