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Party like it's 1999: Appel, Kennyism (Dundurn Press, 2024) and Ganz, When the Clock Broke (FSG, 2024)

Posted: Jun 30, 2024 13:06;
Last Modified: Jun 30, 2024 15:06


I have a rule of thumb about politics, that suggests, for the last century or so at least, politics runs in generational — that is to say roughly 35 year — cycles.

I’m sure it’s not a real rule (and I haven’t asked my poli-sci-trained kids about it); but it’s good enough for my purposes: the long modernist struggle (1910-1945), the post War Keynesian/managerial consensus (1945-1980), the neo-liberal reaction (1980-2015), and whatever we’re in now. In my potted version of this history, each of these grows out of a reaction to what the Marxists would call the internal contradictions of the previous consensus, flourishes as the reaction addresses the problems it recognised in the previous cycle, and then collapses under the weight of its own contradictions as they become more apparent — and in particular, as the original visionaries are replaced by less imaginative adherents to what has become a new orthodoxy (as this implies, I’m counting people like Thatcher and Reagan among the visionaries; you don’t have to like what somebody was or did in order to see that it still broke the mould of what came before and addressed an issue they helped define).

In this understanding of the world, I like to kid myself, we are in a transitional period: the neo-liberal consensus of the late twentieth century began to break up with the recension of 2008 and its aftermath (2008-2015) as a result of the internal contradictions caused by soaring inequality; we are now in a phase (I hope) of deciding what is going to replace it: populism, authoritarianism, or, more optimistically, some new version of stakeholder populism.

In this understanding of the last century, both Jeremy Appel’s Kenneyism and John Ganz’s When the clock broke are, ultimately, about how the end of the neoliberal reaction came about: i.e. how the contradictions inherent in the neoliberalism of Reagan, Thatcher, Clinton, Blair, and, in Canada, Mulroney, Chrétien, and Harper, began to manifest themselves in the behaviour of their followers — Kenney in the case of Appel, and a host of 1990s crackpots and nasties from the U.S. in the case of Ganz.

As this suggests, the scope of these two books is very different. In Appel’s case, the author is looking specifically at the life of Jason Kenney, whose career as a new-right activist and politician began in the late 1980s, extended through a prominent position in the cabinets of Stephen Harper (Prime Minister of Canada from 2006-2015), and ended up as Premier of Alberta, 2019-2022. In Ganz’s, the author is writing what could probably be subtitled as a history of right-wing political lowlifes, lunatics, and pseudo-populists from 1990-1994.

Perhaps ironically, the difference in focus (one narrow, one broad) has an inverse relationship to the breadth of argument in the two books. Appel’s book is history/biography of Kenney, but the arguments he makes and the conclusions he draws have a large relevance both to the current state of Alberta politics and, perhaps, to Canada and elsewhere more broadly. Ganz’s book, on the other hand, which I initially thought was going to be an explicit search for the origins of Trumpism in the U.S. and authoritarian populism elsewhere, turns out to be much more of a safari through the early 1990s: a trip from one nut to the next without much in the way of an attempt to tie it all together or make sense of the period as a whole and its relationship to today.


As you can tell, I found Kenneyism to be the more interesting book, even though When the clock broke is much more elegantly written (Appel has an unfortunate affinity for the word “project” which the editors at Dundurn appear not to have done much about; the result is that it reads at times more like an academic essay than a polished book). In tracking Kenney’s career, Appel is really providing a history of a second-generation Reaganite — the kind of people who followed in the wake of the original movement leaders and, through their efforts at shoring up and enforcing the revolution’s new orthodoxies, added a stiffness that ultimately led to its demise. Kenney’s career as an activist appears to have begun at the University of San Francisco in the mid-1980s where he appears to have devoted himself to enforcing the uglier and more moralistic aspects of the new neo-liberalism: advocating against reproductive rights, against family rights during the AIDS crisis for what we now call the LGBTQ+ community, and generally attempting to use the neo-liberal emphasis on self-reliance and -responsibility to attack those whose approach to living their lives were not his own (a perversely kind of a puritan libertarianism). After a brief spell working as a Liberal operative, Kenney went on to become active in what we might broadly call Reform party politics — a fairly uniquely Canadian and early form of largely regional right-wing populism that divided the conservative vote in this country throughout the 1990s and early aughts: he was a staffer at the Alberta Taxpayers’ Federation (a regional anti-tax group with separatist tendencies), and then the Canadian Taxpayers Federation (the national equivalent). He was elected as an MP for the Reform Party in 1997, and then as a member of its various successors as the Canadian right attempted to reunite its activists: The Canadian Alliance (2000) and the Conservatives (2003-2016).

