Leaving aside any feelings of joy, relief or disappointment about specific election results, these fingers are the signs of a full-fledged democratic deficit that may prove as ominous as our runaway financial and environmental deficits.
I’m worried that half of all eligible voters got passive-aggressive and refused to vote. But an equally forceful sign of social alienation was the landslide majority electing Conservative MPPs from farm and cottage ridings.
To be sure, some of the regional protest vote was based on opposition to the Liberals’ Green Energy Act, which pushed windmills – generally a good thing – in a bad way by linking them to business interests controlled far from the communities hosting the turbines.
But the NDP and Greens tilted at corporate windmills in the name of local economies, and their regional vote didn’t grow.
It may be tempting to explain the ultra-conservative vote in farm country as an expression of narrow-mindedness. Tempting, but wrong.
Lest we forget, the farm vote in North America has historically been far to the left. In 1919, United Farmers of Ontario – which favoured progressive taxation, government-owned railways and support for co-ops – joined forces with the urban Independent Labour Party to form the government. A painting in the Ontario legislature from that era depicts a dying farmer with his wife and children at one side and a banker preparing to seize his land on the other.
In the same period, farmers from the Owen Sound area elected the first woman federal MP, the Progressive and later socialist Agnes Macphail. North America’s first avowedly socialist government was elected in the farm province of Saskatchewan.
Conservatism is not deeply rooted in farm country. The fact is, it’s been more carefully cultivated than most crops. For decades, the name of the game for governments and corporations was to break the class consciousness of farmers. They undermined farm radicalism by redefining farming as a business and redesigning farm supports as business programs for specific commodity groups.
The Canadian Federation of Agriculture, the major national farmers’ group, no longer claims to represent the commonality of all those working in the fields. Instead, farmers join as pork or wheat producers, etc.
Today’s federal Conservatives advanced this business model with its plan to destroy the government-funded Wheat Board, which pools high-quality western wheat for bulk sales so no one farmer has to sell low just to find a buyer. This move represents an attack on one of the last remaining cooperative traditions of buying and selling as a group.
The populist edge of earlier farm radicalism led to projects like government-run railroads, electric power, universities and pensions. Such reforms benefited everyone, including the self-employed and middle class.
For all the lawn signs peppering rural areas telling government to back off their private property, the first farmer to refuse government-funded medicare, ambulances, school buses, education or free drugs for seniors has yet to step forward. Indeed, no politician, not even hardcore conservative Tim Hudak, dares challenge the victories of what might be called first-generation radicalism.
But despite their popularity and success, the spirit of the first wave of universal programs has not been applied to new issues. We have no universal childcare program, no universal drug program, no universal school meal program, no universal income support program, no universal program of post-secondary or adult education, and on and on.
Instead, second-generation reform efforts have been designed to serve the needs of specific groups or “minorities.” We have a variety of tax deductions to encourage affluent people to save for their retirement, for example – a form of welfare geared to rich individuals and people working for major companies or government. (Un)employment insurance means little to the self-employed, low-waged and farmers, and the growth of workplace medical benefits and establishment of on-job pensions – add-ons to services that should be public – doesn’t either.
The rise of ultra-conservative conservatism, often supported by those on low and modest incomes, is one reason to promote an increased list of public services. Expanding such entitlements would weaken anti-government arguments, extend fairness and restore the good faith between town and country undermined so deliberately by big business.
Denticare, now only really available to those on welfare or those with fat benefits packages, would be a logical addition, as would pension reform, pharmacare, etc. My favourite not-yet-achieved service would be universal farm-to-cafeteria meal programs, starting with schools but moving quickly to hospitals, municipal governments and all public institutions. Beyond benefiting the environment and those receiving the service, such a program would create relationships not of competition, but of prosperity between city and farm folk.
The middle finger can sometimes be a call to active listening.