Monday, November 3, 2008

"Reform Partyization" and re-thinking "Progressive"

I have been somewhat reluctant to blog about American politics during the last few months, because I believe as a Liberal blogger, my main concern should be the state of Canadian politics, and the Liberal Party. However, with the script seemingly written for tomorrow's election, I believe some interesting Canada-US parallels can be drawn.

The Republican Party, and the conservative movement in the US in general, is going to undergo a period of "Reform Partyization". While I don't mean this in the sense that a 2nd conservative party will emerge in the US, an offshoot of the Republicans, I do believe that the right will enter into an ultimately unhealthy period of navel gazing, with the result being an overriding sense of "We lost because we abandoned our conservative principles!" rather then "wow, American conservatism needs to adapt to the times again." The liberal movement in the US had the same problems in the 70's and 80's, with uninspiring liberal Democrats getting smashed by Nixon, Reagen, and Bush (Carter gets a post-Watergate exception). Rather then try and recapture the centre, the Republicans, like the true-believing Reform Party of the 90's, will proudly remain outside the mainstream. This process will be helped as the Republican Party looks to be reduced to a socially conservative Southern and Prairie rump, with incumbent moderates in now-friendly Democratic areas like New Hampshire and Oregon (Maine's locally very popular and moderate Susan Collins will buck this trend, and Minnesota's Norm Coleman should hang on thanks to a strong third-party candidate, however) and Democrats making gains in at all levels of voting in newly purple states such as Colorado, Virginia, New Mexico, etc. The lack of moderates within the party will further push the party away from the centre and the new mentality of the swing states. The GOP will suffer internal struggles as the remaining moderates in the party are pushed out by the remaining true-believer conservatives, damaging attempts to re-build and re-new in the short term.

What Liberals can learn: As much as Liberals obviously will be rooting for Obama, the sad fact is that right now, we resemble the Republican Party in too many ways. Like this election will do to the Republicans, the last election reduced us largely to our strongholds of the Maritimes (although suffering slightly there) and urban and suburban areas in Ontario (again, even taking some losses) with a lone bright spot being a mini-revival in Quebec, including a psychologically important second seat off the island of Montreal. Additionally, Liberals do not need any more internal personality or policy splits, regardless of who emerges as the Leader. What we as Liberals must not allow is for us to go through a "Reformization", focusing only on concerns, issues, and polices that appeal to a base that is no longer large enough to win an election solely on its own. Lots of Liberals have talked about building on Howard Dean's 50-state strategy, and how Liberals must focus on every election, in every riding, to build a nation-wide base. What many of the people who would copy Dean's rhetoric and planning is why many internal Democrats opposed the plan. They feared that Dean was the product of the leftist activist part of the party, and that the 50-state strategy would attempt to shove New England liberalism down the throats of every congressional district in the country, which would only further hurt the party (Here we have shades of Democrats worried that Dean represented a "Reform Partyization" by dragging the party to the left). However, rather then simply export New England liberalism across the country, Dean tailored the Democrats as a national party that would listen to local concerns, and would run candidates reflective of local concerns and politics. If this meant running more moderate candidates in moderate areas, then so be it, a Democratic victory is a Democratic victory. Efforts to renew and rebuild the party around the lines of the 50-state strategy must realize this, that in order to win in places we have either traditionally lost, or win back areas which are traditionally ours, be must expand the Liberal values and big-tent to fit local concerns, rather then export GTA liberalism to places like rural and northern Ontario, where we got hammered this election. The bright spot of Quebec, and the skill of the Quebec team in the last election serves as an example of this, as they ran a campaign focused on local issues, and were able to take advantage of the Conservative drop in the province to establish ourselves back in many parts of the provinces as the federalist alternative (arguably more important then winning seats in Quebec in terms of long-term rebuilding of the national party is that we had more second place finishes to the Bloc then the Conservatives did across the province) particularly as I have read many blogs the past few days suggesting that the LPCQ is either being too nationalist, or is making too many policy demands, etc. While I do not want to diminish the concerns of these bloggers about the need for coherent national policy across all provinces, rather then be overly critical of hard-working Liberals, I suggest we examine the LPCQ campaign this election to see the things they did right, and learn from the lessons of localism.

