All appeared to be going according to plan for Barack Obama until the first presidential debate. Mitt Romney was able to move to a seemingly more moderate position without renouncing his basic stance. He managed to do this because President Obama’s strategy was to look presidential, not to attack, and thus not to bring out the contradictions. It was only the next day, before a big public rally, that he made the point, saying that “the man on stage last night, he does not want to be held accountable for the real Mitt Romney’s decisions and what he’s been saying for the last year.”

What Romney had been saying for the last year – and what the Republicans have been saying for much longer – is rather straightforward. It is a simple trickle-down principle: cut taxes and regulations on the rich “job creators” and everyone will benefit. Somehow, they combine this with major increases in defence spending and still come out with a reduction of the huge debt. Obama failed to attack this position effectively because Romney bobbed and weaved and Obama was reluctant to punch. While he recovered in the last two debates, he could not undo all the damage. In many ways his failure in the first debate reflected a deeper flaw in the Obama campaign.

The kind of punch needed would have been there had Obama been running a campaign that differentiated him from the Republicans, in effect rebuilding the electoral support base that brought him victory in 2008. Obama’s national campaign of 2008, led by his closest advisers David Axelrod and David Plouffe, succeeded in energizing a large segment first of the Democratic Party and then of the electorate behind his slogan: Change, Yes We Can. When he first sought the nomination as an outsider in 2007, Barack Obama was an extraordinary phenomenon, an African American former community organizer and law professor, author of two bestselling books. He was clearly not your typical Washington insider, despite having served for two years as junior senator from Illinois.

After the collapse of Lehman Brothers brought a disastrous end to George W. Bush’s presidency, the country was ready for change and the 2008 Republican ticket proved to be no real challenge. Indeed some pundits argued persuasively that had Obama looked Caucasian like his mother rather than black like his father, he would have won by a landslide. Not only did Obama win a solid majority of Electoral College votes, but his coattails carried Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress.

The real campaign had been played out in the Democratic primaries, between Obama and Hillary Clinton. The confrontation between the senators from New York and Illinois energized the Democratic Party base (blacks and Latinos, women, first-time voters, students), to a level of enthusiasm and energy that had not been experienced since a previous senator from New York, Robert Kennedy, entered the Democratic primaries in 1968.

Much has happened since Barack Obama was elected four years ago. Therefore, it’s worth looking again at the energized base of 2008 and asking whether Obama’s 2012 campaign could have recreated the conditions that brought him his first victory.

Of course the conditions are not the same. Not only did the Barack Obama of 2012 have a track record to defend, but the support level of 2008 does not in itself translate into as many electoral college votes and congressional seats, since, in the interval, several Republican-controlled state legislatures have gerrymandered congressional districts, brought in photo ID laws, shortened voting hours and taken other measures to make it harder for members of visible minorities and young people to vote. The New York Times warned two days before the election of Republican efforts “to intimidate voters at polling places, to demand photo ID where none is required … The good news is that … courts have either rejected or postponed many of the worst laws. But a great deal of damage has already been done.”

Objectively speaking, Obama’s track record – facing the worst financial crisis since the Depression of the 1930s and, since 2010, an obstructive Republican House of Representatives – is a respectable one: stimulating the economy, bailing out GM and Chrysler, stabilizing the financial sector, fostering the technological postindustrial revolution, achieving the first health care reform since 1965, exiting from Iraq and soon from Afghanistan, recognizing same-sex marriages, legalizing 800,000 illegal Hispanic immigrants, supporting the Arab Spring and redirecting America’s foreign policy toward China. But subjectively, the hope that he infused into the American polity in 2007 and 2008 is not there, smothered under lost jobs and homes.

Could it have been different? In our view, Obama’s strategists needed to attack Romney by emphasizing in stark, human terms the clear choice between Keynesian social liberalism and Ayn Rand–inspired free market liberalism, between preserving the social insurance system and gutting it. While some of his ads made this point, Obama himself seldom did. A victory like that of 2008 would have featured an Obama presenting his vision for the country in a concrete but evocative discourse, drawing a sweeping contrast with his opponents, recapturing some of the idealism that was deflected away from electoral politics by the Occupy Wall Street movement. The groundwork for the problem lay in his choices in his four years in office, his failure to rise to the level of an FDR, who was able, as the Depression persisted, to remain a figure of hope and progress.

