Commentary, Opinion

Progressives must remain aspirational

Sept. 16’s Global Progress Actions Summit in Montreal was one of the largest gatherings of progressive politicians in the last 15 years. Current and former heads of state Tony Blair, Jacinda Ardern, Jonas Gahr Støre, Sanna Marin, Magdalena Andersson, and Justin Trudeau shared their assessments of the state of the international progressive movement. However, much to the distaste of anyone hoping for international progressive policies, few observations were of note. 

From Prime Minister Trudeau, one claim warranted consideration: He claimed that everyday people and “aspirational” politics are not compatible. Trudeau’s alternative to the aspirational, however, leaves a dangerous gap for a conservative populist movement to fill. The Liberals need new policies that will allow them to pedal the transformative rhetoric fundamental to the progressive movement while remaining in touch with the everyday concerns of citizens. 

Ultimately, Trudeau is right. The electorate will not tolerate passive policies, packaged to appease donors such as those he has provided during his almost eight years in power. Consider Trudeau’s pusillanimity in approving the Trans Mountain pipeline extension and allowing himself to be pressured by his chums at McKinsey & Company. His aspiration to funnel a projected 500 million CAD/year in 2019, is now set to yield no cash for green investments––a complete and utter failure for bold futures for our climate. However, important to note, under immense media backlash, even successful progressive policies often fail in the eyes of voters. The United States’ Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), the leading component of President Joe Biden’s environmentally-minded industrial strategy, funded by a progressive taxation scheme, is absent in the minds of Americans.

While this electoral apathy toward progressive policy is due in part to a lack of felt consequences of these policies, the loss of narrative on the economy to sly conservative messaging plays a significant role. Yesterday’s progressive promises are ineffective against today’s right-wing messaging, which is bolstered by economic uncertainty and conservatism’s flirtatious dance with right-wing, reactionary populism. If Trudeau’s distaste for the aspirational persists, his policies will act as fodder for a populist Conservative groundswell.

At the end of his tenure, Trudeau knows his unfulfilled promises of a better, fairer Canada will not resonate with the electorate again. Therefore, he feels his bid to the country must propose piecemeal, un-aspirational policy as an electoral strategy. The logic of his claims are far from ubiquitous among commentators inside Canada, and are certainly not generalizable outside of it, which is why his positioning seems slightly misplaced at a summit of international leaders. 

However, the problem is not so much that aspirational policies are not attractive to voters––they are. The problem is that no Western progressive government has managed post-pandemic to successfully turn progressive policies on immigration, climate, or industrial strategy into votes, as they might have been able to in previous election cycles. The air is crisp with a skittish, Western insecurity where politicians cannot communicate or reconcile the need for harsh but ambitious decisions in the short term to the benefits brought in the long term. 

What, though, is a progressive movement without aspiration? In what feels like an increasingly fragmented Canada, any form of collectivism––whether that be tackling climate change, defending the Western democratic model, or radically addressing Canada’s housing shortage––is aspirational. Unlike conservatism, progressive movements cannot redefine themselves on every election cycle around different parameters––a coherent and aspirational ideology that brings tangible change to the lives of voters is a necessity for a successful progressive movement.

What progressives need to contend with is that their leaders are currently incapable of being aspirational and specific, clear and practical. Take as proof the remarks of New Zealand’s former Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, when asked how about communicating progressive policy to an electorate facing a panoply of problems, Ardern asks politicians to acknowledge the dumpster fire. Truthfully, the electorate doesn’t need this acknowledgment. They can see it. The global progressive movement needs to find a policy fire hose, imbued in aspiration, that addresses the dumpster fire––which may yet burn down the house of democracy.

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