The Art of the Possible

Politics is the art of the possible.

  • Otto von Bismarck

Many forms of Government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.

  • Winston Churchill

I’m not a giddy person by nature. Sure, I’m happy enough. Well, happy enough for someone with my particular temperament. Which is not to say that I’m unhappy, but rather to say that I’m not terribly demonstrative or given to…well…giddiness.

But today’s news that the Federal New Democrats are planning to step up to the plate and defeat the government had me on cloud nine. Not only had the party I’d once supported and have recently maligned risen to its promise and refused to offer any further assistance to the corrupt and contemptible (both objectively and legally) Conservatives, but they’ve also presented us with an opportunity to reverse 10 years of political ennui in a mere 30 days.

Like so many others, I immediately took to the facebook-twitter-blogosphere to express my joy over our likely election. Not surprisingly, my happiness was met with the usual Conservative memes: namely, “elections don’t change anything”, “elections are too costly” and the crème de la crème; “elections are too risky”.

If you feel like you’ve been addressing these arguments for a long time, you have. Cynicism has become the predominant symptom of our current governmental reality. And rather than rise above it, we’ve not only allowed it to fester, but we’ve also allowed our representatives to use it against us. The Conservatives haven’t been in power for 5 years because their better, they’ve been in power for 5 years because they convinced us to stop worrying about who’s in power. Through endless media assaults, the Harperites have convinced a great number of us to believe that as long as everything is mostly OK, why should we bother worrying about who’s in office?

And for our part, we lefties have not risen to meet this threat. Rather we’ve descended deeper and deeper into despondency; taking each loss worse than the last. And in our depression, we abandoned our core principles of hard work and sacrifice and attempted instead to rely on gamesmanship. Nowhere did this manifest more malignantly than in the Toronto Municipal Election; arguably the lowest point in recent memory for progressively-minded people.

The cornerstone of this failed gamesmanship was certainly the “Anyone but…” strategy, if you can call it that. In this horrible scenario a “best worst” candidate is picked and promoted while at the same time, the “supporters” of this “best worst” run a concurrent campaign against the leading right-wing candidate. In the case of the Toronto election, the best-worst was George Smitherman and the concurrent campaign was “Toronto CanNOT afFORD”.

(For my part, I supported both of those efforts. I wrote a lengthy endorsement for Smitherman on this site and also spread the negative “toronto canNOT afFORD” message and materials as far and wide as I could manage.)

So aghast were we that not only could a candidate as unfit as Rob Ford be leading the polls, but that he could at the same time marginalize the entire downtown progressive population. But then, his attack was more focused and less inconsistent than those launched by the anti-Ford side. Rob Ford was clearly against David Miller, against “elitism” and against “waste”. The other candidates tried weakly to be for something and to use those meagre tentpoles to change the focus of the campaign, but like any good warrior, Ford refused to engage the enemy on the enemy’s terms. While Smitherman, Pantalone and Thompson scrambled to figure out which way to shoot, they were already dead. Simple populism destroyed unfocused quasi-progressivism.

Rob Ford’s team knew what the Harper Conservatives know (not surprising, as they regularly exchange strategists and fixers), and that is that the right can play negative and win because they only try to appeal to a person’s base emotion and more importantly, their base fears. And, thanks to an extraordinarily fragile economy, the Right has been able to focus in on the big tamale with all their guns and missiles…they’ve focused on your wallet.

Lefties don’t have it so easy, what with us being so high-minded and, more recently, so arrogant about our high-mindedness. Even at our best, when we are communicating with people on a human level about the larger issues of caring for the less fortunate, building a just society and working in harmony despite differences, we can never use fear as an incentive. When we try, we die. Look at the floundering environmental movement and specifically the climate-change movement if you want proof. (That’s a topic for another day, I suppose.)

But I digress. The point is that even when we’re doing it correctly we are attempting to engage on ideas that require a great deal of selflessness on the part electors to be realized. And you can’t scare people into being selfless.

So, what do we do if the job is hard and the easy ways out have only lead to defeat? What’s the alternative? Especially when faced with an increasingly hostile and cynical electorate.

Let’s not be tempted to let the citizens of Canada (our self-righteous selves included) off so easy. Right after I heard the announcement that the NDP would not support the 2011 budget, I posted the following:

“To all who claim this election can only bring more of the same: You are the problem. Don’t blame the party leaders for being lame, because the party leaders and the parties themselves are a reflection of us. They’ve been weak because we have been weak. But we can turn them around. Step 1: Take a little fucking responsibility for yourself and for your country.”

Truly, the politicians and citizens of this country are reflections of each other. As well they should be, as one does indeed come from the other. But it’s deeper than that. While we can always be somewhat susceptible to the whims of our political masters, we the citizenry can ultimately exert control over their agenda and the tone of their discourse if only we’d do so. Sadly, we’ve been amazingly delinquent in this task. And it shows.

Only in a country where the people have ceded their power could a government like the Harper Conservatives ever exist. We criticize the NDP and the Liberal for not standing up to Harper. But we don’t stand up to Harper…why should they?

So the question is obviously one of figuring out how to get the people to shed their fear and retake the reigns?

We (the left) can only win by reengaging the electorate. In doing so, we will likely have to endure the two most difficult months in the history of Canadian politics. We will certainly have to endure an onslaught of people saying it can’t be done. And yes, there’s a chance we could lose it all, but that’s a worthy risk; especially if the point is to build a strong society, rather than simply to win.

The Left cannot play to fear and it cannot play to greed. It doesn’t scare people into caring by reminding them how bad off they are. Only the Right can do that. They are the party of “can’t” and “too risky” and “maybe next time”. We have to be better.

In my heart and mind I believe that Canadians are eager to reclaim the ideals on which Canada was forged – positive ideals.

Canada is a settler’s country; forged by people who faced the unknown with conviction and earnestness. Progress was life, stop somewhere too long and it’d be the end of you. While we might not all have the tundra with which to contend, we all struggle with formidable challenges which require as much personal fortitude and conviction as anything faced by Coureurs de Bois.

The idea of Canada has lasted almost 144 years and I assure you that no venture could endure and prosper for that long if it was built on a foundation of fear.

The message to the Left is clear. We can spark the imaginations of Canadians. But only if we pick ourselves up from out of despondency, shed off our fear of losing, stop playing our pointless games and start telling the truth; that tough times call for more selflessness, not less. That sharing is a natural thing and that working together is the only way we advance.

But let us not forget to demand much of ourselves, saying time and time again that if the political climate is bad, it’s because we as Canadians are allowing it to be so. And that if we want our leaders to change, we first must dare to change.

Finally, the word “progressive” gets tossed around a lot these days, more often pejoratively than not. We have to reclaim that title and remind people that to move forward, to progress, is to thrive.

And whenever someone says they’d rather have the status quo than take a risk on an uncertain election, remind them that Stephen Harper hasn’t be re-elected because he led us to the Promised Land; he’s been re-elected because he has convinced us that he’ll find the Promised Land soon, but only if we continue to re-elect him.

We know we can do better. But first we have to be better.

We are progressives. You are a progressive. Own that.

We recognize that the country is in a constant state of evolution and that the challenges we’ll face tomorrow are unrecognizable to us today.

But we needn’t fear the unknown.

We needn’t fear, because we’re together.

And together we’ll be just fine.

One thought on “The Art of the Possible

  1. Pingback: Friday’s Show Notes – March 25, 2011 « CKUT's "Morning After" and "Lendemain de la Veille"

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