What Is a Left-Leaning Green to Do?

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/8/8a/Ic_thumbs_up_down_48px.svg/200px-Ic_thumbs_up_down_48px.svg.pngWith less than a week to go before election day and polls tightening across British Columbia, I find myself in the all-too-common predicament of dreading the electoral options before me.

The Liberals, naturally, are out of the question. They have governed this province horrendously through 16 years of the wrong kind of class warfare, slashing education and social services, offering up more for wealthy donors than for regular people or the natural environment. True, former premier Gordon Campbell showed genuine concern for climate change for about 15 minutes back in 2008, but his successor Christy Clark froze BC’s paltry carbon tax at $30 per tonne and weakened her predecessor’s clean energy regulations in service of her pie-in-the-sky LNG dreams.

As for the NDP, the kindest thing one can say is that they are not the Liberals. Leader John Horgan, in an attempt to appeal to both the labour and the environmental wings of his party, is pledging to raise the carbon tax to the level required by the federal government, but to do so at a marginally faster pace than will the BC Liberals. The party favours some LNG projects and not others. It is strongly opposed to Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain pipeline expansion, while it straddles the fence on the Site C dam.

The NDP represents the province’s best shot at effecting a change in government, yet this does not in itself constitute sufficient reason to vote for them. To cast one’s ballot “strategically” lets mediocre parties off the hook for their mediocrities and sets the stage for a race-to-the-bottom-style proliferation of inadequate policy. Progressives must demand more from the NDP, insisting that our support be earned, not taken for granted.

Which brings us to the Greens, the party perennially on the verge of either breakthrough or irrelevance, never quite reaching either. Unsurprisingly, the Greens have by far the most environmentally sound platform — and probably the most progressive one too. They promise to raise the carbon tax to an eventual target of $70 per tonne — $20 above the federal requirement — and to expand it to cover some emissions not currently priced. Party leader Andrew Weaver has been a lone voice of reason in the Legislature opposed to LNG development, and he rejects the approval of any new fossil fuel infrastructure.

On the social front, the Green Party matches the NDP’s promise on raising corporate taxes, while surpassing them on personal income tax hikes for the wealthy. Income assistance rates would be higher under a Green government than under either other major party. Both the NDP and the Greens have some worthy, albeit incomplete, ideas on housing, and while NDP child care policy presents a good deal more detail, the Greens have one-upped them on affordability.

Boasting the largest increases to both spending and revenue, Greens distinguish themselves as the party of what is ominously referred to in right-wing circles as “big government.” While their rivals promise to keep budgets in the black, the Greens pledge only to balance the books on average over a four-year term, allowing deficits to occur during individual years.

Where the Greens start to falter is not so much in their platform as in their leader. Weaver is an accomplished climate scientist and former lead author on several IPCC reports. When he speaks, people rightly listen. But his stature suffered when, during his term as MLA, he bewilderingly voted for two Liberal government budgets.

Like many Green voters, I could not help but wonder what he was thinking. Was it a matter of deep-seated conviction on his part? Or of wanting to “do politics differently,” as he nebulously claimed in the moment? Did he simply wish to ingratiate himself to whoever happened to be in government? Add to this his strange infatuation with private power and his criticism of the NDP’s equity policy on candidate nominations, and it is not clear that Weaver is capable of walking his party’s progressive talk.

Furthermore, the stakes are particularly high in the current election, in which the Greens are polling unusually well for a third party, while the Liberals and NDP wage a closely fought battle for first place. If no party gets a majority in the Legislature, who would Weaver and his potential caucus-mates throw their support behind for premier?

For my part, I plan, with some reservation, to risk another vote for the Greens on May 9, premised on the possibly flawed assumption that an NDP-Green alignment makes more sense than a Liberal-Green one. Two budgets aside, Weaver has voted with the NDP far more often than he has with the Liberals, and he stated in 2013 that he would prefer an NDP to a Liberal government.

However, I understand that others, including many whose opinions I deeply respect, might make their calculations differently. Weaver is a bit of a gamble. Under the circumstances, I cannot blame anyone for casting a safe — albeit uninspiring — vote for the NDP.

This post appears on rabble.ca.