The concept of "renewal" is not merely one of energizing and re-building local associations, it is one of having the right policies and ideas to get the Liberal Party firmly back in the middle of the Canadian spectrum, having a strong "progressive" centrist answer to the big questions of today. I put progressive in quotation marks because I believe as Liberals that we need to re-define our own use and meaning of the word. "Progressive" in the past few years has too easily become just another way to use the words "centre-left", and the inability of the Liberals to define progressivism, rather having progressivism define us, is a big problem. Progressive public policy and politics to me, is not simply a way of saying "leftist" without saying left-wing. To me, any policy that looks to moving society forward, advancing towards tomorrow with new ideas, is progressive. It should not be associated with any particular wing of political ideology. Under my definition, for example, I would not hesitate to ideas associated with the right-wing such as Thatcherism and the Common Sense Revolution. These ideas are progressive because they were rooted in looking towards the future and finding new solutions, rather then simply re-using old ideas for new times. In this regard, I would define both the NDP and Conservatives currently as unprogressive, as the NDP continues banging the same drum on economic policy (while admittedly being ahead of the curve on some social issues, such as gay marriage) it has for 70 years. Under Jack Layton, the parties bad habits of declaring itself the "holier then thou, above Liberal-Tory mudslinging, social heart" of Canadian politics while at the same time having no problem voting down Liberal minorities which promoted NDP friendly policies on child-care and aboriginal affairs and standing arm in arm with the Conservatives attacking forward-looking Liberal policies like the Green Shift. For the Conservatives, Harper's view of the role of public policy doesn't go beyond ways he can use it to re-create the Mulroney coalition and re-cycle old Liberal and PC ideas to an effort to be moderate (at least until he gets a majority), while offering little in the way of forward-style thinking that could be deemed "progressive" under my definitions. We must not be merely a "progressive party" in the old style mode, Canada already has 3 of those more then eager to steal our votes, be must be a new-school party of the progressive centre, offering new ideas and policies, with an ear for local concerns and politics. Renewal must take place from this main plank of new progressive centrism, and be unafraid to examine ideas and policies we have previously rejected as being not "progressive" enough. To restate what I said earlier, if the Liberal Party has any hope to rebuild and renew in a real way, we must take bold steps to define our progressivism, rather then let progressivism define us.

1 comment:

Miles Lunn said...

I agree with much of this. In the case of the Republicans, the success of Reagan who was more conservative than his predecessors led many to think the further to the right the party went the better it will do. The problem is the Democrats were more liberal in the 80s thus leaving the centre open and Reagan was quite conservative on fiscal policies, but this was during a time of belt tightening. He was a social conservative but he didn't pander to the Christian right the way Bush did.

In 2004, Bush won partly because of his pandering to the Christian right, but also 9/11 was still pretty recent and many Americans falsely believed his policies made them safer. Today, that has largely been disproven. Also many moderate Republicans were unaware of how powerful the religious right was in their party so if anything this awoken them to the fact the party had swung way to the right.

In the case of the Liberals, I would argue it was more the 416 in the inner 905 suburbs we were strong in as west of Mississauga, north of Richmond Hill and east of Ajax we won no seats and the fact we came dangerously close to losing the three Brampton seats suggest this is rather a region we are competitive in not a stronghold. As for Atlantic Canada, it was a mixed bag as we did well in Newfounland & Labrador, okay in PEI and Nova Scotia while poorly in New Brunswick, which is generally the most conservative of the Atlantic provinces. Also Danny Williams ABC campaign likely helped us in Newfoundland & Labrador. Still we did worse in 1984 and 1958 and came back, so I think our party can regain.

At the same time moving to the left is not the answer at all. In the 905 belt, the NDP and Greens got in the single digits while in much of Rural Ontario the Tories cracked the 50% mark meaning we need to get some of the moderate Tory votes if we want to win those seats back.

In Quebec, I think our decline there came sooner than English Canada due to adscam so that is partly why we rebounded. In addition, I think the 2006 results woke Liberals up to how serious things were in Quebec whereas in Ontario many took it for granted while in the West the fact we were doing better than we did historically made many content. Off course we lost half our Western seats this time around. I think next time around, Liberals will be better prepared in Ontario and not asleep at the switch like they were this time around.