Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Politics: The Parties To Blame?

TORONTO, ONTARIO - In a recent article, the Christian Science Monitor (yes, it still publishes a weekly and on-line) explored whether France, with its strong secular traditions, would elect a "French Obama." The conclusion reached by staff writer Robert Marquand seemed to be that the French people were willing to elect a visible minority to high office. However, there seemed little reason to believe that they would ever get the chance, as the political parties are structured in such a way that it is almost impossible for a minority to rise to a party leadership position.

To a Canadian, that should sound familiar. With the United States such a close neighbour, our engagement with US politicians is higher than anywhere else in world. Canadians are not only willing to vote for a "Canadian Obama," they're downright eager. When polled, many of them would have rather voted in the US election than their own last fall, and some even traveled south to the United States to campaign for Obama.

Yet, the problem here is the same as that cited in France. None of the major political parties--even the New Democrats, considered on the far progressive end of the spectrum--have seriously flirted with a dynamic, visible minority candidate. Women are visible, from former Prime Minister Kim Campbell to Green Party leader Elizabeth May, but even the female leaders have been Caucasian. Our Head of State, Michaƫlle Jean, might be a very popular person of color, but she didn't get to that post by leading a political party in an election, but through an appointment.

What's the problem? In France, it apparently comes down to raising money. The Christian Science Monitor reports that fundraising requires the support of senior officials in the parties, who see little incentive in giving minorities a chance. In Canada, it may not be so explicitly traced to finances as it is to the backroom dealing that creates an "old boys network" to rise to party leadership. Michael Ignatieff, remember, wasn't elected by the public at large or even by the general Liberal party membership to be the Opposition Leader, but by default as alternate candidates chose to step aside for lack of broad backing.

So how can it be that the Democratic Party in the United States is somehow different? (The Republicans, for that matter, seem reasonably diverse compared with Canadian parties as well, no matter what one thinks of people like Michael Steele and Bobby Jindal.) I'm not sure that it actually is, but that the culture is different. The very racial tension that has so poisoned the atmosphere in the United States probably gets some credit for the rise of minority politicians. By forcing racial groups to band together politically and form effective blocs, they not only create their own power bases, but also attract the attention of the parties. Barack Obama has not been shy about saying that he stood on the shoulders of everyone from Martin Luther King, Jr. to Jesse Jackson, Sr.

Canada, where racial polarization has been much less powerful, and France, where the secular tradition allows people to pretend that there is little racial tension, probably should not be asking where they can find their Barack Obamas. They need to find their Jesse Jacksons, Gary Lockes, Bill Richardsons, Colin Powells, and Sonia Sotomayors first.

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