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Hopeful Altruism Is No Substitute for Radical Politics – Jacobin magazine

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Hopeful Altruism Is No Substitute for Radical Politics

Rutger Bregman made a name for himself by dressing down Tucker Carlson and calling out the ultrarich at Davos. But his new book is closer to a hopeful self-help guide than a manifesto for radical political change.

Rutger Bregman gives a TED talk, April 25, 2017.
Steve Jurvetson / Wikimedia

Rutger Bregman is one of the most prolific intellectuals of our age. His books are on display at airports from Frankfurt to Shanghai. In December 2018, Australian media magnate Rupert Murdoch was photographed at a Caribbean beach with Bregman’s Utopia for Realists in his hands. Trevor Noah knows “Rutger” by name. Two Davoses ago, we saw Bregman in a panel at the Swiss forum talking on the subject of taxation. “Taxes!” he proclaimed, “that’s what we need to talk about! I feel like a firefighter at a conference on fire extinguishing techniques who is not allowed to pronounce the word ‘water.’ Taxes, we need to talk about taxes!”

Bregman’s statement ended up on Twitter, views skyrocketed and suddenly the Dutch thought leader found himself trolling conservatives on Fox News, so angering Tucker Carlson that the latter refused to air an interview with him (it was packed with expletives). “The Dutch historian who savaged the Davos elite,” the Guardian’s headline ran a couple of days later.

Bregman indeed has a penchant for political grenade-throwing. Starting with his 2017 Utopia for Realists — preceded by a flurry of publications in Dutch — the Dutchman has morphed into something of an intellectual superstar, planting conceptual seed bombs which blossom into further debates in Dutch and English, from basic income, the idea of progress (Geschiedenis van de vooruitgang), or our received notions of inequality (Waarom vuilnismannen meer verdienen dan bankiers). 

Humankind is no exception to this rule. Like previous books, Bregman’s latest is a passionate plea for a radical revision of our view of mankind and a call to collective behavioral change. In Bregman’s view, man’s innate goodness has become a neglected fact, obscured by centuries of philosophy solidified into common-sense. More strongly, the idea that we are evil by nature, Bregman claims, has become one of the most harmful myths of our time — a “life-threatening fiction.”

An intimidating mountain of evidence is mobilized to disprove this myth. Lord of the Flies might be a captivating novel, but its anthropological hypothesis hardly bears out in reality. Boys stranded on an Australian island began working together instead of killing each other. Neither did German soldiers fight enthusiastically for Nazism from 1940 to 1945. Rather, they took part in the German war effort craving a shared sense of camaraderie. The population of Easter Island, in turn, was never cannibalistic, but rather peacefully pastoral. In his own, roundabout way, Bregman here offers what one might term a “secular theodicy”: proof of the ultimate kindness of our human world, even if that kindness often appears painfully absent to us.

One of Bregman’s main targets in this theodicy is the so-called “varnish theory” of human development. Such a theory presents civilisation as nothing but a small layer prone to crack after slightest external disturbance, “a thin crust on the swirling magma of human nature.” Humankind provides an able refutation of this theory. “Precisely when bombs fall from the sky or dikes break,” Bregman proclaims, “the best things come out in humans.” See the joint Christmas celebrations of 1914, or the spontaneous solidarity after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

An evolutionary basis can be tracked down for each of these traits. In Bregman’s view, homo sapiens did not overcome their rivals with bloodlust, tact, or wantonness, but rather through the gift of cooperation: the crux of a “homo puppy”-theory. Humans excel at gentleness in comparison to other primates; it is not our desire for competition but cooperation that explains our biological advantage. This desire consists of the “basic communism” that humans practice on a daily basis with friends and family, at home and at school. Humanity is a thoroughly “gregarious species,” as Marx had it, with a distinctly moral bent.

All of this also invokes the ominous question first raised by the philosopher Epicurus: unde malum — or, whence evil? To counter this threat, Bregman introduces us to the concept of the “nocebo.” A variation on the familiar placebo effect, he talks about a “massive psychogenic illness” that convinces us of our own evil, a civilizing fairy-tale that takes us mentally hostage and closes off our imagination. 

