The articles on this blog also appear on
Check out Michael Laxer's new blog The Left Chapter

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The Peculiar Case of Ruth Ellen Brosseau

First published just after the election this year. This one is totally unmodified and remains exactly how I feel about the subject.

There is not much to happy about in this election.

Stephen Harper got his long coveted majority and the damage that this will do to the country may take many years to repair. The NDP won political opposition on a sudden Orange Surge but did so on an entirely leader driven imagery and a policy platform not only bereft of anything meaningful in terms of transformative social policy, but actually to the right of the Liberal platform in certain key areas. While the obliteration of the Liberal Party by a more left-wing electoral force is of tremendous significance, in that no one can any longer doubt or deny that it is possible to do this, only the most partisan New Democrat incapable of distinguishing what is good for the party and what is good for the people, can think that this election result will have anything other than a catastrophic impact on the lives of working and middle class Canadians, and that it is, in a key way, a real defeat for the forces left, not a victory.

In a non-minority parliament the NDP will now have less influence than before, not more, on the actual governance of the nation and the nature of the system gives the forces of capital and reaction plenty of time to retrench and attempt to reverse NDP gains. This is especially true given that the party will not attempt the popular mobilization needed to stop Harper's agenda and the very high probability that having seen its strategy to squeeze the Liberals out by pushing to the centre of the spectrum bear fruit, the party brass will intensify this process, not lessen or reverse it.

But, as always in the great human endeavour that is democracy, there is a silver lining to all of this.

It is, of course, true that unexpected sweeps bring people into parliament that no one expected to see there. It is a great thing that Canada elected its first Tamil MP. It also very positive to see young people, students, and workers get elected. This makes the complexion of parliament more democratic and inspiring even if it does not result in its legislation being this way.

But to me, one of the most misinterpreted moments of the election is of even greater significance. It points to a very real democratic and popular yearning that lies just beneath the surface of our era's popular mood of discontent with our institutions of governance.

And it is the victory of Ruth Ellen Brosseau.

There can be little doubt that Canadians are broadly tired of our existing political culture and contemptuous of its entirely scripted and facile content. This culture, driven by the pollsters and spin doctors of the parties, celebrates the vacuous and places great emphasis on soaring but empty rhetoric meant to inspire without the need to really say much. The Obamaesque qualities of Harper's "Canada" ad, or, frankly, of Layton's entire campaign, is the high point of what are tightly managed sound bites centred around targeted messaging seeking to hammer home two-or-three points that have been chosen from minuscule election "platforms" for a variety of demographic reasons. People are being sold a bill of goods, a branded commodity. And they know it.

The parties even, when it succeeds, sometimes openly celebrate it, as in this rather odious little quote:

"We've been absolutely fixated on making sure that we run a first-rate campaign with a strong message, and we knew that message out there was, 'Ottawa is broken, it's time to fix it. It's time that it works for families to get things done,'" NDP national director Brad Lavigne told CBC Monday night.

"We attached that to the right demographics in the right ridings across the country, and the great thing about tonight is that the growth is everywhere. It's in Atlantic Canada. New seats in Newfoundland and Nova Scotia. Throughout Ontario and the West."-CBC News May 3rd 2011

Yes, Brad, it is great, but only for the NDP itself.

They justify such a philosophy with rubbish about "getting results", that getting elected is the "purpose" of political parties, etc., that this is the "job" of parties, without the slightest sense that this type of politics is exactly what is fuelling the long-term cynicism and anger of disenfranchisement that all too often finds expression in the campaigns of wealthy populists like Rob Ford.

The days of renegade MPs, serious discourse and visions for change in society and government that go beyond the merely cosmetic or managerial, to the extent that they ever existed, are gone.

Parties are terrified of moments going "off message" and they are mortified of independently minded candidates who might "say" or "do" "something" that might divert the media's attention away from whatever sound bite the leader is about to deliver. This is just as true, if not in some ways more so, in the NDP which has developed a new and repugnant tactic of blocking people that they feel might be worrisome and independent from seeking nomination at all!

