Thursday, July 12, 2018

The Same Old Same Old: Or, the Politics of a Stalled Modernity

Doug Ford is now premier of Ontario and wants to roll back sex ed, limit education on Indigenous issues, and enhance the development of the northern Ontario natural resources industry. Donald Trump's popularity does not seem to be on the wane. We are having some sort of semi-debate about Canada's role in the world ... but not really. The US government wants allies to increase military spending and is, at least from the headlines, worried about Russian influence in Europe. A trade war looms, is averted, looms again ....

Have we seen this all before? As I watched the PC media guy stick to his talking points on the news and listened to Ford explain that he was ditching cap and trade so as to put money back in people's wallets, the idea that we have heard all this before -- that we have had these debates before -- was nearly complete. Said differently, our politics have become stalled, or at least ... sort of. What does this stalled politics tell us?

It likely tells us several things but let's try to keep focused on a few issues rather than a bunch that can confuse the matter by drawing examples from all over the place. Let's also do our best to limit our geography. I'm not convinced that the issues are precisely the same in, say, Hungary as they are in the United States, as they are in Canada. There are similarities, to be sure, but there also seem to be several different processes at work. Moreover, as I've said in other blogs, the approach I like to take is one of trying to understand verses trying to castigate. A progressive politics, it seems to me, cannot simply content itself with a point and shout approach, a matter I'll address in the future. Instead, it needs to understand and respond. It either has something to offer that will make things better or it does not. We can think about what those things might be another time. For now, let us assume that it does, a big assumption, I recognize for those who reject progressive thinking and politics. Explaining why there is progress, however, is something that requires much more time that I have in this blog.

So, what does the stall of contemporary politics tell us? To begin, let me highlight two interrelated points:

First, it tells us that a great number of people were never reconciled to the equality politics of the last generation.  It tells us that they rejected things like racialized equality, Indigenous rights, gender equality, and acceptance of LGBTQi identities and subjectivities.  We can likely narrow this down and speculate about the demographics of those who have not reconciled to equality politics, but I don't have the data at hand. What we can see from the political discourse, however, is that equality politics is often presented by those who oppose it as a huge waste of money. Environmental protection is the seen in the same way.

Is this simply ignorance? Is it bigotry? Is it an economic squeeze on the middle and working classes?  Likely all of these factors play some sort of role in this but there also seems to be a role for socialization, as well.  Why do I say this: because the idea that equality politics has (a) failed and (b) produced perverse effects, and (c) costs too much ...  is treated as simply a matter of fact. It is something that requires no proof and no evidence. In fact, while the opponents of equality spend a great deal of time talking about its failures and its costs, they often provide only anecdotal evidence and offer no costing.  The PC's failure in Ontario, for example, to cost their policies in the run-up the election is a case in point.

I had a similar experience a couple of years ago in one of my courses. As I was discussing gendered inequality and its contemporary patterns, a number of male students objected to this discussion and claimed that there was no such thing as gendered inequality. I pointed to evidence from Stats Canada, showing income inequality and found that the students completely rejected it.

Years ago, I had a similar experience in a similar type of situation. Much has changed, of course, in terms of patterns of gendered relations in twenty years, but I recall a male student explaining that he simply did not accept the idea. I asked him, I recall, what evidence I could provide that would allow him to accept the idea that there was inequality and that gender was an important axes of understanding. My goal might have been overconfident but my intention was to provide that evidence and then move on to the discussion at hand so as to not slow down the class. He replied "none." And, then stated that he simply did not believe it be the case. I recall then, as in the more recent case, that I did not know what to say. I had university level students in front of me who were so certain of their views that they told me nothing -- no evidence -- could dissuade them of their views.

In the US, this rejection of equality politics takes on different forms than Canada. It takes on opposition to groups like, say, Black Lives Matters, and the politicized distortion of their message or support for a wall across the southern US border. In Canada, its politics are less evident than in the US, but is notable in Islamophobia, opposition to Indigenous/Settler reconciliation, and concerns about sex education in the schools in Ontario which are supposedly blamed for ... what? I don't know but there is some sort of idea that having kids learn about sex, about sexual differences, and about LGBTQi issues will somehow be bad and is an infringement on parents right to control what their kids learn.

And this, just about, bring us full circle. I would be surprised if this were an accident: that what people object to is an education that teaches that sexual diversity is OK. They object, I think, to both the idea of teaching this and the idea that someone other than they themselves will educate their kids on this matter.

Likewise, the canceling of education programs regarding reconciliation between Indigenous people and Canada is seen as too expensive. Or, a waste of money. In effect, this position states that we will not provide an education to kids on this issue but leave it up to processes of socialization (among family, friends, peer groups, churches) to educate on this issue.

Second, in terms of demographics, we need to be clear that this view is not the majority view. It speaks in the name of the majority, but isn't. After his election, Doug Ford, or someone close to him, said something like "we have reclaimed our province." This statement says a lot. It says that it views the proponent of non-conservative politics as illegitimate and, in particular, it views itself as the rightful "owners" of the province. Claims made by others -- diversity groups, for example -- are seen as alien or foreign, illegitimate. Clearly this is a violation of a basic principle of democracy but it speaks to a demographic that views itself as the people who rightly "own" a province or a country.

I suspect something similar goes on with Trump's supporters south of the border or with the anti-EU vote in Britain. In Canada, the key point is that majorities are hard to come by. The question, then, is how does a group of people who are not the majority gain political power? Trump and Ford supporters seem to have an answer, even if they don't come out and stay it: conspiracy, deep state, corruption.  In the US, this was what fuelled the "crooked Hilary" discourse. The idea that a liberal-minded woman could potentially be elected was so disturbing to some people that they issued a pre-emptive strike: the only way she could win was by corruption. The birther campaign against Obama is another example.  The supposed reclaiming of Ontario is another.

I want to clear: I don't think a progressive mirror image of this view gets our analysis very far. The "Russia conspiracy" is an example, I think (even if I think I understand the politics behind it). But, it does not help advance our understanding of the issues at play. In the US, for instance, Trump was elected with one of the most significant minorities in American history. In Canada, the single member plurality system has long been know to distort politics. One needs secure only about 40% of the vote to win and perhaps not even that.

In conclusion: we can put these two points together. The first thing that the stalled politics of modernity tells us is that a sizeable body of contemporary society has never reconciled to the politics of equality and that this group views itself -- and you can see the tie to the opposition to equality -- as the legitimate "owners" of public life. They continue to exercise appreciable political power and their leaders are looking to find ways to roll back, as it were, time.
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