When politics is personal what happens to people?

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Welcome to rabble.ca's extended series on the Canadian left -- Reinventing democracy, reclaiming the commons: A progressive dialogue on the future of Canada -- a look at where it stands after the 2011 federal election, and what the future can hold. The series will run in this, rabble.ca's 10th year, and is curated by journalist Murray Dobbin.

The sense of disbelief in the aftermath of the recent election of "Harper Government three" (with a majority, no less) was palpable. It's been weeks and I hear friends and acquaintances sheepishly admit that they still can't bear to watch the news.

How could this have happened? We did all the right things: we talked about the issues; provided the research-supported facts; compiled lists documenting the constraints by the Harper government on the democratic process -- the muzzled public servants, the fudged numbers, the obfuscation, the contempt. Why weren't the voters listening? Or is it that they just didn't care?

What struck me during the campaign was the response from avowed right-leaning voters when they were presented with evidence of who and what had already been hurt by Conservative government policies -- and what would continue to be in the line of fire with the prospect of a Harper majority. Almost without fail it was either "don't call me selfish" (generally from those who could afford the Conservative priorities), or "don't call me stupid" (generally from those who thought they could afford them but couldn't -- the irony being that many more people belong in the second group than they realize).

Somehow, presenting information became tantamount to a personal insult against someone's intentions or intelligence. It was, in retrospect, a brilliant strategy for shutting down conversation. And it also neatly deflected the reminder that ballot box decisions have ramifications for a whole lot of other people.

But the defensiveness that made thoughtful debate virtually impossible bears closer examination. It suggests that the Conservative method of "tapping into values" in order to "connect" with voters is altering how people engage with the political process.  

More and more, political identification rests on a level of personal investment which I think we need to examine more closely if we are to understand and confront it effectively and, most importantly, if we are to build a solid progressive alternative.

I understand that speaking to values is an effective way of getting messages across. But I worry that the version of this we're seeing played so calculatedly is resulting in an electorate that's not so much engaged in the political process as it is looking for validation from it. Teams win; policies don't -- and neither does the populace.

It is evident the right is winning at framing political messages into neat, highly personal, emotionally loaded packages while avoiding political discussions that go beyond talking points (or a talking point -- singular -- since most of what passes for neo-con analysis these days is a mile wide but an inch deep).

On the left, there still exists the mindset that solid research -- presented engagingly and accessibly -- will convince the electorate, win elections and result in good policy. Less emotional, more substantive... and earnestly reliant on thoughtful, research- and issue-based engagement -- after all, few people are prepared to take statistics seriously.

But election results are difficult to ignore. And the sad truth is, if solid research was enough, authentically progressive policies would have won by now. So, to "win" must we also engage in messaging that reinforces the "politics is personal" approach? 

Given what "politics is personal" has wrought, I hope not. To foster authentic political engagement, I don't think politics can be personal.

But it does have to be about people.

We need to reject the self-validation ("Who would you most want to have a beer with?") agenda in favour of the acknowledgement of interconnectedness ("What will this decision mean for my neighbours who are living in poverty?") that should be at the root of political decision-making at all levels: from the ballot box to federal budgets.

Especially for those of us in more privileged positions, our real responsibility is to consider how decisions made by politicians affect everyone -- particularly those living precarious lives -- not just the individual. But that act of collective democratic participation has been reconfigured as an expression of heightened individualism. It's the inevitable result of making politics personal -- and it contributes to further decimation of how we understand politics and how we work for progress.

In order to create the conditions to foster and work towards progressive change, rather than looking for personal validation from politicians and political rhetoric, we need to focus on making and demanding decisions that reflect what's best for everyone in the long-term; decisions based on research and experience, not what we -- all evidence to the contrary -- feel is true (the foundations of the "law and order" agenda).

The move from "politics is personal" to "politics is about people" positions us as better able to build on connections between constituencies, communities and citizens to ensure political decisions inherently respond to all of us -- mirroring how we are responsible for each other. It also allows us to build on an intergenerational foundation of support at a time when this government seems singularly focused on erasing what we have accomplished and learned through experience -- while plundering older generations for the votes they represent.

This past election I found myself thinking of two people in particular -- my father and a work colleague. Both lived through the Depression, and came of age when awareness of the need for a national vision was beginning to germinate. Both saw, and in certain cases fought, for the creation of our modern welfare state. Both know what life is like without a national commitment to providing a basic standard of living, employment insurance, health care, equality, family leave, pensions -- and how life for so many has been improved by these programs. And, at this point in their lives and careers, both are watching these programs being chipped away and downgraded, maligned and vilified as evidence of "nanny state" waste and government interference. Finally, adding insult to injury, both of them are watching a percentage of the electorate (and those who represent it) sprinting towards that end game as if this is progress; this is freedom.

Their life's work and experience is the history the current government is busily erasing. And while wooing this same generation of voters by raising the spectre of an increasingly unsafe, unstable society from which they need protection, this government deliberately obscures how insecurity and inequality is increasing as a direct result of dismantling and defunding those very programs.

It's a political strategy that fosters and is dependent on collective amnesia and political myopia. (For the record, my dad and my colleague are afflicted with neither.)

We all bear some responsibility here. The task of reminding people about our history (good and bad), and listening to those who made those sacrifices, must become part of our daily political and social awareness. We need to understand what it means to do without by talking with and listening to those who did without -- and who worked to ensure their children and grandchildren wouldn't have to.

But that's only the first part. The children and grandchildren of that generation must prove, and in many cases are already proving, that the sacrifices of the past were not in vain. Those tremendous gains were a starting point, not a high-water mark. Many people and communities continue to be marginalized and a great deal of work still needs to be done to achieve equality and justice. This work is as vital now as it was then and we still have much to do to ensure that those programs and priorities represent and respond to all of us. We need to acknowledge a new generation of leaders who will move us forward, challenging what we know and building on what has been accomplished.

So when I say that rather than being personal politics must be about people, this is part of what I mean. We need to listen to those who remember what came before; learn how victories were achieved; recognize how social progress can never be taken for granted; understand how past sacrifices to create a better future must serve as a lesson to all of us when tempted by the "looking out for myself" approach and welcome what a new generation of leaders can teach us and how they can refine and expand a progressive vision that includes us all.

This is a critical moment. If we do not find ways to resist collective amnesia and political myopia, our legacy will be a society that's more unequal, more unstable, less just and less compassionate. It's a legacy none of us can afford -- even with all the tax credits in the world.

Because eventually, as we start to notice the collateral damage of our ballot-box decisions, we will realize that, in spite of the election rhetoric directed to us "normal, everyday folks," the self-validation side of "value tapping" that we've allowed ourselves to be convinced by is simply a devious means to an ideological end.

But when we find ourselves paying the very real price of the society we somehow didn't realize we were voting for, we'll have no right to feel betrayed or misled.

After all, it's not personal.

It's just politics.

Erika Shaker directs the Education Project at the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. An earlier version of this article appeared on the CCPA blog behindthenumbers.ca.

To link other stories from Reinventing democracy, reclaiming the commons: A progressive dialogue on the future of Canada -- please click here.

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