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Phishing for Votes in Vancouver and the Politics of the Wealth Seminar

During the 2012 US presidential election, Bill Maher made an important intervention in identifying a new, or perhaps just resurgent, trend in political campaigning: the wealth seminar campaign. Observing the Romney campaign, Maher decoded its true message: “Mitt, a rich guy, knows how to make you rich too. And, if you elect him, he’ll tell you the secret.” It’s all about presenting a leader who isn’t so much the person voters want to govern them as the person voters aspire to be. As people lose faith in the idea that any political movement or leader could actually address the forces of global capital that are marginalizing and impoverishing them, elections are increasingly imaginative pageants that exist on their own terms. The point isn’t the election result; it’s the campaign because that’s where all the suspense lives now. The result is totally predictable: the “victor” will announce that the cupboard is bare and that we all must tighten our belts with higher user fees, privatization, austerity and handing sacks of cash to corporations and the investor class to keep them happy.

Because we know the result before we vote, our focus then becomes the campaign: what will happen to the characters seeking office, what twists and turns will the campaign take, and who will end up winning the prize of announcing the policies Standard and Poor’s has already drawn up for us? This entails the audience identifying with one of the characters in the shabby pageant they are watching.

While the prospect of being a wealthy, white, good-looking business patriarch appeals to some, the Romneyesque image doesn’t do a lot for urbanites. That’s why, despite a complete elite consensus in his favour, John Tory struggles to hit 40% in most Toronto mayoral surveys. Middle class suburban family men might want to identify with such a wealthy, respected figure as Tory but they are not the majority in the central political jurisdiction of a metropolitan area. And, as it has not endured any amalgamation with adjacent municipalities in 85 years, a much larger proportion of Vancouver’s middle-income families live outside the central political jurisdiction.

If we think, instead, of typical Vancouver residents, the people making major financial sacrifices, allocating as much as 80% of their income to rent or mortgage payments in cramped, substandard housing just to live within the municipalities city limits, wealth seminar campaigning takes on very different dimensions. First of all, people who emerge in their hipster gear from basement suites in Cedar Cottage onto the cramped and erratic number 20 bus have fantasy lives that are governed by something other than dreams of wealth, stability and the ability to provide. They are making sacrifices to be hip, connected and attractive-looking. In their mind’s eye, they identify with a different character in the pageant: that man with movie star good looks, a fit, taut body, a DJing career on the side, and friendships with a vast array of environmental activists, music scene luminaries and TED talk presenters.

Vision has figured out that in Vancouver, it’s not a wealth seminar. It’s a coolness seminar. And that’s why developers line up to hang out with the Vision gang too. They aren’t just converting a $25,000 donation into a $25,000,000 rezoning windfall; they are also getting the parting gifts: a night with great local DJs, a dip in the Hollyhock hot tub. Many wealthy businesspeople, by choosing to live in Vancouver, are already making a similar choice to those living in the coffin suites they are selling. They too eschewing even greater prosperity that would come from working in a more vibrant investment climate like Toronto or Calgary. They too are here for the coolness—and there is a mechanism for purchasing that dip in the hot tub.

That’s why Vision Vancouver is making a mockery of the very idea that candidates for election need to put forward policies on the major issues. Minor issues—sure, they deserve some policy, for the geeks and the everyday running of the city. But notice the striking inverse correlation: the more Vision states an issue is one of the major, deciding issues of the race, the less policy it generates. As witnessed in their 24-hour response to Kirk LaPointe’s school meal program announcement, Vision has the smarts and the capacity to generate excellent public policy on the fly. So we have to understand the total absence of any working public policy around the Broadway subway or the opposition to Kinder Morgan not as an oversight but as part of the plan.

Vision Vancouver’s number one issue in its re-election bid is the construction of a $3 billion subway down Broadway. In the past six years, they have spent not one cent on the planning or construction of this subway. In their ten-year capital plan, released last month, not one cent is budgeted. Nor is there any money for the subway in the last budget city council passed. That’s because they’re running on the Broadway Subway of the Mind. Like the mayor’s independent wealth, musical acumen, hip friends and striking looks, the point of the subway isn’t the subway itself. It’s the idea of the subway—one that would only be contaminated with financing plans, earth-moving equipment and tunneling machines—that really matters.

Well, that and, of course, the cool people associated with you. That’s where the diabolical genius of Vision will come to be studied by communications and political consultants all over North America. By refusing to make any effort to emancipate itself from Translink or to construct any transit on its own dime (such as the streetcars the NPA promised in 2011), Vision can centre its subway “promise” around one of those meaningless online clicktivist “campaigns,” in which we change the world by clicking “Like” and typing “RT:.”

When one goes to the Vision Vancouver web site and clicks on its “Broadway Subway: What the City Can Do” link, one quickly arrives at the online “petition” Vision is running. Instead of finding policies or plans to build the subway, one is offered the chance to—in some indefinable way—get involved, and then asked for one’s contact information. That’s right: Vision Vancouver has turned election platforms on their head, from statements of what the state will do for you, given the chance, into phishing clickbait. The same is, of course, true of their “fight” against the Kinder Morgan pipeline. There is no plan to build the subway or fight the pipeline because that’s not the point. The point is for Vision to get the contact info for low-information young voters they can drive to the polls in their hybrids on election day and for said voters to feel that their sacrifices are not in vain, that they are on a team of excellent, young, hip, attractive, connected people and not masturbating alone in a flooded basement suite, two months behind on their smartphone payments.

In twentieth-century elections, platforms were an exchange whereby people exchanged their votes for a pledge of future action on their behalf. In the new kind of election Vision offers us, voters exchange their contact information for the opportunity to imagine themselves to be part of a scene… a really cool scene, like the Hollyhock hot tub or DJ night at the Biltmore.

“And yet,” to quote Maher, “no matter how clear Jay-Z makes it that the hot tub is only for the coolest and most beautiful people, somehow, when the song ends, that is us.” After all, what is the alternative?

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