In his new book Fight the Right, Warren Kinsella gets some big things correct while leaving some big things out.
First, he deserves credit for writing this book, period. There are lots of kitchen table and bar-room conversations underway about how progressives can rebuild and undo much of the damage that the Conservatives are doing to our country and planet. But, we need more. We need to air ideas and strategies, to nominate, debate, discard and to choose. And, we’ll not get there without more public efforts like Kinsella’s.
Second, he is absolutely on the money regarding the need for the Liberals and the NDP to embrace math and to realize that as long as they divide the progressive vote, the Conservatives will build a dynasty. I say this as one who doesn’t have a home party, but for a true Grit like Kinsella to say it gives you a sense that it’s really just common sense. Every time Mulcair or Trudeau disavows inter-party cooperation, Harper does a happy dance because he’s been there, fixed that, and knows it’s why he’s PM.
Finally, Kinsella’s book is at its best when it does what he does best — giving specific election advice. He runs through the political truths that progressive parties and candidates often run afoul of — be authentic, keep it simple, and speak to the heart. He also calls for aggressively pushing out a renewed progressive narrative, or fall victim to being defined by our opponents. While he doesn’t fully flesh out such a narrative, he looks to the Occupy message of inequality, the one per cent vs. the 99 per cent, as showing the way. (The Broadbent Institute seems to agree).
There’s much more, including a lengthy detour through attempting to understand the conservative mind and the conservative message, with interviews with thought leaders like George Lakoff on this, and for those interested in that topic, the book is well worth picking up.
There are some big things, though, that Fight the Right leaves out.
The saying that “to a guy with a hammer, everything looks like a nail” would seem to apply. As a master of the war room, Kinsella gravitates to the rough and tumble of everyday political messaging, but says almost nothing about the long term infrastructure building that underpins it. He briefly acknowledges that his own Liberal party has lost many of its organizers, while the Conservative party is not only united behind Harper but has one of the most advanced databases about Canadians in the country.
Much more can be said about the political infrastructure the Right has built in Canada, or you can just read what the Manning Centre says about it, since it broadcasts it loud and proud. There is nothing that comes close on the progressive side, no solid foundation from which to project power.
Kinsella also begins to expose a key progressive conundrum, without calling it out so we can grapple with it properly. He correctly notes that youth don’t vote at the same rates as older Canadians, and that if they did we’d likely have more progressive governments. At the same time, he’s unapologetic about the kind of negative political campaigning that turns so many youth off from politics. Some go even further on this point, arguing that negative campaigning by its very nature reinforces conservative political framing (eg. cynicism). Yet, it’s a conundrum, since at the same time we cannot simply cede the field and let others walk all over us.
I do think there’s a common answer to both this conundrum and to the infrastructure deficit, but it’s not an easy one. While the right will always have big money on its side, progressives can and should have people power on their side, but this doesn’t happen by itself. People need to be given pathways for political engagement on terms that work for them, and for the vast majority this will not be through a political party.
Kinsella notes that the Occupy movement, while directly engaging a segment of the public, has so far shunned electoral politics. Labour has traditionally been a vehicle for engaging its members in progressive politics, although with a declining share of the population being unionized, it may need to innovate by giving non-members pathways for engagement, as some unions in the U.S. have been doing successfully. NGOs can provide another engagement pathway, as groups like Lead Now are now doing. Much more is needed.
By directly engaging citizens, this kind of progressive infrastructure building can itself be an antidote to the cynicism of day-to-day Ottawa (and provincial capitals), while also providing direct channels of communication with ever greater numbers of Canadians that don’t rely on the conflict-driven traditional media.
It’s not a shortcut, but I don’t think there is one. Yes, progressive politicians should take Kinsella’s advice about authenticity, simplicity and speaking to the heart. Yes, we need a new progressive narrative as a counterweight to the one that is currently trashing our country and our planet. But, we shouldn’t fool ourselves into thinking that we don’t have a lot of hard work to do, a lot of one-on-one relationships to build, and a lot of alliances to forge if we are to succeed.