Without Policies and Programs, a Movement Is Meaningless
Cardy, Dominic, Inroads: A Journal of Opinion
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, fnndraising 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. …