Ever since the horrible Donald Trump conned his way into the White House by winning working class support in the American Rustbelt, I've been consumed by the question: What mistakes have progressives been making that led to this and how can progressives do a better job preventing right-wing idiots with or without fascist tendencies from ever winning the votes of working class folks again?
It's clear that establishment Democrats in the U.S., and Liberals and even New Democrats in Canada - those who love playing the insiders' game of politics, rubbing shoulders at elite parties, barely distinguished in style or substance from typical conservatives - lost the confidence of many working class people long ago.
Support for establishment forces like the big banks and Wall/Bay Street badly undermined claims by liberal politicians that they were on the sides of ordinary people, who've struggled more and more over the last 30 years as their incomes have stagnated while the wealth of the top 1% has skyrocketed to obscenely historic levels.
Ordinary folks in the U.S. lacked confidence that anything would change under Hilary Clinton, so they narrowly opted for a guy who at least was not aligned with the same powerful forces that surrounded the Democrat. It was a lesson for progressives: when you abandon the interests of your working class base, be prepared to be defeated. In retrospect, the progressive messages and authenticity of Bernie Sanders were the better option over Hilary Clinton.
In 2017, we've seen the U.K.'s Jeremy Corbyn use a message similar to Bernie Sander's that proved to be remarkably effective in winning new Labour Party support; he almost tied the Conservatives in June's national election. Also, in British Columbia's provincial election last spring, the New Democrats ran on a similar message, as did the Greens, and together they managed to form a coalition government.
For me, the answer isn't narrow partisanship, particularly in Canada where we have two big parties on the centre-left at the federal level: the Liberals and the NDP. I'm truly pragmatic and not naive about the realities of our politics. It's entirely possible that a Liberal could authentically embody genuine progressive policies and do the right thing for people in government, just as much as a New Democrat.
On some issues, I've been a bit disappointed that Justin Trudeau's Liberals haven't been progressive enough (ie. abandoning electoral reform, introducing legislation to possibly undermine defined benefit pensions, not doing much to take on the big banks, cell phone companies or big oil). But on others, like marijuana legalization, or promoting carbon pricing, or Finance Minister Bill Morneau's proposals to close corporate tax loopholes used by wealthy individuals to pay less tax than the rest of us, the Liberals do occasionally fight the good fight.
At the Ontario level, only Kathleen Wynne has pursued an unabashed progressive agenda in government, including proposing to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour and to provide free university tuition for more students. This while NDP leader Andrea Horwath sits on the sidelines fighting for the ability of folks to burn more fossil fuels without restraint. I really don't like the choices Horwath has made as leader, which has led to some residual resentment against Jagmeet Singh, at least perhaps undeserved.
While Labour is the sole credible choice in Britain for beating Conservatives, and the Democrats remain the only true option to stop Republicans in the U.S., our choices as progressives in Canada remain more complicated, depending on where you live.
The federal NDP had second place firmly in its possession from 2011 to 2015, yet it slipped away because Tom Mulcair played it too pragmatic and safe. Ironically, the Liberals outflanked the NDP on the left with their 2015 platform and the rest is history.
Yet that history also makes clear that progressive Canadian politics is fluid and that, given the right circumstances, the fortunes of our two progressive parties could switch again. Perhaps Justin Trudeau will get into a major scandal and cause his party to collapse again. Part of me does long for a more consistently progressive governing option instead of the Liberals, one that routinely takes the side of ordinary folks in the face of an ever-powerful conservative/business elite that has the worst plans for working people in their sights (beware mass automation of the economy.)
That's why it's important to see what path the NDP takes this year in its leadership race.
On the far left, we have the somewhat unconvincing Niki Ashton, who claims to be the champion of a social justice movement. I haven't bought it; you can't just stick a "movement" label on your campaign and have it magically be a movement. Still I applaud her tenacity and her drive. Were she to win, she'd be a new mother at the same time. It would make a great story.
