Monday, November 24, 2008

"What?" Comes Before "Who?"

Now that Frank McKenna, John Manley, Gerard Kennedy and Martha Hall Findlay have left the Liberal leadership open to either Dominic Leblanc, Michael Ignatieff or Bob Rae, some may conclude that life in the party will be more of the same. But the small coterie of leadership candidates allows the party to do what it should have done after its previous defeat. The prime directive -- for the moment -- is not to decide who will stand for the party, but to determine what the party will stand for.

This is not the first time the Liberals have been in this spot. After the Diefenbaker Progressive Conservatives sent the Liberals packing in 1957, the party held an historic policy conference in Kingston. Out of that conference came the document, "New Statements of Liberal Policy." As Tom Kent -- who was at that conference and who later became a senior advisor to Lester Pearson -- wrote in The Globe and Mail, the conference "set the party's direction through the years of gathering membership and onto the programs implemented by the Pearson government." Those programs included the Canada Pension Plan, Medicare and (although many have forgotten the cantankerous debate which surrounded it) the adoption of a distinctly Canadian flag.

The Kingston Conference concentrated on the future and thoroughly examined -- painful though it was -- why Canada's "natural governing party" had been reduced to a shadow of its former self. And it started, not from the proposition that the people were stupid, but from the realization that the world had changed.

The global financial crisis of the last year and the election of Barack Obama in the United States has, indeed, confirmed that -- once again -- the world has changed. Kent told his readers that it is time for the Liberals to engage again in such a far reaching rethink -- and he sketched out the general parameters of such an exercise: "In my view, the dominant aim should be to enable all families to nurture their youth in health, with early care and learning, and with the stimulating opportunities that can make good lives possible in the contemporary economy."

Last week, Deborah Coyne -- a long time Liberal activist -- tried to flesh out that vision. "National action -- from food safety to clean air and water, to removing toxins in our environment -- has, at best, been anemic, incoherent and after the fact. At worst, it has placed the public in jeopardy. Medicare is less and less a national program and more and more an uneven patchwork of medically required services across provinces with tragic consequences, as in the case of cancer pathology in Newfoundland. Our physical infrastructure is dangerously decayed and public transit is inadequate everywhere. Inequality of wealth and income among Canadians is increasing alarmingly. Even in the international arena, our national impact is weak and blurred as provinces multiply their independent initiatives abroad."

These effects are the naturally occurring consequences of neo-conservative policies, not just of the Harper government, but of previous Liberal governments. What Canada needs, Coyne writes, is a party "that gives us a sense of national purpose and pride, and sees national government as an instrument of the people, not as a business to be downsized."

The renewal which Liberals seek can only be accomplished from the bottom up. Before it meets in Vancouver next May, the party needs another Kingston Conference to set policy and to organize the grassroots. This is not to say that choosing a leader will be mere frosting on the cake. Stephane Dion's recent showing proves that being a good and decent man is not enough. The party needs an extraordinary leader. But before it chooses one, it needs an extraordinary platform.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Hope in Scarcity

We are in for tough times. This morning comes word that Japan is officially in recession. On Friday came news that the fifteen countries which use the Euro are in recession. And then, of course, there is North America, where the storm first came ashore. The last time this happened was in 1979 -- after the first oil shock -- when Jimmy Carter went to the mountain (Camp David) and came down with an address for his countrymen.

"In a nation that was once proud of hard work, strong families, close knit communities, and our faith in God," he told his fellow citizens, "too many of us now tend to worship self indulgence and consumption. Human identity is no longer defined by what one does, but by what one owns. But we've discovered that owning things and consuming things does not satisfy our longing for meaning. We've learned that piling up material goods cannot fill the emptiness of lives which have no confidence or purpose."

Not only was the search for more material goods a dead end, said Carter. It was also a clear and present danger, because it could only be supported by ever increasing energy consumption; and those energy resources would have to come from outside the United States. When Carter delivered his speech, 43% of America's energy came from beyond its borders. Just before the U.S. invasion of Iraq it was 60%.

Carter pleaded with Americans to turn down their thermostats and to wear sweaters, to drive their cars less and to learn to live within their means. But Americans saw him as a modern day Jeremiah, just when Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan were telling their citizens that a brighter future lay with free markets and unfettered capitalism. It was possible to have more -- much more -- not less.

Unfortunately, such a future required a reordering of American and British military priorities. And it was most fortunate that, ten years later, the Berlin Wall fell. Instead of concentrating their attention on Europe, both countries could concentrate on where the oil was -- the Middle East. As Andrew Bacevich makes clear in his book, The New American Militarism, Reagan began the process of refocusing the American military -- a process which continued during the administrations of George Bush and Bill Clinton.
It was a process that began long before the elder Bush's prodigal son took office. Several administrations committed themselves to the same goal: "Only by enjoying unquestioned primacy in the region," writes Bacevich, "-- initially defined as "Southwest Asia" but eventually to encompass all of the Persian Gulf, the Caucasus, and Central Asia -- could the government of the United States guarantee American prosperity and therefore American freedom."

For neo-conservatives -- from Thatcher to Reagan , to the two Bushes and Canada's Stephen Harper -- "freedom" has meant the freedom to have more. Unfortunately, that kind of freedom costs a great deal of money (most of it borrowed) and blood. In the last year, all the bills have come due.

It has taken thirty years to prove that Jimmy Carter was right. We are all going to have to live with less. And getting out of the swamp we are in will take a lot of effort and time. But we are not without hope. As Armine Yalnizyan writes in today's Toronto Star, "It's a time for action, and some of our governments have already begun. Even before this crisis, some municipal and provincial governments had started to focus on how to tackle poverty in a systematic, comprehensive way."