Canadian conservatism and the immigrant vote

During this time, Kenney was particularly noteworthy as one of Stephen Harper’s more competent and influential ministers. In particular, Kenney was entrusted with operationalising what I’ve always thought was Harper’s greatest political achievement, bringing the suburban first- and second-generation immigrant vote into play in Anglophone Canada. The basic idea was, as Appel notes, that recent immigrants to Canada, almost by definition (and contrary to the way they were understood by most other right-wing parties internationally), represented what Kenney described as “the personification of Thatcher’s aspirational class” (Appel, 82) in as much as they had left their previous homelands in order to build a better life for themselves and their families. Just as importantly, while these communities had generally been seen as a solid Liberal Party block (in part because of the Liberal Party was broadly understood as being responsible for Canada’s pro-immigrant emphasis on multiculturalism), they were actually quite commonly more socially conservative than other members of that same alliance: more religious, often more patriarchal, and more open to appeals to conservative “family values.” Where in other countries, right-wing parties used complaints about recent immigrants as a kind of racist dogwhistle to unite their largely white constituents, the Canadian Conservative party, prior to the election of 2015, saw them to a large extent as part of a larger non-racial conservative coalition (in the 2015 election, this all collapsed when the Conservatives — to my mind inexplicably — turned on this part of their base with a fairly outrightly racist proposal to establish a “barbaric cultural practices tip-line” that others could call to turn in their, presumably mostly immigrant, neighbours).

After the loss of 2015, Kenney stayed on in parliament for a year. The prompt for his resignation then was the collapse of the Progressive Conservative dynasty in Alberta. After 44 years in power, the Alberta PCs had been beaten by the NDP under Rachel Notley, in large part due to a split in the conservative vote quite similar to that that had plagued the national Progressive Conservatives the decade before: between traditional “red” Tories (primarily fiscal rather than social conservatives) and socially conservative populists gathered this time in the Wild Rose party. In moving back to Alberta politics, Kenney proposed doing provincially what Harper had done nationally: uniting the right into a single, more ideological and right-wing party.

Kenney in Alberta

Appel covers everything above in his book, but it is in his account of the period after Kenney came to Alberta that it truly shines, providing what I think is a really solid explanation for Kenney’s remarkable rise and fall in the period 2016-2022 — from his rapturous reception as the great hope for Albertan conservatism to his fall as a despised example of (either) the out-of-touch elites populist leaders were railing against world-wide, or, yet another example (along with Republicans like Paul Ryan) of cynical conservatives who were eaten by the populist monsters they had created.

In Appel’s view, Kenney was both. His “project,” Appel argues, was always to serve as a centurion for entrenched wealth and power: as a monarchist, as a “free-marketeer” (which meant protecting big business rather than truly opening markets), and as a convert to extremely conservative Catholicism, Kenney was always much more a conservative than a populist. Going back to his initial work as an activist in the 1980s, his goal had always been to preserve power in the places where it had resided traditionally: in the patriarchy, among the cis-gendered, the heterosexual, and those who ran the banks, governments, and corporations. While he was willing to play at populism, he always saw this more as a technique for rallying votes than as a serious political philosophy: he would drive around the province in a blue truck and a cowboy hat because he knew that his opponents wouldn’t (indeed couldn’t, with a straight face), not because he felt either an affinity with cowboy culture or a belief that policy should be set by the grass roots.

Those pesky internal contradictions!

