In the context of last week's Twitter exchange with @thekeenanwire over the question of what we deserve, I admitted that I hadn't thought through all the implications of what I was saying or where I was going. To the extent that we could arrive at common ground in 140-character bursts, we managed to agree that "need" was probably a better word than "deserve" when we're talking about a police force, or a society, or a government. At least that's the impression I was left with; if I'm wrong, Ed, please feel free to correct me.
It's that whole "deserve" thing that's been bothering me ever since. At the time, I wondered, rhetorically, whether those of us who take the obligations of active citizenship seriously and consider ourselves progressive really deserve to have a government of corrupt thugs and pale U.S. Republican teabagger wannabes foisted upon us because of the dysfunctions of our current electoral system.
In truth, I still don't have an answer to that, but if I'm going to generate and/or invite discussion, then the least I can do is acknowledge that we're entering a minefield here. This goes beyond Harper and involves fundamental questions of democratic legitimacy. Over at his own place, thwap's been addressing just those questions and while I'm not sure he and his guests have arrived at any conclusion, at least it's a start.
Land mine number one is the fluidity of the argument. Like it or not, Harper won a majority under the rules everyone agreed to. I'm not talking about the dirty tricks or the robocalls or the penny-ante astroturfers or all the myriad ways he and his minions debase our politics – I'm talking about the fact that he won a majority of seats in Parliament. We can argue about the distortions and unfairness inherent in the archaic First-Past-The-Post system, and indeed, fixing it might well be one of the most important things we need to work on, but we can't use those dysfunctions to argue against the legitimacy of Harper's mandate without exposing ourselves to the same line of attack should the shoe ever be on the other foot.
I don't want to put words in thwap's mouth or misrepresent his arguments (and of course if I'm wrong, thwap, the same invitation applies), so let me make sure I've understood his argument: the illegitimacy of Harper's mandate lies not in how fucked up things are under FPTP, but in the assertion that he and his minions have displayed contempt for democracy and torn up the rulebook.
And this is where I differ. Suggest that the Harperites have debased our democracy, poisoned the body politic and diminished the whole idea of Canadian citizenship, and you won't get any argument from me. Argue that we need to work against them on multiple fronts and focus on every possible way of bringing them down and I'm with you. I have nothing but disgust for their view of Canadian history, their contempt for the Canadian character and the warped and mean-spirited program they hope to enact. But suggest that they have no right to govern, despite their electoral victory – and you lose me. There's a great deal of emotional power in saying they tore up the rulebook, but it's a subjective assertion, and I'm just not sure how strong a foundation it is for a strategic program of undermining their legitimacy.
That doesn't mean we can't raise questions about how representative this government really is. That doesn't mean we can't use the mathematical facts to question just how strong that mandate really is, based as it is on less than 40 per cent of the vote in an election where only 60 per cent of eligible voters even bothered to show up. That's a message we can keep repeating. I'm not suggesting for a second that we shouldn't be engaging in politics at the tactical level as well as the strategic; it's more a question of how much energy to devote to day-to-day tactical battles as opposed to long-term strategic ones. Steve's got his majority now. Despite Brigette DePape's amazingly awesome symbolic action, Parliament isn't going to be the place to stop him.
Which brings us to land mine number two. One of the obvious implications of that is that opposition to the Harper Regime is going to need extra-parliamentary focus and extra-parliamentary roots. Demonstrations, workshops and marches will have to be part of that, as will effective outreach and bridge-building strategies, but sooner or later we're going to encounter situations where it becomes necessary to risk legal sanction. If we're questioning the Harper Regime's mandate, then at some point we'll have to question the legitimacy of its actions.
And that's tricky ground. It's not always easy to distinguish the legitimacy of any particular government, no matter how odious, from the legitimacy of the measures enacted by that government. In his post and in the subsequent comments, thwap discusses civil disobedience as one of the options available to opponents of the Harper Regime:
... the task of civil disobedience in this country is even more justified because the government that is going whole-hog to help destroy civilization is completely illegitimate.
This is where it gets interesting. I don't pretend to have a comprehensive knowledge of the underlying theory, but I do remember reading something to the effect that if you're going to engage in civil disobedience, you have to be prepared to face the consequences – and that's got its own internal contradictions as well. If you want to argue that this government is illegitimate, that's your right, but then you have to turn around and accept that the sanctions the system hits you with for your unlawful actions are legitimate. Yes, you can argue that certain aspects of the existing structure are legitimate while other aspects, enacted by this bunch of bastards, are not, but those are subtle distinctions. And they may not be grasped by everyone you're trying to convince. (Not to mention that you're dealing with people who've already demonstrated their contempt for civil liberties and civil society itself.)
And it may be that you're not trying to convince everyone, but then how do we reach those we need to reach? I know it's tempting, but we can't just write off everyone who voted for Harper as a zombie or a moron. That's what I'm alluding to with the outreach and bridge-building. (Might be best to stay away from terms like "education" or "consciousness-raising," because they may sound a little condescending, and in that regard, they're also susceptible to being turned against us by right-wing operatives accusing us of being elitist or fomenting class warfare. It's all about the memes, folks. Doesn't mean we should abandon the effort to win back the words – I'm just suggesting that we pick our battles.)
This isn't meant to be the last word on the subject, but for whatever it's worth, our game plan has to include a reassertion of the most fundamental first principles. Here's my first two cents' worth:
Ultimately, the only source of legitimacy in a democracy is a mandate from the electorate, regardless of the dysfunctions of the FPTP system or the ease with which institutions of governance can be captured and subverted. Certainly one can raise questions about the source of that mandate or the mechanics of how it is generated – in fact, raising such questions is at the very heart of civic engagement.
It's worth noting, for that reason, that the corporations and lobbyists and string pullers do not want engaged citizens – we just gum up the works and get in the way. Democracy, as someone once said, can be messy. But that is all the more reason to stress the obligations of citizenship, and the need for people to participate actively in the civic lives of their communities. (H/t cityslikr)
Of course, this isn't a comprehensive strategic guide. More to come. Thoughts welcome in the meantime.