Three thoughts on Kevin O’Leary

The newspapers today are loaded with stories suggesting that Kevin O’Leary is now the front-runner for the Conservative party leadership. For all the reasons outlined by Andrew Coyne, I don’t think it will happen. Not because Canada is necessarily morally exceptional (something we’ll be debating here at MISC next month) but because the systemic barriers are bigger here. It’s just harder to take over the Conservatives than it was for Trump to take over the GOP.

But since you never know what might happen, I think it’s worth making a few points about his candidacy.

1. Bilingualism

Whether it was craftiness or cowardice , O’Leary’s decision to enter the race the morning after the french-language debate was clearly deliberately timed. And didn’t we all spend yesterday talking about him? Combined with Justin Trudeau’s brain cramp in Sherbrooke, it raised once again the question of official bilingualism and whether one “has” to be bilingual to lead a major political party in this country.

It’s annoying to have to rehearse all of these arguments yet again, but here we are. So first, there is no rule that says you have to be bilingual to be prime minister. There’s no rule that says you have to speak any language at all. It’s just extremely politically advisable, in the same way that carrying a bible and pretending you are religious is politically advisable for US presidents.  Colby Cosh goes through the requisite motions here.

The related, but different question, is whether it is morally required of political leaders that they be able to function in both official languages. That is, even if it were politically possible for a unilingual leader to manage to win an election, would there still be a moral constraint upon them? That is, would they have a moral duty to try to learn the other language?

That’s a more difficult question, and I’m not sure where I stand on it. Part of me tends to think it’s just politics all the way down — that if some day a unilingual Mandarin-speaking leader came along who could manage to form a government in this country, then so be it for the official languages. There’s also the analogy (and some overlap) with regional representation: To take an example, when Pierre Trudeau was able to form a majority government with no representation west of Manitoba, that was a political reality. But did it violate some underling political morality of representation?

But there’s a disanalogy: Canada is an officially bilingual country. It has been, to some extent, since before Confederation. This is not just a “political fact” – French and English language protections and guarantees are baked into the constitution. The fact that a bunch of unilingual Conservatives seem to have woken up one morning and thought to themselves, “hey maybe I’ll try to be prime minister” speaks to a fundamental lack of seriousness about politics. But whether that lack of seriousness is theirs, or ours, is unclear.

2. Just visiting

There’s not much to say here. Kevin O’Leary lives in Boston, and has done so, according to Kevin O’Leary, since 1992. He claimed in an interview in October to live in the US 181 days a year.

So there’ll be a just-visiting issue.  It’s not just the “who do you think you are?” tetchiness. It’s that politics is largely about instinct, about understanding the country’s dynamic in a way that transcends polling or reading the newspaper. This comes from having steeped in a country’s culture, fought in the country’s fights, gloried in its glories, and shared in its tragedies. There’s no indication O’Leary has any of this to offer.

I might be wrong, but I think it’s a problem for him just as much as it was a problem for Ignatieff, in all the ways it was a problem.

3. Jerk-courtier

What’s weird about O’Leary’s candidacy is that apart from his econ 101 enthusiasms for free markets, it’s not clear what else is conservative about him. In fact, last year, he rebuffed comparisons to Donald Trump and openly pondered running for the leadership of the Liberals — a position he seemed to think might become open by the next election. He’s pro-peacekeeping but generally anti-military. He’s not worried about immigration or terrorism, has no interest in social conservatism, loves the CBC, and isn’t into nativist-style politics.

Yet despite this, it seems obvious that having decided to run that he would run for the Tories, to the point that while many seem to think he has a shot at the Conservative leadership, he wouldn’t have a hope if running for the Liberals. Why is this?

The answer, uncomfortable as it is, is that Kevin O’Leary is, according to people who know him well, a jerk. And contemporary conservatism has, for better or for worse, made itself into the natural home for jerks.

One of my favourite piece of Joe’s is an old Policy Options column he wrote about the twin problems facing the left and the right: While the left has to deal with the people who are left wing because they have a victim complex, the right has to struggle with those who are conservative because they are simply jerks.

Yet as a sign of how things have changed, it’s interesting that the animating assumption of Joe’s argument is that the route to electoral success for both sides of the spectrum lies in keeping these members of your constituency under control. The left needs to avoid pandering to the professional victims, while the right needs to keep the jerks sidelined.

Well, because it’s 2017, Bernie Sanders almost won the Dem nomination and Donald Trump is about to be president. To the extent that Kevin O’Leary is bringing any of the American dynamic to the Canadian scene, it is in actively courting the jerk constituency.

If I were a serious member of the Conservative leadership, I’d be doing anything I could to keep him and the other jerk-courtiers like Kellie Leitch and Chris Alexander sidelined. If I were a rank and file Conservative, I’d be wondering why my party seems to attract jerk-courtiers in the first place.



Three thoughts on Kevin O’Leary — 12 Comments

  1. The three politically salient personality traits are openness to experience, conscientiousness, and agreeableness. High openness to experience is associated with social liberalism, as well as intellectual and artistic interests. High conscientiousness (particularly the sub-trait of orderliness) tends to be associated with religiosity and social conservatism. High agreeableness is associated with left wing economics.

    Both high conscientiousness and low agreeableness individuals are more tolerant of inequality. But the reasons differ. High conscientiousness people see hierarchy as part of a natural order, while low agreeableness people just tend not to care much about others in general. High conscientiousness people can be judgmental and intolerant of those outside their in-group, but they’re not usually jerks in general, as witnessed by their high charitable giving and community involvement. On the other hand, low agreeableness people are just jerks simpliciter.

