My aim with this blog is to work to form a new vision for Canadian Liberalism. In my mind, this Liberalism is not an ideology but a philosophy. This tradition was provided by many Liberal Democratic Philosophers like Mill, de Tocqueville, Smith and Jefferson. Accordingly, I would love to provide a set of ideas that will allow politicians prioritize their goals and not get stuck in absolutes.
However, I have to admit that I have a “dirty” secret: I love watching politics in other countries. Accordingly, Watching BBC, MSNBC and CNN is a necessity in my world. Of course, most recently, the topic of conversation on MSNBC has been the Occupy Movement in the US. MSNBC has had commentators talk about it endlessly. Commentators have debated their relevance and their strength, their tactics and their legality. After a month of protesting, all aspects of this movement have been talked about including whether this movement should have or develop a philosophy. Dr. Melissa V. Harris-Perry, talking on MSNBC, is one of many commentators that have argued that the protestors did not have to have a philosophy. In her mind, it was up to politicians and think talks to capture the energy of these protests. Presumably, as the Tea Party movement was captured by the Republican Party.
This thinking is not unusual. For example, in the Wall Street Journal entitled “Occupy Wall Street reaches 1-month birthday”, a similar belief has come to the fore: The belief that movements should not have specific demands, ideology, philosophy or concrete ideas. Just look:
“For the most part, the protest action remained loosely organized and there were no specific demands, something Legba Carrefour, a participant in the Occupy D.C. protest, found comforting on Sunday.
‘When movements come up with specific demands, they cease to be movements and transform into political campaign rallies,’ said Carrefour, who works as a coat check attendant despite holding a master’s degree in cultural studies. ‘It’s compelling a lot of people to come out for their own reasons rather than the reasons that someone else has given to them.’”
My ‘simple’ problem is that I do not believe that. History teaches us that successful movements turn ideas and protest into their own institutions and political vehicles through which political action occurs. Or put differently, Ross Perot failed because he did not have a political movement to get behind his ideas. While the recent emergence of the Tea Party has been less than overwhelming because it has contracted out its political thinking to the existing Republican Party. All existing movements can learn from successful movements that have come before it. There are many examples to choose from. Just look at the Progressive Movement that flourished from the 1890s to the 1920s throughout North America.
While, it started in the US, the Progressive and Agrarian Movements influenced politics in Canada and the US. As Alonzo L. Harriby noted, it did so by addressing “the ideas, impulses, and issues stemming from modernization of American society. Emerging at the end of the nineteenth century, it established much of the tone of American politics throughout the first half of the century”. In the US, it led to the emergence of more democratic impulses. Initiatives, referendums, and recalls, along with direct primaries and the direct election of US Senators are, either directly or indirectly, due to the effects of the Progressive Movement. Municipal Administrations were cleaned up through the election of Progressive Politicians. Furthermore, they used “scientific principles” and data produced by social scientists to get political wins in areas like Government Efficiency and reducing the work hours of employees.
While in Canada, the Progressive Movement in many ways shaped modern Canada. Our major Conservative Party changed its name. Until its demise in the early party of this century, the major right wing party was known as the Progressive Conservative Party. While, many reforms to the Canadian Prison System and Welfare State were stated by the Progressive Movement. The Progressive movement is just one example of a successful political movement that developed its own ideas and political institutions.
Woman’s Rights bares a similar story. In most of the Western World, the story is the same. John Stuart Mill, Susan Brownell Anthony and other suffragists and suffragettes argued for woman’s suffrage for years. They argued that women should be granted rights, yet nothing happened. It was only when the movement pushed into the political sphere that changes happened. Given that I am Canadian, I will use our example. Universal Woman’s franchise took more than half a century to obtain in Canada. In the 19th century, female property holders started demanding municipal voting rights. Ontario women started gaining rights from 1850 onward. At that point, they gained the right to vote for school board trustees. At the same time, the women of Quebec had lost similar rights. Or put differently, without a sustained political movement with its own institutions, things would not change. One could gain rights today, only to have them lost tomorrow.
The establishment of female organizations meant that constant pressure could be added: pressure which came from independent political institutions. The Dominion Women’s Enfranchisement Association was incorporated in 1889. This meant that organizations could undertake long years of public education. Starting in the 1890s, the WOMAN’S CHRISTIAN TEMPERANCE UNION also turned their attention to the enfranchisement of woman. These organizations sent petitions and deputations to legislatures to try to turn the tide. So in 1909 a deputation requesting full franchise for women was sent to the legislature of Ontario. It was introduced by a Labour member. When it was eventually defeated, though, the movement was able to carry on for their goal: providing the vote to all women.
Furthermore, institutions can steer movements toward necessary evolutions and critical decisions. This is where success comes from. So the political institutions, Canadian woman created, were able to take advantage of World War I to provide woman with the vote. Best exemplified at the Federal Level, woman found themselves in an enviable position. Canada had provided so many troops to the European conflict that woman were required to fulfill many jobs and responsibilities. Women were asked to step up to the challenge and they did. Woman Enfranchisement movements, though, understood that this was the chance they required. As Veronica Strong-Boag noted, women asked for something in return and receive it. Federally, women who were British subjects and had close relatives in the armed forces received ‘the vote’. They were enfranchised. While, the idea was that they were voting on behalf of their male relatives, they had a chance to prove their capability in this field. For the Canadian Government, it provided an instant and strong constituency. However, for suffrage groups, it provided the stepping stone they needed. In the provincial and federal sphere, the long push by female political institutions allowed for woman to take advantage of the changes and challenges of society. It is only through their long action that change was possible.
However, before one thinks this is the end, we can look at the NAACP. It was created after the Civil War to seek movement forward for black persons. It sought change through legislative and executive action. Yet, it failed. Blacks voted largely for the Republican Part due to President’s Lincoln anti-slave policies. Democrats were not prepared to move and would not change their thinking until their next president. Given the intransigence of both sides, the NAACP sought a judicial solution. Or put differently, the independent nature of the NAACP, with independent decision making processes, was able to challenge the legislative and executive branches of the state. The eventual outcome will always be remembered for its landmark decision: Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka. Due to this case, President Eisenhower was forced to uphold the rule of law where he might not otherwise act.
So Dr. Melissa V. Harris-Perry is wrong. The Occupy Wall Street Movement must develop its own political thinking and it must develop its own philosophies and their own institutions. These concepts need to be developed before the energy is lost or dissipated. Whether these are top-down or bottom-up, Occupy Wall Street needs to create a political arm before its goals are lost to history.