The Travesty of the Electoral College

File:Trump speaking in Manchester, New Hampshire.jpg

Of the myriad outrages that define last week’s United States presidential election — namely, the elevation of scandal over policy, of demagoguery over competence, of unabashed sexism and racism and conspiratorial paranoia over reasoned debate — perhaps the most egregious is the fact that the winner of the popular vote will not be the one occupying the Oval Office.

Votes are still being counted. As of this writing, however, Hillary Clinton appears set to win approximately two million votes more than President-elect Donald Trump, which gives lie to the all-too-common characterization of Trump supporters as a “silent majority” — a blatant numerical (not to mention auditory) falsehood if ever there was one.

The culprit responsible for this anti-democratic upset is an arcane body known as the Electoral College, which owing to Clinton’s landslide victories in California and New York and her razor-thin losses in Rust Belt swing states, cooked the books in favour of Trump. Historically speaking, Republicans do not have anything like a permanent Electoral College advantage, but given the still painful memory of Bush v. Gore in 2000, as well as other splits between the electoral and popular votes that benefited the GOP in 1876 and 1888, don’t expect the party of Trump to see the light and embrace reform anytime soon.

The rules for changing the Constitution are practically insurmountable. To formally abolish the Electoral College, proponents would need the support of two-thirds of the members of each house of Congress plus three-quarters of the states. Only slightly less improbable is the workaround known as the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, which would have signatory states pledge their electors to whichever presidential candidate wins the national popular vote.

The compact has so far been signed by ten states and the District of Columbia, which together represent 61 per cent of the 270 electoral votes needed for it to come into effect. The only problem is that all the states to have officially signed on are blue ones. The agreement will never reach the requisite 270 without swing states, which are understandably reluctant to give up their disproportionate power, or red states, which must be blisteringly aware, even after this month’s election, of the Republican Party’s growing popularity problem.

From 1992 onwards, there have been seven presidential elections. A Republican candidate has won the popular vote only once in those 24 years. As the GOP continues to alienate women, people of colour, Millennials, and those with higher educations, it is becoming increasingly clear that the Electoral College represents their only shot at victory. Far from negating this trend, last week’s results further corroborate it.

So get used to hearing Republican operatives sing the praises of a system that distorts election results and subverts the will of the people. Get used to hearing them profess their solidarity with smaller, more rural states — currently over-represented in the Electoral College — against the large urban centres that threaten to overpower them come election time. As if people aren’t just people no matter where they live. As if voters should not all be counted equally.

Meanwhile, the rest of the country, which according to one recent survey wants to eliminate this 18th century anomaly by a margin of 55 per cent to 27 per cent, will go on echoing the luminary who famously described the Electoral College as “a disaster for a democracy.”

That luminary? Donald J. Trump.

This post appears on rabble.ca.

Six Ways That the Greens Are Canada’s Most Progressive Party

File:Parti vert fr.JPG

In the midst of a campaign dominated by horse races and attack ads, by fear and scandal and appeals to our basest political instincts, it is easy to forget that elections are meant above all to be about policy. Which party offers the kindest, most equitable, and most sustainable vision for the country?

The answer, in my opinion, is clear. Here I present six important ways that the Green Party of Canada is the most progressive of our major national parties.

1. Climate

Climate change is the defining challenge of our generation, one that is inextricably linked to our well-being and survival, yet politicians typically treat it as some trifling matter to be addressed only when there is nothing more pressing on the agenda. For the Green Party, however, climate considerations are central.

The party’s platform calls for Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions to be reduced to 40 per cent below 2005 levels by 2025 and 80 per cent below 1990 levels by 2050. Vision Green, the party’s in-depth policy document, speaks of even steeper reductions. Much of the heavy lifting for this program of cuts would be performed by a carbon fee and dividend system (a form of carbon tax), set at the admittedly paltry rate of $30 per tonne, but projected to rise over time. The only other party calling for a federal price on carbon is the NDP, but its cap-and-trade policy is sorely lacking in detail. There is no way of knowing, based on the information thus far provided, how stringent or comprehensive the NDP plan would be.

On pipelines, Liberals and New Democrats, to their credit, both oppose Northern Gateway, but they can’t seem to make up their minds on Trans Mountain and Energy East. The Liberals support Keystone XL, while the NDP rejects it. Only the Greens take a principled stance against all pipelines meant to export raw bitumen, pledging to halt oil sands expansion and to shift our economy towards renewable energy and sustainable jobs.