The heaviest noceboes are cable news, television, religion, and the oeuvre of Enlightenment philosophers such as Thomas Hobbes. Wielding these tools, Bregman’s “homo puppy” is indoctrinated, brainwashed, manipulated. If humans come to believe most people are indeed evil at heart, we will treat each other accordingly and bring out the worst in our fellow man. 

Anthropological pessimism is not only philosophically harmful, however. Bregman sees it as actively deadly. In the long run Hobbesian stories foster a collective delusion, with corresponding expectations, behaviors, and institutions. States, markets, and parties are ordered in such a way that their members are forced to assume malevolence on behalf of others. Survival commits us to animality — even if that animality itself might not be in our genes. For Bregman, for instance, the Holocaust was “the end of a long historical process in which evil disguised itself as the good.” Writers, poets, philosophers, and politicians poisoned the psyche of the German people and reaped what they sowed — mass murder.

Bregman’s conclusion is as simple as it is daring. Even in the face of unspeakable evil, the Dutch historian clings onto man’s fundamental kindness and instead blames acts of anthropological sabotage. The daringness of his conclusion also invites further questioning, however. Was Nazism really about horror as camouflaging the “good”? Did the Nazis even see it that way themselves? Himmler, Hitler, and Eichmann knew their crimes were unspeakable and persisted, nonetheless. As Himmler addressed his soldiers in 1943: “We persevered, and we remained decent boys. That was a difficult task. Here we are talking about a glorious page in our history that has not yet been written and will never be written.”

Whether such an urge can only be exerted on a large, anonymous scale — as was the case for the Holocaust bureaucrats — also seems pretty improbable. In the private sphere Bregman’s kind humans continue to commit atrocities without parallel. Most child abuse still takes place in a family setting. Few historical conflicts are more deadly than civil wars. When a group of Polish farmers was asked by documentary filmmaker Claude Lanzmann what they made of the fate of their previous Jewish neighbors in the late 1970s, they declared that one day the Jewish problem had to be “solved.”

Humankind offers mountains of evidence for man’s essentially social nature, his role as a homo cooperans. All this evidence, however, ultimately evokes a paralyzing question: why does politics exist? If all human questions can be traced back to matters of personal morality, why do humans persist in the harmful habit of engaging in politics? 

Bregman admits that man is essentially a “constructivist” animal. Religions such as “Judaism and Islam, nationalism and capitalism,” he states, are “little more than figments of our imagination.” As Iris Murdoch once put it, humans compose images of themselves and then we want to resemble those images. From there on Bregman proposes an extension of private generosity: what can be executed in a family context must now take place globally, on an even larger scale, with the planet figuring as a kind of macro-family.

Here we witness the birth pangs of something resembling a political philosophy. Since Aristotle we know that the polis is the end of the oikos: different laws apply on the forum and at home. Such a vision implies that figures who might be on good personal terms can differ violently on matters of politics. Abraham Lincoln was a friend to many a slave-owner in Congress, yet still launched a war against their state. These cases are uncomfortable for Bregman, especially in the light of his calls to get millionaires to pay more taxes. Social justice hardly is a matter of personal attitude or behavior. Even if Jeff Bezos behaved “kindlier” towards his employees, he would still remain the richest man in the world. In the end, only two factors can meet the challenge of private power: the coercion of a state, or collective action. On these issues, Humankind remains mute. 

The limits of this hopefulness become all too visible in Bregman’s proposed list of remedies. The book finishes with a call for a basic income. A perfectly feasible proposal according to Bregman, both financially and individually; after all, humankind, as his book tells us, has a natural tendency towards helpfulness, prodigality, and creativity. Among many other examples Bregman cites the famous Alaska Permanent Fund founded in 1976 as a concrete example. When the American state started drilling oil after the war, Republican governors decided to finance a dividend with new oil revenues. The idea’s driving force was that states could return surpluses directly to the citizens in individual slices instead of spending it on a public sector.

Bregman is forthright about the right-wing pedigree of the fund. The scheme’s original architects, he claims, were anything but radicals. Too little time in Humankind is spent pondering this legacy, however. The politicians who launched the Alaska fund knew all too well how the 1976 plan would end up strengthening markets: the size of the state’s public sector would decrease, and Alaskans would go spend their money privately. 

