The rise of the grassroots movements

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Published Thursday, February 24, 2011.   Preston Manning

In the past 30 years, which has had more success in mobilizing public support for major changes in public policies: traditional political parties or “the movements”? By “the movements,” I mean such phenomena as the environmental, feminist, “balance the budget,” free trade, anti-globalization, gay rights “movements,” to name but a few.

In Tunisia and Egypt in recent weeks, which were the greater forces for political change: the organized opposition parties or the chaotic but far more energetic “movements” beneath and around the parties?

At a time when support for traditional parties is diminishing worldwide, support for bottom-up socio-economic movements with political agendas is on the rise and is becoming increasingly easy to organize through the use of social networking tools.

In the U.S., the Tea Party movement appears to be a national phenomenon. In Canada, the rise of new movements for political change appears to be occurring mainly at the provincial and local levels. Consider, for instance, the recent upsurge in public interest and political energy represented by such diverse causes as the anti-HST movement in British Columbia, the Wildrose phenomenon in Alberta, the increasing opposition to incumbent governments in Manitoba and Ontario, the emergence of Réseau Liberté-Québec, the recent mayoralty contests in Calgary and Toronto, and the winds of change blowing in New Brunswick.

These examples represent expressions of bottom-up energy and discontent. Most are provincial or local in nature and most represent something broader and deeper than the parties and personalities identified with them.

So what roles can the movements play in revitalizing our democratic system?

First, they can mobilize public opinion and support in such a way as to raise specific issues higher on the public agenda – high enough that parties are obliged to respond. Thus a Movement for Health-Care Reform in one of the provinces, preferably organized by a Waiting Line Coalition, is more likely to be successful in creating the political support necessary to achieve real health-care reform than the risk-averse manoeuvrings of parties.

Second, movement organizations (if they haven’t become paralyzed by age or ideological obsessions) should be able to alter their positions to meet changing conditions more easily and quickly than parties, especially governing parties. On the environmental front, for example, there’s growing evidence that Canadians are become increasingly disillusioned with the incapacity of big government to solve big environmental problems with big-government schemes (such as Kyoto and its successors). But there’s growing public interest in and support for local community-based environmental entrepreneurship, with governments called on to play the more modest role of simply removing the barriers to the exercise of such entrepreneurship.

Third, principled parties need their own philosophically compatible “movements” to sustain and enrich them. Why? Because modern parties (and I started two of them) have become primarily marketing mechanisms for fighting elections. They do very little development of their own intellectual capital; they’re dependent on others to do so – think tanks, academics, interest groups and the civil service, if they’re a governing party. They do very little nurturing and training of their people, especially their volunteers, despite the fact that “people” are really their only major asset besides money. And parties have quite limited communications capacities outside of election periods – they’re highly dependent on sympathetic communicators in the media and academia for the delivery of their ideology and policies.

We at the Manning Centre call all these supportive structures and resources – think tanks, political training materials and programs, communications vehicles – “democratic infrastructure.” And we’ve argued that, in the case of conservative parties, for example, it’s the responsibility of the “conservative movement” – as distinct from the conservative parties – to finance and supply as much of this infrastructure as possible. The danger for parties that have been long in office is that, during that time, they allow this infrastructure to atrophy. Then when the party is removed from office, it finds itself intellectually bankrupt, lacking in qualified personnel and communications capability.

Preston Manning is president and CEO of the Manning Centre for Building Democracy.

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