The victorious coalition of 2008

When Barack Obama entered the Democratic primaries for the presidential nomination in 2007, he lacked name recognition and his voter base was very small and localized in Illinois. He entered the race a distant third, well behind Hillary Clinton, who was highly visible, heavily supported by the establishment of the Democratic Party and the iconic candidate of 60 per cent of women voters. Practically all observers had declared her certain to emerge as the Democratic candidate for the presidency. Obama, many observers believed, was in it to widen his political base for the future and strengthen his position in the Senate. But early on in the race, this African American voice for change showed signs of energizing sections of the electorate that had been dormant since 1968.

Who were these new energized voters? One group consisted of “Independents,” whose numbers had been increasing over the past 30 years, especially in presidential elections. According to CNN exit polls in the 2004 presidential elections, they represented 26 per cent of the electorate, which rose to 29 per cent in 2008, when 58 per cent of them voted for Obama.1 But building a strategy on independents is building on sand: independent voters have little in common with one another, aside from being predominantly white and somewhat better educated. And they are not necessarily the same people from one election to the next.

Other groups were more cohesive. Not surprisingly Obama was able to consolidate the already strongly Democratic African American vote, as well as a solid majority of Latino and women voters. The real breakthrough came with college students. No Democratic candidate since 1968, not even Bill Clinton, had been able to do as much until the emergence of Barack Obama. In the interval, to the extent that it has been politically active, the college electorate mobilized around the environment, international human rights, Tibet, opposing the war in Iraq and issues related to gender and minorities. In 2004, young voters did not turn out sufficiently to make a difference, allowing George W. Bush to win and pursue the war in Iraq.

During the 2008 primaries, Obama’s campus support allowed him to win the caucus states, where people have to participate in a discussion before casting a vote so that individual mobilizing effort counts for more than in the primary states. Success was due to his message of change but also to the medium by which the message was conveyed: a brilliant Internet strategy devised by David Plouffe. To judge by what they were reading, the more sophisticated progressive voters were skeptical of Obama’s message, but at some level could not help being swept along.2

The challenge of 2012

Aside from the effects of the Iraq war in 2006, George W. Bush’s appeal to the religious right had begun to push young voters into the Democratic camp in 2002 and 2004. Sarah Palin had the same effect in 2008, when, according to Pew Research, 66 per cent of under-30s voted for Obama (compared to 31 per cent for John McCain), with young women and young blacks even higher.3 The situation in 2012, however, was quite different in this constituency, with the Democrats’ advantage among millennial voters declining from 32 points in 2008 to 19. To see why, we need just look at figure 1.

The impressive increase in voter turnout in the 2008 election, 5 million more than in 2004, reflected its being the most ethnically diversified election in American history. This was due primarily to a boost in African American voter participation rate of 5.1 per cent to a level of 67.5 per cent, equal with that of whites. For Hispanic voters over 30, turnout also rose, by 2.4 per cent over 2004 to 49.9 per cent.4

In August 2012, before the conventions, the Pew Research Center released its detailed survey of party identification among registered voters, similar to the one it had carried out four years earlier. While the Democrats still maintained a lead of 5 per cent, it had declined from 12 per cent in 2008. In 2008, the Democrats had led among white women and white voters under 30; now this was no longer the case. White women, who leaned Democratic 49 to 42 per cent in 2008, were slightly more pro-GOP at 47 to 44 per cent in August 2012. Meanwhile, the parties were even among under-30 white voters, compared to a seven-point edge for the Democrats in 2008. However, once we include African Americans and Latinos everything changes: 55 per cent of millennials identify with or lean to the Democrats, compared with 36 per cent for the Republicans.

