The Social Drift That Dare Not Speak Its Name, Research Time, 15/06/2018

Lately, I’ve been seeing a lot of convergence between research for my philosophical writing and the political activism work I’ve been doing. Here’s an example.

As you can tell from my Twitter feed, I spent the last month working a contract for the New Democratic Party in Ontario on a district campaign in the provincial election. We lost that race by a respectably small margin, but there were some promising and troubling signs of future directions in how people engaged with state politics in this part of Canada.

On a province-wide level, the New Democrats had a remarkable success, nearly doubling their seats in the legislature, showing a strong performance province-wide, and breaking into victories in areas that hadn’t supported them in some time or ever.

When I was searching for artistic images of Ontario Premier Doug
Ford, I ended up discovering that there's a whimsical visual artist
in Auckland, New Zealand who is also named Doug Ford. One
of his ongoing projects is painting amusing or pastoral scenes on
traffic light control boxes.
The New Democrats swept most of urban Toronto, and even into the metro suburbs like Scarborough and Brampton. They gained seats in Kingston and central Ottawa, as well as growing and consolidating support in and around Windsor, Hamilton, Niagara, Thunder Bay, the lesser London, Peterborough, Sudbury, and Kitchener. But the rural-urban divide in support was stark and disturbing.

The only rural seats that went New Democrat were Indigenous-dominated populations in the far north of the province and the area around Sudbury. Two smaller cities with very working-class backgrounds went to the Conservatives: Sarnia and Sault Ste Marie. A major Sault Ste Marie Steelworkers union endorsed the Conservative candidate after its members demanded it. It was probably a major factor in his slim victory.

Sault Ste Marie offered the most troubling story for an organizer in progressive politics. The New Democrats have historically been a very pro-union party, traditionally linked to the concerns of working-class citizens.* This is especially true in Ontario, with its powerful government, higher education, and manufacturing unions.

* I mean, the New Democratic Party was literally created from the merger of Canada’s federal socialist party and the country’s largest association of trade unions.

But many union members are turning away from the New Democrats, even though that party’s policies are generally the best for people in that sector and class. I want to do some investigations about this, but my hypothesis is that the socially conservative, pro-white sentiment among many working class people are driving them to support a party that dog-whistles sufficiently to let folks know their stance.

He's a symbol and a voice. A voice that does speak for far too many
people out there.
Yes, Doug. That’s what “I’m taking care of our own first” means.

One of the most insightful popular analyses of this problem I found last year, written by Erik Loomis, a historian at University of Rhode Island. American union leadership and membership has taken the side of heavily-polluting oil companies against environmentalists and Indigenous people. Throughout the country’s history, American trade unions have supported openly racist policies like the Chinese Exclusion Act, and supported Donald Trump’s economic isolationism.

During the campaign, a Meet-and-Greet I was organizing fell apart. It was with a group of strong NDP supporters, all of whom had spent their entire lives in Toronto’s manufacturing and construction sectors, all of whom were dedicated union activists. My contact in the group even told me why.

Late in the campaign, the Liberal and Conservative parties began blanket messaging of opposition research on different New Democrat candidates around the province. I didn’t consider any of these issues a dealbreaker. In fact, I considered these additional reasons to endorse those candidates. But I can understand why many Ontarians who aren’t me found these people’s activism disgusting.

Gurratan Singh, running in the same Brampton riding his brother left to become federal NDP leader, once held a sign at an anti-violence protest reading “Fuck the Police.” Jessica Bell, running in central Toronto, once got herded into a police wagon and arrested at the protests against Stephen Harper’s G20 summit that saw Toronto’s entire financial district occupied by the Canadian military.

Erica Kelly, running in central Etobicoke, once said on social media that gun owners disgusted her after a blitz of post-Stoneman Douglas NRA ads made her blood boil. Laura Kaminker, a candidate in central Mississauga, refuses to wear a poppy leading up to our Remembrance Day because of how the symbol has been turned from a sign of mourning to one of patriotic jingoism.

Because the government of Tony Blair brought nothing but justice
and prosperity to Britain and the wider world. People got a little
disappointed about this, and more than a little angry.
We also ran a young trans woman in the Vanier suburb of Ottawa. She lost. So did Kelly and Kaminker. Singh and Bell won, though.

What reason did my contact give for his community turning down our campaign event? They were all disgusted by Kaminker, Singh, Bell, Kelly, and the other candidates slammed as ‘radical activists.’ They all threw their support to the Conservatives.

Jeremy Gilbert describes a parallel problem happening in Britain in the late 1990s. After Tony Blair led Labour to an electoral victory in 1997, the British labour movement of union activists and organizers largely shut down for several years. They presumed that, with the unionists’ party having taken government, there was no need for them to advocate. They had won.

You never win. The Labour Party won the 1997 election, so the popular movement for social justice in Britain was complete. I couldn’t finish writing that sentence without laughing. I’m not sure how much I should trust Gilbert on this assessment. It sounds a lot like hyperbole.

But I can’t deny that when one sector associates themselves with a political party so much, you can identify the party’s electoral victory with your own.

If the NDP ever wins government in Ontario again, I’ll be among the first to criticize its policies if they fall short of what we want to do and what we can do. Even if they’re giving me another job. My principles will never take a back seat to any party loyalty.

It seems the union folks abandoning the New Democrats think the same.

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