Does the election mark Common Sense Revolution 2.0?
TheStar.com – news/canada/politics – Insight
Published On Sat Apr 30 2011. By Olivia Ward, Foreign Affairs Reporter
You could call it the Layton Leap.
Or, the Canadian Spring.
The apparent left turn of voters who seemed in lockstep to re-elect Prime Minister Stephen Harper with more seats than ever has bamboozled pundits and politicians as they watch NDP Leader Jack Layton’s poll numbers climb.
So has the bigger-than-expected turnout for early ballots on a holiday weekend. And this after predictions that the turnout could even undercut the last election, which attracted the lowest percentage of registered voters in history.
“What began as a business-as-usual election has turned into something really unusual,” says Jamie Biggar, who heads the Vancouver-based Leadnow, which summons “vote mobs” of young people to the polls.
“There is a growing sense of possibility that after this election we might have real change in Ottawa.”
Many Canadians, it appears, think that can’t happen too soon. And they may not be alone.
In Canada, a prime minister who touts tax cuts for corporations and multi-billion-dollar payouts for fighter jets, while food banks swell, enjoyed five years in power and is bidding for five more.
In the U.S., a president who embraced the “politics of hope” is pushed to compromise with the deficit-driven demands of a hard-line Congress that endorses cuts to bedrock social programs while whittling taxes for the rich.
Meanwhile, the inequality gap in both Canada and the United States yawns ever wider, and the majority of citizens see their hopes and living standards slide, as a cadre of millionaires and billionaires grow richer.
Politicians who run roughshod over constitutions created to empower citizens rate little more than a shrug.
Where is the common good?
On the eve of yet another federal election, have Canadians reached the tipping point that tilts them away from wedge and winner-take-all politics — or are they taking a brief breather from the business of politics as usual?
The ideal of decent living standards and a strong social safety net was once the war cry of reformers, who fought for social justice and equality, and vowed the Great Depression would never happen again.
Now it is the target of political pit bulls who bare their teeth at the idea of “big government,” while savaging the institutions they have been elected to support and serve.
“Parties in power (used) the ignorance of many voters to trample on some very important constitutional rules and principles,” says political scientist Andrew Heard of Simon Fraser University. “Those are the bedrock of the common good, and without them governments act with less and less restraint and accountability.”
Ignoring the confidence of Parliament and refusing to give it required information have been dismissed as “storms in teacups” with toxic effects on the political process, Heard says. “Voters’ perceptions of the rules of the game — and trust in the institutions of government — have been severely battered.”
Bitterly divisive politics are nothing new. But cynicism and disillusionment have escalated with the widening of inequality and the perceived inability or unwillingness of governments to act in the interest of the majority of citizens.
“The problem goes back to the 1980s and the regimes of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan,” says Stephen Bronner of Rutgers University, author of Socialism Unbound. “Thatcher’s slogan was ‘there’s no society, only individuals.’ That set the stage for the even more radical onslaught of (President George W.) Bush.
“The assumption that the state has virtually no role to play used to be predicated on the idea that there is an invisible hand on the market that ultimately stabilizes supply and demand. That’s no longer valid since the (2008) crash. But radical consumerist individualism that took root in the age of greed carried over. Now we are in a war of all against all.”
Wedge politics — playing off one group against another to win political points — has burgeoned. Those who have better working conditions are bitterly attacked by those who see no way of improving their lot through collective action.
“Wedge politics works, ask any political strategist,” says Canada’s ranter-in-chief, Rick Mercer. “There are giant swathes of people they are happy to alienate to win points. They know they will never vote for them so they’d just as soon piss them off.”
Although Canada still prides itself on a vision of the common good, through health care and social safety net, the ballooning deficit has gnawed at belief that government can be the solution rather than the problem.
Meanwhile, human rights that were once considered part of the national identity have dwindled in the wake of 9/11 and the U.S.-led “war on terror.” The Constitution as a guarantor of rights and Parliament as an expression of public will have been diminished in stature.
