Thursday, March 17, 2011

Non-partisan Activism or Partisan Politics?

That's often the question for progressives who believe strongly in social change, particularly those who have a strong passion for a specific issue. Studying in the Department of Middle Eastern & African Studies and being involved personally in advocacy for peace and justice in the Middle East for the past 2 1/2 years, it is clear to me that there is a disconnect between many progressives and partisan politics. By partisan politics, I mean attaching themselves to a political party and actively attempting to get one or more candidates elected to office.

On the surface, the disconnect makes sense. Groups of people who want to advocate on a specific issue but refuse to take part directly in partisan politics often have one of two reasons (or sometimes a combination of the two). Some feel our political systems are broken or illegitimate (often anarchists) and often believe mass popular movements should be used to influence the partisans in our parliaments. Others feel if they stay neutral, they can have influence over elected officials from every party.

Let's start with the first argument, and I'll use an issue of foreign policy because they are the strongest argument against it. Let's assume for a minute that our political systems are broken or illegitimate (I may even agree with the former but not the latter not so much). It's this time of year in 2003, and a US invasion of Iraq is imminent. Only there is one difference in this version of history: Stephen Harper (or Michael Ignatieff; take your pick) is the Prime Minister of Canada. He has announced, as they both did, that we should participate in the invasion. Hundreds of thousands, even millions, of Canadians across the country have decided to take to the streets in protest of the government's decision. According to polling, only 13 percent of all Canadians want our country to go to war. What happens? Prime Minister Ignarper (yep, just made that up) doesn't blink. Canada joins the invasion.

Would that have happened if Stephen Harper or Michael Ignatieff had been our Prime Minister at the time instead of Jean Chretien? Both were unequivocal in their support for the war. For both of them, it seemed the justification was "if the US is doing it, we need to do it too." This scenario is exactly what played out in Spain, where only 13 percent of the people supported the war, but the elected Prime Minister decided to join the invasion anyway.

Does that mean popular protest doesn't matter? Of course not. If hundreds of thousands of Canadians hadn't taken to the street immediately prior to the US invasion of Iraq, Chretien may well have hopped on the bandwagon too. However, the point is this: different leaders are influenced to varying extents by popular pressure. No matter how large, there can never be a guarantee it will change the minds of our leaders. Granted, that leader is likely to be tossed out of office in the next election, as happened in Spain, but the damage will already have been done.

Now let's take the second argument: if groups stay "neutral", they can influence elected officials from all parties. This one to me is much more clear. It blows my mind that members of organizations who advocate quite strongly on polarizing issues (in the sense that conservatives clearly stand on the opposite side as progressives) such as the issue of Palestine or greenhouse gas emissions attempt to stay neutral. Sure, there are some issues like health care or post-secondary education where conservative governments may make concessions given enough public pressure. However, on other issues we cannot expect the same. No matter how much talking, how many e-mails you send, how many banners you drop, or how many letters you write, your local Conservative MP is never going to call for peace and justice in Palestine. Your local Conservative MP is never going to call for implementation of an effective greenhouse gas reduction plan. Your Conservative MP is never going to speak out against our country joining a US-led war.

Assuming what I've said so far is true and it DOES matter a great deal which party (or ideology) our elected leaders come from, those who advocate strongly on issues where there is a clear divide between conservatives and progressives should draw a strong conclusion: they must do what they can to ensure we elect progressives, not conservatives. If we want an MP in Edmonton who will focus on creating green jobs and reducing greenhouse gas emissions, we want to do everything we can to ensure that Linda Duncan gets re-elected in Edmonton-Strathcona instead of her anti-environment opponent, Ryan Hastman. If we want an MP in Edmonton who will work towards peace and justice in the Middle East instead of unquestioning support for Israel, we want to put our best efforts into making sure Ray Martin gets elected instead of Peter Goldring in Edmonton East. If we want an MP in Edmonton who will stand up ensure our country does not join the US in unjust wars, we will do all we can to elect Lewis Cardinal instead of that warmonger, Laurie Hawn, in Edmonton Centre.