Table 1, showing those voting for or leaning toward the two candidates, is quite revealing. Apart from blacks and Latinos, only low-income voters support Obama.

In office, Obama sought compromises with Republican congressional leaders and appealed to the few remaining moderate Republicans to get support for policies dealing with the economic crisis. Even after it became obvious that this was not possible, his language did not change. There was no real effort to go over the heads of Congress to address the American people directly, to make clear the differences between the two visions and their implications for working- and middle-class Americans.

This strategy carried into his speech in the convention and was evident in the first debate: to act presidential and not risk antagonizing independent voters. As noted, the strategy backfired. What was missing was a rallying call in the name of the 47 per cent dismissed by Romney, an appeal to solidarity to create the necessary consensus underlying any mandate he may have received, a reminder of the Obama of 2008.

The constituencies that Obama relied on to win in 2008 know that the first four years have not been an easy ride. The financial and economic crisis, the worst to hit the United States since the Great Depression, took the wind out of the sails of the winning slogan “Change, Yes We Can.” Then came the Tea Party takeover of the House in 2010, which effectively put an end to meaningful reform. Understandably, especially among white independents who voted for him, there was disappointment directed at him for failing to sufficiently protect their homes, their jobs and the education fees of their children. Missing in Obama’s discourse was language to evoke the far worse conditions that would have befallen them had his Republican adversaries been able to enact their agenda.

While for many African Americans and Hispanics Obama did not fulfill his inspirational dream, neither group has deserted him. Hispanics disappointed that Obama did not push forward a long overdue policy on illegal Hispanic immigration were pleased when finally, in the summer of 2012, he legalized 800,000 illegal young Hispanics by presidential order. The question was whether they could be mobilized to turn out in comparable numbers, in the context of Republican efforts to make such mobilization more difficult.

Similarly, Obama’s policy on the accessibility – especially for lower-income women – of contraception through hospitals via a provision of Obamacare seems to have reenergized some women voters in his favour. This was strengthened when the Supreme Court unexpectedly ratified Obamacare as constitutional. In addition, Obama’s change of position on same-sex marriage consolidated the support of gays and lesbians, a community that is very active politically and appears to have given substantial monetary support to the Democratic Party. Still, entering the final electoral sprint in September, there remained a significant gap from 2008 levels among groups targeted by the party.

Among many Democratic partisans, discomfort with Obama’s concessions to the Republicans, especially on universal health care, persisted. Many believed that Obama had been listening to the Clinton forces within his cabinet (Timothy Geithner, Larry Summers and Peter Orszag) and outside talking heads such as James Carville and Bill Clinton himself, rather than being sensitive to the needs and concerns of those who brought him to the dance. In 2008 they turned out to vote and to get others to do so. This is how Obama won, and also how the religious right reelected Bush in 2004.

Until the first debate, an advertising campaign warning of what Obama’s opponents threatened to do seemed to suffice in stemming erosion of support among the groups that had supported Obama in 2008. The Republicans’ primary campaign pushed its eventual winner, Mitt Romney, well to the right on both economic and social issues, and his selection of Paul Ryan as vice presidential candidate confirmed his stance. Moreover, Republican candidates continued to shoot themselves in the foot with anti-women and anti-immigrant pronouncements, as well as state regulations such as an Arizona law on racial profiling of suspected illegal aliens.

This, alongside Romney’s gaffes on foreign policy issues, provided the Obama campaign with ammunition and helped it raise money to repel the attacks of the right-wing Super-PACs. Before he was saved in the first debate, Romney was facing mounting criticism: according to a Wall Street Journal editorial, he had no strategy and was all over the map, and doubts were raised among leading conservatives such as Karl Rove, Kevin Phillips and George Will.

