The inadequacy of “strategic” voting

It’s one of the most unpredictable aspects of this election, something which may confound all the pollsters and deliver a grossly counterintuitive result come October 20th. The intense and well-deserved animus that people of most political persuasions feel towards Stephen Harper has led to the most massive strategic voting campaign in Canadian history, with multiple organizations working with tens of thousands of people at the riding level to try to tweak the results and deny the Conservative Party victory in close races.

Although the concept of an “Anybody but Conservative” campaign is nothing new – IIRC, we had one of them last year right here in Ontario – the dynamic of this year’s organized Vote-Against effort is complicated by the unique balance of power between the federal parties.

In the past, these strategic voting campaigns have been quite straightforward: Conservative Leader Richie Q. McUnionbuster, known for his outrageously anti-poor, anti-woman, anti-minority, etc., views, produced intense repulsion and loathing amongst comparatively decent folks, who then rallied behind Liberal Leader Quentin “Smiley” Goodenoff, known for his moderately anti-poor, anti-woman, anti-minority, etc., views, on the grounds that he was the Only Way To Stop The Conservatives. Anybody who desired a more progressive government was told to Fall In Line, and Not This Time, because we Have To Stop The Conservatives.

This time around, of course, the NDP are serious contenders – though not so much as they were just a few weeks ago – the whole situation is all of a sudden much more complicated. Behind whom should relatively decent anti-Harper voters rally? The situation was somewhat more straightforward in the spring and early summer, with the NDP riding high in the polls and the Liberals lingering in a distant third place. Many political commentators – myself included – assumed that the NDP would simply take the place of the Liberals in the equation, right down to the strained middle-of-the-road something-for-everybody policies that have characterized past Liberal campaigns. But with all three parties within striking distance of each other, there is no one single standard-bearer for the ABC crowd.

And not coming to some kind of decision is potentially dicey. Canadian political history is positively littered with examples of elections in which the Liberals and NDP split the vote and allowed the Conservatives to win – the most notorious (and relevant) example of which is likely the 1988 election, fought principally over the issue of free trade. Both the Liberals and the NDP were vociferously opposed to the recently negotiated Free Trade Agreement between Canada and the United States, with Liberal John Turner vowing to literally rip the agreement to pieces if elected. And Canadian voters broadly endorsed their anti-free trade agenda – the two parties combined netted around 55% of the popular vote. However, our retrograde British parliamentary system being what it is, Brian Mulroney’s Conservatives won a commanding majority and went ahead with the FTA, which later evolved into NAFTA, and which, if Harper is reelected, will quite likely be replaced by the TPP.

More recently, of course, we have the example of the 2011 election, in which the Harper Conservatives won a majority government by the slimmest of margins. If a mere six thousand people had voted differently in a few dozen ridings, the balance of power would have lain with the opposition, but instead we’ve all stuck been on the Omnibus to Ruin for the past four years.

And so there is a compelling logic to the notion that we (“we” being people who would prefer not to see Stephen Harper as Prime Minister) ought to be shrewdly calculating in terms of our voting choices, analyzing polling data at the riding level to make a hard-headed decision about which non-Harper candidate is most likely to prevail.

Several organization purporting to help voters make these difficult choices have sprung up, including LeadNow’s Vote Together campaign and the website, which summarizes the case for strategic voting quite nicely:

Political leaders tend to believe in miracles.

For the last 10 years, the multiple leaders that led both the Liberals and the NDP in the 2006, 2008 and 2011 federal elections could not confront the fact that they need to work together to win the election for the Canadian progressive majority. Instead, they hoped they could survive the election to fight another day in 4 years.

This is no longer working for the electorate and we need them to realize it.

The Conservative Party wins elections by using the progressive split in their favour, usually with less than 37% of the popular vote. This has left the remaining 63% of Canadians – progressives – out of the government for 3 consecutive elections.

Your vote should not be just a statement – your vote should make a difference.

A post at Medium goes so far as to narrow things down to sixteen ridings in which, the author argues, Harper’s defeat could be guaranteed, if the Liberals and the NDP were willing to work together and rally all their supporters behind single candidates. In the situation outlined, each party would gain eight seats at the expense of the Conservatives. Calling it “the right thing to do”, the piece argues:

The 16 candidates that are called upon to endorse their progressive peers have a unique opportunity to show an exemplary sense of leadership in helping Canada defeat its electoral problem, and possibly its worst prime minister.

Liberals and NDP have spent the last 9 weeks campaigning for change. Now it is time to prove their commitment to it. By supporting the other party in 8 ridings, they lose nothing. And in the process, both gain critical additional seats.

Which, if you accept the premises, is a sound argument.

But there are some invisible premises underlying the case for strategic voting, one of which in particular deserves to be dragged out into the light and examined a little more closely.

I’m talking about this unspoken notion that we can lump together the Liberals, NDP, and Greens under the banner of “progressive”.

The term isn’t defined anywhere. It’s instead presumed that there are certain fundamental commonalities between supporters of these three parties, things that not only unite them as members of a common cause but also completely differentiate them from supporters of the Conservative Party.

Which, when you get right down to it, is strikingly similar to an argument that is most often heard not from passionate voting advocates but from disenchanted non-voters: by and large, the major parties are all the same, and there would be no meaningful difference between a government led by one party or another.

The fact that these strategic voters are rabidly united against the current Prime Minister might seem to put the lie to that notion – but as a number of commentators have pointed out this week, Stephen Harper really is different, and in a lot of ways, his method of governance transgresses core principles of liberal democratic traditions:

There are, however, some political positions that fall outside the realm of reasonable disagreement. They are “beyond the pale,” in that they contradict fundamental liberal principles or values. For example, while some people may assign very little importance to equality, and may be prepared to tolerate arbitrarily high levels of economic inequality, to deny the fundamental legal equality of all citizens is totally unacceptable – this is, as it were, a non-negotiable principle, which is why it is accepted by all political parties, and all political actors of consequence. That is also why people tend to get very upset – more upset than usual – when a politician crosses the line, and says something that implies, for instance, that men and women are less than fully equal.

