Democracy Soup

Making sense out of the world of politics

American progressives can learn a lot from the legacy of Canada’s Jack Layton

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As regular readers know, I have a fondness for Canada and Canadian politics. But since Democracy Soup is devoted mostly to American politics, you might wonder what one has to do with another. Well, I’m going to tell you a story about a man named Jack, and what American progressives can learn from him.

Jack Layton was a fighter who stood up for those who needed the most help, someone who was respected by people whose political views were polar opposites. Layton convinced Quebecers in the last Canadian federal election to come over to the New Democratic Party (NDP), a difficult task since the NDP is a federalist party, and Quebecers have spent a generation relying mostly on the separatist Bloc Quebecois.

While Layton spoke the Quebecois French, he was a Toronto legend in politics. His wife, Olivia Chow, also serves as a MP from a different Toronto riding. And Layton was still able to get through to those who supported the NDP out west.

The United States has plenty of politicians who fight for the less fortunate, but they don’t get on TV much. And Layton certainly had difficulty getting his message through the clutter.

But Layton stayed positive and hopeful that things could be better. And in the last election, the voters reacted.

Sure Canada voted in a majority Conservative government, but the NDP became the opposition party for the first time ever. And Jack Layton was a large part of why that happened.

The election was May 2. Layton was recovering from a hip operation and prostate cancer as the election cycle started (about 5-6 weeks in Canada). In July, Layton was diagnosed with a new form of cancer. Last week, Layton passed away at the age of 61.

The obvious analogy is Moses, a leader who led his people to the Promised Land, but never made it himself. While that may seem sacrilege, the NDP had 13 members in Parliament when Jack Layton took over as leader in 2003, and now have 103 (of 308 seats in Parliament).

The loss is huge not just for a man, a fighter, but for the progressive movement in Canada, and on some level, the United States. A progressive was in the opposition chair for the first time in Canadian history. Having a progressive party such as the NDP in a high prestige would have rubbed off on U.S. politics at a time where progressives wonder where their voice is in the loud media landscape.

U.S. progressives were drowned out on health care reform, stimulus spending, and the jobs front, lacking that voice to speak up. True, Canadian media is more sympathetic to these issues than American media, and Canadians aren’t arguing health care reform or gay marriage. But Canadian media pay more attention when you are the opposition party instead of the third party.

The lesson American progressives need to take from the legacy of Jack Layton is to stand up for what you believe in, and you can do so in a positive fashion.

Progressives are demonized in both countries as being “out there,” but Layton was able to cut through to get his message out.

In covering the 2011 Canadian federal election, I was bemused as the NDP was gaining strength in Quebec that Jack Layton had been around since 2003, and yet was the new kid on the block. Layton didn’t change, the world around him changed.

Americans are more receptive to progressives’ message in these harsh economic times. People want solutions and progressives have them. What they have lacked is a strong voice to bring all of that to the table.

Over the last few years, I had often thought American progressives needed someone like Jack Layton in their world. Now Canadian progressives need someone like Jack Layton, but as we have seen, very few come along that are like Jack Layton.

We have often made fun of the teabaggers, but they speak with a voice, a simple clear message, even if that message was contradictory, borderline racist, and often incorrect. Jack Layton has proven that progressives can speak with a strong, upbeat, positive message.

Progressives are very good at being correct, but lousy on conveying that to those who don’t readily believe they have solutions. Layton went against the tide of his own party to broaden the message, but the results of the 2011 election prove Layton was right.

Now the NDP and Canadians have to build on Jack Layton’s legacy. Americans could learn a few lessons about that legacy.


Written by democracysoup

August 30, 2011 at 7:08 am

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