2. Taxes

While reasonable questions can be raised about the Green Party’s insistence on revenue neutrality when it comes to carbon taxes, there is no doubt that its fee and dividend plan is on balance progressive. Revenue produced by the “fee” is meant to be returned to all Canadians as an equal per capita “dividend.” Since people with low incomes would pay less on average than those with high incomes (due to lower greenhouse gas emissions), they would tend to get more out of the system than they put into it. The result would be a modest redistribution from rich to poor.

Additionally, the Greens pledge in their budget overview to eliminate income taxes on those making less than $20,000 per year, to reintroduce a tax on inheritances greater than $1,000,000, and to raise the corporate rate from 15 to 19 per cent (leapfrogging the NDP’s 17 per cent). Some of the projected increase in revenue would go towards the party’s vaunted Guaranteed Livable Income (also known as a negative income tax), a proposed increase to and consolidation of various federal and provincial assistance programs aimed at ensuring that no Canadian lives in poverty.

3. Trade

In an era when the battle against free trade and investor protection agreements has largely been abandoned, the Greens are the only major party still willing to fight the good fight.

The Liberal Party has supported trade liberalization treaties ever since notoriously breaking its 1993 election promise to pull Canada out of NAFTA. Even the NDP, in recent years, has dropped its principled opposition, preferring to assess trade agreements on a case-by-case basis (yes to Jordan and South Korea, maybe to CETA, no to the recently signed TPP).

The Greens, by contrast, stand unequivocally on the side of fair rather than free trade. Party leader Elizabeth May has been one of the country’s most passionate voices in opposition to the FIPA with China. Vision Green even goes so far as to suggest providing the requisite six months’ notice to withdraw from NAFTA as a means of pushing for renegotiation on more favourable terms.

4. Post-secondary education

Dozens of countries around the globe, across both the developed and the developing world, offer free post-secondary education. For the most part, this is considered a non-starter here in Canada. Alas, it is once again only the Greens who favour the complete abolition of tuition fees. They also promise to cancel existing student debts over $10,000.

5. War and peace

Non-violence is one of the six fundamental principles of the Green Party of Canada. The principle was put on dramatic display in 2011 when, barely a month after she was elected, Elizabeth May took a stand in the House of Commons, providing a lone vote of dissent against Canada’s continued participation in NATO’s war on Libya. Given the ongoing disaster still unfolding as a result of our intervention, May’s foresight deserves be acknowledged.

6. Growth

The Green Party is by no means anti-capitalist, but by questioning the ideology of infinite growth, it goes farther than either the NDP or the Liberals in undermining the most destructive foundation of our economic system. Vision Green explicitly calls for a steady-state economy and a reduced work week, stating, “Continued exponential growth is counter to the realities of a finite planet.”

None of this prevents the party from speaking the language of “smart growth” and “sustainable growth” when convenient. Perhaps this apparent contradiction reflects a distinction between short-term and long-term objectives. Nevertheless, in the current political climate, any willingness to broach the subject of limits to growth is a rare feat.

Some hedging …

The Greens are not perfect on every issue. Regrettably, it is only the Liberals who favour a rise in the personal tax rates of the top one per cent. And the NDP, in addition to having a more fleshed-out child care policy, has set a short-term greenhouse gas reduction target that is marginally more ambitious than the Green Party’s.

However, on most issues, Elizabeth May and her running mates occupy a place in the political landscape that we would be foolish to overlook. To expect them simply to disappear — to roll over and die in the face of deliberate mischaracterizations and short-sighted appeals to strategic voting — is neither realistic nor desirable. They fill a hole in the national conversation and challenge us to demand more from other parties.

If the NDP and the Liberals truly want to defang the Greens, they could start by adopting their policies.

This posts appears on rabble.ca.

Some Thoughts on the Vancouver Election … Plus Endorsements!

https://i2.wp.com/upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/8/80/Vancouver_City_Council_1922.jpgWith a week and a half to go before voting day in municipalities across British Columbia, the campaign here in Vancouver seems to have devolved into a veritable hatefest against two-term mayor and eccentric juice magnate Gregor Robertson.

