June 2004: The 2004 Elections

Voters in both Canada and US have crucial decisions to make
June 1, 2004

Back in the late 1950s and early ‘60s, when the CCF and the Canadian Labour Congress were promoting a political merger between the socialist party and organized labour—later to culminate in the creation of the New Democratic Party—I was working as a CLC rep in the Atlantic region. One of my assignments was to try to persuade union locals to affiliate with and financially support the new party after it was established.

I found this task to be surprisingly difficult. Naively, I had assumed that workers would naturally vote in their own best interests—that they would gladly get behind a pro-labour party. A few of the locals I visited were supportive, but most were unreceptive, and several were openly hostile. The prevailing view was that unions had no business in politics—that they should stick to collective bargaining instead of venturing into “collective balloting,” where they didn’t belong.

Most workers seemed to have been swayed against the proposed CCF-CLC merger by the furious opposition to it coming from the leaders of the existing parties, from their bosses, media pundits, and even some of the clergy, who saw the CCFers as quasi-communists.

Memories of my futile attempts nearly half a century ago to persuade union members in Eastern Canada to embrace the NDP flooded back as I was reading a long essay by Thomas Frank in a recent issue of Harper’s. Titled Lie Down for America: How the Republican Party sows ruin on the Great Plains, it relates how workers and farmers in the Midwestern states of the U.S. have been induced to vote for a political party whose policies—free trade, deregulation, anti-unionism, massive tax cuts for the wealthy—have devastated their lives and communities.

Voters on the U.S. Great Plains—a region of dying farm towns and abandoned factories—voted more than 75% for George Bush and Republican candidates in the 2000 election. Says Frank: “Out here the gravity of discontent pulls in only one direction: to the right. . . Strip today’s Kansans of their job security and they head out to become registered Republicans. Push them off their land and the next thing you know they’re protesting in front of abortion clinics. Squander their life savings on manicures for the CEO and there’s a good chance they’ll join the John Birch Society.

“The people who were once radical [in the region that in the past produced socialist Presidential candidate Eugene Debs and illustrious union leader Walter Reuther] are now reactionary. Although they speak the same aggrieved language of victimization, and face the same array of economic forces as their ancestors [who supported unions and public ownership], today’s rebels make demands that are precisely the opposite. Tear down the federal farm programs, they cry. Privatize the utilities. Repeal the progressive taxes. . . It is a working-class movement that has done incalculable harm to working-class people.”

Asked how so many Americans could get it so wrong, Frank says that this is “the pre-eminent question of our times. People getting their fundamental interests wrong is what American political life is all about.” His explanation is that the arch-conservatives in politics, media, and academe have been able to channel the discontent of many workers away from their social and economic problems into a cultural backlash. Get them mad at the “unpatriotic” anti-war protesters, at pro-abortionists, gays, atheists, the makers of salacious movies and TV shows—and blame all this subversion of “family values” on the “liberals,” on the “élites,” and most of all on the Democrats. Convince them that culture outweighs economics and they’ll keep voting for right-wing politicians who, once in office, are free to smash the welfare state, cut corporate taxes, and, in Frank’s words, “generally facilitate the country’s return to a 19th-century pattern of wealth distribution.”

It’s like a French Revolution in reverse, says Frank, one in which the peasants pour down the streets demanding more power for the aristocrats. “Here is a movement whose response to the power structure is to make the rich richer; whose answer to the degradation of working-class life is to lash out angrily at labour unions and liberal workplace-safety programs; whose solution to the rise of ignorance in America is to pull the rug out from under public education.”

I’ve quoted from Frank’s essay at some length because his lament over so many working-class Americans voting against their best interests has some relevance in Canada, too. It’s not nearly as prevalent here; we’re relatively free from rabid religious fundamentalism; our right-wingers are not quite so cunning and unscrupulous, our media not quite so virulently regressive, our citizens not nearly so intolerant of people who are “different.” But, still, the policies of neoliberalism—tax cuts, privatization, free trade, deregulation—have been embraced by far too many Canadians who are being badly hurt by them. I don’t think this is because they have been duped into putting cultural “values” ahead of social and economic issues, as so many Americans have, but they seem to have been persuaded that all the negative effects of the neoliberal agenda—reduced job security, inequality, pollution, the underfunding of health care and education—are unavoidable or temporary, or that somehow they will lead eventually to a better world.

