The vote totals last week suggest that Michael Ignatieff is a better writer than he is a politician. Under the leadership of the former Kennedy School scholar, Canada’s Liberal Party suffered the worst electoral defeat in its long history. Still, Ignatieff deserves a measure of praise for doing something few commentators on public affairs ever do: subject his ideas to scrutiny in legislative chambers and at the ballot box.
As a commentator on the Balkan Wars of the 1990s, Ignatieff emerged as a leading voice on human rights — and for the use of outside military intervention to protect vulnerable people from coming to harm. Those deeply felt commitments helped explain his continued support for Canadian participation in NATO efforts against the Taliban. There were many other issues at play in the recent election, but his position on Afghanistan pushed some war-weary voters toward the more left-leaning New Democratic Party. Its surge helped doom Canada’s once-dominant Liberals to a humiliating third-place finish.
Yet despite Ignatieff’s defeat, more public intellectuals should do what he did. Just as the political debate would benefit from more thinkers, writers would benefit from having to solicit support for their own ideas and put them into practice.