There is nothing surprising about that. Incumbents (a.k.a. the sinister hands currently at the controls of Big Government) typically draw vitriol like no others during election season. Yet for all the negative attention received by the mayor and his Vision Vancouver party at all-candidates meetings and in the opinion pages, for all the foaming at the mouth over towers and bike lanes and the dearth of transparency at city hall, polls show the man not-so-affectionately dubbed “Mayor Moonbeam” set to sail comfortably into a third straight term in office. His party too is predicted to win a (slightly reduced) majority on council, as it portrays itself as the only realistic alternative to the big bad Non-Partisan Association (NPA), Vancouver’s traditionally dominant party of centre-right overlords.

Indeed, Vision seems well on its way to becoming Vancouver’s new “natural governing party.” All the more reason, in this blogger’s opinion, to honestly evaluate its strengths and weaknesses.

Vision’s Strengths

Let’s start with the party’s “green” file. For the past six years, the Vision-dominated council has alienated many with an aggressive pursuit of cycling infrastructure, as part of its goal of making Vancouver the world’s greenest city by 2020. While we may quibble over this or that detail, this or that choice for where to locate a given bike lane, the need to encourage safe and convenient alternatives to car use is imperative from an environmental standpoint.

Don’t be fooled by hyperbolic warnings of drivers and cyclists battling it out for supremacy on city roads. There may be some griping, but most people are willing to live and let live. To promote cycling during an era of climate change is simply common sense.

Vision also deserves credit for being the party most forcefully in favour of a Broadway subway, making the mayor and his team, in concert with other municipalities (all of which are at least partly on board), well placed to negotiate with higher levels of government. As repeated ad nauseum over the campaign, the Broadway corridor is the busiest bus route in North America (defined as Canada and the United States). While a hypothetical light rail line might release some of this pressure and could certainly be built on the cheap, the subway option would almost certainly have greater carrying capacity.

The goal is to move the maximum number of people in the least amount of time, not just in response to current needs, but in anticipation of future needs as well. Vancouver’s transit planners spend too much time playing catch-up. What we desperately need is to get out in front of the demographic trends.

Finally, Vision is steadfastly opposed to such fossil fuel projects as coal export terminals and the proposed Kinder Morgan pipeline expansion. These matters, strictly speaking, are not subject to local jurisdiction. But given Vancouver’s geographic and economic placement, our civic government undoubtedly has influence, should it choose to exercise it. Environmentalists certainly appreciate having the province’s largest city on their side.

Vision’s Weaknesses

Truly, Vision’s Achilles’ heel is Vancouver’s housing affordability crisis.

By some measures, Metro Vancouver is the second least affordable housing market on the planet. Not all the blame for this unpleasant fact can be laid at the feet of the current mayor and council, but neither can it be said that rectifying the problem has been a major priority during Vision’s first two terms.

Perhaps the most unconscionable symptom of this growing crisis is the recent spike in the city’s homeless population, flying in the face of Robertson’s 2011 pledge to eliminate street homelessness by 2015. One wonders, in light of these results, if the city’s efforts to evict tent city protesters from Oppenheimer Park last month amounted to little more than a PR-conscious move to sweep the problem under the proverbial rug.

The condos and high-rises largely pursued under Vision’s watch rarely yield true affordability — or, for that matter, environmental sustainability. Towers are notoriously energy inefficient building forms, and sprawl is only exacerbated when Vancouverites, pushed out of their neighbourhoods in the face of skyrocketing costs of living, flock to the suburbs in search of greater affordability.

Vision Vancouver seems to be doing a lot of things right and a lot of things wrong. A few of its more green-tinged candidates could probably use another kick at the electoral can, but the party as a whole does not deserve a majority. Conscientious voters would do well to fill out the rest of their ballots with some of the more progressive alternatives.

COPE

Staking out a position to Vision’s left, the Coalition of Progressive Electors (COPE), from which Vision split off in 2005 after a painful bout of infighting, nearly fell apart once again over the last year. The resulting offshoots this time are new parties OneCity Vancouver and the Public Education Project.

Lefties will be lefties, I suppose. (It’s the Spanish Civil War all over again!)

But as tempting as it may be to punish a party so recently beset by internal disarray — and as prone as Vancouver voters have always been to do just that — the primary focus during an election must be on the issues themselves, not on the headline-grabbing sideshows. And it is on the issues where COPE truly shines.

