There are easy things to say about Don Cherry's appearance at Toronto Mayor Rob Ford's inauguration a few days ago. It was time for some "blue collar" people to run city hall - says a millionaire putting the seals of office around the neck of another millionaire. Time to get the "artsy" people out of city hall - says a public-broadcasting television comedian. Time for a fresh new start - and the "lefty pinkos" can put that in their pipe, setting the scene for four years of gracelessness, thuggishness and pointless conflict, so it would seem. Was that really a fresh new start?
But there are far, far more important things to say about this important and eye-opening event. Mayor Ford's inauguration is a good symbol of a critically-important strategic issue that progressive-minded people would do well to think very carefully about. Our opponents have, for many years.
To begin, let us not dismiss either Mr. Cherry or Mayor Ford as clowns or fools. They are neither. Mr. Cherry and Mayor Ford are both smart, crafty and carefully-calculating players in their own worlds, and they know exactly what they're doing. What we need to do is understand what they're up to.
A good place to start is here, on the website of the American Enterprise Institute - one of the many murkily-governed and business-funded think tanks dedicated to spreading kleptocracy in the United States and around the world. The author is Henry Olsen and the article is a pickup from National Review Online.
This article is an interesting and thoughtful look at how the soldiers of kleptocracy view U.S. politics, with a particular focus on the recent Congressional midterms. The whole article rewards a careful read. But let's go about two-thirds of the way down the piece, where Mr. Olsen is trying to understand why ordinary working people tend to support progressive parties:
"Ask an American working-class voter why he supports Democrats and he or she is likely to say it's because Democrats support 'the little guy'. ... I found exactly the same phrase used by English miners to describe their support for Labour. When I found the same phrase being used by Australian working-class voters to describe their attraction to the Australian Labor Party. I decided I needed to learn more."
Now things get interesting. Read on:
"So I reached out to Patrick Muttart, former chief of staff to Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Muttart is perhaps the world's leading expert on working-class voters in English-speaking countries, having studied their behaviour and attitudes not only in Canada and also in Britain, Australia and America. He has found that in every country working-class voters may form the base for successful center-left governments but are crucially responsible for the rise of center-right leaders like Harper, Australia's John Howard, and Margaret Thatcher."
There then follows a detailed analysis of what motivates and interests working-class voters, with a focus on how to manipulate them into voting against their own economic and social best interests. Mr. Olson, quoting Mr. Muttart, notes the deep seams of optimism, fear, pride, anger at disrespect, belief in public order, patriotism, and concern about rapid change that motivate working class electorates. And he describes how conservative politicians can frame campaigns around these themes.
This is the intellectual underpinning of Stephen Harper's "Timmy's" campaign - and also of the Ford campaign, and of Mr. Cherry's appearance to frame Mayor Ford's term.
Conservatives are Tim Hortons, just like you. The Liberals and New Democrats are Starbucks - not like you. Conservatives are working class; progressives are the "elite." Conservatives support the police and safety at home; progressives are with the crooks. Conservatives want to give you a bit of money off your taxes to help you out in uncertain times; progressives want you to pay more. Conservatives are proud of their country and will defend it; progressives hate their country and want to give in to our enemies. Etc.
Paul Martin and Michael Ignatieff were and are sitting ducks for this frame - perfect validators for it - which explains much of what has happened in federal politics in recent years. But these themes are now the common currency of conservatives at all levels of government throughout the English-speaking world.
It is Orwellian double-talk. The conservative agenda seeks to impoverish all of Tim Hortons' clients and to transfer their savings and income to people who view Starbucks as pedestrian. The conservative agenda is about the most massive transfer of wealth from ordinary people to the elite since the 1920s. The conservative agenda leads to more crime. The conservative agenda is about subordinating our sovereignty to global corporate interests - including the sale of our key assets to foreigners - and to the foreign policy agenda of another country.
But it is also, as a piece of political engineering, smart. And, as recent electoral results demonstrate, effective.
So what is to be done? There is a great deal to be done.
A good place to start is to stop building up our opponents by mocking or demonizing them, as so many progressive people did, self-defeatingly, in the case of both Prime Minister Harper and Mayor Ford.
Next, we need to find some clear words to point out the fundamental contradiction in the conservative message - a populist message designed to beggar the populi.
And third, we need to scrub off thirty years of impenetrable, internally-focussed, liberal, academic, bureaucratic, entitlement-driven, self-absorbed "progressive" language.
Instead of all that, we need to beat the Conservatives in the race for our own base - and then reverse field on them.
They are already halfway ahead of us on the track in that race. As Barack Obama learned this November. As Torontonians are now also learning, with a little help from the CBC and its best professional comedian.