Occupy Wall Street one year later

Obama and Biden’s narrow win by makes it hard for them to claim a mandate from the American people to take decisive action that would reduce the power and privileges of the very wealthy in order to preserve the social safety net. It is this dimension that the Occupy Wall Street movement brought into public debate: the unacceptably large and growing income inequality and lack of mobility in the contemporary United States. On occasion, Obama showed that he had heard the message. His speech in Osawatomie, Kansas, in December 2011 took a combative and populist tone, and for the first time he explicitly accused the Republicans of wanting to apply social Darwinism in defending the 1 per cent against the 99. Republicans, including House Speaker John Boehner as well as Romney, accused Obama of instigating class warfare. In May 2012 Obama reiterated his position that he would apply strict regulatory measures on Wall Street during his second mandate, prompting a selloff and a drop of 200 points in the Dow.

But judging by his convention speech, compared even to parts of Bill Clinton’s speech at the same convention, these were the exceptions. Obama was reluctant to draw such clear distinctions, as was evident in the first debate. This is not to suggest that the Democratic Party should have been out trying to convince OWS activists to knock on doors for their candidates. While the OWS movement appealed to graduates unable to find jobs as well as students whose prospects were dim, its most vocal partisans tended to be left-wing activists frustrated by domestic and foreign policies that failed to challenge the dominant elite. Hence, when the occupations subsided, some initiated grassroots social movements, notably the almost successful effort to recall anti-union Governor Scott Walker in Wisconsin.5

While generally refusing to take part in partisan electoral politics, some from OWS were involved in registration drives and efforts to combat measures to limit poor people’s right to vote. Yet, though given the opportunity, the Democratic Party and the Obama campaign were unwilling or unable to channel OWS’s energy and message sufficiently for it to serve as a kind of signpost of the desire for change in 2012.

Now what?

The election has left the United States with a split Congress and a president who cannot claim any sort of clear mandate, not simply because of his meagre margin of victory but also because of the campaign he ran. Could it have been otherwise? We believe it could have if he had carried a different discourse into the first debate. This discourse would have stressed reduction of inequality and restoration of social mobility. Instead of just criticizing Republicans for policies that had brought on the economic crisis, he needed to stress how their policies past and future were such as to widen the gap between rich and everyone else and place even more hurdles in front of those seeking to improve their lot. In other words, a passionate defence of the 47 per cent, or indeed the 99 per cent.

Under such circumstances even a narrow victory would have served Obama better as a basis for seeking from the American people a mandate to address the real issues in his final term. It could be argued that this strategy would have raised the risk of losing the presidency, and with it Obamacare and – after one or more Supreme Court appointments – the right to abortion. On this view, Mitt Romney could have ended up in the White House, which would have meant rewarding bad behaviour and placing irresponsible Republicans in charge of the day-to-day decisions of the world’s leading power – a thought that sends shivers up the spines of concerned observers of the United States in Canada and elsewhere.

But a Romney victory was not really in the cards. Indeed, it was only in the brief period after the first debate that a Romney presidency was a possibility. A different Obama that night would have avoided it. Instead of pitching toward uncertain middle, independent voters who really aren’t so, Obama could have targeted his natural constituency from the beginning, and not just left it to his “ground game” to bring out his passive supporters at the last minute. We know from a Pew study of nonvoters that in 2008 they constituted about 43 per cent of the voting-age population, and that in 2012 they favored Barack Obama over Mitt Romney by a wide margin (59 to 24 per cent).

Mr. Obama cannot run for reelection. Let us hope that – in words even if not so much in deeds – the inspiring Barack Obama of 2008 once more appears on the stage.

Continue reading “Obama 2012 versus Obama 2008”

International cooperative development in Zhejiang province

Reports from visitors to Beijing and Shanghai describe the People’s Republic of China as a human beehive in a rush to catch up with Western modernity. Huge investment is evident in rapid growth, urban expansion and endless construction. But what happens outside these giants?

I recently had a chance to visit the province of Zhejiang, which is situated on the southeast coast and bordered to the north by the Yangtze River. The provincial capital is Hangzhou, a city of 6.7 million people built on a lagoon area called West Lake, two hours’ drive south of Shanghai. Ten years ago, the province embarked on an international cooperative development program to get out from under the overpowering shadow of the giant to the north.

