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Lianne Bell: In defence of the working class

Commentary

My parents, brother, and I knelt around the couch. It had a musty smell that was familiar and comforting. We knelt around the couch at least every day to pray. This time we were out of money and out of food. This was not the first time, and it wasn’t the last. My family was one of many of the working poor, the lower class. 

We lived in a run-down little house in the country, my clothes were second-hand, Sundays were for church and NASCAR, and my Mom homeschooled my brother and me. There is no shortage of terms to describe who I was. White trash, hillbilly, redneck. 

By the end of high school, my parents’ relentless work had turned our life from groceries at the food bank to groceries at Costco. Our run-down little house was renovated and expanded to become a dream home. We had entered the middle class.

I learned two things on my way to the middle class. People and the social structures they create are designed to keep the lower class out. Ridiculing my way of life and what I found joy in is commonplace, encouraged, and entirely socially acceptable.

The second one stung the most and leaves bitterness in my heart today.

We went to a Pentecostal church on a highway through Brockville. And like all good Pentecostal congregations after church, everyone headed to Swiss Chalet. My family could never afford such outings but we were driving in the same direction to get gas. We fondly referred to our family car as The Bondomobile as it was more bondo (a brownish paste used to patch rust spots) than anything else. One Sunday the Bondomobile ran out of gas not a kilometre from the church parking lot. Our fellow congregants drove past seemingly blind to our struggle. My Dad pushed our car, my Mom in the driver’s seat steering, my brother and I, not 6 and 7, taking it all in from the back seat.  

My family is not the first poor rural family that has been looked down on. We weren’t the first to face difficulty or social exclusion. Families like mine struggle publicly every day. And every day their middle and upper class peers drive right on past, rationalizing their indifference by demanding the poor make better choices.

There is an important qualification to make and it’s about choice and the ability to make one. First off, no one ever chooses to go hungry, and there is a difference between poverty and the lower class or the working poor. No one chooses poverty. There are people who choose to stay in the lower class. Not everyone dreams of a house in the suburbs and climbing the corporate ladder. Lots of families are content with being lower class. Social and economic class feels different to different people. Staying in your small town where you raise your family with an extended family so that your kids can play in the same creeks and woods you grew up in is a noble and honourable choice. If that choice means a run-down little house and a beater car, it still remains and is a respectable choice. And that choice needs to be treated with the dignity it deserves. But that should be a choice, and if a corporate career and a house in the suburbs is someone’s dream they should be given every opportunity to pursue that.  

Most questions surrounding why the working classes make the choices they do involve their responsibility to their families. There are no empty nester parents off on a European river cruise. There are parents who work well into retirement age and when work is no longer an option, helping with the kids of those off at work is. When a cousin needs gas money, when a sister needs a ride to rehab, these problems have but one solution. Family. Money solves and hides the problems of the middle class, family does for the lower class. 

For those hoping to take the path out of the lower class, it is a narrow and difficult one. It absolutely involves a chance or opportunity, a break as it’s sometimes called. It involves being prepared to out-work everyone at every turn. It means navigating a structure designed to keep you out and demands you adhere to cultural norms you won’t have learned. It requires an inner confidence that is unshakeable because the path out is designed to humiliate. 

Photo credit: Lianne Bell.

Being poor didn’t stop me from having an incredibly charmed childhood. Once we finally got gas in the old Bondomobile we headed for home and did what we did every Sunday: spend time as a family. My Mom read to my brother and me endlessly. My Dad would come home from working a double shift and tell us to grab our skates and we’d be off playing hockey. Neither of my parents ever missed a basketball game, a swim lesson, a ballet practice, nothing. They cheered me on at every moment. Every challenge was met with the full attention of my parents. And at every turn I had a brother who was and is my best friend. I had grandparents, aunts and uncles and cousins who poured into my life. When I failed time and time again, when life made things seemingly impossible, I knew I was loved and I knew they believed I could do it. 

It was the most valuable gift they ever could have given me. 