What Appel shows is that it took a while (and a pandemic) for these internal contradictions to come out. Initially, Kenney’s conservatism and the populism he traded on to gain power seemed to be going in mutually supportive ways: Kenney was able to attack the public sector because that worked for both conservatives (who wanted to reduce the power of unions and create more opportunity for privatisation) and populists (who wanted to knock “elites” such as teachers, public servants, professors, doctors and others). With the pandemic, however, this coincidental agreement between the enthusiasms of populism and and the goals of conservatism began to unravel. For populists, the pandemic marked a resurgence in elite power: Public Health officers issuing mandatory edicts, vaccine and masking mandates, restrictions on individual decision-making; from the perspective of an establishment (Reaganesque) conservative, however, things were a lot less clear — while Reaganism preached that government is the problem, it also believed that a prime function of government was to provide the security that protects wealth and privilege — which includes in the Canadian context a health care system that has not completely collapsed. As a result, Kenney flipped back and forth throughout the period: implementing controls late (and ending them early) out of fear of the populists his government relied on; but still implementing controls rather than face an economic and health care melt-down. And in the end, he pleased nobody: the populists hated him because he betrayed their belief in “freedom”; and the incompetence — as well as years of populist-pleasing, but bridge-burning insults towards the elite — wore down everybody else.

Ms. Smith goes to Edmonton

Finally, Appel’s book is interesting because it suggests why Kenney’s successor, Danielle Smith, may also be facing some problems. Quoting Jared Wesley, Appel argues that there are three main elements to Albertan politics: populism, defined here as “freedom from government overreach”; individualism, or “the primacy of the individual as the core unit of society”; and provincial autonomy, or a sense that national governments have an extractive rather than representative attitude towards Alberta and, as a result, never truly represent provincial interests (109). Smith, who took over from Kenney and comes very much out of the populist/libertarian wing of the party rather than the establishment conservative, has benefited from the same kind of convergence as pre-pandemic Kenney: a kind of COVID revisionism that pleases her libertarian base while not particularly annoying more establishment conservatives (in part, I think, because they see as a relatively harmless hobby-horse), with wild attacks on “Ottawa” that again please her base without causing (from the establishment perspective) any real harm because they are largely symbolic, because Albertans are getting what they want from the feds anyway (e.g the pipeline), and because the current (Liberal) federal government is largely perceived to be on its last legs anyway.

In recent months, however, the contradictions appear to be tripping Smith up as well, with Bills 18, 20, and 21. These Bills propose a) subjecting requests for Federal funding from any provincial entity to provincial review; b) subjecting municipal politicians and bills to potential recall or invalidation by the provincial government, and c) allowing the provincial government to assume responsibility for emergency services over local authorities.

These bills make sense ideologically. They are intended to ensure that what the government sees as its potential opponents — municipalities and the federal government — are brought under its control. But while superficially populist and certainly focussed on provincial autonomy, they violate what Wesley sees as the first and second major elements in Albertan provincial politics: freedom from government overreach (in this case overreach from “Edmonton”) and individualism, in the sense of the freedom of individuals and small collectives to decide on the course of action that best suits their individual needs.

Twelve A lot of angry men

But this is where I go back to my sense of thirty-year political cycles. Because I think there’s another thing at work here as well: not only are Bills 18, 20, and 21 not populist and not individualist, they are also nasty: there is a rawness to the exertion of power in them that also seems to be rubbing people the wrong way. This nastiness has always been inherent in the neoliberal movement — from Thatcher to the claims by neo-conservatives that those who disagreed with them were simply naive or silly. But, perhaps because it has become an orthodoxy, it is now beginning to feel old fashioned. When Naheed Nenshi recently won the leadership of the provincial NDP, the attacks on him by Smith’s party — that Nenshi helped the Liberals win an election 9 years ago (!) — were notable in the degree to which they seemed to be going through the motions: attack ads because that’s what you do, using decade old material.