Campaigns, even such fatuous ones, when they catch fire can still stir citizens up in entirely unanticipated political moments of democratic outburst as happened with Rae in Ontario, or the ADQ and now the NDP in Quebec. These moments, when they happen, show that it is still possible for people to actually change things and assert their power, even if it does not always deliver what drove them to do it. In fact, the very failure of the banal rhetoric to produce meaningful results in their actual lives is entirely why the democratic outbursts so often do not last.

And this in turn leads even more citizens to feel that they have heard it all before, that nothing will change anyway, and that the "politicians" are all the same, power driven and plastic.

Then there is the peculiar case of Ruth Ellen Brosseau.

Brosseau, as you are no doubt aware, is the assistant pub manager and single mother in Ottawa who ran for the NDP in the Quebec riding of Berthier - Maskinongé and won. She did so despite the widespread PRE-election publicity that she not only did not live in the riding but may never have even set foot in it, that she barely spoke French and that she went to Las Vegas for the last two weeks of the campaign.

The insults were fast and furious. She was described as a "bimbo", "white trash", a "joke", and much worse. I read many comments about her, including one that stated "Now we know who will be serving the drinks at Jack's dinner parties". The inherent ignorance, elitism and sexism of the comments is a disgrace and exposes the dark underbelly of patriarchal condescension that lingers in the attitudes of all too many.

(I for one, think that the life experiences of a hard working single mother who quite rightly did not lose the opportunity to take a planned trip to Vegas because of an election no one thought she could win, have more bearing on the ACTUAL essence of why the NDP is supposed to be fighting for social justice than the life experiences of many in the party, including her leader's, but I digress).

This was a media moment, when revealed, that was certainly "off message"!

And what happened? She, despite these revelations, went on to win over her closest rival by 10% of the vote!

The cynics will say that these were votes for the party and Jack. There is, no doubt, a lot of truth to that. They will further say that this is actually what is "wrong" with our system, that people would vote this way in spite of these facts and that it reveals the average voter's lack of political sophistication.

I disagree.

I think that many political commentators and many of the politically minded grossly underestimate the sophistication of the average voter. They do so because this helps explain things when they don't turn out as they anticipated or as they wanted. Sometimes, as in the totally bankrupt visions of neo- vanguardists and others, it helps to justify their own "duty" to lead the masses out of the morass of their own ignorance.

When the citizens of her riding found out about their NDP candidate prior to voting, they had more than enough time to digest this and...they didn't care! Not because of a lack of sophistication or a blind impulse to vote NDP, but because, I suspect, many of them actually liked what they heard. And, in an entirely sophisticated way, they knew that she was, without doubt, a change!

Here, undeniably, was a "politician" who was not one at all. A bartender, a single-mother, and a person with the good sense to know that a vacation she had no doubt long saved for was important to her.

I have little doubt that, in reality, these facts helped to solidify the resolve of those who were going out to vote for her, not weaken it. That it fed into the overall sense that they were repudiating the politics that had dominated Quebec on the federal level for so long and that Brousseau was also a repudiation of this.

I suspect that many actually rather relished voting for her because of these "revelations" , not in spite of them. And rightfully so, in this case.

All too often when this happens people will express this anger through backing freeloaders from the upper classes like Rob Ford who mould themselves to appear as "men-of-the-people" despite lives handed to them by wealth and privilege. I don't think that those who support such figures are ignorant. I think they are angry. And justifiably.

But here they have elected a genuine working person who is like their neighbours. Who works at a real job, who has to pay the bills as a single mom, and who faces the same challenges they do.

And I for one, suspect she will be a breath of fresh air on parliament hill.

But even if not, her victory was a real victory for democracy. For all the reasons above, and if for no other reason than it proves the Brad Lavignes wrong. What it proves is that if an idea is strong enough, if a popular feeling has enough depth, our neighbours and fellow citizens will not have their desire for change stopped by straying "off message".

And one can only speculate what a real platform, full of real off-message ideas and built by real, open and honest debate might inspire in people.

And who might come forward to represent that platform.

Welcome to Canada's Parliament Ms. Brosseau. No matter how anything turns out, it was the better for you having been elected to it.

No comments:

Post a Comment