But I was poor. The treasures my family gave me, the lessons they taught me, were dismissed because of the kind of car we drove, the second-hand clothes I wore. The climb into the middle class is a precarious one demanding much of what makes you be abandoned. 

One of the books that impacted my life the most is Road to Character by David Brooks. He touches on a really important question: which person are we working on developing? The person inside of us achieving outward success, or the person in us responsible for our character? There is nothing wrong with material success. But are we the type of people who help a family stranded on the side of the road? 

I’ve been in the middle class more of my life now than in my lower-class childhood. I’m here to tell you the bitterness never goes away. My experiences aren’t as obvious as they once were, and there have been many times when someone has made a crack about hillbillies around me, and every time I go back to the back seat of our old Bondomobile and I know they’d drive right on by. And I hate them for it. I cheer when their grip on the levers of power loosens, hope that they are humbled as my family was. That they will know what it means to struggle.

So when I see politicians and musicians, when I see anyone defending and pushing back against those who have attempted to keep the lower class down, it feels good. It feels damn good. And don’t anyone dare ask me to act on some higher calling or duty. A sense of community and obligation that so many of my social class have never received the benefit of. I don’t think so. 

So when you’re angry about the state of politics, when you wonder why people vote the way they do, know that their experiences aren’t far off of mine. They’ve been left on the side of the road, at every turn their efforts have been hampered by systems that see no value in them, and the aspects of their lives they value most are often completely discredited and devalued. They are bitter. And they have every right to be. 

And if you’re wondering what needs to be done, may I suggest the solution starts with you. Respect my choices and allow me the dignity of making my way through life in a way that is meaningful to me. They don’t need to be your choices, but it is your choice how you treat us. And if you see an old beat-up car with a Dad pushing his family to the gas station, pull on over. Offer your help, not as a patron, but as a friend. It will make all the difference in the world. 

Ginny Roth: Small-donor political fundraising is good for democracy

Commentary

American conservative pundit Jonah Goldberg set off a small online skirmish this past August when he said in a CNN interview: “…small donors are one of the biggest problems for democracy, for the GOP. Because…large donors actually have a strategic view about moderation, who can win, who can’t. Small donors really are just venting their spleen with their credit card.” It’s not just Goldberg bemoaning the influence of small-donor fundraising strategy on our body politic. Canadian writer Justin Ling published a paper this year with the Public Policy Forum attributing our troubling political polarization, in part, to the same phenomenon. 

Indeed, small-donor fundraising is an increasingly powerful force in Canadian politics, not only because it’s proven to be an effective strategy for those who excel at it, but because changing rules and norms at the federal level have made it a political necessity. But Goldberg, Ling, and other critics are wrong. Not only is the small-donor approach far preferable to the clearly less democratic alternative of our recent past (and sometimes present) where wealthy donors exchange money for influence, but its relationship to principled politics makes it a better bulwark against corruption than any ethical rule or guideline. 

In Canada, we can analyze different fundraising cultures in real time because we’ve got both. First, let’s consider the federal dynamic. An elite-driven fundraising strategy, which targets corporate donations, major donations from wealthy individuals, or both, was the driving force in federal Canadian politics until very recently. It wasn’t so long ago that Canada’s corporate power brokers had ready access to whatever major political party was in power—the Liberals at the peak of this period—and in exchange, those same major donors would fund the party’s next election campaign. It’s not that regular people didn’t donate to political parties, it’s just that their donations made very little difference. Parties courted wealthy donors, and it was understood that if you won power, you would make it a priority to return those donor’s phone calls. Canadians mostly put up with this. After all, institutional trust was high, and a returned phone didn’t necessarily result in a favour paid. But after years of grift, the sponsorship scandal was the straw that broke the camel’s back, and as conservative populists channeled anti-Laurentian sentiment into a new political movement, the Liberals struggled to adapt. 

Stephen Harper understood that Conservatives would need to draw a line in the sand to match a new demand for ethical behaviour between politicians and those who sought to influence them. His government brought in various democratic reforms, including a Federal Accountability Act, which, from a policy perspective, continues to make it harder for elected officials to dole out access in exchange for favours.