The pro-market legacy never fully receded. In July 2019, for example, Alaska’s governor announced drastic cutbacks at the state’s university as part of a general austerity drive. Half of expenditure was to be scrapped, buildings sold off, staff fired. Justifications for the cuts were predictable: Alaska wanted to double its basic income and could not do so on a falling oil market. Critics proposed countermeasures: the state could build a new library, or simply keep its existing university accessible and free. Alaskan conservatives responded presumptuously: who needs a public university if every book is for sale on Amazon?

Through 300 pages of hopefulness it is precisely this political dimension which goes missing from Bregman’s tract. However useful his role in educating readers on the injustices of Western tax system, America’s prison archipelagos or the dangerous myths of right-wing economics, Humankind ends in general indecision. “Come out of the closet, don’t be ashamed of the good,” “Avoid the news,” “Improve the world,” “Love thy neighbour.”

With these recommendations, Bregman’s book reveals itself as a self-help guide for readers eager to work with their renewed faith in humanity. What this might mean for one’s party membership, voting choices, religious denomination, organizational preferences, or leadership positions is left to the discretion of the reader. Politics is the exclusive terrain for politicians, students of Thomas Hobbes who only see evil in our world. Perhaps this is also a major reason why Humankind has such a hard time explaining to us why, if humans are indeed kind, we still live in anything but the kindest of worlds.

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Polarized Politics Has Infected American Diplomacy – The Atlantic

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The Atlantic

Moments of national crisis ought to bring Americans together. Instead, led by a divisive president, our society is being ripped apart, as the country is battered by a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic and centuries-old pathologies of racism and inequality. The consequences of our division are profoundly troubling at home, but no less worrisome abroad.

The style and substance of our polarized politics have infected American diplomacy. Policies lurch between parties, commitments expire at the end of each administration, institutions are politicized, and disagreements are tribal. The inability to compromise at home is becoming the modus operandi overseas. In the past, a sense of common domestic purpose gave ballast to U.S. diplomacy; now its absence enfeebles it.

Partisan divides about foreign policy are hardly new. I saw my share of them as a career diplomat, from the battles over Central America policy in the Reagan era to the war in Iraq two decades later. We’ve had plenty of painful fractures, bitter policy fights, and dramatic about-faces between administrations.

But as Stanford University’s Kenneth Schultz demonstrates in an important study, partisan animus and schizophrenia are more and more the rule, not the exception. Once a regular phenomenon, Senate approval of international treaties grew ever more tenuous over the last few decades. By the Obama administration, it had become nearly impossible. Even when Bob Dole—grievously wounded in World War II, and later a Senate majority leader and GOP presidential candidate—sat in his wheelchair on the Senate floor in 2012 and asked his fellow Republicans to ratify an international disability treaty modeled on U.S. law—nearly all of them walked past him to vote nay, bent on denying Barack Obama a victory of any kind.

If that seemed like a new low in reflexive partisan opposition, President Donald Trump—as with most everything else he does—proved he could dig even deeper. He has scrapped one agreement after another, with disruptive glee and no regard for Plan B. The Iran nuclear deal (“an embarrassment”), the Paris climate accord (“very unfair”), and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (“a rape of our country”), all negotiated by the administration of his Democratic predecessor, wound up on the trash heap. New START, following the president’s exit from the Open Skies Treaty, may be next. Meanwhile, the administration is channeling General Buck Turgidson in Dr. Strangelove, threatening to resume nuclear testing and spend rivals “into oblivion” in a new arms race.

If Representative Mike Pompeo’s Benghazi hearings showed the power of weaponizing foreign policy for domestic purposes (where polarization is the end, not the means), Secretary of State Pompeo’s tenure has been marked by the weaponization of domestic politics on the world stage. The impeachment scandal—the distortion of Ukraine policy to pursue what Fiona Hill aptly termed “domestic political errands”—is not the only example, just the most dramatic.

The erosion of the bipartisan foreign-policy consensus in itself is not a tragedy, given its innumerable flaws, blind spots, and uneven track record. But the intense divisiveness and scorched-earth tactics that have poisoned our domestic politics over the past decade are crippling American diplomacy as well. The consequences are severe. Three in particular stand out.