This kind of initiative, which can be found in other provinces as well, reflects a program sometimes termed economic federalism. Politically China remains highly centralized in Beijing, yet responsibilities for local development are being devolved to the provinces. Numerous programs invite international scholars, media and business people to experience the provinces’ distinctive cultures and learn about their economic development first-hand. Particularly interesting initiatives in Zhejiang include Xihu, China’s Silicon Valley; a number of Modern Garden Villages; and the Hengdian World Studios.

Xihu has six technical parks housing 56 corporations that are part of the fast-growing digital entertainment industry, supported by synergetic alliances with the Digital Media Centre of Zhejiang University of Technology and the Design Centre, also at Zhejiang University. Located here is the second most important dot-com company in China, Of the 5,000 employees (average age 22), half were trained in programs coordinated with the provincial universities.

After land was denationalized in the late 1980s and early 1990s, many peasants migrated to the large cities. The problems associated with this migration gave rise in Zhejiang province to the Modern Garden Villages program. One such village is near Dongyang City, 120 kilometres from Hangzhou. It covers five square kilometres and has an active population of 4,476, distributed into 1,737 peasant households.

The village structure is not a cooperative or a commune but rather a kind of corporation with shares, individual enterprises and private housing, all directed primarily toward agricultural production. Control is in the hands of the largest shareholders, who are Communist Party members. Daily agricultural work is an obligation in this capitalist-oriented economy. There is no recourse for protest – no unions – in this enterprise imposed from above.

The Hengdian World Studios are a subsidiary of the large Hengdian Group, which owns hotels and tourist attractions including Dreamland, a theme park based on Chinese history and culture. In the past ten years it has been the site of more than 300 film productions from 30-plus countries, specializing in low-cost large productions such as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Steven Spielberg and George Lucas have recently signed contracts for using the production facilities.

Despite this frenetic process of catching up with Western modernity, there is a powerful and growing undercurrent of desire to return to the study of the teachings of Confucius. While Mao has been reconstructed as a sort of benevolent grandfather of the People’s Republic of China, and Deng Xiaoping is seen as the father of modern China, the rising classes are showing great curiosity about the teachings of Confucius and the dynasties of the past.

At the Confucius Ancestral Temple of the South in Quzhou, built in 1253, Confucian scholars combine pride in membership in the Communist Party and in the teachings of Confucius that stress communitarianism and antimaterialism. Confucian schools (once banned) and reenactments of ancient historical events are popping up everywhere, and educated young people are delving into the philosophy of the ancestral teachings.

How a mixture of the ultramodern and the ancient will ultimately work out is anybody’s guess, but the province of Zhejiang will continue to afford visitors a fascinating insight into the process.

Quebec’s New England outpost

The question asked in the title, taken from the song “Est-ce-que tu vas à Old Orchard encore cet année?” from a 1984 album by Sylvain Lelièvre, can be heard throughout Quebec as the snow melts and the sun starts to radiate on the spring horizon. For francophone Quebecers it is time to think and organize the summer holidays, ushered in on June 24 by la Fête de Saint-Jean.

The phrase “Québécois at the beach” usually conjures up images of Quebec’s snowbirds escaping winter for Florida’s sunny shores. But the Florida winter exodus is a recent phenomenon, reaching its peak in the 1990s and now beginning to dissipate because of the high insurance costs for fixed-income pensioners, increased transportation costs and the loss of trailer parks and inexpensive motels resulting from the boom in condominium construction along the Florida coast. To most Québécois, the seashore evokes one memory most of all – Old Orchard Beach, Maine. In every francophone family in Quebec, at some point since World War II, someone has visited Old Orchard.

