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Crafting a Left Voting Strategy for November 15th, Part 3: The Americanization of BC Municipal Politics

Having lived in the US and studied its political history professionally, I must confess that there is something truly beautiful about a US election. With basically unlimited money to spend, the best, most competent people are hired to run and orchestrate campaigns. From living in Providence, RI during the 2010 midterms and Kansas City, MO in the lead-up to the 2012 presidential election, I can recognize the US Democratic Party’s urban politics pretty well. And they are here in BC, in the form of Vision Vancouver, running for re-election on the identical slogan, rhetoric and image as the Obama re-election bid. We will go “Forward” (reminiscent of the 1996 Citizen Kang episode of the Simpsons, “twirling, always twirling towards freedom!”) with a good-looking, well-dressed, unflappably calm GenX future-focused leader and his odd mixture of friends and allies in the entertainment, technology and financial sectors, backed by organized labour, racialized populations, urbanites and youth.

But it was not looking at the Vision campaign that made me realize the extent of the Americanization of Vancouver politics. It was the bizarre NPA endorsement of pipelines. As I said to Peter Armstrong in a recent e-mail, “here is the pattern I observe:

  1. Vision claims you hold an unpopular position
  2. You state that the thing Vision is concerned about isn’t under the city’s jurisdiction
  3. Vision claims that the issue is “important” and of concern to everyone
  4. You state that the thing Vision is concerned about isn’t under the city’s jurisdiction
  5. Vision states that you’re hiding the unpopular position they claim you hold
  6. You announce that Vision has been right all along and you do hold that unpopular position”

Why on earth was it important for Kirk Lapointe to start defending oil tankers, the LNG industry and various other unpopular fossil fuel initiatives? Because it’s not just that Vision has become the Democrats; the NPA has become the Republicans. This is a party that couldn’t resist leaping into the briar patch. More on that in a moment.

If Canadians don’t recognize Vision it’s because, from the apostasy of Lester Pearson as an embarrassing bought shill for the Cold War US Democratic Party to Jean Chretien’s denunciation of the Drug War and Iraq War, Canadian politics was very much culturally and institutionally distinct from the politics Down South. But since the rise of the modern Conservative Party, our politics is, less and less, that of a vassal of the American Empire and more and more, that of its extension, an unrecognized territory already enmeshed in the US party system, a white Puerto Rico.

US society, for endogenous reasons that need not concern us here, has come to be defined by an intra-elite split primarily driven by epistemological rather than conventionally ideological disagreement.

While I make a historical cultural case elsewhere for this split, its most significant driver is global climate politics. Because of the scientific consensus concerning both human-caused climate change and measures necessary to address it, America’s elite has fractured. A portion have aligned themselves with the majority of the global capitalist class in favouring a shift away from a fossil fuel-based energy economy through measures like cap and trade and carbon taxes that can concurrently reduce emissions and intensify the widening gap between rich and poor. A roughly equal number remain both sentimentally and economically welded to the energy source that enabled America’s rise to global hegemony in the first place, petroleum. In recent US elections, we have seen these two elites go toe-to-toe, backed by large, unwieldy coalitions.

The elite constituency that has ended up dominating Democratic Party politics has forged a coalition comprising non-white voters, younger whites, college-educated and socially liberal whites, trade unionists and environmental activists. Republicans have forged a coalition comprising wealthy whites, older whites, uneducated whites, socially conservative whites and church activists. Painting by the numbers, it is a foregone conclusion that Democrats have come to dominate cities; urban voters, being more educated, less white, more socially liberal and more environmentally concerned vote Democrat.

Prior to the rise of Vision (and its embryo Diet COPE), Vancouver voters were not organized like this. Wealthy Vancouverites grouped up in the NPA; less educated voters tilted left; the Chinese community, especially those more recently arrived, tilted towards the NPA. Vision’s new coalition of green roof real estate barons and their vassals is made possible, first and foremost, by the rate at which people watch and embrace the politics of Jon Stewart’s Daily Show, in which low-income people are expected to side with the Democratic machine, even as they tut and shake their heads at the endless series of surprising sell-outs.