Deriding both Vision and the NPA as “developer-funded parties,” COPE promises to create a Vancouver Housing Authority, to build and preserve publicly owned social housing, to establish rent controls, to put in place special taxes on vacant and luxury properties, to end renovictions, to impose a $15 per hour municipal minimum wage, to introduce a $30 per month universal transit pass for all Vancouver residents, and to make Vancouver a “Sanctuary City” for non-status migrants.

Some of these policies would be difficult, if not impossible, for Vancouver to implement on its own, but they are laudable aspirations. COPE is right to push the limits of municipal jurisdiction as a means of elevating its negotiating position with higher levels of government.

As a result of the party’s equity policy, a majority of COPE candidates are women, and First Nations representation is required on each of its three slates. Moreover, in the person of mayoral candidate Meena Wong, Vancouver voters now have a chance to elect their first female and Chinese Canadian mayor. Visible “minorities” make up roughly half the city’s population, as do women, yet both both groups are chronically underrepresented in government. For Wong to occupy the mayor’s chair would be a breath of fresh air in more ways than one.

Green Party

The Vancouver Greens, though showing signs of beginning to outgrow their “perpetual underdog” status, are not running a mayoral candidate. Instead, they choose to concentrate on their minority slates for council, parks, and schools, professing as a matter of principle that no one party should control a majority of seats. With at least one poll, however, suggesting they are within striking distance of supplanting the NPA as the second party on council, they may well choose to revisit this policy come next election.

The Greens share more than a few platform points with COPE, especially on housing. They vow to work against renovictions, to protect existing low-cost housing, to adopt the standard definition of “affordability” as constituting no more than 30 per cent of gross income, and to consider introducing taxes on vacant and luxury properties. They also plan to strengthen the new Vancouver Affordable Housing Agency (which Vision appropriated in watered-down form from COPE), and they refuse to accept campaign donations from developers.

On planning and density issues, the Greens push for increased community engagement, on both a neighbourhood and a citywide basis, in contrast to what they perceive as Vision Vancouver’s top-down approach. They seem to favour preserving neighbourhood character, encouraging wood-frame construction, modestly increasing the number of units allowed on single-family lots, and building low-rise developments on a more evenly distributed basis, rather than pockets of towers. They would fund public transit from revenue sources other than development levies, so as to diminish the incentive for excessive density.

Like Vision, the Greens emphasize the importance of walking, cycling, and transit, but they consider Vision’s take on bike lanes a bit ad hoc, and advocate an end run to completing the city’s cycling network. They propose that Vancouver produce more of its own energy and food, while banning the use of GMOs.

Incumbent Green councillor Adriane Carr seems to have widely impressed during her first term at city hall, and she is considered a shoo-in for re-election. It would be nice to see her bring back a couple of colleagues under the Green banner.

Parks and Schools

The Vision-dominated Park Board and School Board both deserve praise for introducing broadly trans-inclusive policies during the last term. Also, the School Board is standing strong against the temptation of corporate funding from Chevron, which blights many other school districts in the region.

It bears mentioning, however, that parks underwent significant budget cuts under Vision’s tenure. And while the decision by Vision commissioners to prohibit the breeding of dolphins and whales at the Vancouver Aquarium is a well-intentioned step in the right direction, an all-out ban on cetacean captivity would send a much clearer message. Further, let us not forget the shameful way in which the party pressured popular candidate Trish Kelly to step down in response to a jokey monologue she performed on masturbation eight years ago.

My Endorsements

While Vancouver’s at-large electoral system tends to produce wildly disproportionate results, it also offers voters the chance to mix it up by selecting candidates from across multiple parties. What follows are the selections of yours truly.

Mayor:

  • Meena Wong (COPE)

City Council:

  • Audrey Siegl (COPE)
  • Niki Sharma (Vision)
  • Andrea Reimer (Vision)
  • Wilson Munoz (COPE)
  • Pete Fry (Green)
  • Sid Chow Tan (COPE)
  • Adriane Carr (Green)
  • Cleta Brown (Green)
  • Lisa Barrett (COPE)
  • RJ Aquino (OneCity)

Park Board:

  • Michael Wiebe (Green)
  • Anita Romaniuk (COPE)
  • Imtiaz Popat (COPE)
  • Stuart Mackinnon (Green)
  • Trevor Loke (Vision)
  • Urooba Jamal (COPE)
  • Jamie Lee Hamilton (IDEA)

