Wed, Jan
27
2010

On Partisanship (Again)

Wed, Jan 27, 2010

Campaign sign for a federal NDP candidate in t...

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Given that the anger of the 25,000 or so Canadians who marched on the streets this Saturday against Stephen Harper’s prorogation of parliament is pretty clearly focused on one man and one party (although I note that one speaker at the K-W rally criticized the Conservatives and Liberals equally for their past undemocratic actions), it’s understandable that supporters of that man and that party would seek to downplay and dismiss said anger. And given the nature of our political culture both here in Canada and in the United States (where we import a fair amount of our political awareness, it seems), it’s perhaps not surprising that downplaying and dismissing said anger involves downplaying and dismissing the individuals who express that anger.

Ever since the storm of protest was unleashed online, Conservative supporters have continually moved the yardsticks in their measurement of whether those Canadians who were against proroguing parliament mattered or not. When the Facebook group was 20,000 strong, they yawned and said ‘wake me when they got the 127,000 we got to speak out against last year’s coalition’. When the 127,000 number was passed, they yawned and said, ‘wake me up when you get more than 10,000 out to your rallies’. When the Facebook group stood at over 200,000, and 25,000 people marched across the country, they snarled and blamed the media and ‘the elites’.

And they also set about questioning the character of those who attended these rallies. Were these individuals actual individuals, or were they political partisans marching at the order of their political masters (As if there weren’t Conservative Party supporters and volunteers behind the crowds and the organizers of the anti-coalition rallies that took place last year)? Are these people ordinary Canadians whose opinions we supposedly value? Are these people even sane?

The blogger Christian Conservative took up this meme this past weekend, when he attended the Kitchener-Waterloo rally with the apparent intent of finding political partisans and isolated extreme voices and using them to discredit the whole. You can see some of the pictures here and, of course, he starts up with the idiot who walked around with the “Stephen Hitler” sign.

I attended that same rally, and I can say that Christian Conservative cherry-picked his photos to paint a picture of the gathering that wasn’t wholly true. Yes, we had that idiot walking with that “Stephen Hitler” sign, but he was one man in an estimated crowd of 500, and he certainly did not have the support of the whole crowd. Further, Christian Conservative could find only one other sign that even mentioned fascism. He also skipped the signs of those individuals I snapped who were offering free perogies and focused on signs held up by a group of union members, promoting their association, not to mention signs which belonged to a local campaign group of the New Democratic Party. He even labelled an individual as a partisan Green simply because of the logo she happened to be wearing on her touque. In total, he focused on about two dozen people, at most 5% of the crowd, jumped to conclusions on some of them and used that not-exactly-random sample to impugn the aspirations of the rest of the crowd. Including me. Even though I’m not a union member, or a member of any political party.

But that seems to be the modus operandi, here: to try to diminish what you don’t agree with. If you are a Conservative who attended a political rally in support of your party last year, you are a highly principled individual standing up for what you believe in, but if you are a Liberal, New Democrat or Green Party supporter who attended an anti-prorogation rally this year, you are a mental deviant whose opinions can either be safely ignored, or used as evidence to commit you to an insane asylum.

Never mind that, if all 25,000 Canadians who marched Saturday actually took out memberships in the Conservative Party, they could wreck havoc at the party’s next policy convention. If that many Canadians were motivated enough to channel their support to any one party (in fundraising, if nothing else), that party would receive a considerable boost, and maybe then Conservative supporters would take notice of their opinions.

But there’s a wider issue I want to address here: the suggestion that partisan individuals suddenly can’t attend political rallies without that rally being labelled partisan. And though I find it odd to discuss this as the founder of the Blogging Alliance of Non-Partisan Canadians, maybe there is a related element here, since people seem as likely to misunderstand the word ‘partisan’ as they are to misunderstand the phrase ‘non-partisan’.

Four years ago, on one of my more controversial political posts, I happened to mention that I was likely to vote Green in the subsequent election. This provoked a sharp response from an anonymous commentator:

You write: “I expect to be voting Green this time around … unless the NDP mount another strong challenge.”

Aren’t you a member of the non-partisan alliance? You’re a (explitive) liar and should be exposed as one. Non-partisan? KISS MY (explitive) (explitive) !

(link)

I often think about this comment not just because of the hostility behind it, but because I can’t help but wonder what this anonymous individual would have me do for me to maintain my non-partisan credentials. Am I not to declare for whom I vote, ever? Am I not to vote, ever? Am I indeed barred from expressing any political opinion whatsoever that happens to align with that of another political party? Am I forever barred from wearing a political insignia somewhere about my person?

This is, of course, silly. Just because I am non-partisan doesn’t mean that I am a-political. I have as much right as the next individual to examine the pros and cons of any issue, to render my judgment and defend it publicly. And just as expressing a political opinion or preference doesn’t automatically align me with any political party, neither should support of or membership in any political party automatically define the opinions I have as suspect.

But implicit in Christian Conservative’s post is the implication that by belonging to certain groups, your opinion is suspect. Consider this comment:

“On top of the local parties and union support, you have the two Universities, Waterloo and Laurier, just a couple blocks up the road. Kinda makes it easy to boost your numbers when they’re around.”