Established in 1657 by its first settler, Thomas Rogers, Old Orchard was originally called the “Garden by the Sea.” Its current name is taken from the “old” apple orchard which, perched high on a hill above the sandy beach, served as a landmark to sailors for many years. In 1837, a farmer named E.C. Staples began taking in summer boarders at his farm and, based on this experience, built the first hotel, the Old Orchard Boarding House. Under his tutelage, Old Orchard became a sought-after summer retreat for Bostonians, with restaurants boasting of “shore dinners.” In 1842 the first steam railroad from Boston to Portland was completed, and in 1853 the Montreal-based Grand Trunk Railway extended its service from Portland to Old Orchard to accommodate the rich from Montreal who took their summer holidays there. In 1896, the first steel pier was built as well as a number of lavish resorts, nicknamed the “Velvet Hotels” because of their Victorian design and style. Over the next five decades Old Orchard was to become the summer destination for many of the new rich in Canada and the United States, with summer homes owned by Kennedys, Fitzgeralds and Molsons. Indeed, the teenaged Rose Fitzgerald, John F. Kennedy’s mother, met her future husband Joseph P. Kennedy in Old Orchard.

15 MVC-009FIt remained the summer playground of wealthy northeasterners until a massive fire in 1907 ravished Old Orchard, destroying 75 per cent of the town as well as the Velvet Hotels. But Old Orchard was determined to rebuild and in so doing resurrected itself as a major summer resort for the general public. This was in line with the consumer trends of the 1920s in which the American – and, to some extent, the French-Canadian – middle class was discovering the phenomenon of the “summer vacation.”

The 1920s and 1930s saw a proliferation of tourist activities including the arrival of international motor racing on the beach and the landing there of Charles Lindbergh and his Spirit of St. Louis one month after his return from Paris. It was the era of the big bands and thousands of vacationers danced at the Casino at the end of the pier to the sounds of Rudy Vallee, Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, Count Basie and Louis Armstrong, among others. This continued through the 1950s: my mother, now 85 years young, still remembers how she and my father danced on the pier to the sounds of such famous bands every summer in Old Orchard.

The end of World War II marked the beginnings of the invasion of the Québécois (or French Canadians as they were called then). The love affair between the Québécois and Old Orchard had begun. “The French Canadians, the ones with money, had always come here before the war, but after the war, they came in droves,” Priscilla Gallant, curator of the Old Orchard Historical Museum, explained to me. She herself has strong French-Canadian connections – as well as Acadian and Native (Haché) heritage. Gallant’s mother was a Roy, originally from the Beauce. She explained that today in Saco and Biddeford, towns just south of Old Orchard Beach, over 30 per cent of the population is of French-Canadian origin: “They came to work in the textile mills of Biddeford and some set up permanent residence right here in Old Orchard.” She paints a picture of a community that has incorporated into it the French-Canadian population: “St. Margaret Catholic Church – just at the top of Old Orchard Street, the main street of the town – was in the twenties and thirties a French church, and even today on Sundays some sermons are given in French for our Québécois friends who take their holidays here.” The ongoing presence of French Canadians is indeed strong here. In Biddeford Madame Côté, who works at the City Hall, greeted me in French. This former Quebecer from Sherbrooke, married to an American, described how the French-Canadian (now Franco-American) heritage was being preserved. Later at the presbytery of St. Margaret Church, I encountered Guenette Maheu, a woman in her sixties. As we conversed in French, her face and eyes lit up as she shared her reflections about the area. Speaking in her maternal language, her cultural roots seemed to flower.

15 MVC-003FIn July, the high point of the summer season, over 50 per cent of the vacationers are Québécois, according to the local chamber of commerce. These vacationers come from a wide spectrum of society: college students, young professionals, construction workers, politicians (former premier Robert Bourassa would spend his summer vacations in the area). The last half of July in Quebec is the traditional construction holiday: all union construction sites are shut down and practically everything stops in Quebec. Much as in France, there is a massive exodus of vacationers. “On s’en va à Old Orchard,” I was told by more than one hard-hat wearer when I visited the Palais de Congrès construction site in early July.

