Media Bites: Justin Trudeau Is More Than His Bloodline

02/25/2013 12:20 EST | Updated 04/27/2013 05:12 EDT
In this June 19, 2012 photo, Liberal MP Justin Trudeau stands on the front lawn of Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Canada. Trudeau has told Montreal's La Presse that he will run for the leadership of the federal party. The next Liberal leader will be elected April 14, 2013, in Ottawa. (AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Sean Kilpatrick)

C'mon, give Justin Trudeau a break.

Sure, he's overrated, but overrated-ness cuts as hard as it coddles; pricks as much as it praises. As a result, J-Tru gets not only the gushy fawning of fans (check out the comments in his Instagram feed if you want some of that, by the way) but also the exaggerated disdain of critics. Such is the curse of the undeservedly popular politician. Just ask President Obama.

In a recent piece in the National Post, Andrew Coyne compares Trudeaumania 2.0 to a "personality cult" full of zombies hailing a messiah they know only by "his name and his face." Fellow Postie George Jonas scoffs mockingly at all the brainless masses clamouring for "hereditary rule in a democracy."

Such Justin-bashing invariably concludes with some sweeping thesis explaining how this empty man's ability to milk political success from his famous family exposes a dark spot on the very soul of the Liberal Party itself.

The Grits are slouching towards the grave, so they're electing a famous name. They have no ideas, so they're electing a famous name. They're hemorrhaging demographics, so they're electing a famous name. If JT's fans see their dynastic candidate as a black screen on which to project their grandest hopes of a Liberal renaissance, his critics project a pre-existing storyline of a desperate party running on vacuous fumes.

Everyone, in short, agrees the return of Brand Trudeau has to mean something. But what if it doesn't?

A quick survey of history shows that democracies have a marked tendency to elect relatives of leaders whenever given the chance. India has been led by the daughter and grandson of its first prime minister. Argentina is currently ruled by a presidential widow. Four of the last six prime ministers of Japan have been kids or grandkids of a previous one, and the new South Korean president is the latest in Asia's long line of daughter-rulers. Closer to home, British Columbia, Quebec, and Prince Edward Island have all seen a father-son team serve as premier in the last couple of decades, and familial dynasties, notably the Mannings of Alberta and the Lewises of Ontario, have run a few party leaderships.

We can speculate why this happens so frequently, and why the George W. Bushes of the world are so easily trusted by voters despite the obvious weakness and naivete that comes from being a child of connections, but it does happen quite a bit. It's not always a sign of desperation and it's not always a harbinger of failure. It's just a thing that happens.

That the Liberal Party is the latest follower of this global fad may say something about the limited way humans of all nations and ideologies are able to imagine political leadership, but it doesn't reveal much about the party itself -- other than they're willing to try a tested gimmick that generally works.

And who's to say the others wouldn't seize similar opportunities if the potential arose? One can easily imagine an alternate universe in which the entrenched third-term government of Paul Martin inspires a charismatic, well-pedigreed Ben Mulroney to offer himself as Tory boss. We don't even have to imagine a universe in which Jack Layton's wife and son are being openly groomed for higher things.

Modern politics is myopic, and memories of precedent are exceedingly short, in part because such ignorance serves the partisan interest. When voters can't remember political history or traditions it's easy for hacks to turn routine quirks into monstrous shockers. The fact that the "Harper Government" calls itself that, for instance, or portraits of the Queen in overseas embassies. Or a politician coasting on the name of his famous father.

The Liberal Party faces no shortage of existential crises. As the displaced party of preference for left-of-centre voters, it now tries to comfort itself by conveniently imagining that ideology is useless. It still refuses to understand the difference between appealing to western Canadians and merely pandering to them, or why a successful Liberal administration like the one running B.C. (the one that produced the federal party's sole leadership candidate with provincial government experience, in fact), used to nervously clarify that it was "not affiliated with the Liberal Party of Canada" in the second sentence of its online introduction. For that matter, it's not clear the party understands why it's even out of power in the first place, nor why their leadership ballot is packed with also-rans and done-nothings.

In this context, that the Liberal boss-apparent has used a famous last name to help his political career should be the least of anyone's concern. It's the easiest thing to judge, so it receives the majority of judgment, but it's useless as an explanation of what makes the Liberals a bad and troubled party in the first place -- a status which significantly predates Justin. Mocking or scolding them for embracing hereditary-rule is about as fair as judging the Tories for running attack ads or the NDP for equivocating. These are universal techniques, not particular design flaws.

Justin's bloodline is one asset in his arsenal, but he deserves to (and will) sink or swim on more than that. To tie his prime ministerial suitability to his surname exploitation, or to presume that all his strengths, handicaps, quirks, and annoyances flow from it, is to excuse a lack of deeper introspection from a party that could really use some.

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