Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Grassroots and Astroturf

So the 2011 Canadian election marks a ‘historic’ political shift. But perhaps we flatter ourselves in thinking our actions alone are responsible for it. Maybe the change is a larger movement of the landscape - not just political ground.

First, a few definitions:

Mediate: -To settle or reconcile differences

-To have a relation to two differing persons or things

Media: means of communication reaching large numbers of people, television, newspapers, radio

Representation: -An image or likeness of something

-The state or condition of serving as an official delegate, agent, or spokesperson

-The right or privilege of being represented by delegates in a legislative body

- A body of legislators that serve on behalf of a constituency

The election signs have been picked up and the lawn is in bad shape. People say Liberals need to “rebuild” by getting back to their “grassroots”. But what if this election shows that political parties - as organizational entities – are as much a casualty of this election as the Bloc or Liberals? Even amongst Conservatives, the notion of “grassroots” has become, under Harper’s command and control, a kind of quaint creation myth. Remember that old ‘recall your MP’ stuff? Forget the people who sent them there - even Conservative Cabinet Ministers are muzzled. So is grassroots politics dead? Has the changeability of politically coloured “brands” replaced grassroots organization?

It certainly seems like the 2011 election results underscore how devalued the notion has become. Conservatives ran an Astroturf campaign, with Harper droning the same message from teleprompters, even in grassy backyards full of kids, while the Orange wave caught them off guard. But was the Orange wave a grassroots kind of politics?

That Québecers could elect MPs like Charmaine Borg and Ruth Ellen Brousseau shows that, even in the most politically engaged part of Canada - where organizations like labour unions are still very strong - image trumps grassroots organization, and the ‘leader’s’ image trumps everything, including qualifications for prospective MPs. (Rather than traditional areas like labour, a significant number of Québec NDP candidates were recruited from the hallways of McGill, their networking skills amounting to not much more than a Facebook page).

It is historic that in Québec, passionate, long-held nationalist aspirations seem to vanish overnight – replaced, in some cases, by new MPs who don’t live in their ridings, never bothered to show up to campaign in them or meet their constituents, and apparently, barely speak French. Conservatives, many of whom themselves didn’t bother to show up at anachronistic things like candidates’ meetings, are fine with that.

Granted, lots of the newly minted NDP MPs are women, which is good. And perhaps the energetic young people will do a good job; many Bloc MPs, first elected without much experience, worked well on behalf of Québecers and all Canadians in Parliament. Despite the apparent joy at their demise, their departure is also a loss. Their hard work came with a higher than average integrity quotient; they had no expectation of the perks ladled out to past Liberals or current Conservatives in the form of Senate seats, regulatory board appointments, or extravagant spending in their ridings.

I’m not critical of the NDP – it is a party with authentic prairie grass roots that will defend social democratic values. They ran a great campaign, and Jack Layton was reasonably judged the most trustworthy and likeable leader. But simply put, leaders shouldn’t matter that much. And it’s not a good thing when they do.

And that’s the problem – one exacerbated by a lazy media who find it easier to focus on personalities rather than policies, and who reinforced Harper’s media strategy of zeroing in on the leader with attack ads – something begun with their “Not a Leader” attacks on Dion, and continued with Ignatieff - to predictable effect. Major outlets mouthed the script, asking Ignatieff “why he came back”, focusing almost exclusively on the leaders’ personae and on “Biggest Loser” story arcs. Air time that could have been given over to issues was wasted on the fatuous Nanos “Leadership Index” polls, where we were told what we were thinking about the leaders’ ‘image’ – who was trending up and who ‘spiraling’ down. We watched ourselves watching ourselves, rather than finding out about policies or local candidates. Which leader better ‘reflects’ us? Are we “boring”, or ‘catching the wave’?

After picking the debate’s winners and losers - regardless of actual results, someone must be chosen on reality TV - we were told how the ‘story’ would develop, and we made it so. But on Political Idol, shouldn’t the finalists at least get to do a few more numbers before we vote them off?

To “mediate” means, among other things, to go between. Imagine, just for a moment, an election without polls, attack ads and televised leaders’ debates – where concerns arising from the “grassroots” would be voiced by voters at meetings, and where the party’s policies were articulated and communicated by candidates themselves in their own words, in their own ridings – where MP hopefuls, not pundits, pollsters, or leaders, “mediated” the views of their party to the public and vice versa. Of course it’s impossible to picture politics without the 24-hour media ether in which it now lives, but it’s worth remembering that that was the context in which our political system arose, and in which it was designed to work.

But as constitutional expert Peter Russell has warned, we’re moving toward a Presidential model without any of the opposing balances of American legislative bodies. Mr. Harper has taken unprecedented steps in de-legitimizing the institution of Parliament. This was an election in which there was no sense from the mainstream media that we were actually electing Members of Parliament, rather than leaders, to “represent” us. Representation has effectively morphed from an earlier political meaning to an aesthetic one, as represented by advertising and other media appearances, and with power shifting from earlier bodies along with it.

