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Making our ideas count again
The Democrat, April 1998
In the March issue I pointed out that it's not enough for the federal NDP to hammer home bread-and-butter issues. The "context of understanding," or ideology, that most Canadians now bring to economic issues is right-wing, so we're seen as largely irrelevant, no matter how sensible and practical we are. The provincial NDP isn't immune to this damage, either. By contrast, Preston Manning and Paul Martin have a field day. Provincially, even a lacklustre Gordon Campbell rides high in the polls.
Therein, however, lies the solution - work to change the context of understanding. Help the public to broaden its perspective, and then we'll begin to make real headway again.
"Okay," you might ask, "how do you help the public to move beyond the conventional right-wing wisdom and to see the world in a different way?"
We have to remember that changing the "context of understanding" is a strategic exercise, not a quick fix about a specific issue. The way people think is ingrained and is influenced by everything around them. The response: focus on how that perspective needs to be shifted and then take advantage of every occasion available, including Question Period in the House, to make it happen.
It's also important to remember that ideas count. It's irrelevant whether most voters have a taste or not for debating ideas, or whether they read reflective articles in newspapers; they're affected by ideas anyway. It's crucial to get one's ideas out. (The right wing learned this in the 1970s. The "Thatcher revolution" began not with Margaret Thatcher but with an ideas-oriented MP and a few young Conservative Turks.)
With that said, here are some of the elements of a strategic approach, and how it will create a breakthrough.
Conclusion: Think strategically and draw new energy from our underlying principles.
- Start making the case again for our political philosophy.
This is the very first thing to do. The right-wing has been indoctrinating people with the idea that "the market" is everything and is divine, and we should prostrate ourselves before it. "The market über alles," I call this dogma. The proponents of the doctrine make it out to be glorious, self-evident. It assumes we are economic creatures, and that by serving "the market" and surrendering to its dictates, we will end up with the best of all possible worlds.
Nothing could be further from the truth. People are first and foremost social beings, not economic ones. They and their environment, and their communities, and their cultural self-expression are primary, and have their own, social rules. Economic devices like markets should serve people and their communities rather than vice-versa.
This is a description not only of democratic socialism, but also of what people are. It's important to make the point, and keep on making it, and take the high ground away from the right wing.
- Take the time to make the connection.
This doesn't mean that we should be talking political philosophy non-stop or even most of the time. We should, though, take advantage of talking about specific issues to make the connection to the wider context. All our issues - activist government, strengthening the community's economy, medicare, public broadcasting, fairness and equality, helping each other, the rights of labour, protecting the environment, bread-and-butter issues, wine-and-cheese issues, you name it - lend themselves to politically building the wider context.
This, in turn, enhances the impact of our arguing specific issues. They're not just random issues any more. They're part of a broad political vision. We should invoke history more often, too. That adds to the context.
- Elaborate a vision of the future.
We grumble about being dismissed by the pundits as a party of the past. It's a phoney rap, but maybe we help bring it on ourselves. We're reactive, cautious, pedestrian. We don't put forward a bold, futuristic vision of the next society. The right wing does (a globalized, borderless, market-dictated, materialist utopia); it's part of their success. Why not start talking again about the kind of society we want, in bold and compelling language?
- Don't forget, in that vision, the economy and technologies of the future.
That means talking a lot more about new kinds of work, technologies like the Internet, the nature of cities, culture and entertainment, the mass media, the global environment. We don't live in the 1920s any longer, or even the 1960s.
- Assume a positive tone about the future of our outlook on life.
That may be hard to do when all around us is the widening gap between rich and poor and ever-more powerful global corporations - a kind of new feudalism - not to mention horrors like the MAI proposal, plus federally losing every election we've ever fought. The right, similarly, wants us to believe - smugly takes it for granted - that history is on their side. Keep in mind, however, that in this strategy we now have a bold, future vision. We also know that our political philosophy remains as appropriate as ever. We can start referring to the Liberals and Reform as parties of the past, stuck in a 1980s time warp, and continue to do so until we all get used to the idea.
- Make media bias and unrepresentative media ownership a major political issue.
The mass media, and not the Reform or Liberal parties, are our chief political opponent, because they set the framework within which political debate takes place. They are the gatekeepers. They govern context, the crucial factor.
- Go on the offensive on economic and financial issues.
In the 1980s and into the early 1990s, we backed off economic and financial issues, especially at election time, because our credibility on them was low, whereas our credibility on social issues was much better. The upshot: our presence on economic and financial issues became weaker and weaker and, given their key importance, we marginalized ourselves
We've begun to address this problem now, but we're still far too gun shy. We've been afraid, for example, to tackle Paul Martin, with his puffed-up reputation and hence public credibility. What better target to attack, though, for capturing attention, generating public debate and making the NDP case? Isn't one of our roles in life to destroy Liberals' credibility? Trying to adjust to it, instead, is a mug's
- Wake up and spot the television set.
Aside from work and sleep, Canadians spend more time watching television than anything else, and it's a powerful and insidious medium unlike any other. Moreover, for all that we rage at the bias, say, of BCTV news, the far more serious impact comes from commercials (their unremitting materialist imagery) and the overwhelming flood of American programming (with its implicit American values). Culture matters. We ignore television, as a "political" force, at our peril.
- Don't be afraid to be unrespectable. Invite controversy where we have a sound position.
It's not important that people agree with us overnight. Indeed, since the aim is to break open the right-wing mindset of the majority of Canadians, it follows almost by definition that they won't at first agree with us. So what? Unless we break new ground and get people talking, nothing's going to change. Controversy in that regard serves our purpose. Each issue raised, with the public becoming familiar with the arguments, is a strategic building block.
Let me give you an example. Although we mutter angrily about Conrad Black and other concentration of media ownership, and condemn it with vague policy resolutions, we have shied away from actually fighting for breaking up that concentration. The powers that be in the party have deemed it unachievable, too radical, too controversial. Yet what is more important or more soundly based on democratic principle? It would be a wonderful issue on which to engage the public in debate and deepen the meaning of Canadian politics, not to mention its possibilities for embarrassing the Liberals and Reform...and if we did bring it forward, democratization of media ownership would indeed become achievable.
- Think of the NDP as a political movement and not just a political party.
Paradoxically, unless the federal NDP becomes a movement again, engaging the public in far-reaching debate about the kind of society we want, we won't succeed as a political party.
- Make education a priority.
One of the ways a political movement differs from a mere political party is education, yet the party doesn't have an educational program. We have policy, communications, organizational, administrative and accounting people at the party office in Ottawa, but no education director or other education staffer. We need to change that.
- Take the public into one's confidence.
This is another aspect of a political movement: It's not afraid to put forward new or controversial ideas for discussion, sharing its reasoning with the wider public and drawing them into a dialogue, educator fashion. This is something Preston Manning ironically does well - an overlooked part of his success.
- Look for useful symbolic targets.
We are fighting context, mindset, myth and prejudice here, so our strategic targets should be chosen accordingly. Does the foray touch off controversy and hence debate, or turn the tables on a deep-seated mindset, or illuminate a large idea, or get people to look at the world differently? David Lewis' attack on "corporate welfare bums" was a memorable example. The object: to debunk and satirize the abuses and excesses of right-wing ideology, and shatter the phoney images of the Liberals and Reform.