Thank God the election is almost over(-ish). I mean, it’s barely begun; it’s been a short election and despite the best efforts of the media, I don’t know too many people who have been paying much attention to it. People’s worry banks are full of other things, like “will schools stay open this year” and “when can my kids get vaccinated” and “oh god, please no more variants,” and there’s not much space for the rantings of politicians and partisans over how evil all the other candidates are.
Don’t get me wrong: doomscrolling still makes up a chunk of my day. I don’t think O’Toole’s conservatives are evil, but I also don’t want them to win. They’re less awful for climate than the Harper Conservatives were, but there would still be profound consequences for their government that would affect lives. So there is room in there for that little mouth of worry and all its sharp teeth to keep gnawing on my gut.
But this isn’t about the election, per se. It isn’t about the left’s obsession with tearing apart every single potential candidate to make sure that only those who are and have since birth been perfect by 2020 standards can express even tentative interest in the job, and then handing the prize to alt-right neo-fascists out of pique. It isn’t about the right and their outright enthusiasm for and shameless support of said alt-right neo-fascists.
It’s about what it means to be Political, in the context of the ever-increasing dumpster fire of the 21st century, after having read Etian Hersh’s Politics is for Power, during an election campaign with plenty of examples that both illustrate and dismantle his arguments. Mind you: it was the American 2020 political campaign I read the book in, but despite what we would like to believe, we are not that different from the Americans.
His book has two closely-related theses:
- That politics is a verb, not a noun; that what most people consider “being political”–reading political news and discussing it on social media with like-minded ‘friends’–is like avidly following football news and watching all your team’s big games, and calling yourself “athletic.” The athletes are the ones who get out and play, even in a community no-tackle league. And ‘being political’ means working to amass power to influence change in your community, however defined, not consuming political news in the same way others follow celebrity gossip.
- That working to amass power means community service, preferably local, to build relationships and networks that can be called on during elections to direct votes to progressive candidates and causes.
I’m solidly on board with the first and find the second pretty questionable.
Politics is a verb
The curious thing, when I worked in renewable energy, wasn’t that angry NIMBYs showed up to derail all our public meetings.
The curious thing was that in every jurisdiction, the majority of residents–according to polls–supported the projects.
But they never showed up.
They didn’t come to the public meetings, they didn’t go to municipal council meetings or committees, they didn’t write letters to politicians or decision-makers. They rumbled their dissatisfaction about how politicized renewable energy had become to their friends or, sometimes, on social media.
Meanwhile, the NIMBYs organized busloads of people from all over the province to attend the public meetings with megaphones and bullhorns and t-shirts, who threatened and harassed and occasionally assaulted our staff.
Eventually, despite their best efforts, the projects did go up. But despite their smaller numbers based on the polls, they had an enormously detrimental impact on renewable energy policy in the province, and the industry never recovered from it. I know Naomi Klein likes to blame business (because blaming business is all she knows how to do), but in fact it was democracy as currently practiced that broke renewable energy in Ontario, and the apathetic majority that figured their good intentions were a satisfactory stand-in for effort.
And this is not unusual. Political activists in the 1960s and 70s worked hard to make government more democratic by getting consultation and engagement requirements embedded into law with certain time periods for review and advertising requirements. Yet few people take advantage of these, and it is almost always opponents who show up. In my experience, the opponents are nearly universally wealthy white retired people, most often men.
This is exactly the kind of nonsense Hersh takes aim at in his book:
So there it is. What news do political junkies demand? Outrage and gossip. Why? Because it’s alluring. What news do we avoid? Local news. Why? It’s boring. What do we think of our partisan opponents? We hate them. Do we really hate them? No, but politics is more fun if we root for a team and spew anger at the other side. It’s easier to hate and dismiss the other side than to empathize and connect to them. When do we vote? When there’s a spectacle. When do we click? When politics can be a frivolous distraction. When do we donate? When there’s a cocktail party or viral video. What are we doing? We’re taking actions not to empower our political values, but to satisfy our passion for the sport of politics.p.82
Hobbyism is, he writes, the death of real politics. And it’s not everyone at fault, but a particular demographic group. Some clues:
…those in wealthier neighbourhoods were especially likely to sign petitions if the petition were about issues that were frivolous and narrow. p. 62
Of Americans who consume news every day, most report belonging to zero organizations. Sixty-five percent report that in the last year they have done no work with other people to solve a community problem. Sixty-eight percent say they have attended zero meetings in the last year about a community issue.p. 136
…one reason why organizations are so weak is that they are operating in a culture of privilege that, in spite of our serious national problems, fails to treat politics as if lives are on the line.p. 147
Here’s the last clue:
A certain detachment from feelings of fear and insecurity is needed to experience politics as a leisure-time activity… black voters tend to see their own fate, and the fate of their families, as tied to the fate of the racial group as a whole. … If you are reasonably well-off and white, and if you mostly live among other people like you, then you may have trouble seeing how your fate is linked to the fate of the less fortunate. …Blacks and Latinos were twice as likely to report that part of the time they spent on politics was spent volunteering.pp. 185-186
Yep, that’s right. The most partisan people with the least contribution to actual politics and yet the most heated sentiments about it are wealthy, white men, with the least to either gain or lose from any particular contest. If my own experience is anything to go by, Liberal men are worse, because at least you can count on more Conservative men getting angry enough about things they dislike to actually show up and participate.