School Board:

  • Allan Wong (Vision)
  • Ilana Shecter (COPE)
  • Mischa Oak (Green)
  • Kombii Nanjalah (COPE)
  • Janet Fraser (Green)
  • Diana Day (COPE)
  • Ken Clement (Vision)
  • Jane Bouey (Public Education Project)
  • Patti Bacchus (Vision)

Capital Plan Borrowing Questions 1, 2, and 3:

  • Yes, Yes, and Yes

Election day is November 15th. Advance voting is already underway here in Vancouver and continues through the 12th. All the information you need to take part can be found on the city’s website. In 2011, barely one-third of registered voters turned out. Surely we need to do better this time.

Get out there and vote!

Five Lessons — Real and Imagined — from BC’s Election Results

electionIn a stunning upset of “Dewey Defeats Truman” proportions, the BC Liberals have defied all the polls save one and returned to power with a fourth straight majority government. No doubt, there will be much soul searching and wound licking over the coming weeks. I believe that five lessons — real, imagined, and not-quite-clear — will be gleaned from the experience.

1. Proceed with caution when predicting the future.

In last year’s US Presidential election, statistician Nate Silver made fools out of all those television pundits who privileged “gut feeling” over quantitative analysis. But sometimes even the data geeks get it wrong.

So what happened in British Columbia? Did voter support swing at the last minute? Did New Democrats fail to get out their vote? Were there methodological problems with the polling? All we can say for sure is that the political landscape is littered with failed predictions (albeit rarely so shocking as last night’s), and that in the future, partisans and non-partisans alike are probably better off displaying greater humility when speaking of what is yet to come.

2. Going negative works.

This is a very depressing development. Early on, NDP leader Adrian Dix admirably vowed to run a positive campaign, and although that strategy began to shift in the final days, his team never attempted anything on the scale of the unrelenting attacks unleashed by Premier Christy Clark and the Liberals.

While negative campaigning can sometimes backfire, it appears to have worked this time around, as the Liberals successfully tapped into the sizable block of BC voters susceptible to red scare tactics. All the Premier had to do was remind us of secret NDP plans to steal our hard-earned tax dollars and distribute them to greedy union bosses, or something to that effect, and BC’s “free enterprise coalition” dutifully flocked into action.

If I were inclined to ignore lesson #1 above, I would predict an NDP emulation of this campaign style for the next several elections.

3. Campaigning on the environment doesn’t work.

This is even more depressing — and not necessarily accurate. But in politics, it is perception that matters.

During this election, the NDP adopted a moderately progressive environmental platform. The strategy evidently did not pay off. Conceivably, the problem may have been that its environmental policies did not go far enough; perhaps a more stringent stance, like opposition to LNG, might have chipped off a few extra Green votes and energized the party’s base. But New Democrats are most likely drawing a different conclusion. I predict (again, with all due humility) that in the next election, the NDP will focus more on capturing the ideological territory of the Liberals than the Greens.

But there are different strategies to consider.

4. The NDP and the Greens must cooperate.

This call is likely to grow louder over the coming months and years, but electoral cooperation won’t be easy to implement. Green Party support comes from across the political spectrum — more so from the NDP than the Liberals, to be sure, but not overwhelmingly so. Plus, it is hard to determine exactly how Green and NDP transfers of support would break down on a riding-by-riding basis.

But while such a scheme is not guaranteed to succeed, neither is it guaranteed to fail. A pre-election alliance in targeted ridings is at least worth further exploration. And with Jane Sterk’s probable impending departure from the Green Party leadership, possibly to be replaced by new MLA Andrew Weaver who said he would prefer an NDP to a Liberal government, bad blood between the two parties may yet diminish.

5. It’s now up to civil society.

Regardless of what happens in 2017, BC will spend the next four years governed by a party that believes itself to have a mandate for pipeline ambiguity, LNG development, and climate inaction. Environmental and social justice groups must mobilize to demonstrate to the government that its priorities for the province are not embraced by the majority of voters who wanted someone else.

“Well, that was easy,” Christy Clark joked in her victory speech last night. It is now up to all of us to make sure that the next four years are anything but.

This post appears on rabble.ca.