Generally charming and intelligent, Guy Caron, has also annoyed me with his deference to the xenophobia of Quebec. Should Quebecers feel the need to use the power of government law to destroy the basic human rights of minorities just to feel more secure in their secular mainstream culture, I want my federal leaders to stick up for all human beings. Special message to Quebecers and everyone else: if your culture can only survive by purposefully suppressing the rights of other peoples, your culture isn't worth saving.
Is it possible always in politics to be 100% pure? 100% consistent, never wavering from one's ideology in the face of new complicated realities? I don't think so. I've never thought so. That's why I became a Liberal, because I understood that while we generally must tack progressive left, on occasion, a bit of conservative common sense makes sense.
The most important things in politics: authenticity and clarity.
Progressives who come across as phony and inconsistent will lose to conservatives who appear genuine and authentic. Every time. Despite what elitist snobs sometimes think, the public is generally smart and can see through liars and frauds. They are more than capable in our mature democracies to sift through the nonsense and make decent choices considering their priorities and who they feel has their backs.
If progressives can prove to the working public that we are the real deal - that we will actually implement policies that will help, not hurt them - and we communicate a vision and a plan that the public understands, victory will be ours more than not.
Charlie Angus has run an incredible and inspiring campaign. I've toyed seriously for most of the campaign with supporting him. He is super clear when it comes to his vision and the value he'd add to Canadian politics were he the NDP Leader. He's walked the walk and talked the talk. He's passionate. As leader, he'd try to drive important issues too long on the back burner like Aboriginal rights.
His only problems: he can't really speak French well and he seems to have the inability to develop colour on his face either tanning or burning. He has this dead looking complexion. At 54, he doesn't represent the next generation, at least superficially. But he's passionate and a firebrand, he'd connect easily with average Canadians.
Jagmeet Singh is a sensation who's lit his community on fire, politically speaking. He also walks the walk and talks the talk. He talks like a surfer dude and is charming, compassionate, and super-smart. In many ways, his rise to national leader, the first of a non-white person to such an achievement, would be an incredible story. He can probably more easily reach new voters the NDP needs to win if it's ever going to break through, especially in Ontario.
One note of criticism of Singh: For a man who claims to be all inclusive now in his leadership campaign, it didn't quite seem that way a few years ago when Ontario was updating its public school curriculum, including its sex-education curriculum. Homophobic parents were spreading misinformation about the changes in many communities, often times in various languages targeting Toronto suburbs including Singh's territory of Bramalea-Gore-Malton. Despite the fact the new curriculum finally acknowledged the existence of LGBT people and went through a thorough consultation as per any curriculum update, Singh told a local Sikh audience the Liberals were to blame for the controversy surrounding it for not communicating the changes clearly enough to various communities in various languages. The Liberals of course had spent a lot of money communicating the facts of the curriculum update including in multiple languages. It was a partisan swipe from Singh, the kind of which most opposition politicians make from time to time against governments. While I do believe Singh when he says he's in favour of equality for all people including sexual minorities, I just wish he had shown more leadership in supporting the changes instead of just blasting the government.
Overall, I can't blame Singh for Horwath's flaws. And he's leaving her team, after all.
My prediction: New Democrats are going to put Singh over the top easily in this leadership race. I love Charlie dearly. But sadly it's not going to work out for him. Caron and Ashton will trail far behind. Not sure if Singh has the numbers to pull off a first ballot win, but it's possible. We'll see how it goes next month.
With Singh as leader, they'll struggle in Quebec in the short term, but I think Quebecers will be listening to hear what he has to say. He'll also be listened to by Canadians right across the country. I think he's going to impress.
I'm totally looking forward to it. Somehow I think Singh could possibly go the whole way if he's lucky and Trudeau and the Liberals self-destruct one day. Anything can happen. With a relatively underwhelming Conservative leader in Andrew Scheer, Singh's brilliance will shine all the more brightly.