Clearly there is an ongoing love affair between Old Orchard and the Québécois and gradually the sources of this love affair have started to fall into place. Obviously the soft compact sand beach, 11 kilometres long and, at low tide, almost a kilometre wide, was a factor. Proximity was another: Old Orchard Beach is the closest seaside connection for much of Quebec. From Montreal, the scenic drive through the New Hampshire mountains and the pleasant Maine lowlands takes but five hours. An early start in the morning means that Montrealers can be at the beach by lunchtime: a scene repeated often at a factory where I once worked was of fellow workers, finishing the night shift at 7 a.m. on Friday, being picked up by their wives and kids in cars packed for a long weekend in Old Orchard Beach.

Ernest Hyppia, a retired cabbie who worked for a Westmount taxi company, recounted how people in the 1950s and 1960s, mostly older women without a car, would hire his cab at a flat rate to take them to Old Orchard. “The practice became so frequent,” he said, “that the cab company had 10 taxis a day going back and forth between Montreal and Old Orchard. When other cab companies in Montreal heard this, they also set up the same service.” Fortunately, “There was enough business to go around and I spent many summers enjoying the visits to Old Orchard.”

But there is a more fundamental reason, something beyond proximity, something to do with culture. On the one hand, there is the cozy atmosphere connected with the French-Canadian cultural heritage; on the other, there is the undeniable fact that since World War II generations of Québécois are products of North American popular culture: they contribute to it and feel comfortable in it. “When we come down the 95 (Interstate 95), from Portland, we see signs in French telling us the distance in kilometres; this makes us feel good,” voiced a group of 20 young adults from Quebec City installed in a row of summer cabins rented for the week.

They find welcoming signs everywhere from “Ici, nous parlons français” on all the hotels, motels, inns, and campgrounds to store signs such as “Kebec Motel”, “La Reine Motel” and “La Place à Louise.” These and many others tell the story of the rental establishments bought and administered by Québécois such as the Laviolette sisters, both in their seventies. The two sisters, who had been coming to Old Orchard since 1949, have for the last 30 years been residents and owners of a motel there.

15 MVC-001FBut the “welcoming signs” are deeper than just the storefront signs. There is a kind of sociopsychological link that subconsciously draws Québécois to an area where they feel they belong. “My father brought me here when I was a youngster, I now return with my young son …. It has become a tradition for the Brunet family of Quebec,” proclaimed Jean Brunet, who seemed to be the spokesperson for “la gang.” Today they not only come as couples and families but also in groups, often large groups. Even though they may not know the history of their ancestors’ massive immigration south to the textile mills of New England, they see traces of the descendants of some of their own ancestors who immigrated here to earn a better living on mailboxes and in the phone books. There is also a subtle but identifiable social connection – as Québécois walk the beach, everyone spontaneously addresses them in French: “ Bonjour”, Bonne Journée”, “Il fait beau aujourd’hui”, “Prenez votre temps.” Yet no one carries a distinguishable mark, sign or flag that says “I am Québécois.” As Québec historian Paul-André Linteau once remarked, “C’est le Québec par en bas” (It’s Quebec down below). This is the informal side of a developing “Francophonie” in a region of North America that has historical, economic and now political links with Quebec.

Beyond cultural identity, there is a more recent sociocultural phenomenon that makes them feel at home in Old Orchard. Starting in the 1950s, with the advent of television and the proliferation of movie theatres in the context of the wider economic development taking place, an educated middle class and a skilled and prosperous working class (both elements that would later on demand the changes fostered by the Quiet Revolution) emerged in Quebec. These classes came to be contributors to a budding North American popular culture – the only difference, as Fernand Dumont put it, is that we express our North American popular culture in French. This continued and massive integration into North American popular culture has been identified in a literature that identifies a key defining characteristic of the Québécois to be their américanité.1

The Québécois have always felt more of a north/south pull rather than an east/west one, sometimes to the chagrin of their fellow Canadians. From the earliest times of colonization the French, or “Canayens” as they called themselves, ancestors of today’s Québécois, explored most of the North American continent, long before the British and the eventual Americans. The guide for the Lewis and Clark expedition was a French Canadian who had already explored what was later called the Oregon territory. French Canadians and now Québécois have long known that their culture, over 400 years, was developed on this side of the Atlantic and is North American, but expressed in French – Québécois French to be more specific.

