Leaven

Original Kitchener, September 7, 2021

So, we’re in the home stretch of another federal election. Sigh. This is something most of us didn’t want and certainly don’t need, especially not when we’re only just beginning to recover from a global health emergency. 

As usual when a federal or provincial election is underway, I did the CBC / Vox Pop Lab “Vote Compass” test,* which is offered as “a tool developed by political scientists for exploring how your views align with those of the parties.”

Vox Pop Labs presents itself as “a social enterprise that uses data science to improve democratic participation and political representation.”

I’ve expressed my frustration with the decision to call an election at this time, and with the current culture of political parties — all of them — in another forum.** The influence of this kind of “data science” is part of the problem.

So I don’t put too much store in the results. But I’m always amused by my scores,  and take them into consideration. Any and all information that can help me get my bearings during an election campaign is appreciated. 

“Data science” shows that my alignment with the views of four of the main parties is remarkably balanced. My score for the current campaign is:  

65% Green PC

63% Liberal PC

63% New Democratic Party

61% Bloc Quebecois

52% Conservative PC

23% People’s PC

This is the first time green has had a slight lead in my personal Vox Pop Lab result; in other years it’s been red or orange. But no party has ever been ahead by more than a smidgen. 

Consequently, I find myself, once again, frustrated and angry about being put in the position of having to choose among  a set of “parties” with what for me are minimal differences between them. 

“Party” signifies division, separation, partition. Political parties are collectivities that have, for various historical, emotional and ideological reasons, “come out” of the general whole to operate as a separate, contrarian interest. This is a useful function, especially since the dawn of the modern era, when change began to become a constant. Partition is a peaceful, orderly alternative to violent revolution — in other words, to civil war.   

At this stage of my life, I want to join, not come out; to belong, not part ways; and at this point in historical time, it seems obvious that the importance of coming together to deal with the challenges before us far outweighs any partisan distinction. 

So I’ve modified my views on what an election is all about. I’m not interested in “having a say”, and I don’t have a personal shopping list to bring to the political promise mall. I don’t think of the voting booth as a private sanctuary where I solemnly profess my particular political faith, identity or will. I also don’t aim to leverage my vote as a strategy for achieving the result I personally prefer. 

The way I’ve come to see it, a democratic election is a collective deliberation process. We decide together. It’s not about what I want to see happen, but what we can do working in concert towards a desired result. What the parties say they intend to do matters to me, but what my compatriots across Canada think and say, especially fellow citizens here in my own city and electoral district, is far more important.   

I aspire to be what I like to call a responsible or considerate voter: a citizen who takes into account prevailing views and opinions; current needs and possibilities; the options in my municipality or electoral district, and the range of possible results. The odds, as best as they can be determined, are an important part of the decision, especially when there’s a possibility of an outcome that would be damaging to my city and my country, and therefore intolerable. 

I should explain that rooting for the Liberal cause has been a tradition in my family since we first became Canadian citizens, during the Diefenbaker-Pearson era. In the socially conservative Christian Reformed enclave I grew up in, this was a mildly radical minority stance. But I’ve never been inspired to join this or any other political party.

I became politicized, or at least began being deeply concerned with the outcome of elections, in 1993, when I started to become actively engaged with civic affairs in my city, and in 1995, when the “Common Sense Revolution” turned my province upside down. Ontario has never fully recovered, and I’ve never regained my former detachment. 

From Mike Harris through Canada’s lost decade under Stephen Harper to the antics of the Ford brothers here in the heartland and the Kenney regime out West: the intolerables in Canada as a body politic are mostly derived out of models and precedents in the U.S. and the U.K.. 

Most disturbing is the Deep Red Republicanism that has been steadily depleting all the promise the U.S. experiment once represented to so many around the world. The red is fitting, but only because this mindset was shaped by the Cold War: In opposing an imagined Soviet threat, the freedom fighters adopted the ruthlessness and the ideological rigidity of the enemy. It is a mentality that sees the world in black and white. 

