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When It Comes to Political Ideas, How Big Is ‘Big’?

The notion of “big ideas” periodically raises its head in Canadian politics and I recently criticized the NDP for taking a good idea — a national day of action — and wasting it in on, well, small ideas. Specifically I suggested that the party’s focus on excessive interest rates and other charges effectively redefined citizens as consumers, something that Stephen Harper’s Conservatives have been doing for eight years.

In response to the criticism, the party’s deputy leader Megan Leslie wrote claiming that the NDP had big ideas “in spades” and that she was proud of them. It is unusual for the NDP to engage its critics on the left outside the party, and it is a positive sign — just as the days of action and national town halls are. Engaging people outside the four week period of elections is critical to the NDP’s future success.

But, as my philosophy prof would have said, engagement itself is necessary but not sufficient for a party claiming a progressive mantle. If you want to get people engaged as citizens you have to challenge them as citizens to engage with you about their future. And people know, even if they are often in denial, that the future looks bleak. In the context of rapid climate change (and the social upheaval it will cause), increasing inequality, international conflicts, the coming conflicts over water, the dangerous growth of the security state, the threat of another global economic meltdown and the limits to growth, the need to commit to big ideas is even greater.

Regrettably, in the context of conventional Canadian politics, the likelihood that any truly big idea will be put on the table, or become part of a national day of action or town hall is remote. Our political system’s greatest flaw is not the first-past-the-post voting system. It is the fact that it is gravely ill-equipped to deal with crises with which it has no experience. We have muddled through for decades tinkering with the perversity of capitalism. But capitalism has long since entered the cancer stage, as Canadian philosopher John McMurtry so prophetically described in his 1999 book (now updated), The Cancer Stage of Capitalism. It is no longer capable of recognizing the crisis it faces and like a cancer attacks its own body.

The politics of incrementalism and issue parsing are simply incapable of dealing with the issues we face, and that means that at the civil society level and especially the political party and parliamentary level, there is almost no one addressing the catastrophes we face and no one seriously challenging the citizenry to take off its blinkers.

Our political system operates as if nothing has changed because fear prevents any political leader strategizing to win an election from going outside the window of acceptable ideas. Yet it is precisely the currently acceptable ideas that are leading us inexorably over a cliff.

Megan Leslie lists a number of NDP policies which she describes as “bold,” but with all due respect, most are defensive, involve resisting Stephen Harper’s anti-democratic agenda, or are long-standing policies that have also been supported by the Liberals — such as child care. Returning to pre-Harper corporate tax levels is a start — but Thomas Mulcair’s absolute refusal to consider increasing personal income taxes even on the wealthy shows timidity, not boldness. And without reclaiming lost revenue, promises of child care and a national housing program ring hollow.

Leading “the charge against Stephen Harper’s attempt to import voter suppression tactics” is what any opposition party should be doing, and opposing the outrageous subsidies given to oil companies is good policy but hardly a “big idea.”

Leslie’s listing of medicare as a big idea gets to the core of what I am talking about. Big ideas take a long time to be seen by the broad public, first as acceptable and then as sensible. There is a well developed theory on this process referred to as the Overton window, named after the man who developed it. The “window” is the current set of widely accepted public policies which typically determines what political parties run on.

The theory suggests that if you want to see a big, bold idea accepted as government policy you have to expand that window to include the new idea. Overton described the evolution to broad public acceptance as a process that develops by degrees: “Unthinkable; Radical; Acceptable; Sensible; Popular; Policy.” The right used this model and stuck with it for 30 years to achieve its current dominance. Ideas like slashing unemployment insurance and welfare, privatizing crown corporations, gutting taxes on the wealthy, making huge cuts to social programs and signing “trade” deals that give corporations more power, were all “unthinkable” or “radical” in the beginning. But after 30 years of relentless promotion and the courting of politicians, all of these ideas are now public policy.

The advent of medicare in Saskatchewan followed precisely this road to fruition. And any party wishing to actually deal with the crises we face will need to accept that it will take time to make the necessary bold policies sensible and popular. But so long as the NDP clings to the fantasy of winning a majority it will avoid big ideas for this reason. Contrast that with the NDP in the 1960s, when it took the big idea of medicare to the national stage and forced the Liberal government to implement it. That is the NDP’s historic role in progressive social policy: not winning elections but promoting bold ideas until they become popular.

The dramatic shift in strategy — seriously going for a majority — has been disastrous for the NDP. It led them to opportunistically defeat the Liberal government and give power to Stephen Harper. Inexorably, the NDP is becoming another liberal party in order to be competitive. Federally, they’re badly trailing a Liberal Party with a pretty face and no policies. The tragic irony in this is, of course, that even if the NDP did win, it would have a mandate limited to liberal policies.

Social democracy in the developed world has already suffered the same fate — as it has provincially in Canada. In Europe, New Zealand and Australia, it is virtually indistinguishable from neoliberal parties and is in decline. In Saskatchewan, Nova Scotia and B.C., NDP caution has been rewarded by voter rejection.

The root of the crisis for social democracy is its philosophical relationship with capitalism: accommodation rather than transformation. For decades that accommodation seemed to work — it gave us greater equality, medicare, low tuition fees, genuine environmental protection, fair taxes, labour standards and vibrant cities. But the problem with social democracy is that because of its accommodation with capitalism it has no core principles that it won’t moderate or abandon. As capitalism gets worse, social democracy has to adjust. Its operating political principle becomes the process of accommodation.

But today accommodation with capitalism amounts to complicity with a system that has become so destructive and immune to reform that it threatens all life on the planet. The cancer stage of capitalism, says McMurtry, is guided by “economic thought [which] is in principle incapable of recognizing what has gone wrong” and is controlled by transnational corporations which exercise sovereignty over nations through global trade agreements (one of Mulcair’s most egregious accommodations).

If the pathologically destructive nature of finance capitalism is to be addressed, there needs to be a political party that can do so by expanding the window of acceptable policies. And that means promoting bold ideas that directly challenge the policies that are creating the crises. Some examples: make advertising to children illegal and begin to address the obesity epidemic; instead of capping credit card fees, establish a public national bank to compete directly with the private banks; get out of NAFTA; use the Bank of Canada’s mandated power to lend to governments at near-zero interest rates and pay down the debt; challenge the outrageous behaviour of pharmaceutical companies by establishing a public company actually dedicated to people’s health and not shareholder profit, and ban the use of antibiotics in animal feed before they become useless and people start dying again from a scraped knee.

Now there’s a party that would have me skipping to the polls.

MURRAY DOBBIN, now living in Powell River, BC has been a journalist, broadcaster, author and social activist for over forty years.  He now writes a bi-weekly column for the on-line journals the Tyee and rabble.ca. He can be reached at murraydobbin@shaw.ca

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MURRAY DOBBIN, now living in Powell River, BC has been a journalist, broadcaster, author and social activist for over forty years.  He can be reached at murraydobbin@shaw.ca

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