But that wasn’t all. The Conservatives understood that changing laws and regulations wouldn’t be enough. Canadian politics needed a culture shift. The Chrétien Liberals (responding to political pressure) had recently changed fundraising rules to prohibit corporate and union donations at the federal level, but political parties were still thinking about fundraising in terms of “stakeholder relations” (i.e., what private interest is likely to donate the maximum amount allowable in order to get close to my party and a potential future government?). Harper’s fundraising strategy set out to change that by trying to raise smaller amounts of money from way more people. In charting a two-step path to a majority government, Conservatives learned to play a volume game. It’s not that some wealthy Canadians wouldn’t donate the maximum amount, but fundraising success ultimately came from thousands and thousands of small donations from regular Canadians, in Goldberg’s words “venting their spleens”.

Harper’s success became Trudeau’s, who understood he couldn’t leap from third party to government without mimicking the Conservative party’s modernization efforts. In fact, by the time they beat Harper’s Conservatives, the Liberals were beating the Tories at their own game, taking small donations digital. A decade late, Pierre Poilievre has outmatched them all, bringing together principled policy commitments, compelling communication, and digital engagement in a potent fundraising offence, blowing other parties out of the water.

The federal shift in fundraising culture was not inevitable. Indeed, Canada’s biggest province took a darker path. While Harper was bringing in democratic reform, Ontario Liberals were learning that big labour had as much money to throw around as big business did. The Working Families Coalition, a group of Ontario’s public sector unions, contributed millions not just to Ontario Liberal party war room budgets but on third-party advertising campaigns too, helping first to defeat Ernie Eves and then to keep the Liberals in power for a decade. During that time, public sector unions negotiated the best compensation and benefit deals they had had in years.

By the end of McGuinty’s tenure, even he was growing concerned about the province’s finances, so while some union donations continued to flow, the Liberal cabinet was instructed to meet tough fundraising targets, not by appealing to regular people, but by hosting events with big donors. Eventually, embroiled in a cash-for-access scandal during Kathleen Wynne’s tenure as premier, the government was forced to change Ontario law, banning corporate and union donations. This could have been an important turning point. 

Unfortunately, the Ontario PC leader at the time, Patrick Brown, opted to take advantage of a “loophole” in the new legislation, keeping up the old fundraising strategy instead of taking the opportunity to break the PC party of its addiction to big donations. A couple of years later, after forming government, the Ontario PCs leaned further into the past, increasing donation limits, and allowing MPPs to attend their own fundraisers once again.

Now, the provincial government is facing down its own version of a cash-for-access scandal, and as the Ontario Liberals try to rebuild, leadership frontrunner Bonnie Crombie is bragging to members about her fundraising chops—not because she has a compelling, ideological vision for Ontario which motivates individuals to scrape together some of their hard-earned cash and donate, but because developers and other corporate interests think she has the best chance of winning and want to make sure that their business interests are protected under a future Liberal government.

It’s hard to imagine how anyone could prefer the latter political culture to the former, especially if one’s interest is in enhancing democracy. Jonah Goldberg is an otherwise very thoughtful pundit, so I can only attribute his misguided comments to a pattern I’ve observed among similarly wise commentors of a certain age. These critics legitimately lament lost institutional trust and the decaying ethics and intellect of the elite, but instead of questioning what elites did to lose trust, they lash out at the people who won’t grant it.

Justin Ling, and some others who have since commented on his report, tend to recommend a per-vote-subsidy in lieu of a return to big donor strategies. This approach is certainly preferable, but taxing Canadians more to fund political causes they don’t believe in seems like a rash measure given the federal status quo works so well. Critics of small-donor fundraising don’t trust little old ladies and their credit cards to determine whose political success ought to be funded. But if our next prime minister is going to feel he owes something to someone, wouldn’t you prefer it be Agnes from Thunder Bay? Even if she is venting her spleen?