When the clock broke

Where Jeremy Appel’s Kenneyism used a tight focus on the career of an individual to say something about the movement(s) within which he worked, John Ganz’s When the clock broke takes a much broader approach to a single decade that, in many ways, can be said to mark the origins of the contradictions that, ultimately, broke up what I think of as the neoliberals’ thirty-year kick at the can.

I’d initially come to the book imagining that it would be about how fringe elements in the 1990s led to the madness of Trumpism in the mid twenty-teens. In his introduction, for example, Ganz speaks both of the “‘negative solidarity’ of who you hated or wanted to destroy” (3) as being a characteristic feature of this period, and of the period as a whole as “A lightning flash [that] revealed a fractious and fragmented nation… [whose] thunderclap would not be heard for some time” (4). The first of these, I think, is the origin of the “nastiness” I discuss above as being so old-fashioned sounding and (hopefully) ineffective in Smith’s recent ventures; the second, I thought, was a clear reference to the Tea Party resistance to Obama and the rise of Trumpism.

In actual fact, however, the book is nothing more and nothing less than a history of some of the fringier (and hence less successful) elements of the right-wing movement in the immediate aftermath of Reagan: the brief rise to national fame of David Duke, Ross Perot, Patrick Buchanan, the development of talk radio and the “dittoheads,” and the struggles of George W. Bush to respond to the initial signs of trouble within the Republican coalition in the face of Bill Clinton and the rise of third-way progressives. The last chapter ends with Clinton’s victory in 1992 and Donald Trump recovering from bankruptcy, but the connection to today’s events is left unstated.

Everything you wanted to know about “ditto heads” (but were afraid to ask)

In some ways, this seems to me to be a lost opportunity. As Ganz notes, the people he is writing about were “the losers” during the period he is talking about (3). Buchanan and Perot (and ultimately Duke) self-destructed; Bush was beaten by Clinton, and in Louisiana, voters agreed with the bumper-sticker (“Vote for the crook; it’s important”) and chose Edwards over Duke for governor. Weaver (Ruby Ridge) was arrested; David Koresh and his followers were killed in Waco; and the militia movement gradually collapsed of its own weight. What was significant about these people and movements (it seems to me) was not so much what they stood for on their own terms at the time, as their impact on future developments — as an origin and training ground for what ultimately became the Tea Party, the racist Alt-Right, the authoritarian populism of Donald Trump, and the consumption of the Republican Party by a base that it — much like Jason Kenney — had tried to use as a conservative means rather than a populist end.

Ganz doesn’t really draw this through-line, however, preferring to keep his focus on the period itself. This is a good place to go for a reminder about the Bush/Clinton campaign, and, even more, for an early history of David Duke, the beginnings of the militia movement, the rise and fall of Ross Perot, and the rise of (right wing) talk radio. But it isn’t as good about why these movements and individuals were important (in the end, none of them were really that successful on their own terms), or even very much how they related or were perceived by those who were not their adherents. Perhaps because it is so focussed on the nuts and bolts of this period’s nuts, it paradoxically doesn’t really establish their actual place in history: it explains who they were and how their various movements progressed and for the most part failed during the period, but it doesn’t really situate these in the context of larger trends. It tells us what people outside their movements said about them, but doesn’t really establish how they fit into (or, for the most part, failed to fit into) what these people were talking about otherwise.

This is probably an unavoidable result of studying such fringy people on their own terms: these people failed because, by-and-large they were outside the range of acceptable discourse and thought in the period. In some cases they came close to shifting that consensus (that’s why they all become prominent at some point); but in actual practice none of them wore well on the public: the better known they became, the less successful they were.

The real importance of these people and movements was not the impact they had on life in the 1990s — it was the impact they are having now, as the origins of the kind of populist movements that are pushing politics right now and (I hope will not) threaten to form the next thirty year political cycle.


Appel, Jeremy. Kenneyism: Jason Kenney’s Pursuit of Power. Toronto, Ontario, Canada: Dundurn Press, 2024.

Ganz, John. When the Clock Broke: Con Men, Conspiracists, and How America Cracked up in the Early 1990s. First edition. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2024.





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