With the angry but proudly directionless Occupy Wall Street movement making headlines, it is ironic that Canadian leftists, often united by anti-Americanism, base their political analysis and actions on American realities. Roberta Lexier’s article in Inroads, contrasting Ryan Meili’s bid for leader of the Saskatchewan NDP and Naheed Nenshi’s campaign for mayor of Calgary with the “old style” politics she disdains, draws our attention to this dichotomy.1
Lexier is not commenting on Canadian politics; she and many others on the Canadian left are orbiting a bright and distracting American sun, using American reference points and ignoring the differences between the two countries. Because of this Canadians are deprived of a richer progressive response to today’s political problems. Further, by exalting campaigns that appear game-changing, Lexier contributes to the myth that public protests and campaigns decide political outcomes, not hard work toward a common goal.
Canada shares many problems with the United States: rural and urban poverty, deprivation on First Nations reserves, diminishing economic vigour, confusion over how to deal with a globalized world, declining levels of political participation. But Canada is not the United States, where politics is elite-driven and controlled by multimillionaires. The American system is presidential, ours parliamentary; theirs is corrupted by massive interference from lobbyists while ours, thanks to reforms enacted by Liberal and Conservative governments, severely restricts third-party lobbying and depends on small donors and inexpensive campaigns.
Meili, a young doctor who lost an insurgent campaign against the Saskatchewan NDP establishment, and Nenshi, who emerged from nowhere to win as an unabashed progressive in the Conservative heartland, were influenced by Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign, a heritage Lexier never acknowledges. From the “money bomb” fundraisers to self-directing groups of volunteers to YouTube videos and the fetishizing of new media, Meili and Nenshi sang from the Democrat’s campaign playbook and the Canadian media joined the chorus, eager for some Obama magic.
All three campaigns were fundamentally conventional. The candidates were professional men who used lofty rhetoric to win volunteers, raise money and get out the vote. Charisma, hardly a recent addition to politicians’ arsenal, allowed people to get swept up in a narrative of change often divorced from policy specifics.
Lexier offers unfavourable comparisons between the Meili and Nenshi races and the 2011 Canadian federal election. While she rightly criticizes the obsession with public opinion polls, arguments over the format of debates and focus on personal scandal in the election campaign, she praises process stories about campaign tools, fundraising techniques and new technology, imbuing them with ideological and transformative powers without any justification.
Facebook cannot change the world. People using Facebook certainly can, but the fetishizing of shiny political tools has led to a decline in citizen engagement in the United States that we should note with caution. Voter contact technology, direct mail strategies and other campaign tools, freed from the campaign finance restrictions that make Canadian politics less exciting but much more affordable, make elections inaccessible to all but the best connected and best funded. This disconnect, as much as any other single cause, has caused the sense of alienation that led to the Occupy Wall Street movement.
Lexier should look around: while rightly praised for helping Tunisians coordinate the Facebook Revolution that overthrew Ben Ali’s dictatorship, Facebook has been used by governments in Iran, China and Syria to investigate and disrupt dissident groups. To reinforce the fact that tools have no ideology in themselves, it is worth noting that just as Meili and Nenshi’s campaigns owed a debt to Obama, so did Obama owe one to George W. Bush’s 2004 campaign, which used then-revolutionary databases to empower Republican activists in the defeat of the hapless John Kerry. Democrats, in Canada as in Tunisia, have to listen to more than the siren call of organizing techniques and think about the ideas that drive people to want to use those new and potentially exciting tools.
Lexier is looking for transformation in all the wrong places. Campaigns that rely on process instead of ideas give a misleading plasma-screen excitement to the often dull reality of democratic government: reading reports, debating legislation, compromising with bureaucrats, arguing with people within your political party over policies and presentation.
We should not pretend that politics is more accessible or exciting than it is. The left has to learn how to win, then learn how to manage the complexities of the existing system, and then undertake the far more complex task of reforming that system. Simplifying the appearance of governance isn’t engagement: it is manipulation. On the right we have seen this play out through the illusions of control offered by referendums and the populism of the Tea Party. On the left the Occupy Wall Street movement, which sums up what Lexier is looking for, also offers plenty of noise but as little hope of changing the world in favour of the majority.