For me, these are all variations of a strain of late modern political life that is simply intolerable: It is a perverse way of seeing the world that is particularly dangerous at a time when we need to come together to deal with the challenges before us. 

______

I’m thinking of that report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) that was released earlier this month. A press release from António Guterres, Secretary-General of the U.N., describes the document as a “code red for humanity”. “The alarm bells are deafening,” he said, “and the evidence is irrefutable. … This report must sound a death knell for coal and fossil fuels, before they destroy our planet. … If we combine forces now, we can avert climate catastrophe. … [T]here is no time for delay and no room for excuses.”  

His words are directed to “Government leaders and all stakeholders.” Greta Thunberg responded with a call for “massive pressure from the public and massive pressure from the media” demanding that “people in power … start acting.” 

At this late hour, with the dangers so grave and the stakes so high, we need to come to terms with the likelihood that “people in power” will never heed that call to action. They can’t come together because they represent partisan interests. The powers that be are separated, from each other and from the rest of us, by ideology, by their privilege and their class, by their national particularities, and by their associations with corporate interests competing for private gain in the global arena. 

Should the leaders and all the stakeholders ever manage to get it together, there is a limit to what they could and should impose on our everyday reality from their lofty positions. There is no set of levers and switches that can be turned on or off to take us into the right direction, and if there were such controls, there is no one who would know for certain what to do with them.    

The importance of exercising the right and the duty to do things together as a town, a city, a province, a state, a nation or a federation, through a government led by democratically elected representatives, should be obvious. It is equally important, however, to recognize that there is a limit to what we can do for and to one another through government action, by decree, backed by law, enforced by an armed constabulary and the imposition of fines and prison sentences. 

The role of individual initiative, calling, inspiration or free will is also critical. That includes choosing to participate in collective deliberation during and in between election days: speaking out, weighing options, listening, calculating odds. And it means responsible, considerate voting. 

______

So how should I vote this time around? A scant 22 months ago, 17 of them under lockdown, I almost opted green. Not for the party and their platform; I don’t believe the fate of the planet and all living beings on it should be treated as a partisan matter, a left to a right, or a right to a left: The emergency transcends differences. It should be bringing us together. 

But Mike Morrice worked so hard throughout the campaign, and always spoke sensibly, with a rare sincerity. He deserved to be elected in 2018. If he had, he would have made an outstanding representative for the citizens of Kitchener Centre in our House of Commons. And it would have looked good on us if we’d sent him there: For Guelph to go Green provincially kind of makes sense, but if Kitchener had followed suit federally it would have been a near miracle, and a great national news story.  

But when all was said and done, I stayed with the red. Morrice began talking about how he wasn’t a typical politician, but someone who really listens, really cares, suggesting that he was somehow above the fray. This turned me off, because it bordered on routine resentment mongering: the system is broken; politicians are corrupt; the promises are lies; the stories are fake — just trust in me, I’m your friend, your saviour. It started sounding very much like Doug Ford presenting himself as an ordinary guy, a man of and for the people, ready to stand up to the downtown elites and the mainstream media.  

At one point, though, I did offer to trade my Kitchener Centre vote with anyone intending to vote orange or green in Kitchener-Conestoga in exchange for a vote for Tim Louis, a red candidate whose energy and sincerity matched that of Mike Morrice who was in a tight race with the CPC incumbent. But no one took me up on it, and I stayed with the red. 

The same considerations had led me to going orange provincially in 2018, even though I would have been happy if Kathleen Wynne had been permitted to carry on with her work, and pleased if we’d been allowed to continue having our Kitchener Centre MPP serve as the Minister of  Ministry of Tourism, Culture and Sport. But it was obvious that I was out of tune with my fellow citizens. 

Our orange MPPs have served us well. But the way things are set up, a majority  government can do as it pleases, and if it is controlled by a set of true believers who don’t believe in government, the results will be catastrophic. The number one qualification for any tolerable political option is being able to win in an election. And in our system, all elections are local.   