Lastly, the work does not stop at electing these progressive individuals (and hopefully even more than these three). Advocacy on progressive issues can be VERY effective when you're advocating to progressive politicians. And believe me, the advocacy should not stop. In fact, our progressive politicians need to hear our progressive views much more than our conservative politicians. I implied before that a New Democrat would take a stand for peace and justice for Palestine, but that is not always the case. On issues like Palestine, our New Democrat MPs need to hear from people EVERY DAY. That is when advocacy is effective. When a new development comes up in Israel-Palestine, our progressive MPs need to know the way progressives are seeing the issue. Some would say, "Well, progressive MPs should be out with us on the streets!" But if the people on the streets don't vote and don't participate in getting progressives elected, it is much more likely that your MP will find somewhere else to be where they can find people more engaged in the system. That's just how it works.

The overall message? Progressives need to put all the effort they can into electing progressive officials. Between elections, we need to be keeping the pressure particularly on our progressive elected officials to make sure they're staying true to their progressive principles.


  1. Hey Joel,

    As someone who is sympathetic to anarchism and does politics outside of parties for the most part, I think about this catch-22 logic quite often. I started off this reply to you simply refuting your either/or logic. But then, I decided to back up and try to think more historically about why grassroots activism or the NDP appears to be this either/or choice to many people -- since there's no logical reason why it should be that way.

    But there are historical reasons why it seems, today, you have to be one or the other. When the NDP was still recognizably a social unionist movement - I'm thinking in the late 80s / early 90s - it drew more strength from its connection to labour and other major issues. The NDP seemed like the obvious choice to place to put one's confidence and/or energy if you were left or progressive, or at the very least make time for. However, this symbiosis depended on pretty big mass movements that were renewing their energy all of the time.

    As I'm more aware of in their absence, this symbiosis and renewal also relied on institutional bases like NACSW that had a huge platforms from which they could articulate issues from different angles, be oppositional and scrappy, and mobilize people. It just seemed like there were a "chain of institutions" of differing shapes and sizes that one could plug into, who saw themselves as sharing the same goals. The NDP also recruited from people involved in those institutions so there were solidly experienced people running for office.

    An NDP politician that I once spoke to at length led me to the obvious reason why this worked. If there was a significant voter base making demands for systemic change, it was easier to argue for that systemic change, like a progressive tax system. But if the public doesn't "deliver" (so to speak) or form itself into an identifiable group, it becomes much harder.

    So, after most of those institutions were eviscerated for one reason after another (mostly through "defunding of the left," like NAC), it's become a serious crisis. The NDP isn't an institution that can advocate for systemic change on its own; it's always been a "vehicle." Without the institutional and grassroots base, the NDP looks and feels more like an "orange liberal" party: it functionally falls back on messaging, marketing, mass media and electoral craft for its platform. The crisis of falling back on this technique is that it makes the party much more centrist, and doesn't connect with issues that activists, as critical thinkers, see as in dire need of addressing. As a result, virtually everyone I know has abandoned party work, except for the most docile of party workers (present blogger company excepted.)

    You're saying that people like Harper and Ignatieff just don't listen to a grassroots, which is true. Without a party, only the force of those movements could convince them. But how I interpret that is merely that social movements do not have the breadth and depth, right now, to be able to compel Harper or Ignatieff to do anything (or not to do something). I don't think that this has to be true, but yes, without these institutions and perhaps a party who will act as the vehicle for those demands, it's a longer shot. I really wish it was otherwise.

  2. Just wrote a brilliant and thoughtful comment on both Joel's blog and Rob's comment, but then blogspot ate it. Oh well.

  3. Hey Rob, thanks so much for your comments. I know the title of the blog was an "either/or", but I attempted to find some middle ground throughout the post. I agree with your analysis.

    And Ric, thanks for your brilliant and thoughtful comments too! ;)

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  5. I think we also need to consider to what extent supporters and members of the NDP (or other parties for that matter) intentionally try to keep other groups they are involved in from endorsing or openly supporting the NDP (or whatever party) because of the potential negative effect a public perception that these groups are involved with or supported by their party would have on public support for the party.