Winning the Election, Part 2: The Cities and Latte Liberals

August 20, 2008 by  

The other day, the Toronto Star reported that Prime Minister Stephen Harper, leader of the Conservative Party of Canada, attended rallies in the suburban ridings of the Greater Toronto Area. It appears that he is doing what he needs to do in those ridings: make it clear that his opponent, the Liberal Opposition leader Stéphane Dion is proposing changes, and that those changes come in the form of a hike in taxes. However, so far, his pre-election spiel is lacking something that is crucial if he is to extend the Conservatives’ seat count significantly: a message for those living in the increasing number of urban ridings in Canada.

If one looks at the electoral map in Canada, one will find that urban areas tend to vote for liberal wealth redistribution, that rural areas tend to vote for conservative “values” and hand-outs to farmers, and that the further a suburb is from a city, the more likely it is to vote conservative. This has been thought of as a problem for conservatives in Canada for at least two reasons. One, the children of rural voters have been gravitating toward jobs in urban areas and, when they go, they are not bringing their parents’ conservativism with them (indeed, they may be rebelling against rural life in favour of anything that is viewed as more worldly, including leftist politics). Two, when the bursting of the tech bubble made real estate the investment to make, many city dwellers suddenly found themselves living in homes the values of which had skyrocketed: many sold, moved to the suburbs, and used the difference to live the good life. A result is that each seat redistribution bill creates more ridings for liberal urban and suburban areas, to the detriment of far-flung and rural conservative ones. In response, “Conservative” parties have continued to accept that which passes as conventional wisdom among the nation’s political columnists: that conservatives must “moderate” their agenda, and try to occupy the alleged vast “centre” of the political spectrum…one to which columnists give an increasingly collectivist description with each passing year.

In traditionally conservative suburbs, Harper is currently engaging in a pre-election process of educating people about the Liberal platform: he is exposing it as a threat to their pocket-books. However, as proper and smart as that approach is in rural ridings and in many suburbs, the tax issue cannot buy him urban ridings and liberal-leaning suburban ridings…at least, not the tax issue per se.

When city dwellers sold their urban homes and moved to the suburbs, a lot of them used their capital gains to improve their standard of living. Hot tubs in the back yard, central air in the house, and a big SUV in the driveway next to the luxury sedan. And, with the economy doing fairly well, more people had the luxury of feeling guilty about their improved lifestyle. Enter Al Gore and a movie telling them that their selfish, Escalade-driving ways are going to put London and New York under water, and many of them were ready to do some penance. In fact, penance was in fashion.

With everyone flush with cash and full of terror, mainstream political parties and candidates were happy to supply the demanded penance. They confidently proposed measures that no mainstream political party ever would have proposed in leaner times. And, at the peak of Canadians’ willingness to flaggelate themselves for their alleged sins of wealth and comfort, Dion began fashioning himself as the “green” Liberal, with the green tie and, most recently, the green platform. He would be the most trendy of enviropopes.

Then, shortly thereafter – almost as though the release of Dion’s Green Shift platform had triggered it – the failing of the world’s economy began to dominate the headlines. Although it had been happening for years, people were finally getting the honest facts thrown at them hard: industrial jobs are flooding out of Canada and into China; customer service jobs are moving to India; the federal reserve note might best serve as tinder in the not-to-distant future; nobody is safe. Add to that the fact that debt loads are huge, and you have a recipe for a mind-set that is focused not on high-fashion atonement for conspicuous consumption, but upon surviving the economic storm on the horizon.

That mind set is as true and real for city dwellers as it is for those living in the suburbs. A bad economy for the entire world does not exclude Vancouver, Toronto, or Montreal from its reach. No matter where one is living right now, paying the rent or mortgage and filling the car with enough gas to get to work is top priority. As has always held true in the past, the environment is proving to be a good-times issue, and an irrelevancy during times of economic turmoil. “It’s the economy stupid”, as former President Clinton famously reminded himself.

Now, consider Dion’s “Green Shift” platform. It is, essentially, little more than a proposal to impose a new carbon tax and transfer much more wealth from those who earn it, to those who do not. However, it is one that falsely portrays itself as a high-fashion green one aimed at dealing with CO2, global warming, and the global environment in general. It is a platform drafted by people who took Liberal wins in cities for granted, and that took aim at the votes of relatively-comfortable, guilt-ridden, trend-following suburbanites. If the Liberal party is a green party, went the logic, suburbanites can vote Liberal -which does not involve voting for a fringy party like the Green Party – yet still feel like they are voting for a change to environmentally-moral government. In short, The Green Shift would offer people an extremely easy and effortless way to be hip, deny guilt, and do penance: vote Liberal.

In reality, The Green Shift would do nothing for the environment and, unfortunately for the Liberals, many less-well-off city dwellers know it (and a lot more will know it if the Harper campaign team do their job correctly). To struggling city-dwellers, environmentalism is not only an issue for good times, but also an issue mainly for those who are well-off. In other words, the many of more modest income living in cities view Dion’s Liberal “Green Shift” platform as an appeal to Latte Liberals.

Those struggling to make ends meet in the city will not resonate to a Conservative message that Dion’s Green Shift platform would impose new taxes. Taxes don’t drive most votes in big cities where everything seems to be subsidized by the taxpayer yet the roads are full of Porsches, Mercedes, and BMWs. Where such cars exist among beat up Ladas and bus-riders, the perception of many is that there’s plenty of money out there, and that more of it needs to be diverted out of the “greedy” hands of those who earned it, and into a common pot for the alleged good of all. Those of modest means generally do not fear that new taxes will hit them. They are more likely to hope that new taxes will mean less money “wasted” on such luxuries, and more money “invested” in various government services.

