A wizard of U.S. politics tells Canadian progressives how to win

Jenny Uechi / Vancouver Observer

The founder of the U.S. Working Families Party made no bones about his opinion of Canada's Prime Minister during a visit in Vancouver on Sunday. 

“This guy Harper is a menace,” he said, speaking to reporters after an event by the Broadbent Institute, a progressive think tank.

“I don’t know if he can, but if he can be defeated, that would be good for all of us....[Harper] would fit in well in the right-wing of the Republican Party." 

Cantor was speaking downtown at an event called "Organizing to Win", attended by people eager for advice ahead of the federal election. Cantor joked about how the American left went from sending "ever-more desperate direct mail appeals to each other" to being a position of power.  

Cantor has been described in numerous publications as the driver of a new political machine that has gotten numerous progressives elected in the U.S., most notably New York mayor Bill de Blasio. His party, WFP, is a third party situated to the left of the Democrats, and Cantor himself has been likened to a "Wizard" behind the curtain in New York politics. 

Using blunt terms that wouldn't feel out of place in a House of Cards episode, Cantor talked about the idea of a year-round, ongoing campaign to win hearts and minds, which Harper's Conservatives already do with great success.

"Anything novel that I would urge you to consider is, that it (the election campaign) is 12 months, and 365 days a year," he said, responding to questions from veteran journalist Rod Mickleburgh on the stage.

"We don't believe the last month is when we're educating the public. That's when you're crushing your enemies. Your (opponent's) neck is on the ground, that's when you step on it."

Lessons from Canada

Cantor, who was visiting B.C. for the first time, complimented the province and Vancouver for its strong progressive movement. 

He said he learned from Canadian organizers while visiting Ottawa shortly after founding the New Party, which would later form a coalition with other groups and evolve to become the WFP.

 "In 1990, this NDP organizer said to us: 'We have our one per cent rule...if we have one per cent of the eligible voters in our riding...we can totally dominate the politics of that riding.'"

Cantor described her explanation of winning a riding in Ontario, with 100,000 eligible voters.

"She said there are 700 voters who come to nothing, but will put up a sign in their window if we go to their house. We have 300 people who come to a once-a-year annual meeting, who physically show up and give us a boost. We have 40 people who are activists, who will work the phones, hit the doors...and with that pyramid of 700-300-40, we are totally dominant in that riding."

It was an example that stuck with Cantor, and that even though he said WFP isn't at one percent yet, it was already able to win certain districts. 

Yanking and pulling Democrats to the left 

The son of an auto-parts store owner and a librarian, Cantor grew up in a liberal family, but didn't become politically engaged until he received a gift subscription to The Progressive magazine from his uncle. Reading about the Vietnam War and American militarism, he said in an interview with American Prospect, changed his views of politics.

Cantor's organization represents a "third way" in more ways than one. He considers WFP as successors to extra-parliamentary activists such as suffragists, civil rights advocates, labour activists and abolitionists. But instead of shouting slogans in the streets, he believes in bringing those values to the political process. 

And instead of working from within the Democrat Party, the WFP uses its independence to steer Democrats and other progressives toward the left. 

"We want to move from protest to policy. From grievances to governance, and making the rules of the game," he said. "We decided 16, 17 years ago, that we needed to try to build something that would be independent of the Democratic Party but relevant to it...Our goal is to yank and pull and prod and annoy and force the Decmorats to actually become progressives. Without doing that, we're doomed as the Tea Party drags the Republicans further off the cliff to the right." 

From left-right to top-bottom politics

Cantor said his party has managed to win support in ridings that weren't traditionally known as being leftist strongholds by focusing on issues like the wealth gap, which both conservative and liberal voters felt angry about.

"We're always trying to rotate the axis beyond left and right to more top-bottom," he said, noting that the Walmart founder's family has more wealth than the bottom 30 per cent of Americans.

"In doing that, we get people who think, 'this system is a little bit rigged.'" 

He said there is a "huge appetite" for what WFP stands for.

"People actually like a society that's fair, that doesn't want to treat the earth like a sewer, that says it's actually possible to have freedom and equality," he asserted. 

Some of his attempts to bring progressive policy to government, he admits, haven't gone smoothly. He and WFP took a heat when they backed Democratic candidate Andrew Cuomo (who many feel is not progressive) in hopes of passing legislation involving minimum wage, women's equality and tuition fees. Even though Cuomo has recently pushed to boost New York City's minimum wage, the alliance was broadly seen as a bust.

"Being principled and pragmatic aren't in conflict. But there are times when you make deals with people you don't love because you think it's in the services of furthering your agenda," he said. "This (endorsing Cuomo) was a complete debacle for us. We don't relish it, but we don't apologize for it either. You make the best decision you can at the time and push forward." 

After the event, former NDP cabinet minister Joy MacPhail told the Vancouver Observer she agreed with Cantor's pragmatism. 

"You have to have state power in order to make change. Being in opposition is not enough...If one is to bring to fruition to progressive ideas, one has to have state power." 

She said she felt strongly that federal NDP leader Thomas Mulcair would "crush" the Liberal Party, based on the strength of their campaign and clarity of ideas, despite recent polls showing them in third place. But as for a strategy to beat the Conservatives, who look poised to win yet again in 2015, MacPhail said she didn't support strategic voting.

"No," she said, shaking her her head. "People should be able to vote however they want."