The performance of the NDP – over 100 seats - should be seen for what it is – a huge victory for progressive values even though the surge did not deliver everywhere they hoped. It is true that party politics can seem perverse – the NDP was giddy with celebration last night as if no one had told them that Harper won a majority. But with over 100 MPs the NDP has changed the face of Canadian politics. And there are a lot of very good, dedicated progressives in that contingent.
The Liberals may well destroy themselves in the next two years. Decimated and leaderless (its leader lost his seat) Incapable of unity and indulging in a left-right internal battle their members and supporters may simply drift away to the Conservatives or the NDP, moving the country back to a polarized, two party system. The Bloc Quebecois, the powerhouse of Quebec politics since 1993, is virtually dead – reduced by the NDP tide to three seats from 47.
The results in Quebec are truly amazing – it is the one place in Canada that can be described as genuinely progressive. We should rejoice in the results there. Somehow in Quebec citizens remain connected to their history, their culture and their insistence that government and politicians serve them, not the other way round. When Gilles Duceppe joined in a call for another referendum at a PQ gathering, the whole province turned with stunning speed against him – essentially saying to the aging sovereignist elite, don’t tell us what we need. Duceppe forgot that people voted for him because of his social democracy. When he seemed to forget that, they booted him out. They trust Layton because he understands and respects their nationalism – at the root of their progressive values – without insulting them about another referendum.
While it may be little comfort in the short term, 60 per cent of Canadians still voted against the Harper government. We can hope that many of those who voted Conservative have not clearly anticipated what that will mean – for the Medicare they cherish, for the democracy they participate in, for the security they hope for in old age, for the notion that government can actually work for them.
But what now for progressives, activists, people engaged in democracy? Over the decades I have heard too many progressives muse along the theme of “the worse the better” – that is, when things get really bad, people will wake up and fight back and we will see fundamental change. I hope we can avoid that thinking. Actually, history suggests that more often the rule is pretty simple: the worse things get the worse they are. And they were pretty terrible over the past five years and going into this election. It didn’t mobilize people. Most have adapted to a new normal.
What was shocking for people throughout the first three weeks of the campaign – before the strange, detached euphoria of the NDP surge was that so many Canadians – hovering near 40 per cent – could support a government that was not only conservative in policy terms but virtually a rogue government in terms of its blatant and unapologetic trashing of democratic institutions and conventions. It did not seem to matter a whit that Harper harboured thugs in his inner circle, was found in contempt of Parliament, and lied without hesitation whenever it suited him.
But despairing over this result is not only pointless and self-defeating, it would be a betrayal of the tradition that says government can be a force for good and at its best is the fullest expression of community. And it would be, for activists and the most politically engaged, a betrayal of the resilience of Canadian values – suppressed as they seem to be at the moment.
We have known for a long time that creating a better world out of this darkening time would be a long term struggle. This election result (however its entrails are interpreted) is just the latest chapter of a determined effort by the worst forces of capitalism to neutralize democracy – a process that was begun in the mid to late 1970s and has moved inexorably every year since.
Progressives need to come to grips with that fact that despite consistent results from surveys suggesting two thirds of people hold socially progressive values, something profound is cancelling those values out, neutralizing them. We live in society that is increasingly conservative in its behaviour and actions. Forty-five percent of people in Ontario where a third of Canadians live, voted for Harper. On the prairies it was over 55 per cent.
In the absence of community, in the absence of government that works for people instead of against them, in the absence of strong, robust, imaginative civil society, people will turn to an alternative that seems profoundly, frustratingly irrational on its face: one that will dramatically roll back their quality of life. People will find comfort and meaning somewhere, anywhere, if we don’t provide it.
Progressive forces need to do a lot of soul-searching in the next year. There are countless questions to be asked and answered – or at least addressed. My generation, more than any other, let this happen. As much as we may lead the wailing and despairing over our country’s immediate fate, we never took the task of protecting it seriously. The left-wing political class is middle class – a way too comfortable, too complacent and in my experience too lacking in a sense of urgency. It is as if we think we can stop these powerful, frightening forces by working at it part-time; by doing what we always do; and not giving up any of the perks of our success.
If this election result does not shake people out of this self-satisfied stupor then we are really in trouble. Why is it that the Christian right gives til it hurts to destroy democracy while we think we can defend it with a few pennies donated to good causes? Maybe what we need is a 5 per cent club – people serious about social change willing to publicly commit to giving 5 per cent of their pre-tax income to fight what is coming down the road. We will need it.
This will be a very long term fight, a generational fight, rooted in a serious and thoughtful collective examination of where we have been, what we did wrong and what we need to do right. It will be very, very hard as we will be trying to build a vision of a better future, one that can truly inspire and engage people, while conditions are getting dramatically worse and many people suffer the consequences of this election. But there is no other way. Rebuilding a progressive political culture from the ground up is the starting point. The silver lining is that it will be challenging, exciting and invigorating – in other words, something completely different.