First, America’s credibility, reliability, and reputation for competence are damaged. Credibility is an overused term in Washington, a town prone to badgering presidents into using force or clinging to collapsing positions to prop up our global currency. But it matters in diplomacy, especially when America’s ability to mobilize other countries around common concerns is becoming more crucial, in a world in which the U.S. can no longer get its way on its own, or by force alone.

If our elected representatives won’t give a negotiated agreement a fair hearing, support it, or at a minimum avoid undercutting it even before the ink dries, why would any friend or foe enter into any kind of good-faith negotiations with the U.S.? And why should they have any confidence that the American government will deliver on its commitments if they do? I remember an Iranian diplomat asking me during an especially difficult moment in the nuclear talks why he should believe that an agreement wouldn’t simply be thrown overboard in a different administration. With less than total conviction, I replied that if all parties complied with their obligations, our system would uphold it. I certainly got that wrong.

The U.S. is stuck in the mud of its own polarized dysfunction, its already-bruised reputation for getting big things done suffering badly. Others around the world have always had grievances with America’s policies and its geopolitical weight, but they usually had a grudging respect for our competence, and for the power of our example. Today, the U.S. government can’t pass a budget, let alone bring the world together to stop the spread of a ruinous pandemic. Trump once claimed that foreigners were laughing at us. The reality today is far worse—they pity and discount us.

A second effect of polarization is the demolition of diplomacy’s apolitical role. I served 10 secretaries of state. They all had finely tuned political antennae, or they wouldn’t have gotten the job in the first place. All of them, however, were scrupulous about keeping domestic politics out of foreign policy. Pompeo, by contrast, has been the most partisan secretary of state in living memory—systematically sidelining career professionals in favor of political allies, waging a war against an imagined “deep state,” relishing political skirmishes, attacking “opposition” media, stripping away safeguards (like firing the State Department’s independent watchdog last month), and barely concealing his use of the department as a platform for future political ambition.

If the world gets used to dealing with distinct brands of Democratic and Republican foreign policies, the temptation to ignore career diplomats, meddle in our politics, and wait out the clock on seemingly adversarial administrations will grow at the expense of our national interests.

Finally, leaders undercut diplomacy’s potential when the “no compromise” feature of our domestic politics becomes a feature of our diplomacy as well. I remember a story about a mistranslated U.S.-military pamphlet released over Saddam Hussein’s forces during the 2003 invasion. It mistakenly read “Surrender and die” as opposed to “Surrender or die.” The former is a pretty good slogan for much of the Trump administration’s approach to diplomatic negotiations, embodied most fancifully in its “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran.

The Trump White House is not the first to embrace lazy maximalism. That has been a ruinous habit of American diplomacy for some time. But in fanning the flames of polarization in foreign policy, the administration has done more than any of its predecessors to suffocate the potential of American diplomacy when we need it most.

Depolarization is hard. As my colleague Thomas Carothers has argued, it’ll be an especially tough challenge in the United States. Ours is a particularly acute form of polarization—it has been around longer than in most other countries, and it’s more deeply rooted and more multifaceted, an amalgam of ethnic, ideological, and religious divides.

The polarization of our foreign policy is still largely confined to the political elite, not the general public. That’s the good news. The bad news is that while polarization may start among elites, it rarely ends there. And once it spreads, it becomes nearly impossible to extinguish.

Partisan divides are stark today over a number of foreign-policy issues, such as climate change and immigration. But on some foundational policy questions, public opinion is far less fractured than it is in Washington. Despite President Trump’s “America First” rhetoric, a growing majority of Americans support an active, disciplined role for the United States on the world stage; strong alliances; and open trading arrangements. More important, there is an increasing appreciation for the need to root foreign policy more firmly in the needs and aspirations of the American middle class.

A foreign policy more representative of the American public’s concerns than those of an inbred foreign-policy elite is a good start toward depolarization, but it’s not enough. American leaders will also have to deliver results—with far greater discipline abroad, and the kind of political skill at home that goes beyond just playing to the predispositions and passions of a partisan base.

That will require working with new constituencies—including mayors and governors, who have a decidedly more practical approach to foreign affairs—and renovating institutions charged with advancing our interests. Leaders will need to reinvent a foreign-policy consensus that reflects new global realities and domestic priorities, and avoid the temptation to solve foreign-policy polarization by shoehorning all our concerns into one unifying global crusade—even as central a challenge as our rivalry with China.