This has severely hobbled the NPA in its quest to regain dominance in the city since 2002. With its principals, particularly Armstrong, so strongly linked to Canada’s Republican farm team, the Harper government, it has struggled to regain the cultural traction it needs to return to its role as the city’s natural governing party. Now that development interests and unions fit together in Vision Vancouver the way they do in the Chicago or San Francisco Democrats, Armstrong’s party is reliant a politics of stealth and outside money from resources companies and a small number of local millionaires with personal grievances with the mayor. And the NPA’s inability to resist praising LNG, Kinder Morgan and Chevron illustrates just how hard it is to maintain this stealth footing. Similarly, its efforts to avoid spooking wealthy social liberals cost it dearly in the departure of its most senior elected official Ken Denike over his homo-and transphobia.

Due to the converging factors of (1) the extension of the new, post-Harper, national party system into the city, (2) the convergence of Canadian and US news media on both the right and left, and (3) the fundamental struggle between a local economy based on selling lifestyle aesthetics and a city based on shipping oil to Asia, Vancouver politics has become a fight between Democrats and Republicans.

The ambivalence Vancouver leftists and progressives feel towards Vision is a long-felt experience for US leftists and progressives since the end of the Cold War and the rise of Third Wayism and the Clintons. That is why Vision’s relationship to unions is gradually shifting from one of partnership to dominance exemplified in the shakedown of CUPE members, threatened with the privatization of their jobs if they didn’t donate protection money to Vision. (And somehow right-wing bloggers spin this as the union exploiting Vision!)

In Surrey, what we are seeing is, again, more comprehensible once we apprehend the Americanization of politics. This is a campaign in a suburb in a blue state or a city centre in a purple one, in which Blue Dog Democrats face off against urban Republicans, united in a discourse of tax cuts, program cuts and “get tough” law enforcement policies funded, no doubt, by the tax cuts. While every party in the election, aside from the Surrey Progressives running for School Board, articulates essentially identical “white flight” suburban policies that focus on familial virtue, thrift and fear of crime, the parties must communicate with their base using dog whistles.

As in much of the suburban US, the Blue Dogs built an electoral juggernaut over the past decade, in the form of Surrey First, a centre-right party with a token progressive (Judy Villeneuve) on its front bench, all the while pushing white flight politics, alternately stoking and the cooling the fear of crime necessary to maintain an economy driven by real estate and building trades.

Today, there is an opening for the local Republicans in the form of the Safe Surrey Coalition. This slate has sought to distinguish itself by having the most viciously authoritarian poor-bashing policies, taking advantage of the splitting of the Surrey First Blue Dogs into a pair of superficially identical parties. But neither Linda Hepner’s nor Barinder Rasode’s Blue Dogs are countering this by echoing pretty much whatever Safe Surrey’s Doug McCallum says. The election has devolved, for the most part, into three parties with nigh-identical “law and order” platforms communicating with their bases through dog whistles and identity politics.

Because, in a place where voter turnout was 24% last time, it is ultimately the election day performance by local political machines that determines outcome, and my money is still on Linda Hepner’s Surrey First surviving its split with Rasode and the creation of One Surrey. If Surrey First is defeated it will be because either McCallum or Rasode has built a turnout machine more formidable than is evident to a non-insider like me.

What will defeat Vision, if they are defeated—and I doubt it—will be that not enough Vancouverites are habituated to this new reality but instead insist on sentimentally clutching our collapsing Cold War party system, refusing to fold COPE or launching new tries at a genuine left, as with One City and Public Education Project.

But Vision has planned for this too. That’s why the polls between Cambie and Rupert, between Burrard Inlet and 45th Avenue remain closed until tomorrow. Vision candidates have returned, in recent days, to Commercial Drive and Mount Pleasant to campaign because the point of only permitting advance voting on the West Side and South Slope wasn’t to prevent the old COPE heartland from voting. It was to delay it voting until the “don’t split the vote,” “stop the NPA rhetoric” could be elevated to a fever pitch and progressives and leftists stampeded back into the Vision tent at the last moment for just one day.

But still, I choose to sentimentally clutch. I choose to defy prevailing material, cultural and historical forces. I cannot abide a city where the only choice is which elite will benefit from the pauperization and expulsion of all but the wealthiest among us. Ultimately, although the city can exert no political power over the National Energy Board or the Metro Port Authority, it is the site of a culture war, a trophy to be won in this Manichean intra-elite struggle that is pulling us into the crucible of the American Empire.

Okay… last post later today, with endorsements in time for Saturday.

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