And advertising was important in the Orange wave. On a trip to Montréal at the beginning of the campaign, I was gob-smacked by the strong presence of NDP advertising this time around. The images of Jack Layton alternated with those of Duceppe on every light standard along Boul. René Levesque and other major thoroughfares, signaling a two-way race. Perhaps more importantly, the NDP TV ads in Québec were brilliant. They ‘reflected’ Québecers’ sophisticated aesthetic back to them. They were stylish and funny, with a perfectly pitched message. Perhaps the NDP won Québec in large part through the sheer brilliance of its advertising, and, as they themselves acknowledge, by “matching the Conservatives ‘dollar-for-dollar’ to the tune of $23 million” in their advertising budget. But as noted, they had little in the way of on-the-ground organization or qualified, experienced candidates. The aesthetic definition of representation clearly trumped the political one.

Sure, the parties themselves should accept some blame for not articulating issues. And some journalists, like Andrew Coyne, addressed issues like ethics and the importance of Parliament. Some reporters, like Terry Milewski on the Harper bus, tried to ask tough questions, only to be shouted down - the crowd booing him just like they might boo Simon Cowell. But mostly, journalists analyzed the leaders not in terms of whether a claim was true or false, good policy or bad, but purely in terms of marketing, and whether the leader put in a good ‘performance’. That is, when they weren’t talking about their own performances; Rosemary Barton’s twittish tweets about her nap time, laundry and lunches being just one example of self-indulgence.

What we can take away from this election is that grassroots political organizing, MPs, and Parliament itself, are of less value now than when we entered an election following a historic Contempt of Parliament ruling. It’s not just the Conservatives who view Parliament with contempt – it’s all of us.

And sadly, the lessons people may take away are these; personal attack ads, and the erosion of our democratic institutions are rewarded. And real political work – at least on the part of candidates and their volunteers knocking on doors - doesn’t pay. After this election, why would anyone bother, when you can coast to victory vacationing in Las Vegas?

Ironically, it was the Liberals who were the most old-fashioned - almost small ‘c’ conservative. Most of them were on the ground working hard, and the free-access, unscripted, townhalls of Ignatieff’s campaign, like Layton’s own, relied on his actually meeting the people he wanted to ‘represent’ (in the old, ‘political’ sense). But he couldn’t overcome the ‘representation’ created by the new (to us, at least) style of attack ads that big ‘c’ Conservatives ran.

Personally, this election, I saw a lot of grass. When going door to door, you have to walk a lot farther trying to avoid someone’s lawn. I’ve voted for several parties, and never belonged to one. But this year, I decided to volunteer for the guy most likely to defeat the Conservative incumbent in my riding, the infamous and, some would say, infantile, Pierre Poilievre. If I lived in Paul Dewar’s riding, I would have done the same for him. But this candidate was a Liberal, and a good one – a smart, self-effacing young lawyer who made headlines early in the campaign when rifle targets were spray painted over the photos of his face on his election signs. He was quiet, serious, ethical, dignified, and worked incredibly hard knocking on doors across a large riding for months prior to the election. The Green Party candidate worked hard on the ground too. The NDPer was virtually invisible in my riding.

I didn’t do as much as others. Some people had doors slammed in their faces. I was dreading that. It was clear, from going door to door, that those attack ads had done their work. But my best moment was after a chat with a guy in the military, who shook my hand and thanked me.

Given the loss, it’s tempting to quote my re-elected Conservative MP’s earlier comments in a Parliamentary Committee - “Fuck these guys” - or echo the ‘bent elbow’, ‘up yours’ salute he delivered in the House. But because the candidate and volunteers behaved with such integrity and dignity, one should respect it, and behave appropriately.

Indeed, despite pessimism, my sincere congratulations go out to candidates like Ryan Keon, to those like him who worked hard, and to the people who laboured on the ground for good candidates (of any stripe). For someone who’s never done it, this was eye opening and inspiring. And it is on behalf of those people – who put in weeks and months of their time - that one feels most saddened by various aspects of the election result.

But despite the increasing lack of reward and its questionable efficacy, good people continue to do that kind of grassroots work. As is often the case with volunteering, you get more out of it than you give. Meeting these people was a counterbalance to the cynicism of the current political Astroturf. And people on the progressive end of the spectrum would do well to stop bickering, and figure out how to harness the energy and dedication of people like that to the next political wave - whatever colour it turns out to be.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for the work and thoughtfulness put into this post.

    This sentence you wrote really grabbed me:
    But simply put, leaders shouldn’t matter that much. And it’s not a good thing when they do.

    It seems to me your take on leadership is similar to what I read recently by John Ralston Saul in Unconscious Civilization, when he explains what he understands about the significance of Napoleon's appearance in politics, with regard to heroic leaders, then and ever since.

    First time reader. I found your blog from 6th estate.

    Sam Gunsch