Such a misreading of political reality is perhaps excusable in a country which—though not to the same extent as the U.S.—is more awash in propaganda than in reliable information. Our mainstream media are only marginally less unfair and unbalanced than the U.S. media, so alternatives to the prevailing neoliberal dogma are not easily accessible to most Canadians. For every informed member of the CCPA, several hundred thousand non-members remain uninformed. Not that the CCPA is the only source of reliable facts and figures; far from it; many other progressive NGOs and their websites also provide excellent alternatives to free-market fanaticism. But put them all together, and they still probably reach no more than 10% of the electorate. How could they reach more, lacking as they do the large commercial newspaper, radio and TV outlets most people turn to for their news (and views)?

This begs the question, of course, of whether working-class people would vote in their own best interests even if they were completely well-informed. This may seem like a no-brainer, but to be confident they would, you would have to assume there was an obvious political choice that, given enough votes, would produce a government that was not only sympathetic to working people in principle, but would translate that sympathy into appropriate laws, policies, and practices. Is that a safe assumption?

In the United States, I wonder how much better off the Kansans and other mid-Westerners would have been had they voted for Gore and the Democrats four years ago. They would almost certainly have fared better in terms of their country’s foreign policy, since it’s unlikely (though not inconceivable) that a Gore administration would have launched an unprovoked attack on Iraq; but would the Democrats, after 9/11, have refrained from the excesses of security crackdowns, super-patriotism, and trampling on civil rights that have marked the Bush regime? Would the family farmers have held onto their farms? Would the manufacturers still be running their factories in the U.S. and providing good jobs for Americans instead of outsourcing them to foreign sweatshops?

These questions weren’t raised by Thomas Frank in his Harper’s article. He assumes that working-class Americans would have been much better served by a Democratic President and a Democratic-controlled Congress. Probably they would be, in relative lesser-of-two-evil terms. Clinton, in retrospect, was preferable to Bush Jr., both in international and domestic policies. But Clinton maintained the horrific sanctions on Iraq that killed half a million innocent children; he bombed medical-drug plants in Sudan; he propped up the brutal Taliban dictatorship in Afghanistan. And his administration was just as strongly supportive of job-destroying trade deals and the neoliberal agenda as were the Republicans. So, as valid as Frank’s indictment of the working-class Great Plains voters may be, his implication that their lives would be significantly better today under a Democratic President and Congress is questionable, to say the least.

The entrenched two-party system in the U.S. and the control of both parties by the big corporations leaves voters with little to choose from in terms of domestic policies. That’s why half of them have become so cynical and disillusioned with politics that they’ve opted out of the whole electoral process. They don’t see much difference in voting for Democrats or Republicans. Frank is right in saying that the Bush administration has been disastrous for most Americans (not to mention most other people in the world), and clearly he has to be denied a second term. But to paint the Democrats as shining knights riding to the rescue of workers and their families is to distort political reality.

Here in Canada, we face a crucial federal election, too. (Since I have to write this piece in mid-April to meet our long publishing deadline, we may already be in the middle of it or even have finished it by the time you read this, in which case what follows has lost much of its relevance.) Unlike the Americans, we have more than two serious political parties to choose from, but we also have a collective habit of voting against a governing party we have come to distrust instead of for the party that would best serve our interests if it won. So desperate are we to “throw the rascals out” that we opt for the rival party the polls tell us has the best chance of ousting the detested incumbents. That, too, is a “lesser-of-two-evils” approach, or, as Tommy Douglas put it in his famous allegory, it’s the mice voting to replace the black cats with the white cats.

Our “winner-takes-all” electoral system, of course, feeds the fear that splitting the anti-ruling-party vote will let the miscreants win yet another majority of seats with a minority of ballots. It’s a dreaded possibility that can’t easily be dismissed. But, given our multiplicity of parties and the fading pre-election popularity of the governing Liberals, a decision by workers to vote for the party that was co-founded by labour could this time produce a more favourable result.

The Liberals might still get more votes than any other party, but their plurality this time would fall short of producing a majority of seats. To set up a workable government, they would have to come to some arrangement with another party, most plausibly the NDP—if the NDP were to win enough seats to make such an informal partnership viable. (The only precedent—a very encouraging one—came in the early 1970s when the Trudeau government was dependent on the David Lewis-led NDP. It was a two-year period of minority government that was one of the most progressive and enlightened, at least at the federal level, in Canadian history.)

Another such NDP-propped-up minority Liberal government in Canada, followed by a victory for John Kerry and the U.S. Democrats in November, might not lead to a huge improvement in the lives of workers in either country—but it could at least keep things from getting worse.

These days, we have to be thankful for small mercies.