Learning and co-operation best options for tough challenges ahead

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Quebec tried, but the rest of Canada couldn't pull it out of the hat.

As delighted as many of us are to be sending a historic number of NDPers to Ottawa, the fact is that this election was largely a referendum on Stephen Harper's rights-defying prison-and-punishment agenda, and he won. The Official Opposition will exercise precious little real power.

Of course, many of us disagree strongly with right-wing Tea Party politics. But resistance to the Conservatives went much deeper. Harper took so many liberties with the basic tenets of democracy and respect for Parliament that even the country's leading constitutional expert became an advocate of strategic voting (and projectdemocracy.ca) to defeat him.

"This is the most important federal election in my lifetime," said Peter Russell in a statement endorsing the site. "What is at stake is nothing less than parliamentary democracy."

Sadly, we will have years to take the measure of Russell's frightening assessment. But in our desolation, let's not underestimate the movement that grew up to engage in a fierce battle against a ruthless and powerful opponent. The outcome so many of us were working toward eluded us this time, but we gave the Conservatives a good run right up until the 11th hour. The unofficial Harper opposition needs to continue developing its new chops.

The voting public whipped up the winds of change. Jack has sailed to a brilliant finish, and two old, well-established parties got blown out of the water in the storm. There is lots to ponder and explore in that victory and among the wreckage.

Independent of any party organization or orthodoxy of any kind, citizens thundered across the Internet and into the streets with a breadth of advocacy and initiative as unprecedented as it was inspiring.

I was in the trenches and still could barely keep up with the vote mobs, the videos, the co-operation and sharing going on in the new unscripted distributed election organizing. If you are one of us, please send me a note so we can stay connected.

Often said but true, our ability to build personal, social networks has enormous political implications. It all came home to me working on projectdemocracy.ca, where we went from zero to 680,000 visits, 435,000 unique visitors and more than 5.3 million page views in 20 days.

But there is another more human dimension to staying connected. Traditional politics is full of dislike and name-calling, on the left especially. The job ahead is too big for that. We need to build a tradition of appreciation and make space for those with common values to do their different work. That was a hallmark of how many of us worked together during the campaign.

I got a flash from the past earlier this week when my ultra-left high school friend from Montreal emailed me to denounce my "reactionary advocating for the Tories"(!?). In case you don't remember, that's the typical dysfunctional lefty way. If we want to go for a winning hand, let's start playing with a full deck.

Co-operation builds strength and connection, but it takes character. We will need that to keep going.

As many have noted, the election has given us a more polarized left and right. The Liberal collapse was delivered by a last-minute swing to the Conservatives in response to the orange surge going the other way. But there is another polarization in play.

This election was also a battle for public opinion between old media, largely concentrated in the hands of right wing corporate heads, and new media. And old media won this round. Thirty-two newspapers endorsed the Conservatives, while two, NOW and the Toronto Star, supported the NDP.

What a contrast that is to the homemade anti-Harper media mobilization online. That balance of old and new is going to shift during the term of this government. Let's make sure to make the most of this potential.

But citizens can't do all the heavy lifting. Leadership from the top could have swung the outcome we are now stuck with for the next five years. Some kind of non-traditional co-operation at the top could have made this happen in a heartbeat.

Pollsters are licking their wounds, since a number of them missed the likelihood of a majority in the race to the finish line. Projectdemocracy.ca never lost sight of that and did surprisingly well in the turmoil, with a success rate of 87 per cent on 84 picks. Of those 84 ridings, 25 were won by opposition parties and 59 by the Conservatives.

Of those 59, there were 23 in which a swing vote of 10 per cent or less could have changed the outcome. Fifteen of these could have been won by the Liberals and eight by the NDP. In that case, Parliament would have had 139 Conservatives, 110 NDPers, 49 Liberals, four Bloc and one Green.

A full analysis will be online soon, because most of all, we need to commit to learning from this experience. Given that we don't hold the money or the power, learning and co-operation are our best options for stepping up to the tough challenges of this new time.

This article was first published in NOW Magazine.

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