    Libertarians are one variety of high openness, low agreeableness people. The far right tend to be high conscientiousness, low agreeableness.

    • I don’t think the far rightists are generally high on conscientiousness, though they certainly can be orderly and persistent. Here I am thinking military; note though that, if the Greek army isn’t exceptional in this, fascistic types tend to be more common amongst subofficers than officers proper; this is certainly partially IQ, but the impression I got during service is that the two groups also differ significantly in conscientiousness; also, I don’t think the, quite thugish, average far right activist is a rather conscientious guy. I think that, psyhometrically speaking, far rightists have a high sum of low IQ, agreeableness, and stability (think hysterical) such that when lacking in one, one will be stronger in the others. As for openness, they ain’t got much compared to the general population, but I’m not sure where they stand with respect to near rightists, I certainly know a few people who quack like far rightists but would be too conventional to ever prefer the far to the near right, simply because that’s not what people in expensive clothes do.

      • I don’t think the far rightists are generally high on conscientiousness, though they certainly can be orderly and persistent.

        I’m using these terms as they are used in the psychological literature, and I’m using them accurately.

          • I’m not saying you’re not using the terms correctly, I’m saying that while conservatives such as the businessy and the (usually on the right but non-fascist) military officers from officer proper academy are quite conscientious types, I doubt that far rightists generally are, and they also tend to be quite unstable, even_looking_disturbed even at the MP level, and having trouble refrainig from physically attacking women live on tv, stabbing immigrants and rappers, or committing more non-activistic impulsive violent crimes than the general population; of course l’m thinking real neonazis here, perhaps far rightists there are different people due to some lack of politicization amongst the thugish? also, while neuroticism doesn’t translate into identity as straight-forwardly as some other dimensions, it certainly can affect where one stands within one’s general hemisphere.

          • You’re defying the research on this. The far right is high on Big 5 conscientiousness. Stop flying by the seat of your pants and look it stuff up.

  2. O’Leary certainly seems to know how to manipulate the media to get free coverage.

  3. “If I were a serious member of the Conservative leadership, I’d be doing anything I could to keep him and the other jerk-courtiers like Kellie Leitch and Chris Alexander sidelined. If I were a rank and file Conservative, I’d be wondering why my party seems to attract jerk-courtiers in the first place.”

    The answer to this is not as bad you may think. Basically, every society has a code of proper manners. People at the top of that society show their place in it partly by making an ostentatious display of their knowledge of that code, and by ridiculing those who don’t know all the rules.

    In our society, this code has become focused around what is sometimes called “identity politics” or “political correctness”. Listing your preferred pronouns in your e-mail signature. Having all white friends but complaining about how horrible “white people” are all the time. Looking at any list of invited speakers and making sure that your first response is to shake your head over the under-representation of Muslim lesbians. Starting each public event by noting which part of “Turtle Island” you’re standing on. For members of polite society, these kinds of gestures are basically just ways of showing that your’e a “nice” person. It shows that you’re compassionate, empathetic, and so on.

    But there are a lot of constantly changing rules involved in displaying that you’re a “nice person”. So some segments of society will have a hard time keeping up. Conservative parties tend to be alliances between those people and people from the elite who have signaled their willingness to be “not nice” (= “jerk”) by deviating from the elite code of conduct. And since the elite is largely liberal, showing your willingness to deviate on “manners” is an indication that you might be willing to deviate on policy as well (because if you’re the kind of person who can’t put with being called a “jerk” by people at McGill – no offence intended! – then you won’t be able to take the heat directed at you if you challenge the policy preferences of those same people). Beyond this, conservatives are used to being called “evil”, “fascists”, “racists”, “sociopaths”, “ignorant”, and so forth, no matter what they say or do. So if you know that people at McGill are going to do their best to tar and feather you no matter what you do or say, why bother trying to placate them?

    (Note that, for instance, Leitch is primarily being criticized for advocating policies that are actually quite popular. But that is never mentioned by critics in the media or at McGill. So it’s not just conservatives who are collapsing the distinction between policy and manners here. One is taken as a proxy for the other by people on both sides.)

  4. Interesting thesis. O’Leary may not do as well as Trump because, while probably just as many Canadians as Americans are jerks, it isn’t quite as socially promoted in our culture. There has for a long time been a strong strand of American culture that doesn’t just accept jerkishness but actively encourages and validates it, construing jerkishness as “strong” and “tough” and so forth; it’s been getting stronger lately. That doesn’t really exist in Canadian culture as such, except to the extent that we ape the Americans. Perhaps it’s because they’re an empire with an emphasis on military power and we are not.
    O’Leary may also not get as far as Trump because I don’t think there’s a populist bone in his body, not even faux-populist. He believes it is awesome if a small number of greedy people get rich and anyone who isn’t tough and hungry and mean (and lucky) enough gets hosed; he has nothing whatsoever to say to factory workers who lost their jobs, say. Trump got a lot of votes from people who were happy that he was at least willing to lie to them, at least willing to claim he cared about getting them jobs even if it was transparent fabrication. O’Leary’s equivalent would be roughly, “Money doesn’t care about you losing your home. If you’re redundant to the economy you’re worthless; if you want to be worth something again, go scam someone out of their savings or something, don’t come whining to me.”