My own social circle is predominantly women, and due to my own social position, a bunch are straight, white, middle- or upper-middle class, abled women, and this tracks. Not entirely; my own habits and hobbies have brought me into contact with a lot of volunteers, activists and organizers, but the amazing thing is that the volunteers, activists and organizers are not usually the ones foaming at the mouth over party politics. I have spent about fifteen years working at different levels of government on environmental policies and projects, and a) yes, which party wins matters, it has a huge impact, there’s no avoiding it, but also b) you can still get a lot done with whatever party wins, and if you are actually committed to an ideal or a goal, you will find a way to show up even when it’s hard or discouraging.
I mean, no one I know in the environmental field was happy when DoFo won. No one. But. The morning after the win, women I know in the field were calling each other: “OK. Well, cap and trade is gone, but he’s promised funding for adaptation. What can we do with that? Do we have adaptation projects we can move forward? Can we go to the feds to replace the cap and trade money we’re about to lose? Let’s organize a workshop and a protest about this Greenbelt nonsense. Who’s the new Environment minister? Can we get a meeting?”
What they did not do was throw up their hands and say, “well, that’s it! I’m going on vacation for four years! Those awful people voted for the Wrong Party and now we’re all doomed!”
Thesis 1 point is: Hersh is right. Politics is not a spectator sport. It is how change is created in our communities. Memes don’t count. If you’re unable to participate in person, you have options like emails and phonecalls, phone banking and donations, op-eds and written project submissions.
I do not believe that you have no time and there’s nothing you can do. I believe that you are more comfortable criticizing the actions of others than subjecting yourself to possible criticism by taking any kind of action.
On to his second thesis, which is that political power is amassed by local community service and then deployed to direct voters towards political candidates … enh.
Only Voting Counts
Hersh overlooks all historical suffrage movements in his focus on voting as the only kind of political action that matters. Women got themselves rights, including the right to vote, as did black people and indigenous people; by definition they accomplished this without actually having that right. Voting is important, don’t get me wrong, but even directing the votes of a bunch of other people is only one means to political power. Look at the youth climate strikes (which he takes an unnecessary potshot at): most of those kids aren’t voting age and many won’t be for years, yet they still managed to influence the platforms of all four of Canada’s main parties in the 2019 and 2021 federal elections. And beyond protests: there’s delegating, analysis, policy-making, committees, letters and meetings and phonecalls, etc. You can participate in any or all of these regardless of who you vote for or if you vote at all.
I personally don’t care who you vote for, with an enormous asterisk beside the PPC. I have more respect for Conservative voters who work to change their party’s stance on climate change and equity than I do for NDP voters who do nothing but vote and judge; the former will achieve more good.
It is better to vote Conservative and stay actively involved in climate between elections than it is to vote NDP (or Green, or Liberal) and sit on your hands for four years. The majority Liberals under McGuinty slowed down their renewables program in the face of rural conservative opposition, and the majority Provincial conservatives under Ford rolled back proposals in the face of liberal urban opposition. All governing parties move towards the centre while in government. Best, of course, to vote for the party with the platform you want and then yell at the winner, whoever they are, to implement it.
I took a look at the climate platforms of our four major parties before deciding who to vote for–I always do. I vote climate. You don’t, and that’s fine; I’m not looking to get an all-Green or all-NDP or even all-Climate parliament. I want all voices represented, so long as basic human rights are respected; I want people there advocating for pragmatism, for science, for human rights and equity, for environmental protection, for climate justice, even for responsible costing. I use my vote to say, backed up with words, that climate matters to me.
This used to be easy. Climate voters were few, and it was rare to even see “climate change” in a platform. Usually, I could read them all quickly, find the one–maybe two–who managed to say anything at all, if there were two figure out which was closer to IPCC reports and recommendations, which would be whatever one managed to say something about reduction targets and actions to achieve them, and presto, there was my vote! I’d then send a short note to them letting them know that I voted for them because of their climate proposals.
2018’s IPCC report and the youth climate strikes changed that. Now, all four parties have climate platforms. They’re not equal, but it’s notable that the 2021 Conservative climate plan would have been radical for an NDP or Liberal proposal in 2011. In fact, I just looked up the 2011 Liberal platform and it pretty much is the 2021 Conservative platform, except less detailed: a home renovation tax credit, an insufficient emissions reduction target, no interim targets, no accountability, no detailed policy proposals, a promise to implement cap-and-trade federally, and promises to work with the US on creating joint regulations. Largely same with the NDP, with some nods to energy poverty, equity issues and reduction of O&G subsidies. The Green 2011 platform didn’t even mention climate change. Adaptation is MIA, no one was talking about divestment or shutting down the tar sands or cancelling pipeline contracts, no specific dollar amounts were proposed for carbon pricing. All of this has happened in the last four years.
This is all great news, but it makes it much harder to compare and evaluate climate platforms. Woe is me! I made a chart:
There’s not much point in reading it now since you almost certainly have already voted. My point is this: This change in emphasis and party values has happened in four years largely due to the pressure of people too young to vote.
So in this, I fundamentally disagree with Hersh. Yes, vote, please; vote based on the platforms, not the marketing; then between elections, hold elected officials accountable by whatever means necessary and push progress through ongoing engagement.
That is politics.