Michael's Essay: Electing the Poor

soup kitchen.jpgQuestion: Can a poor person get elected to anything in this country?

For example, could a poor person ever be elected  mayor of a major city? Or head of a traditional political party? Or Leader of the Opposition or Prime Minister?

Two things prompted the question this week. One was looking at the roster of candidates for the NDP, and the other was reading some money numbers from the Republican primary farce in the United States.

The seven NDP candidates vying to replace Jack Layton later this month are all solidly middle class and successful in their careers.

South of the border, members of the all-male clown caravan that is the GOP nomination race are all fabulously wealthy.

The front-runner, Willard Romney, is himself worth more than a quarter of a billion dollars.
Santorum and Gingrich are millionaires and I assume Dr. Ron Paul is not far off.

Each has been able to raise tens of millions of dollars in their various campaigns through phony so-called Super PACs and other contributions.

Since the infamous Citizens United Supreme Court decision in 2010, corporations and unions have been free to donate unlimited amounts of money to candidates of their choice.

In Canada, it's different: political candidates find that raising money is a hard slog. True corporations and unions can donate large amounts of money to parties but nothing on the order of their American cousins.

And we have had wealthy leaders by the dozen - think Trudeau, Martin, Chretien.

The fact is that money, great dollops of it, has been the lubricating jelly of politics since Periclean Athens. In the Roman Empire, to rent a chariot or bribe a senator required a healthy bag of sestertii.

In modern politics, money has the power to corrupt a democratic political system, as it has in the United States.

But it also has the power of exclusion.  It can restrict vast numbers of citizens  from ever participating in electoral politics.

In some parts of the country --  Atlantic Canada perhaps or Northern Ontario -- it is possible to find people of modest means sitting on school boards or village councils. In a community where everyone is poor, it is easier to get elected.

But in covering politics for decades, I've never come across a poor city councillor, a poor Member of Parliament or a poor chair of the hospital board or police commission or school board.

I was once a municipal reporter on a small-town weekly and had to cover the county and township councils. All of the councillors were farmers.  But all of them were well-to-do farmers; the hard-scrabble variety never made it into public office.

As a nation, we have become more aware of the poor among us in recent years. We have described their plight in the media, we have argued for wider, thicker safety nets, we've even begun to conjugate the various kinds of poverty - the abject poor, the working poor, the working-class poor and so on.

We have talked about tax exemptions, guaranteed annual income, more welfare funding; in our national heart we believe we will do almost anything for the poor.

Except give them power, political power.

By denying the poor access to the mechanics of democratic politics, we're cutting off an all too vast percentage of our citizens from their right to true representation.

We have a tendency to equate poverty with ignorance. And in the doing, we waste the talent, enthusiasm and commitment of millions.

Maybe things will change over time, with a little exertion. There was a time when only men could vote. Or those who owned property.

After all, I never expected, in my lifetime, to see a black American in the White House.

Comments are closed.