Polarization was a pre-existing condition in America, well before Trumpism. Change at the ballot box in November will be a powerful therapeutic, but not a cure. Reaching across the fissures laid bare by pandemic and protests will take time, vision, and hard work. And now, with an unforgiving international landscape, there is far less margin for error.

We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to letters@theatlantic.com.

William J. Burns is a contributing writer at The Atlantic, the President of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, former deputy secretary of state, and author of The Back Channel: A Memoir of American Diplomacy and the Case for its Renewal.

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View: As fear of defeat rises, Trump ups politics of division – Economic Times

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By Bhairavi Singh

President Donald Trump is fighting a pitched battle with his own people, five months before the U.S. goes to polls. Trump is facing an unprecedented backlash, first for his erratic response to the coronavirus and then for his strongman approach to protests that have erupted over the death of George Floyd.

In the world’s oldest democracy, there has been a long history of racism but Trump’s response has been like no other president’s. In over ten days, America — which was looking to recover from the pandemic and its economic fallout — has been plunged into chaos with the president’s outbursts merely fueling more violence and division. Republican lawmakers in an election year have little choice other than to stay silent or actively promote Trump’s line.

At least four latest opinion polls in America, including one by rightwing network Fox News, show Trump clearly trailing Joe Biden. The latest Post-ABC poll of registered voters showed the presumptive Democratic nominee ahead 53% to 43%, a clear 10 per cent points, whereas it was a dead heat just over two months ago.

But that hasn’t stopped Trump in his tracks. He has always seen his political rise beholden to his hawkish policies and his abrasive attacks on critics, and he is not likely to change tack with just months to go for the polls.

Trump started the week, four days after Floyd was killed, with a tweet which called protesters ‘’thugs’’, and adding that ‘’when the looting starts, the shooting starts’’. It was subsequently taken down by Twitter for violating its policy against promoting violence. Since then, Trump has called the protesters ‘’rioters, looters, arsonists’, provoking more people to come out and protest in city after city. More than 10,000 people – no mean number – have been arrested over the course of a week and eight have died in police action or violence. But protests have continued in cities despite a night curfew.

Over these days, rights groups have slammed Trump, his former aides have spoken up against him, former presidents have shown dismay, military veterans have warned of consequences of involving the forces in civilian action, and his own daughter Tiffany has supported protesters on social media. But has that stopped Trump? No.

Earlier this week, Trump’s former defense secretary James Mattis issued a statement against treating American cities as ‘’battlespaces” saying the “use of military against its own civilian population, militarizing our response, sets a conflict- a false conflict between the military and the civilian society’’. Truer words could not have been spoken. A vibrant democracy like America bringing out troops to guard cities against its own people is without precedent. Mattis’ statement was followed by Trump’s own defence chief Mark Esper publicly saying he was not in favour of using the military to quell protests.

On June 1st, true to character, Trump announced he was talking to state governors to bring in the military. Since then several Republican states have agreed to the measure. The National Guard was sent to Washington, while its mayor warned that ‘’out of state troops must leave’’ the country’s capital. Three Democrat states of New York, Delaware and Virginia refused to use the National Guard to support the police.

The Floyd protests have shown deep divisions within the Republican party, the Centrists and the police force. For the Republicans, it’s a peculiar situation. The GOP is nervous about Trump’s handling of the Floyd protests- they want him to play a more compassionate note. Lisa Murkowski, a Republican senator recently supported Mattis’ statement as “true, honest and necessary”, while Tim Scott, another Republican called Trump’s church visit a photo op. However, many top Republican faces, like Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell, chose to stay silent.

White supremacy transcended from racism to segregation over the years, but its weaponisation for political gains has now led to a dangerous tipping point. Already African Americans and other minorities there were disproportionately hit by the coronavirus and its economic aftermath. Trump’s mismanagement has redefined those divisions — white, black, Hispanic, Muslim, extreme left, extreme right. America’s response to this crisis would carry a larger message to the rest of the free world.

(Bhairavi Singh has been a television journalist for 12 years, she covers foreign policy and current affairs)

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OPINION | Alberta premier targets Ottawa in pivot to pre-pandemic politics – CBC.ca

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This column is an opinion. For more information about our commentary section, please read this editor’s blog and our FAQ.


