Dave and I have a piece in the Star today on Liberal renewal. It builds off of our larger article on How the Left is Killing Progressive Politics in the Literary Review. I suppose it would also be appropriate to put my biases on the table – as many who read this site would know, I do policy work for Michael Ignatieff, and will continue to do so during this leadership campaign.
How about real Liberal renewal?
In the weeks since one of its worst ever electoral performances, the conversation within the Liberal Party of Canada has rightly turned to renewal. To date, the establishment consensus suggests two options: shift right and recapture the ideological “centre,” or unite the left and merge the votes of the Greens, NDP and Liberals.
Neither choice, however, represents renewal. Both are simply electoral tactics focused on the next election. Neither necessitates a rethinking of first principles, nor encourages reflection on how liberalism, and its agenda, must evolve to create a 21st century vision that will speak to Canadians.
Consequentially, both approaches are likely to alienate a new generation of activists, thinkers and policy-makers whose new ideas and energy are essential to transcending the country’s staid political debates.
Take for example our friends and colleagues. Confronted with parties whose politics, policies and priorities are perceived as out of touch and ineffective, many have simply opted out of organized politics. But many are deeply engaged. They start or work at non-governmental organizations, volunteer internationally, create social enterprises or advocate outside of organized politics. Among our peers, the progressive spirit is strong, but progressive politics is not.
To progressives searching for a political home a united left offers few new opportunities.
While acknowledging the left was instrumental in creating many of the social programs Canadians have come to trust – many of today’s emerging progressives see a left that is often loath to reform or rethink them in the face of globalization, the telecommunication revolution, and a changing citizenry. In the last election voters faced an ideological paradox. The more left the advocates, the more entrenched they were against innovation and reform, even when such reforms would serve progressive values.
Seen this way, the NDP’s vision is in many ways a conservative one – a vision of Canada locked in the 1960s or worse, the 1930s. This conservatism of the left – even if found under one tent – will not inspire forward looking progressives, or Canadians in general.
Nor will moving to the centre attract new people or inspire new ideas.
Centrism requires there to something inherently good in the position between two ideological poles. Rather than compromise between the conservatism of the left and the right, many of our peers want pragmatic policies and ideas based on a governing philosophy rather than political gamesmanship.
Take how Barack Obama has mobilized a new generation of progressives. He inspires not because he compromises between the left and right, but because he offers pragmatic policy solutions, unrestricted by ideology. Obama’s watershed speeches – “Ebenezer Baptist Church,” “Yes We Can” and “A More Perfect Union” – are powerful because they transcend the ideological divides of the past 40 years.
How then could the Liberal party attract new people and ideas? The first step is to understand that we are on the cusp of a neo-progressive revolution.
While traditional progressives promoted their values to smooth the transition from agrarian to industrial capitalism and to spread the latter’s benefits, a neo-progressive Liberal party should seek to manage the shift from the industrial to the knowledge economy. In short, to develop a New Deal for the 21st century.
This would mean, like their progressive forbearers identifying new political axes around which a new governing coalition – drawn from both the left and right – could be built.
These emerging political axes include open versus closed systems, evidence-based policy versus ideology, meritocratic governance versus patronage, open and fair markets versus isolationism, and emergent networks versus hierarchies. It is these political distinctions, not the old left versus right, that increasingly resonate among those we talk to.
Such a shift will not be easy for the Liberal party. Transformative politics requires a painful process of introspection and a willingness to let go of past battles. The Liberal party, however, continues to treat “renewal” as a side process. For example, after Paul Martin’s 2006 defeat party insiders chose 30 issues they felt were critical, and then a select group wrote reports on each. Little technology was used, neither the membership nor the public was engaged, and almost none of the reports were released to the public.
The result: Few new people were attracted to the party, almost no rigorous debates were stimulated and Liberals were unable to articulate a new progressive agenda.
This recent history offers one critical lesson. If Liberals are serious about renewal, the process can’t just be about the tactics for winning the next election, but about making progressive politics relevant to the 21st century.