Little wonder, says Heard, that people stopped voting. The lowest percentage of registered voters for a federal poll was 58.8 per cent in 2008, a drop of almost 7 per cent from 2006.
On the whole, he believes, it’s due to a “general lack of inspired leadership” in all parties. And growing doubts that elected politicians will actually serve in the public interest.
In America it’s a part of a century-old struggle, says Charles Postel, author of The Populist Vision.
Populism has been claimed by the far-right Tea Party, which blames government for the country’s ills. But it has little in common with the views of the early reformers, who laid the foundation for Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal and Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society reforms.
“In the 1890s . . . (people) believed in income taxes, educational policy, creation of public schools and universities, credit and money policies,” says Postel, a historian at San Francisco State University. “The feeling of empowerment, that ordinary people need to know these things for a more just society to exist, has been lost.”
The populists helped to create food and safety standards, child labour laws, Medicare and progressive income tax. Those things have been rolled back in recent years by governments touting a minimalist approach to social legislation, emphasizing privatization and individual responsibility.
But the near collapse of the economy in the Depression, which led to a consolidation of society in the 1930s, hasn’t been repeated in the 21st century, when massive corporations were kept afloat by government bailouts. Meanwhile, ordinary people who lost homes and jobs also lost faith in their leaders’ ability to act in their interests.
Measures aimed at rescuing those hit hardest were decried as “socialist,” and a reckless expansion of the role of government. Those who preached a gospel of smaller government seized the political pulpit.
“The biggest policy issue just now is ‘how fast can I get out of your way if I’m in government,’” says Armine Yalnizyan, a senior economist at the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA).
“We’re at a turning point where the global economic crisis might have triggered a different look at where we’re heading. But everyone wants to blame everyone else, and they’re blaming all the wrong actors.”
That, she says, leads to the trivialization of politics. Crucial issues are ignored and the public is distracted by “retail politics” that cater to niche needs without a vision of where society is going.
“We’re condemned to climb back on the horse and barrel down the same path until we confront the big issues like climate change, the aging of society, the rise of the overclass and growth of the underclass.”
Layton has not tackled the issue of the common good in his campaign directly, perhaps because he wants to avoid the “old-think” label of socialism.
But in an essay for the Mark, he spoke of his inspiration, Saskatchewan premier and NDP Leader Tommy Douglas, the pioneer of Medicare: “‘Dream no little dreams,’ Tommy would say — then show us how. . . Medicare is impossible, the world cried out. Then he got it done through a dramatic team effort sparked by his courage to dream big. The same courage lowered Saskatchewan’s voting age to 18, pioneered public-sector bargaining rights, prototyped public auto insurance, launched a public air ambulance service, and issued a bill of rights.
“Contrast that with more ‘modern’ leaders whose idea of nation-building is to prop up big business and hope for the best. We need more of Tommy, and less of that.”
Has that message got through to the Canadian public? If so, it may be by inference.
Or the late-election NDP surge may be the surfacing of a submerged hope for something better from Ottawa.
“Skepticism about government is nothing new, it’s been there since World War II, when government expanded so much and the expansion was sometimes poorly considered,” says political science professor Ian Greene of York University.
“The basic principle of democracy is mutual respect. But fewer people have been thinking along those lines. It’s a reflection of increasing self-centredness in society. There may be a desire for change, but it depends on leadership.”
Winner-take-all politics will prove to be a dead end — if not now, then eventually, says Kim Hill, an expert in human evolution at Arizona State University. Sharing and co-operation are survival strategies that go back to the dawn of humankind, he points out. Ignoring our inner ape will only lead in the wrong direction.
Ultimately, the choice is to embrace the common good or face the consequences. That’s something Canadians may ponder as they head to the polls on Monday.
“Humans are social primates and they have been for millions of years,” says Hill. “Groups that work for the common good do well. Groups that don’t are out-competed and exterminated by other groups. Anyone who says otherwise simply doesn’t know anything about humans.”
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