(link)

So, if you belong to a union and you show up at a protest showing said membership, your opinion has less value in his eyes. If you are a student of a local university, suddenly your opinion less valuable than that of Canadians older than you. It must be awfully convenient whenever Christian Conservative encounters a rally where unions or students comprise part of the rally body, because now he doesn’t have to engage in the arguments behind the rally’s position. “You’re just a union supporter, or you are just a university student, so your opinion doesn’t count, and I don’t have to expend the intellectual energy to counter your arguments.”

But Christian Conservative is not alone, and the example he sets certainly isn’t limited to his side of the political spectrum. The commentators of the Liberal-leaning blog Far and Wide also noted the NDP signs in the Kitchener-Waterloo rally and also criticized the NDP leadership for supposedly trying to take over the movement. For them, just showing up and offering your literature to individuals who might be sympathetic to your campaign is somehow wrong. The blogger Dammit Janet is similarly on the lookout for signs that Michael Ignatieff and the office of the Leader of the Opposition is trying to co-opt the grassroots movement, and has focused heavily on questions Ignatieff answered at a town hall reaching out to people concerned about prorogation.

It’s one thing if individuals working from within the Office of the Leader of the Opposition were to try to worm their way into leadership positions of the grassroots organizations behind Canadians Against Proroguing Parliament. If senior Liberals try to gain control of the political apparatus of CAPP and systematically try to shut those of other political persuasions out, then we would certainly have room to criticize. But if you are a partisan individual and you have a large group of concerned and politically active Canadians seeking political change — change similar to the change you wish to bring about — you would be a fool not to try to reach out to those people and show how your ideas may be ideas that these individuals can support. It’s one thing if the grassroots leadership of CAPP starts marching in lock-step with the political leadership of only the New Democratic Party or the Liberals, but if you think that the volunteers working long hours trying to bring these rallies about haven’t voted Liberal, New Democrat, Green or even Conservative; if you think that there aren’t individuals in this group who have worked on political campaigns before, you’re dreaming in Technicolor.

Many political partisans become partisans because they are politically active and aware. They want change to happen, and rightly or wrongly, they’ve decided that a particular political party is the best agent for that change. So, what are they supposed to do when they encounter a grassroots movement whose agenda matches their own on certain issues? Are they now supposed to stay away from those very issues they care strongly about in order to spare the grassroots movement of their partisan taint?

Just as there is a misunderstanding around what it means to be non-partisan, there is a similar misunderstanding about what it means to be partisan. The word is overused as an epithet. There are members of the Blogging Tories who are members of the Blogging Alliance of Non-Partisan Canadians. True, they are grandfathered in, but it’s still a sign that there are individuals out there who are conservative in leaning, and Conservative in membership, who are still able to think for themselves when it comes to defending Tory policy. These individuals can (and do) criticize their own party when they think the party leadership has made a mistake, but on balance they remain Conservative and vote Conservative as being the best choice available to them, in their opinion. Similarly, I’m sure that Dan Arnold, a.k.a. Calgary Grit, believes himself to be a Liberal partisan. He has devoted considerable time and energy towards his party and he is still an ardent supporter, but he is not afraid to say when he thinks his party is in the wrong. When he defends the actions of his party, he’s doing it because he believes in it, not because his brand told him to.

Without question, these individuals are capable of participating in political activism in such a way that comes from their hearts and their brains rather than the braintrust of the party leadership. Their participation would be a boon to any grassroots action they choose to associate with. And let’s not forget that if Liberal, New Democrat and Green partisans can set aside their differences to work together on something, that by definition creates something that rises beyond simple partisanship.

I am not immune in using the ‘partisan’ epithet (I’ve even used it recently), but I must admit that we too often make the implication that individuals can’t construct a rational argument to defend the political choice they’ve made simply because of the brand they wear on their sleeve. This may or may not be true, but the move is still an act of intellectual laziness — an attempt to absolve ourselves of actually arguing against the positions the ‘partisan’ supports — unless we show our work. If you want to show that an partisan individual is being hypocritical, going against a political opinion he or she has held in the past all because the opinion he or she now holds is in line with the party he supports, by all means, go ahead and say so, but show your work.

It should come as no surprise to find unions and other political action groups helping organize various rallies on various issues across the country. Their very presence defines grassroots activity, since what you have here are individuals who care very strongly in the issues they believe in, working together to try and bring about the change they want. And this cuts in all ways. I’ve not been very sympathetic to the term ‘astroturfing’ to describe the well-funded and well-organized activities of Republican supporters in making the political change they want. You could perhaps criticize some of the supporters for not really knowing the issues they’re campaigning for, but you could probably say that of any number of people taken from a random sample of any political action from any part of the political spectrum in any democracy. I do not believe that it is possible to drag people any place they really don’t want to go, and in this democratic setting, I have to respect their right to an opinion.

The people who marched throughout this country this past Saturday might or might not have been environmentalists, union members, university students, Liberal voters, New Democratic party members, Green Party volunteers, or whathaveyou. It doesn’t matter. The point is, they’re Canadian, and on Saturday they stood on the streets united under the opinion that the Prime Minister was wrong to prorogue parliament for the second time in two years. Rather than dismiss these individuals on the basis of their associations, would you care to construct a rational rebuttal to their argument?

I’ll wait right here.

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