A progressive dialogue: Beating the right at their own game

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Conservatives have been winning -- in Canada and elsewhere -- for the last 30 years. That's because they've been playing to win.

Do progressives want to win? Moreover, do they know how? Observing how conservatives have won for three decades helps to identify three key elements to winning: big ideas; the infrastructure of success; and electoral realpolitik. Of course there are other elements, but omit any of these three critical legs, and the effort will topple.

Big ideas

A big idea is an idea that changes things. It is not an idea that fits in with things as they are.

The Overton window describes the space on the spectrum of mainstream debate where ideas fit in. The window can be moved to the left or the right. Over the last 30 years, conservatives have successfully moved that window to the right, following Joseph Overton's advice. It's pretty straightforward; here is how it works. Policy ideas that were unthinkable are expressed publicly, making them thinkable and thus merely radical. After sufficient repetition they became commonplace, then acceptable, then popular in the mainstream debate, and then policy. You can see this progression in ideas that conservatives have pushed, ranging from major public spending cuts to aggressive militarization of Canadian foreign policy. Thirty years ago, these things were unthinkable. Now they are policy.

To move the Overton window, ideas need to push the boundaries. If an idea is feasible today, or if politicians are already onside with it, then it's not pushing. An example is the idea of nationalizing the oil and gas industry. Even though many Canadians like the idea, and the vast majority of the oil industry worldwide is nationally owned, the federal NDP recently rejected the idea, out of hand. This is to be expected, and it illustrates the separation between policy and politics -- two very different spheres. Politicians live inside the Overton window; they don't move it. It is the role of progressive policy analysts and activists to move the window.

To pick another example, advocating for a Tobin tax on bank transactions is not really pushing the window. Advocating for the nationalization of banks might be.

Infrastructure of success

Ideas are one thing; repeating them constantly in the mainstream is another. The conservative movement includes a massive infrastructure of think-tanks, journalists and entire media organizations dedicated to repeating a range of conservative messages.

If progressives want to win, they will need an infrastructure that can generate a steady drumbeat of broad, progressive messaging. Where are the resources for that? They're not going to come from government, much less from the corporations that bought the conservative infrastructure. What remains are individual donors and labour unions. Donor development is important, but will take time.

Thus unions, if they want to see progressive wins, will have to step it up. Many already contribute significantly to advocacy work and the dissemination of broad progressive ideas, but the need is much, much greater. Not a doubling or tripling of resources, but rather an increase by orders of magnitude, i.e. moving the decimal point. This is the difference between maintaining an infrastructure of dissent (a defeatist goal?) and building an infrastructure of success.

Although it will be costly to build the infrastructure, it doesn't look like there is much of a choice. Whether you consider long-term declining unionization rates, or the recent ramp-up of interference in collective bargaining, it's clear that the conservative movement is winning its war against unions. Helping to build an infrastructure of success isn't going to be a luxury; it's going to be what keeps the progressive movement -- including unions -- alive.

Electoral realpolitik

It has become a priority among many progressives to remove Stephen Harper from power before he makes good on his promise: "You won't recognize Canada when I get through with it." He hasn't done it yet, but if he has enough time he may well succeed, and achieving progressive wins will be much, much harder.

For the moment progressive values are still strong among Canadians. However, they may be slipping. And fewer and fewer Canadians are voting. Why? Voter suppression tactics are a factor. But so is the conviction that under the current system, those progressive values are just not going to make it into federal policy. Not voting may be a rational response. For this reason, establishing a system of proportional representation has also become a priority among many progressives. PR is not just a way to implement progressive policies; it is an opportunity to mobilize progressive-value voters. Stephen Harper isn't going to implement PR, and if progressives want it they will need to unseat Harper before he completes his conservative makeover of Canada.

How can such electoral goals be achieved? There are some who believe the NDP -- the mainstream party most aligned with the progressive movement -- will win the next federal election. However, Liberal party support is quickly recovering; anything can happen, but at the moment the Liberals and NDP are neck-and-neck. And the federal NDP's upset wins in Quebec could well represent a temporary parking of votes. Finally, let's not forget that the NDP doesn't even have a provincial-level party in Quebec.

To have a realistic chance, the opposition parties may need to engage in strategic co-operation in the next election, with a view to unseating Conservatives and electing MPs who commit to a progressive legislative agenda that includes PR as the first order of business. Hardcore partisans would need to hold their noses and think of the bigger picture. But let's not forget that this is how the Conservative Party came about -- the party that is now, incidentally, governing with a majority. And actually, that was more like a merger, or perhaps an acquisition -- either of which require a lot more partisan nose-holding than would strategic cooperation over one election cycle.

Moving on all three elements

To win over the long run, progressives will need, among other things, each of these three key elements. Policy wonks and activists will need to get outside of the mainstream comfort zone and articulate big ideas that can move the Overton window. They should not fret about whether their policy ideas will be "dismissed" as unthinkable, or that they may be seen as outliers in the political debate. That's their job.

Unions will need to ramp up funding of progressive thought and communication by orders of magnitude, supporting an infrastructure of success. They will need to get out of the comfort zone of immediate, short-term, bread-and-butter work; indeed their survival may require it.

Opposition partisans will need to get out of their comfort zone of brand loyalty, and do what it takes to unseat Stephen Harper and get PR adopted. Winning an election will need to be understood as more important -- for them -- than purity of vision. Purity of vision is for the wonks and activists, not for the pols. They will need to put forward a compelling agenda, based on progressive values, but working within the Overton window as it sits today.

Progressives involved in these three areas will need to understand their very different roles and strategies; they are not interchangeable. They will need to co-operate and be mutually supportive, however, which may prove challenging for some. Even more challenging is that they will be operating outside of their comfort zones. Anyone involved in a competitive field will confirm that's what it takes to win.

However, the big question remains: do progressives want to win? Some may prefer to lose and be honourable outsiders. It's certainly easier, and it won't upset anyone. For those who do want to win, there is much work to be done.

David Thompson is an independent public policy consultant. He lives in Edmonton.

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