In movies and especially on television (TV came to Canada in 1952, through the CBC), middle- and working-class Québécois could see what they themselves felt as they came in droves to Old Orchard Beach (the first place of massive contact with the United States): that they were no different, except in language, from their American cousins. They listened and danced to the same music, even in French.

Long before the arrival of the music of the chansonnier, which catered more to the university-educated elite of post–Quiet Revolution Quebec, a form of North American pop music, Quebec-style, sung by, among others, Lucille Dumont, Alys Roby and Fernand Gignac (a crooner compared to Bing Crosby), could be heard throughout Quebec – and, of course, in Old Orchard. There it blended in with Duke Ellington, whose music, along with that by local jazz musicians such as Oscar Peterson, the vacationing Québécois had already danced to in Montreal night clubs then in their heyday, the Mocambo, the Bellevue Casino, le Coq D’or, le Faisan Doré and the legendary Rockhead’s Paradise. Going to Old Orchard meant not culture shock but cultural continuity.

Today Old Orchard has changed – as have most places over the years. Gone are the big bands; the pier, racked by violent winter storms, is now only 200 metres long. Nevertheless, it still holds the same attraction for lower-income and working-class families from Quebec – as well as from the New York and Boston areas. The missing group is the middle-class professionals from Montreal, who in the last 20 years seem to have abandoned the area as a summer destination. You often sense a condescending attitude: Old Orchard is described as too “kétaine” (kitcsh is the closest term in English). As they have come to see themselves as more sophisticated, urban, and cosmopolitan, they have been leaving Old Orchard for more expensive and sophisticated places such as Ogunquit and Kennebunk in Maine, and Cape Cod farther south in Massachusetts. Hence, perhaps the best reflection of contemporary Quebec’s cultural duality, identified with Montreal on one side and the rest of the province on the other, is on the beaches of Maine, with Old Orchard as haven of le Québec profond.

“I am not kétaine” shrugged Jean-Marc from Rigaud, sitting on a bench on the main street of Old Orchard enjoying an ice cream cone with his two kids. “Why should I be considered kétaine just because I come to a place by the sea, which is beautiful, cheaper than other places, close to home, and has everything for my kids’ amusement?” “C’est beau, bon, pas chère!” sums up the response from most of the Québécois I encountered who, in different accents, told me they came from the Beauce, Quebec City, Lévis, Rouyn-Noranda, Laval, Trois-Rivières, Hemmingford, Sherbrooke and other places in-between.

Jacques Larivée, who along with his wife Line Côté and their daughter Stéphanie made up an extremely pleasant and warm family from Lévis near Quebec City, plainly but eloquently told me, “I have come here for the last 35 years, every year. First with my father, later with my own family, and now my son, who will come next week with his young family. It is close, we feel at home. Look at all the Québécois around us, everywhere. We can cook our own meals. Each motel has kitchenettes, so ordinary families like us can get by. Even in the years of the high US dollar we still came, like most of our friends: holidays were shorter, but we came. It is like going to the chalet. And for the kids and young adolescents this is a great place. Vive Old Orchard.”

Of course, they acknowledged Old Orchard had changed over the years, as everything in life changes. But they did not sit in judgment and in many ways like it even more today because they see more Americans coming – hard-working American families like themselves, trying to have a good summer vacation, which they surely deserved.

Upon my return from my Old Orchard pilgrimage, my daughter, a graduate in art history from l’Université du Québec à Montréal, welcomed me back to Montreal with, “Hey! You went to Old Orchard, the kingdom of kitsch.” I felt a little embarrassed. Seeing my embarrassment she insisted on educating me, “Don’t be! Even Andy Warhol celebrated popular culture as an art form born from the people. Opera when it first started was considered popular culture of the day. Popular culture, kitsch, should be studied – its good points and its bad points – but we should never denigrate it. Sure Old Orchard is kitsch but it is our Québécois kitsch!”

So, as I looked over to my wife, I asked, “Are we going to go to Old Orchard again next year?”

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