Besides injecting liquidity into the banks,Yalnizyan writes, governments will have "to speed up the repair and expansion of infrastructure . . . ramp up skills development programs . . .[and] improve income supports for those without work."

That seems to be Obama's plan, too; and it would appear that the leaders of the G20 have also seen the writing on the wall. Even Stephen Harper is making noises about the necessity of government intervention.

Obama's election does not mean, as Ronald Reagan boasted, that "it's morning in America" again. But it does mean that a man who knows something about collective action and social justice will be sitting at future G20 meetings. There is a long, long way to go. But we just might make it.

Monday, November 10, 2008

From the Bottom Up

Almost a week has passed since the American election. And, now that analysts have not only counted the votes but traced them back to their sources, the news is even better than the fact that the first African American has been elected president.

For, while Obama promises a better future, he also reminds all of us of the past -- and how democracy is supposed to work. For nearly a generation now, in both the United States and Canada, political parties have practiced wedge politics -- the tactic of winning elections by dividing the electorate into subgroups and setting them one against the other. The technique is manifested in the conceit of blue and red states south of the border and regional political affiliations in Canada. In the recent Canadian election, the old pattern held. Stephen Harper's electoral strength is in rural and Western Canada. His party elected no members from any of the major Canadian cities; and he has very few seatmates from the Maritime provinces or Quebec.

In the United States, the Republican party is basically a southern and rural party -- but Obama has changed that configuration by winning both Virginia and North Carolina. Even more importantly, as a map in last week's New York Times indicated, Obama has significant support even in red states. That is the way elections used to be won.

Obama's support cuts across both genders and all income and ethnic groups. As Frank Rich noted in Sunday's Times, "A higher percentage of white men voted for Obama than any Democrat since Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton included." And Obama won "all four of those hunting and Hilary loving Rust Belt states that became 2008's obsession among slumming upper middle class white journalists: Pennsylvania and Michigan by double digits, as well as Ohio and even Indiana, which has gone Democratic only once (1964) since 1936."

Obama won 78% of the Jewish vote and 67% of the Hispanic vote -- and the young, who were the foot soldiers in his political army, turned out in droves. In fact, they are the real reason for Obama's success. Much has been made of the money the Obama campaign spent on television ads. But what made the difference was all of the field offices, staffed with young volunteers and spread across all fifty states, who managed to turn out the second highest number of voters ever. Only in 1960, when John Kennedy ran, was the turnout higher.

Sarah Palin and Rudy Gulliani mocked Obama's experience as a community organizer. "I guess a small town mayor is sort of like a community organizer," Palin proclaimed sarcastically, "except that you have actual responsibilities." It turns out that knowing how to organize from the bottom up makes all the difference. It's all about what happens on the ground, not what is mandated from above.

And that is the real cause for hope, which Obama brings to the monumental problems he faces. If he is to solve those problems, he will not be able to mandate solutions. What he will need is community action on a large scale -- the very opposite of the unfettered individualism which has been the bedrock of modern neo-conservatism. Some will call that socialism or communism. They already have. We heard those slurs at McCain-Palin rallies. But citizenship is about one's responsibility for the common welfare. There is great wisdom in that notion.

"For the last eight years," Rich wrote, "we've been told by those in power that we are small, bigoted and stupid -- easily divided and easily frightened. That was the toxic catechism of Bush- Rove politics."

It turns out that, occasionally, the common man can be guided by what Abraham Lincoln -- one of Obama's heroes -- called "our better angels," and act, -- also in Lincoln's phrase -- "with malice toward none, with charity toward all." Such moments are rare. But this might be one of them. Stephen Harper take note.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

A Long Time Coming and a Long Way to Go

Barack Obama was two years old when Martin Luther King stood in front of the Lincoln Memorial and dreamt out loud that one day his and everyone else's children would "one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character." Last night King's dream came true.

It has been a long time coming. And for those of us who remember the police dogs and the fire hoses and the bombings -- if not the signs on restrooms and water fountains that read "Colored" and "White" -- it still seems like a dream.

Last night, as Tom Friedman wrote this morning in The New York Times, the American Civil War ended. "For despite a century of civil rights legislation," Friedman opined, "judicial interventions and social activism -- despite Brown v. Board of Education, Martin Luther King's I- have-a -dream crusade and the 1964 Civil Rights Act -- the Civil War could never truly be said to have ended until America's white majority actually elected an African American president."

And now Obama will need that majority to not just fix -- but to remake -- the American government. As he himself acknowledged last night, the job he faces is monumental. With America bogged down in two wars, with a world economy teetering on the abyss, with the fate of the planet in the balance, and with the American Constitution badly bruised, he has his work cut out for him.

However, he has earned a windfall of international good will. The entire world has watched this election -- and most of its inhabitants were clearly rooting for the person Obama called "the skinny kid with the funny name." Last night, in Canada, the radio network of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation covered the American election as they covered the recent Canadian election, devoting the entire evening to reporting and analyzing the results as they came in.

And now the hard part begins. As Obama said in his victory speech, "We know that the challenges that tomorrow will bring are the greatest of our lifetime;" and, to meet them, Obama knows that he will need the help and the support of those who didn't vote for him. "The road ahead will be long, " he said, "our climb will be steep." It will require "a new spirit . . . where each of us resolves to pitch in and work harder and not only look after ourselves but each other."

Tom Friedman understands what Obama was talking about. "There is much work to be done," Friedman wrote. "The Civil War is over. Let reconstruction begin." God speed.