Co-operation is our only hope of reviving our democracy

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We are a bunch of losers right now, in more ways than one. Our political league doesn't seem to have the bench strength to make it into the playoffs, let alone the Cup.

But the grassroots movement to stop the Harper victory lap is showing signs of newfound energy and innovation. As in the last election, Facebook pages, political groups, arts collaborations, panel discussions and online initiatives are starting to join the game. The season isn't over -- it has just begun.

A revolution for democracy is spreading in the Middle East and Africa, across boundaries, even continents. How about Haiti, which just elected an artist for president? Winds of change are stirring. What's happening here on the home front?

Well, this week I have had way too much of an up-close-and-personal experience with how democratic consciousness is dimming in our own near and dear democracy.

Of course, there's the ongoing Harper campaign, which continues to show its contempt for democracy almost daily: suggesting only the Liberals be included in the televised election debate, announcing his government's plan to withdraw vote-based subsidies for political parties, restricting press access, and then even excluding ordinary Canadians from his gatherings based on surveillance of their Facebook photos. OMG. That feels creepy.

But it was also just last Thursday that I was shaken by the news that our Naked Truth About Rob Ford issue had been ordered to the shredder (or at least to the red confidential bin) by the mayor's office (who later claimed it was all a misunderstanding; tell that to the integrity commissioner, I say).

News flash: NOW isn't the only entity to get pushed around by the mayor's office. Some of these actions hit the news, but lots don't. Most people and organizations up against the Fords are not blessed with the kind of publicity our issue received. I'll just say that this week I heard many examples in off-the-record phone calls from city hallers, along with some other valuable tidbits. Feeling city hall power coming at you is visceral and intimidating. But, hey, this guy got elected, so that's just A-okay with a lot of voters. But why didn't we have more voters than he did?

We need to be thinking about this, because a radical, petro-state-pushing social conservative is heading toward another period in power, possibly with a majority this time.

Yeah, the electors may vote Harper in. Why is that? Democracy, it turns out, isn't just a date with the ballot box. It is a living process. If we don't figure out how to make it work for us instead of against us, what chance do our brethren across the seas have of advancing from the chaos of revolution into good government?

I believe we progressives need to get clear on one important fact: we can't afford to live in a country where only half or even less than half of citizens vote.

If you're happy to leave the electing of governments to those who are most passionately committed, then fine. In the contest between the committed on the left and the right, we have learned the hard way that those with the most money almost always win. Google "Koch brothers" for details.

Winning actual democracy requires engaged citizens motivated to get involved. And we who align toward the left of the political universe haven't drawn them in.

Obvious as the nose on our face is the fact that if we champions of democratic ideals and progressive social values don't find a different approach, we'll keep getting the same result.

First, I have to say, we are good people. We are loyal and committed. Some of our hearts are stirred by NDP heroes like Stephen Lewis or legends like Liberal Pierre Trudeau, or perhaps the now seemingly extinct but praiseworthy red Tories like former Toronto mayor David Crombie.

Our political affiliations feed us in a different but oddly related way to how our family heritage feeds us. Like our family stuff, it's a bit complicated. We park our egos and identities with our politics. Too often, this combo packs a self-righteous certainty that's unattractive to the uncommitted we need to inspire into electoral action.

Non-voters are good people, too -- but they don't have their egos invested in cut-throat partisan politics.

What they do have is something that can save us from ourselves. We need a bit of their cynicism about political choices. Party loyalists are all about the ways their candidate is best. Non-loyalists have bullshit detectors.

Come on. How often is there really a best candidate? Politicians are destined to disappoint. Reality check: there are only shades of better and worse. But that's okay. That's meaningful and adult.

In every other tight situation in life, we head toward the best outcome we can achieve. Getting your first choice is wonderful, but it's a rare treat. Only spoiled children demand that they always get their first choice.

Transforming our approach to engaging those who aren't politically intrigued will mean pushing past our entrenched partisan clichés to embrace their truthful cynicism.

And in politics, as in the schoolyard, healthy cynicism values cooperation over correctness.

This is the post-partisan politics that can open the door to meaningful accomplishment. And with the Ford affair as a backdrop, I've been doing my own bit, along with many others, to get some action going.

I've focused my efforts on the launch of the new, content-rich website ProjectDemocracy.ca (we go live on Friday) that aims to deny Harper his majority. Its easy-access tools foster well-informed co-operative voting.

I know. Most people call that "strategic voting." In my book, that term embodies the old-school partisan mentality that's sinking us. It's overly complicated and doesn't express a meaningful end-game.

It's time to go back to the future. The party that housed progressives in the '30s and '40s (and birthed the NDP) was called the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation. That has a modern ring.

As we work in this election and beyond, we need meaningful new models of citizen engagement that make us winners instead of losers.

ProjectDemocracy.ca, the evolution of last election's VoteForEnvironment.ca, facilitates voter co-operation across party lines so we can express our party preferences yet also build strength through bridging our differences.

And there are other important post-partisan initiatives. LeadNow.org is creating a cross-country Declaration Of Change, Catch22campaign.ca is working on the ground in swing ridings, DepartmentofCulture.ca is identifying cultural responses to the race through a dynamic mapping process.

And thank goodness. Because co-operation is the only hope we have of reviving our democracy.

This article was first published in NOW Magazine.

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