Fanatics, Zealots, Warmongers, and Peaceniks: Israel’s Crowded Electoral Landscape

Haneen Zoabi

Haneen Zoabi

Due perhaps to my Jewish identity and my family’s history, Israel tends to be the country whose politics I follow most closely apart from Canada’s and the United States’. Nevertheless, there is a giant gulf separating numbers one and two from number three. My understanding of Israeli parties, personalities, and issues is far from perfect, and when I observe the campaign leading up to the January 22 elections to Israel’s Knesset, I do so as an outsider.

There is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, something that I feel very passionately about, as I strongly believe in Palestinian national aspirations, equal rights for Israel’s Arab citizens, and a just peace to the decades of bloodshed. But there are other issues too, issues regarding which I have less information: the 2011 social justice protests against high housing costs that have bestowed renewed importance upon socioeconomic matters in Israel, the perpetual debate over the role of religion in society and the relationship between the ultra-Orthodox and other Israelis.

Notwithstanding these few gaps in my knowledge, regular readers of this blog will be aware that I am compulsively prone to the projectile expression of opinions. They will also know that I display unnatural excitement towards elections of all kinds. So despite my acknowledged dearth of expertise, I would like to say a few things about Israel’s many political parties and to discuss my preferences — my endorsements, if I may put it that way — for the benefit of any Israeli readers who happen to be curious. Therefore, I hereby offer a non-exhaustive list of parties, divided into categories, presented in order from those I like most to those I like least.

(Any readers looking for more information on Israel’s political landscape can find some here and here.)

Arab parties

If I had the right to vote in Israel’s election this month, I would most likely choose Hadash, Israel’s communist party. While predominantly Arab, Hadash boasts a significant minority of Jewish members and supporters, thereby lending itself a certain binational street cred. And while I am not personally a communist, I recognize that Hadash tends to take exceptionally progressive and enlightened positions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The party has also become known for its strong stances on the environment.

Balad, another secular left-wing Arab party, would be my second choice. Though Balad is more explicitly nationalistic, while Hadash officially expounds Marxist internationalism, both parties demand an end to Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territory and equality for Israeli Arabs. Furthermore, the Israeli political establishment’s endless efforts to persecute Balad and its Knesset members — such as the inspiring Haneen Zoabi — if anything, makes the party even more deserving of support.

Unfortunately, neither Hadash nor Balad does particularly well in elections.

Zionist left parties

Within the Zionist mainstream, the choices are not all bad. Meretz, a small social democratic party with some experience in coalition governments, is the traditional choice of left-wing Jewish peaceniks.

Considerably closer to the centre is Labor, one of Israel’s two major historic political forces. Labor has tended to be ever-so-slightly more open to peace and compromise than its opponents on the right. Currently, it is focusing primarily on socioeconomic issues in the wake of the recent social justice protests, but voters looking for truly courageous leadership on the Israeli-Palestinian file are advised to skip over the Labor doves who appear to come by their dovishness with such reluctance.

Centrist parties

A new arrival in the increasingly crowded centre, Hatnuah was formed by former foreign minister Tzipi Livni and benefited from several defections from across the centre and left, including two high-profile former Labor party leaders. It presents as the main plank of its agenda the pursuit of a peace agreement with the Palestinians.

Meanwhile, Kadima, creation of hawkish former prime minister Ariel Sharon and Livni’s one-time home, appears to be just about on its way out of the Israeli political scene. If I had to choose between the two, I would say the right one is headed into oblivion.

Right-wing parties

In the graveyard of unrepentant racists and warmongers on the Israeli right, the most moderate option is incumbent prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud, a party that supports free market economic policies, can’t quite make up its mind on the two-state solution, and has never met a war it didn’t like. Partnering up in a joint list with Yisrael Beiteinu, led by downright fascistic ethnic cleansing advocate Avigdor Lieberman, Likud is almost guaranteed to win a plurality of seats in the coming elections.

Farther down the right side of the spectrum are a variety of small ultra-nationalist and fanatical religious parties (Habayit Hayehudi, Shas, United Torah Judaism). With an expected Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu victory, at least some of these parties are guaranteed spots in the governing coalition.

Which means things will probably get a whole lot worse before they get better.

On Polarization in America

Tea Party protest

Tea Party protest

Every four years, the American airwaves are saturated with pundits claiming that the upcoming Presidential election is the most important in the nation’s history. Partisans — official and unofficial — paint dire pictures of apocalyptic disaster should the wrong candidate be voted in. Ever-escalating stakes seem an indelible feature of the American electoral game.

