Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Sorry, we're not that interesting

via Greg, Robin Spears has an excellent post-mortem of the Ontario provincial election. (PDF!) I disagree with almost none of it. I say "almost", because while I agree there was more than a whiff of racism to the Liberal "booga booga religious schools booga" strategy, I think it's way, way, way over the top to compare it to Nixon's 1968 "Southern Strategy", as Spears explicitly does.

This is worth dwelling on for a moment: In 1968, the battle for Civil Rights in the US was already receding from some heady successes in 1964-65, and the white backlash was already underway. Martin Luther King was murdered that year, setting off riots across the country, and prompting the formation of radical groups like the Black Panther Party. In this setting, Richard Nixon comes in and starts wink-wink-nudge-nudge talking about "states' rights" and how the Feds have been trampling on Southern honor. This isn't particularly subtle now, it certainly wasn't back then.

But we shouldn't over-estimate the impact this had on the election: Southern Democrats were notorious racists, too! And in any case, the real die-hard racists didn't actually go to Nixon, they went to Wallace. (Who should have been disqualified by the very act of picking Curtis Lemay as his running mate...) As it was, Nixon won the election with... a 0.7% margin of victory. With Wallace in the race, the Southern Strategy wasn't even particularly effective at winning him the racist vote. Without Wallace in the election, many southern racists would probably have voted for their traditional Democrats, handing Humphrey the White House, and sparing us all from Watergate. In short, Nixon won in 1968 by only slightly more than he lost in 1960. With a marging that slim, we can say that the Strategy was "decisive", but so was the Vietnam War, or RFK's assasination, or any number of things.

Now, the Southern Strategy was still an outright appeal to racists, and should be condemned on those grounds alone -- it doesn't become less noxious because it barely worked. The real source of Republican strength in the south doesn't come from 1968, but from the deaths and retirements of octogenarian Dixiecrats since 1970 or so. As old patrons retired, they were replaced by Republicans who were more willing to say what the old plantation set wanted to hear.

Meanwhile, in 2007, in Ontario, people barely paid any attention to this election at all, and they certainly didn't get in to the kind of heart-and-home-rending violence that marked the civil rights struggle in 1968. Moreover, the damage done to Tory by the schools issue wasn't so much that people hated the policy (though they did that) but because he never managed to change the channel. I generally don't believe that political campaigns are helpless with these kinds of things -- this was a dumb idea, but it needn't have been the gaping hole beneath the waterline of the good ship Tory.

I found this election confusing because you had this weird combination of people absolutely not caring about the one issue that they were told about. As part of my schoolwork, I've had to talk to more than a few people about this stuff in downtown Toronto, and less than three days before the election I was speaking to a number of community activists and leaders who, when asked, couldn't name a single issue in the election they cared about. Not that they didn't care about issues, but that nobody had paid any attention to the stuff they cared about. The contrasts with 1968, with wars at home and abroad, is pretty clear, I think. As usual, Canadian politics is a pale imitation of someone else's fight, only more boring.

That said, this passage in Spears' article rings so true it makes me hurt:
A massive NDP refit and renewal exercise is now well past urgent, starting with a leadership change. But drafting even a rock star new leader without revamping the partys tired brand and 60s platform will not stop the rot. Even a party loyalist such as Dave Cooke, a senior minister in the Rae government and lifelong New Democrat, appealed to the party to seize the post-election review period to make big changes, or else.

The path forward is not hard to find. A night on Google, clipping pages from the Web sites of most of the successful social democratic parties in the rest of the Western world, would by itself catapult the party forward a couple of decades. A serious outreach to the best Canadian and international thinkers on social inclusion, sustainable growth and a progressive innovation agenda could make the party into a serious contender for government again. Part of the problem remains that for many Ontario New Democrats, the experience of power was so painful they would really rather not return.

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