Canadians are a fairly moderate bunch, so it’s not very often that a politician completely crosses the line. That’s why I was astonished/appalled/amazed by the press conference held by Chris Alexander and Kellie Leitch three days ago, in order to announce, among other things, a new “tipline” for Canadians to phone in and report “barbaric cultural practices” to the RCMP. It was, I think, the most despicable thing that I have ever seen in Canadian federal politics. I’m not sure which was worse, the frontal assault on Canadian values, or the fact that it was masquerading as a defence of Canadian values.

The author of the above-quoted piece (which is the best-written condemnation of the “barbaric cultural practices” hotline that I’ve come across) is Joseph Heath, a philosophy professor at U of T who is as covered with mainstream decorations and awards as anybody in academe. So to read these sentences, coming from him, shows just how “beyond the pale” the Harper government has gone:

Psychologically, I’m starting to feel that I should put the Conservative Party of Canada into the same mental category that most people put the National Front in France – not as a representative of a reasonable political position, but as more of a cancer on the body politic. For the moment I’m still resisting that – holding out some faith in the decency of Canadians – but the way things are going I may need to reconsider.

The one thing I can say, however, is that after Friday’s press conference, I can no longer regard it as morally acceptable for anyone to vote for the Conservative Party of Canada. A week ago, I could still persuade myself that reasonable people could disagree over how to vote in this election, but no longer.

Though Heath doesn’t use the term, there is a strong undercurrent of authoritarianism, even fascism, to the current government’s denial of fundamental rights of equality. And proponents of strategic voting would no doubt point to this disturbing trend to bolster their case for cooperating to oust the Prime Minister

This, however, raises the obvious but rarely-asked question: If we elected our way into this mess, how can we be so sure we can elect our way out?

In other words, once it’s become clear that the electoral system can be used to produce authoritarian results, what’s to stop malicious actors from manipulating it in such a way again?

The question isn’t academic, given the Liberal Party’s unanimous (albeit qualified) support for the rights-destroying Bill C-51. Given the outcry over the bill, and the widespread skepticism over the Liberals’ position on it, you might think that Trudeau et. al. would be more eager to clarify their exact position on the issue, but so far this campaign we’ve only learned that they favour more parliamentary oversight of our rights-violating surveillance agencies.

Or consider the NDP’s convoluted position on the use of Canada’s military. Ultimately, the difference between their stance on our training mission in Kurdistan and our training mission in Ukraine is that Thomas Mulcair, for unspecified reasons, supports the latter and opposes the former. The NDP denounces the indiscriminate bombing of Syria in language that could easily be reworded to condemn the indiscriminate bombing of Libya, which the NDP wholeheartedly supported. How is this significantly different from Harper’s personalist approach to foreign affairs, where Canada’s policy on matters of international importance is essentially determined by the whim (or the electoral calculus) of the Prime Minister?

There are many grounds on which to challenge the “progressive” credentials of these parties, and a not-incidental number of reasons to suppose that the tendency towards concentrated authoritarian rule which has flourished under Harper could well continue under a red or orange banner.

The truth is, this authoritarian trend in Canadian politics is not new; it has merely reached its apotheosis in the leadership of Stephen Harper. Hell, even the specific use of oaths and ceremonies to politically exclude minority groups from the full rights and privileges of citizenship has an old tradition. And this whole nation was founded on the denial of rights to Indigenous peoples, up to and included attempts at systematic extermination, i.e. genocide. To pretend that Stephen Harper is exceptional in his lack of commitment to the basic principles of liberal democracy is to deny major pernicious trends in this nation’s history which cross all party lines.

None of which is to say that Harper isn’t uniquely bad. I’d still opt for the nakedly genocidal John A MacDonald in a vote for Worst Prime Minister Ever, but Harper surely deserves a spot near the top of that list. It would be hard to argue that this nation, and its various minorities, wouldn’t be better off under any of the opposition leaders. And in that sense, I suppose that a campaign of strategic voting makes a kind of sense.

But please, please, please, can we stop deluding ourselves that we’re going to wind up living in some kind of progressive paradise? Or that the fundamentally broken political power structure that allowed a monster like Harper to have his way with government for nearly ten years is safe in the hands of anybody?

As the bogeyman-du-jour changes, memories fade, and the conviction that this time is different takes hold again. Yes, the pro-capital monsters that conservative parties elevate to their leaderships are terrible – but when all of our efforts are expended on electing the least-bad alternative, then capital still wins. It wins by keeping the terms of debate narrow, it wins by putting forth “moderate” “compromise” positions which are “better than nothing” and which maintain or increase their profits, it wins by co-opting parties and governments, it wins by being belligerently disruptive to any government which challenges it (“After the new finance minister’s very first meeting with the banking community , a bank vice-president told him, in the presence of an aide: “Nice speech, Mr. Minister, but we’re going to kill you.” And they did.”), it wins by keeping everybody focussed on the problem of selecting the lesser of all evils while it goes about its wretched unceasing Business.

If we pin all of our hopes on a “progressive” movement to oust Harper and replace him with a (hypothetical) coalition of opposition parties, we’re setting ourselves up for disappointment, and maybe for disaster. Strategic voting only alleviates the most immediate symptom of the cancerous rot at the heart of this nation, the troll-king who’s occupied the PMO these past nine years. It doesn’t do a damn thing about the broken system that put him, and monsters like him, there to begin with.

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