The self-obsessed Occupy movement, caught up with its ability to inform people about itself, is a lazy alternative to real change, disdaining tools previous generations of progressives fought hard for the right to use. The events themselves are meaningless, if meaning in politics comes from actually changing the world. Sure, we can get a thousand, ten thousand or even a million people out to a town square, but why are we there? Without an ideological framework these protests are harmless releases of political hot air, the energy they could have channelled dissipating like a thousand recycled slogans.
Evidence of the protests’ harmlessness was confirmed on October 10 when Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream, owned by the massive multinational Unilever, endorsed the Occupy movement. If the movement has one point of policy consensus it is the evils of massive multinationals. Ben and Jerry’s board know they can sell more ice cream by appealing to progressive consumers, and do it without any danger to their corporate interests.
Public protest has always been a last resort. When successful it is a literal demonstration of public force, reminding governments that they must listen to a clearly articulated set of demands. Such protests are a reminder that the group making speeches today will tomorrow knock down the doors of parliament. Muammar Gaddafi fell victim to this lesson; Syria’s Assad is still trying to resist it. In both cases the demand from the public was clear: your regime must go.
The Occupy movement enjoys no such clarity or resolve. Here the street protests are the first and last step; the protesters have no demands, and will neither organize politically nor arm themselves to overthrow their governments if ignored. Politicians know this so-called insurrection will, at worst, continue to be loud but ineffectual, or soon disintegrate into squabbling factions. This has already started, as trade unions that want to turn the Occupy movement into a voice for progressive taxation are angrily rebuffed by others who see any message as co-option.
Conservative columnist David Brooks, in a recent column called “The Limits of Empathy,” compared the anorexia of empathy with the transformative power of what he calls a code, which he might as well have referred to by its old-fashioned name: ideology. Empathy, the morally relative position of feeling the pain of everyone while simultaneously recusing yourself from any responsibility to address it, defines the core of the Occupy movement. The absence of an ideological focus is why it is doomed to fail.
The left must remember that our goal is action in the service of change, not discussion in the service of more discussion. Policies and programs are more important than fancy new technology: if we get the ideas right we will recruit the volunteers and raise the money to get the job done. Without the unifying ideas we are wasting time and energy. I do not underestimate how hard it will be to develop those new ideas: people are rightfully suspicious of politicians offering answers and we are at a period when what it means to be conservative or progressive is changing rapidly. Elsewhere in this issue of Inroads I have written some ideas on that score, and I hope others will follow suit.
Lexier is cynical; I am not. I became Leader of New Brunswick’s New Democrats earlier in 2011 with a campaign team led by young people, dominated by women and supported by volunteers who sacrificed their time – in some cases quitting their jobs – to make our shared dream for a better province real. We fought entrenched interests, brought in new volunteers and made it clear that politics is a battle and that no group with power gives it up voluntarily. We studied and used new campaign tools, but didn’t fetishize them – our province, like our country, needs courage and application, not iPhone apps.
Sacrifice and organization in service to a clear set of policies: this was the spartan approach of Tommy Douglas and other successful reformers. They made Canada one of the richest and fairest countries in the history of this planet. The system Lexier decries for its dullness has shown it can be harnessed by the people: we leap ahead as a country when we seize the tools already at our disposal. The saddest truth brought to light by the Occupy movement is our collective failure to realize that we, the public, the 99 per cent the movement talks about, already occupy this country. We just need to move in and make the renovations. We’ll need building supplies and tools to finish the rebuilding but most of all what we need, and what we’re missing, is an architect’s design. When that’s finished, and if our plans are rejected by that one per cent, then let’s go to the streets. Until then, let’s get to work.
1 Roberta Lexier, “Politics, new style,” Inroads, Summer/Fall 2011, pp. 100–107.