In cities, the Conservatives ought not to prattle on about taxes. The right focus in cities is not what the Green Shift really is (a tax-and-spend plan) but who it is for (Latte Liberals looking for a cut in their income taxes) and who it is not for: struggling city families who drink double-double Timmies, not Venti, half-caf, no foam lattes; struggling families who are looking not for a plan on “poverty”, but for a plan that will increase the likelihood that people will keep their jobs and not become impoverished.

Finally, it wouldn’t hurt to remind them that the Liberal Plan gives rural dwellers relief from the impact that even the Liberals admit the Green Shift will have…and that it does not offer city dwellers such relief.

It should go without saying, of course, that the aforementioned submissions are aimed not at making the country better, but at winning an election. Virtually none of what I’ve said above will improve the morality of law or government. Virtually none of it will make any Canadian’s life any better in the long run. And, in point of fact, I personally would never apply such an immoral strategy…which is not to say it is not a winning one, unfortunately.


2 Responses to “Winning the Election, Part 2: The Cities and Latte Liberals”

  1. Paul McKeever on August 21st, 2008 7:37 am

    Over at Free Dominion, the above blog post resulted in responses having some common themes:

    1. “most city dwellers are really conservative in their outlook”

    2. “The CPC lack in the extreme end, serious ground organization inside the major urban centres…If the CPC wishes to make inroads, they must look within and purge at the local association levels and create a strong team”

    3. “Assuming the political ideology of people based on where they purchase coffee is a ridiculous idea, at least here in Alberta. $60,000 trucks and SUVs roll often roll into Starbucks parking lots driven by hard-working, Tory-voting go-getters and order up $4 Ventis with cream alongside the latte liberals. Meanwhile the Liberal and NDP-voting working poor and university sutdents who can only afford a Tim Hortons $1 a day coffee habit rub shoulders with hard-working people who like a donut with their coffee.”

    There (so here) I responded as follows:

    In response to some of the comments, I should add a bit of context.

    First, I have actually been a candidate in both city and urban ridings, and have campaigned with other candidates in city and urban ridings.

    Second, I’ve been both a Starbucks Venti no foam latte drinker, and a Timmy’s double double drinker, at different times (my morning Joe is now a Timmies extra large with two cream and no sugar). Insert here joke about being sweet enough.

    Third, in reading my article, one should be careful not to think to concretely about the coffee drinkers and how they vote. Being someone who drive through a Timmies drive through each day, yes, I am quite familiar with the fact that some people with six-figure incomes drink Timmies. In the article, I am (I would have thought obviously) painting in broad strokes. It is akin to using the often-heard terms “tree hugger” or “soccer mom”: neither is categorically liberal or conservative. I would hope that nobody thinks me to mean that, categorically, SUV drivers live in the suburbs and drink lattes, or that bus riders live in the city and drink timmies. Clearly that is not the case.

    The usefulness of the coffee reference lies in the fact that anybody who is spending $4 for every coffee drink, and drinking one every day, is clearly someone who has money to burn (or who, misguidedly, thinks he does, until he realizes how much of his money is going to the habit). The same is not fairly said of the relatively many – and it is relatively many – who drink Timmies every day (how many street beggars have you seen begging with a Starbucks cup in his hand? a Timmies?).

    The validity of the SUV and suburban homes references is obvious to anyone who has bothered to speak with their owners, or to speak with a truck vendor, or to read the economic and business news…or who, like myself, has been a suburban candidate in ridings from Oshawa to London.

    Doggedlyright: yes, the Conservatives lack organization in cities. If, as some here say, city voters are so largely conservative, ask yourself how it is that – although they have large and powerful riding associations outside of cities – they lack organization in cities. There’s a bit of chicken and egg here, but anyone who has watched conservatives literally booed off of the stage in Toronto Centre-Rosedale (where I was a candidate in 1999), or who has walked even through well-heeled Rosedale only to see lawns dominantly decorated with Liberal and NDP signs, cannot seriously put forth the theory that cities are mostly conservative.

    Finally: swing voters are really the bulk of the focus of any campaign. Most swing voters are not particularly interested in politics, and are even less interested in policy. They are not “conservative”. Nor are they “liberal”. They’re just “busy”, doing something they’d rather do. But they feel they should vote, and what they want is a picture that tells a thousand words. They’re not going to read your election platform. They’re not going to attend the all-candidates debate. And they probably will avoid all thought about the election until election day itself. By then, it is important that the internet and newspapers are full of one-picture-says-it-all reports and images that convey the general thrust of a party’s message or image. It might be a photograph of a guy fumbling a football. It might be a normal-looking guy who, in the midst of a time of depressingly revolutionary leftist change, seems to be promising a return to something more akin to common sense. Or it might be a character who, in broken English, has been busy trying to sell a trendy good-times green platform to Starbucks-drinking, SUV driving five-percenters with money to burn while he seems oblivious to things that matter to the 60 percenters living in the city who are struggling just to make the rent.

    Conservative riding associations do not have to be small and disorganized in cities, but they are so, and they did not get that way by chance, or for no reason. The message has to be one that people will buy and, in the cities, the right message right now is not tax cuts, but job security. If, in the cities, the Harper team can demonstrate that the conservatives understand job security to be important, and that saving the planet and assuaging enviro-guilt is an out-of-touch, badly-timed proposal that appeals only to those with money to burn, it will have given people a reason to help organize on the ground.

  2. Paul McKeever on September 10th, 2008 6:50 am

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