Friday, January 21, 2005

  • Tommy Douglas

    Tommy Douglas

Written by Scott Piatkowski

Conventional political wisdom holds that unpopular principles that stand in the way of power must be shed as quickly as possible. But, repetition doesn’t make that theory any less wrong.

Voters are looking for politicians who are willing to stand up for what they truly believe, instead of worrying about their own political future. In many cases, political futures have, in fact, been secured by adherence to principle.

In the US, for example, the Democratic Party seems determined to cope with its latest defeat by becoming even more like the Republican Party. That means that they are likely to acquiesce to the privatization of social security, that they won’t try to do anything about the flaws in the electoral system, and that the Iraq War will continue without any significant objections in Congress.

According to the Los Angeles Times, it could also mean abandoning support for abortion rights. “After his election loss, the Massachusetts senator concluded that the party needed to rethink its stance. Addressing supporters at a meeting held by the AFL–CIO, Kerry said he discovered during trips through Pennsylvania that many union members were also abortion opponents and that the party needed to rethink how it could appeal to those voters, Kerry spokesman David Wade said.”

But, it wasn’t Kerry’s tepid support for abortion rights, or gay civil unions, or any other progressive issue that cost him the election. It was the fact that he refused to give clear and unequivocal answers on any issue, thereby allowing his opponents to define him in the minds of voters. Those Democrats who did taking politically risky stands were rewarded by voters.

Consider the following:

  • California congresswoman Barbara Lee, the only Representative to vote against authorizing the Iraq War, was re–elected with 84 per cent of the vote.
  • Dennis Kucinich who, as co–chair of the Progressive Caucus, was considered tooleft wing to be a serious candidate for the Democratic Presidential nomination, won with 60 per cent of the vote.
  • California congresswoman Lynn Woolsey, a leading voice for gay rights and an opponent of the Iraq War, was re–elected with 72 per cent of the vote.
  • John Conyers, who angered Democratic Party officials by appearing in Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11, won 84 per cent of the votes in his Michigan district.
  • Deep in the heart of Texas (Houston), Progressive Caucus congresswoman Sheila Jackson–Lee was re–elected with 89 per cent of the votes.

As well, Vermont Independent Bernie Saunders, the only self–identified socialist in Congress, was re–elected to the House of Representatives with 68 per cent of the vote. Still, the myth that it is impossible to be principled and progressive if you want to be re–elected persists, in spite of the evidence to the contrary.

Here in Canada, the NDP is often given the same advice about moderating its principled positions in order to broaden its appeal (no one needs to advise Liberals to do this, since that strategy is pretty much their raison–d’être). Yet, historically, it is when the party has held steadfastly to its principles that it has been rewarded by voters. When Pierre Trudeau invoked the War Measures Act in 1970 and threw nearly five hundred innocent people in jail without charge, public opinion was on his side. NDP leader Tommy Douglas and 15 other New Democrats were the only MPs to vote no. “We are not prepared to use the preservation of law and order as a smokescreen to destroy the liberties and the freedom of the people of Canada,” said Douglas. Though the NDP’s poll numbers plummeted to seven per cent at the time, the party held its popular vote and increased its seat total in the 1972 election.

It’s telling that a decision that was seen as political suicide at the time is now universally held up as one of the party’s finest moments (witness the discussions that lead up to Douglas being selected as The Greatest Canadian in a recent CBC poll). Current NDP leader Jack Layton cites the vote against the War Measures Act as a turning point in his own political life. “I decided right then I wanted to join this man’s party.”

In 1994, the Ontario NDP government of Bob Rae introduced legislation to give certain rights to same–sex couples (and, by the standards of today’s debate on same–sex marriage, it really was a very modest step). Having lost a crucial by–election to the Conservatives, the Liberals had already reneged on their promise to support such legislation. Twelve NDP MPPs, arguing that their seats were at stake, decided to vote against the bill, thereby contributing to its defeat. They were all subsequently defeated. The NDP members who were re–elected included some of the staunchest advocates of the legislation, including Marion Boyd in London Centre.

Having run three times (unsuccessfully) for elected office myself, I’ve never hesitated to advocate strongly for what I believe in. If people know where I stand and choose not to vote for me, I can live with the disappointment. If I managed to get elected by abandoning or keeping quiet about my principles, I couldn’t live with the shame. It’s good to see that many politicians who have taken this approach have been rewarded by voters.


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