Wednesday, November 03, 2010

No room for movement

Following up on this post, let's take a high-level look at why left-wing populism has received less attention than its right-wing counterpart in both Canada and the U.S. - and why the Canadian version may face particular challenges.

The first point worth making is that much of the "grassroots" of the Tea Party movement is anything but. I won't go into detail other than to point to Linda McQuaig's latest - but suffice it to say that a movement figures to have a far easier time attracting adherents if it enjoys a virtually endless supply of free money and promotion. In contrast, left-wing movements have generally had to start from scratch - which is why they've normally organized through low-cost media, and done little to keep momentum after a particular unifying event slips out of the headlines.

But in the U.S., the effort to keep an independent left-wing movement afloat is made somewhat easier by the nature of the political parties fighting for power. After all, the lifeblood of a non-party movement figures to be a group of people sufficiently interested in politics to be willing to get involved, but at the same time disgruntled enough with the existing parties not to want to back any of them regularly. And it's not hard to see how that kind of movement can come together in a system where even the lone nominally left-wing party regularly engages in recreational hippie-punching - leading to a strong incentive to want to develop outside voices to influence party direction.

In Canada, on the other hand, the existence of four parties who claim some element of progressivism means that there's a far more shallow pool of unaffiliated voters in the first place. Anybody who wants the easiest path to power in such a party will tend to be attracted to the Libs, while the NDP and Greens each make a strong claim to the status of the principled outsider fighting against the corporate excesses of the Cons and Libs, and the Bloc works to keep its turf as the left-wing alternative to the Cons in Quebec.

Needless to say, the effort involved in maintaining those parties leaves far less time and energy for the development of new alternatives. But it also results in the development of conflicting tribal loyalties which make it more difficult for populists to work together from across party lines - which figures to be a must in developing a sustainable movement independent of existing interests.

Indeed, one can take an instructive example from the Canadians Advocating Political Participation - which, while entirely non-ideological on its face, came together as a response to the Cons' abuses of power. And while Canadian progressives largely supported its work, they also spent plenty of time leveling accusations of party interference rather than seeing all involvement as a plus...with the end result that much less developed than might otherwise have been possible.

Lest there be any doubt, none of the above is to suggest that Canada is worse off for having the multi-party system that it does. And indeed, the comparative political realities in Canada as opposed to the U.S. seem to me to make for a compelling argument in favour of making sure that voters aren't limited to a single non-right option.

But as long as Canadian progressives continue to see that value in maintaining a number of parties as options, there's going to be awfully limited space for anybody to develop an outside movement. And it might well be worth asking what we can do to work across party lines to better focus our efforts without limiting ourselves to the bad-or-worse choice faced regularly by American voters.

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