Whatever happens this time around, Justin Trudeau deserves our gratitude and respect for delivering us from ten years of wandering in a moral, ideological and cultural desert.

But, all things considered, I find myself ready, once again, to cast my vote for Mike Morrice. I’d feel better about it if he dropped the populist tone. But I can look beyond that. If he wins, and we send him to Ottawa to represent us, great. If he loses, I’m hoping he’ll consider helping me and anyone else who is interested to come together as a movement, rather than a party — an “Omni-Partisan” effort dedicated to a sustainable future and a reconception of what true prosperity means.  

_____

António Guterres is right, the alarm bells are deafening; the evidence is irrefutable. The gravity of the situation is comparable to grappling with a 1930s style global depression, a national emergency on the scale of a 20th century World War, with the tensions of the Cold War added in, complete with nuclear doom as an imminent possibility. All at once. 

The war analogy fits the scale of the emergency, and of the mobilization that will be required to deal with it. In the face of this level of danger, partisanship must be set aside. Distinctions of class, race, creed, faith, ideology, even gender, become less pronounced. Everyone does what needs to be done. 

The difference is that in the present struggle, there is no identifiable foe. We are the enemy. And we, citizens living and working in a democracy, must also be the guardians, the healers and the liberators, doing our duty, not as heroic champions, but working together, each in our small corner, in accordance with our personal lights.  

Moreover, as it was during the Great Depression, there is no clear diagnosis, and no known remedy. A pragmatic, scattered, experimental approach is best. But incremental doesn’t always mean timid, weak and slow. The situation calls for an immediate, rapid and massive response, on all fronts, with everyone doing their part. Courage becomes commonplace. Morale becomes critical. The only thing we have to fear is fear itself, and its corollaries: resentment, ignorance, hate, blame, division, despair, denial, passivity, surrender.   

It’s what we do in the aggregate that causes all the damage. To reduce the harm we’re doing to the lands, the waters and the skies, we need to think and work together, not necessarily in unison, but in concert, organized in delicate detail to maximize the efficiency and the effectiveness of our labours.

A federal election is a deliberation process to decide what direction to take together, as Canadian citizens. What I long for are structures and mechanisms through which I and others, whatever their Vox Pop Lab score might be, can participate in a deliberation process that considers all the factors, and chooses the best possible people to represent us and our communities in the House of Commons.

If Justin Trudeau had held his eager, pollster-inspired horses, at least until next spring, there might have been time to set such a mechanism in motion. But alas, we’ll have to make do, one more time, with the system we have. 

What I’m suggesting is that, while we’re at it, let’s think about how to do things better nine months from now, when it’s time to decide how Ontario will face challenges and seize opportunities from 2022 until 2026, and on Monday, October 24, 2022, when we decide who will serve and represent us in the  municipal sphere. 

If we had such a mechanism for helping each other decide how to vote responsibly here in Kitchener Centre right now, I am close to certain we would be electing Mike Morrice on September 20, 2021. 

______

I began with the parable of the leaven because it seemed analogous to what the 4% of Canadians who say they’ll be voting for the Green Party from coast to coast to coast could accomplish if they were a movement rather than a party. But I’m not suggesting that committed Greens give up on trying to become a viable political party. 

In an Omni-Partisan movement, you can come as you are, stay where you are, remain loyal as you’ve always been, and do what you feel inspired or called to do.  Ideally, you end up serving as a leavening agent for whatever measures of meal you happen to be associated with. 

What is the leaven to the measures of meal? Not an influencer, not a convincer; the flour doesn’t become yeast. Not a power; the new loaf absorbs the leaven, and it disappears. The combination of a relatively small amount of leaven and the triple measures of meal sets a mysterious process in motion. When the batter rises, the loaves are baked, and put on the table as daily bread. 

Read this way, the parable becomes a promise, not an instruction.  

—-

* to do the test, go to votecompass.cbc.ca/canada

**see Taking Our Time, CultKW Aug 4, 2021.

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