The widespread belief that Stephen Harper is some kind of political genius does not even vaguely conform to anything in reality. In fact, I suggest that like most petty oligarchs he is not even above the average intelligence of a ambitious and driven political opportunist. However, people often mistake focused devotion to a cause, or extreme ambition for intelligence.
Instead of being a political "genius," Harper has built a political career out of a very fortunate (for him) confluence of events. The first, and most obvious, of these fortunate occurrences was the fact that Harper won the leadership of a newly united rightwing party at a time when the Liberals had been in power for a long time and were widely perceived as scandal ladened and politically out of gas. Furthermore, almost his entire time in power has been spent at a time when the Liberal Party, which was for so long thought of as the "natural" party of power, has been through a difficult time of trying to rebuild itself, a process that it hasn't been particularly successful at accomplishing. Harper succeeded on the backs of two rather hapless Liberal leaders neither of which resonated with the public. And perhaps more importantly, the second of those leaders (Michael Ignatieff) was arguably so rightwing that Liberal Party ceased for a time to have any real reason for existing. Then, more recently, Harper had one of his greatest strokes of luck of his entire career when Trudeau made what I think may turn out to be the single greatest political mistake in Modern Canadian history (outshining even Hudak's one hundred thousand layoff promise and Prentice's stunning effort to blame average Albertans for his Party's financial mismanagement). Trudeau's support of Bill C-51 (regardless of how you feel about the bill itself) could be, I believe, the undoing of the Liberal Party itself. For years the Liberal Party was perceived by people on the left and in the centre as being little more than a rubber-stamping committee of Harper's government. Under Dion and Ignatieff the Liberals voted over and over to support Harper's legislative program. Whatever the reasons for this support, it turned out to be, I think, a colossal mistake that made the very existence of the Liberal Party seem meaningless to many. Then the Liberals got lucky: Harper won a majority and Trudeau took over the leadership of the party. The Liberals could look forward to a period of stability for their rebuilding and Trudeau, for a change, did seem to resonate with the public and he had a chance to rebuild the party as something distinct from the Conservatives. Sure he made some gaffs but what politician, particularly young ones, don't? Things were basically going well until Trudeau made a fatal error. In supporting Bill C-51 Trudeau suddenly reiterated all the negative feelings that had caused the real decline of the Liberal Party in the first place - he rubber stamped a Conservative bill, and not just any bill but one that is a fundamental and profound attack on the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, a bill that former PMs, constitutional experts, international rights groups, and almost every jurist in the country have said is dangerous and wrong-headed. Trudeau essentially handed the head of the Liberal Party to Harper on a plate. It wasn't a genius move on Harper's part, most rightwing politicians would have tried this. Rather, it was just a very blatant mistake on Trudeau's part. Harper must have been elated at his luck.
But Harper has enjoyed other political good fortune that has kept him in power and made him seem like a political master-mind to those who don't pay enough attention. Perhaps Harper most unexpected good fortune was that he has faced what I would argue is the most compliant media of all Western Democracies. Harper has a dark and troubling past that has never become an issue with the media. Perhaps more importantly, he has treated the media and public with absolute disgust and disrespect with almost no blowback for over ten years. I have lived in both the US and England during turbulent times and it is almost impossible to imagine the media of those countries giving a leader a continual pass on so many things. Harper has also been lucky in the sense that our proximity and close cultural association with the United States allowed much of the rightwing extremism of that nation to creep into our own culture. This has helped Harper take advantage of a wing-nut base that has increased as the Tea-Party wackiness in the US has gained more power.
On top of all this political good fortune, Harper has engaged in good-old-fashioned political corruption, fraud, and illegality to maintain his power.
But here is where all of Harper's luck coalesces: Harper is often been said to be a master of "message control," but this is a misunderstanding of Harper's underlying strategy. The idea of message control is only a part of Harper's real political cause which is the continual limiting and destruction of information at every level. Harper's political efforts are always centred on undermining the free flow of information. End the long-form census, muzzle civil servants, muzzle his own MPs, refuse to reveal basic financial information to the House or to the People, stop funding adult literacy programs, don't talk to average Canadians, never talk to the media in a meaningful and unvetted way, undermine the freedom of information; these are all part of Harper basic strategy - destroy the life-blood of democracy: information.
Let me make this clear - this is NOT political genius, it is just the basic program of all dictators and oligarchs throughout history. It is a strategy which all effective politicians are aware of, but which only those afflicted with a fundamentally anti democratic spirit are willing to take advantage of.
The only constant being change, Harper's cabal must eventually fall. It is just in the nature of things. You can't limit information forever, particularly in a technologically driven society. Furthermore, I believe that the supremacy of Neo-Liberalism is coming to an end. Like capitalists always do, they let their greed destroy the basis of their power. People have been surprisingly willing to tolerate unequal political systems in modern times as long as they seem to be in a process of gradually generalizing the wealth. But over the past forty years as the wealth of the system seems to be doing the very opposite of this and concentrating in fewer and fewer hands, the system itself is generating dissatisfaction that will eventually lead to real change.
When Harper finally does fall, and when the younger generation begins to rebuild, one thing we have to hope above all others is we can put in place very basic protections of information so that a future maniac like Harper will not be able to cripple our system by keeping the nation in the dark.