This framing has always struck me as somewhat silly, especially since everyone knows that Republicans and Democrats are one and the same. Yes, there is the “polarization” people have long complained of, but this seemed more a matter of tone and symbolism and rhetoric than of substantive disagreement. A bipartisan consensus came about decades ago that favoured neoliberalism and military misadventure, resulting in a much narrower scope of policy debate in the United States than in almost any other democracy.

Or at least, that’s how I used to feel.

Yesterday, I filled out a questionnaire set up on the Wall Street Journal website by Vote Compass, the Canadian organization that tries to situate participants on the political map next to the candidates and parties they have the most in common with. I have filled out Vote Compass surveys many times before in the context of Canadian federal and provincial elections, but I was surprised to find that when dealing with American issues, my answers were much more extreme than usual. In this latest questionnaire, I was more likely to “strongly” agree or disagree with a statement than to “somewhat” agree or disagree.

Something new has happened in recent years. America’s infamous Tweedledum/Tweedledee political system, as Ralph Nader described it, has suddenly become interesting.

I believe that this change, which has come to define Barack Obama’s entire first term as President, originated in the 2008 financial crisis. Now, for the first time in as long as I can remember, there is a battle of ideas being waged in the United States — specifically, over the role of government in the economy. In a country so often dismissed as having become an anti-intellectual wasteland, the ideas of thinkers such as John Maynard Keynes and Ayn Rand have forced their way into mainstream discussion. Grassroots(ish) movements like the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street popped up and shifted the national debate. Politicians and regular people alike are having something that looks eerily similar to a grown-up conversation about taxes, regulation, and government programs. Obama, while hardly a leftist dreamboat, has to some extent picked a side in this fight by implementing a stimulus package and calling for a slightly higher tax rate on the rich in the face of ridiculous class warfare accusations from his rivals.

But for all the excitement of substantive, intellectually stimulating debate, there are undoubtedly risks too. While Obama is the first sitting President in decades to embrace quasi-Keynesian policies, the vast majority of recent polarization comes courtesy of an increasingly extreme Republican Party. Mitt Romney may be playing to the centre now that the Presidential campaign is winding down, but he made too many promises to his party’s right-wing base during primary season to be able to govern the country as moderately as he did Massachusetts. The Tea Party, while perhaps less reflective of public opinion than Occupy Wall Street, has been much more successful at worming its way into the party structure and influencing political elites.

So this time around, American voters do indeed face a real choice, as well as at least some of the urgency and alarmism being propagated by the nation’s characteristically hyperbolic talking heads.

All this being said, even in this brave new era of open debate and expanded possibilities, there are still some vitally important issues that Democrats will not touch. I would give anything to see Obama put himself on the line on climate change — the globe’s foremost challenge at the moment — in the same way he did for health care. Instead, he brags about oil production having gone up during his Presidency.

On the subject of the United States’ bloated military budget, there is disconcertingly little distinguishing Democrats from Republicans. Perhaps the President could go beyond mere lip service in promoting worldwide nuclear disarmament.

And I would love (maybe once the economy gets stronger) to see the beginnings of a national discussion on revenue that would include the possibility of raising corporate taxes, capital gains taxes, and perhaps even the income taxes of the much-pandered-to middle class. America needs to get over this foolish impression it has that taxes are only a cost. If well spent, they benefit everyone.

The sad truth is that any American readers who agree with me on the above issues cannot realistically expect much from either of the two major parties. Instead, the enterprising voter is advised to look into that dark, most cavernous place where few have ventured before: third-party candidates. In particular, I recommend Green Party Presidential nominee Jill Stein. Granted, her party does not have ballot access in all fifty states, and I can understand if some swing state progressives are reluctant to vote in any way that might hand Romney an unearned victory. However, the majority of American voters whom these considerations do not apply to should seriously consider Stein as a positive choice for their country — not to mention as a means of gently prodding the Democrats in a more productive direction.

Yes, there may now be political choice in the United States of a kind that did not exist a few years ago, but there could always be more. Polarization is not all bad. Diversity is necessary for a healthy society no less than for a healthy ecosystem.

So please, America, why don’t you give those talking heads something to really talk about?