Pandemic? What pandemic?

Watching Alberta politics these days is like riding a time machine into the past when COVID-19 didn’t exist or into a future where it’s been conquered. Or perhaps we woke up in a parallel universe.

Because Alberta politics is beginning to act as if the pandemic suddenly disappeared.

Last week, Premier Jason Kenney called the COVID-19 virus the flu, as in, “an influenza of this nature,” even though it’s a coronavirus that’s more contagious and more deadly than the flu and has no vaccine. He also announced — without first informing Alberta’s chief medical officer — that he would let the province’s public health emergency lapse June 15.

This week, he announced he’d like to fast-track phase 2 of the business reopening (that includes movie theatres and libraries).

But, most tellingly of all, he resumed his heated attacks against the federal Liberal government.

If nothing else, this signals a return to normality for Kenney who is no longer pleading for more pandemic financial relief from Ottawa.

Kenney once again on offensive

After 10 weeks of biting his tongue and smiling through gritted teeth whenever he talked kindly about Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and the federal Liberals, Kenney is once more on the offensive.

And there was no better target for him than the recent federal ban on 1,500 “assault-style” firearms.

On Wednesday, Kenney held a news conference with Justice Minister Doug Schweitzer where they wrapped themselves in the Alberta flag while taking shots not only at the federal government but at Central Canadians.

“While some people in faraway places like Toronto may not understand the reality, hundreds of thousands of Albertans simply use firearms as a part of everyday life,” said Kenney, who explained he was “defending law-abiding Albertans against a federal attack against their rights as law-abiding firearms owners.”

Not to be outdone in the outrage department, Schweitzer promised to stand up for “an Alberta-made justice system.”

“(Albertans) don’t want policy developed in downtown Toronto, they want policy developed right here in Alberta,” said Schweitzer, who added: “We’re going to have more Alberta and less Ottawa in our justice system.”

Picking fights with Ottawa

We haven’t heard the “more Alberta, less Ottawa” trope much the past 10 weeks as the Kenney government took what might be called a “less Alberta, more Ottawa” approach to emergency financial help.

But now the Alberta government is pivoting with all the subtlety of a dog running on linoleum suddenly trying to change direction. 

It’s clumsy but for Kenney it means he’s getting back on track. He’s picking fights with Ottawa, taking potshots at “faraway places like Toronto,” focusing on his rural base of support, and once again pushing an Alberta-first agenda that could include setting up an Alberta provincial police force and Alberta pension plan.

“Stay tuned for the Fair Deal panel (report),” Kenney said this week when asked if he’s in favour of cutting ties with the RCMP. Kenney has said the Fair Deal report will be coming out when the pandemic is over. You have to wonder if in Kenney’s mind this means “tomorrow.”

Kenney also said he is “seriously considering” launching a legal challenge against the federal government’s gun ban.

Never mind that firearms fall under federal jurisdiction.

Time machine to Klein days

Here’s where the time machine seems to have taken us back to the days of former premier Ralph Klein. Klein made something of a career launching lawsuits, or threatening legal action, against the federal government on a host of issues including the GST, social transfer payments and, coincidentally, the gun registry.

Klein’s legal fights were the political equivalent of tilting at windmills but he knew that for a populist politician winning was not crucial; it’s the donning of the armour and the spurring of the steed.

This is political theatre and Kenney is such a master at it he should have his own show at the Edmonton Fringe Festival (if only the festival hadn’t been cancelled because of the pandemic).

Kenney would also like to put the pandemic behind him because it hasn’t given him a popularity boost, unlike just about every other political leader in the country.

An Angus Reid poll about premiers released last week ranked Kenney as second last, with a 48-per-cent approval rating, whereas Ontario’s controversial Doug Ford, for example, enjoyed 69 per cent approval.

This week, a poll by Research Co. indicated that 56 per cent of Albertans said their province would be better off with a different premier in charge, the highest level of disapproval in the country.

Consequently, Kenney has dusted off his Captain Alberta cape that had sat forgotten the past 10 weeks, perhaps under a mound of applications for federal aid. He is proudly wearing it into battle once more against the Trudeau Liberals.

The pandemic might not be over medically, but in Kenney’s mind it seems to be over politically.

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