Political Hay

When I Was a 17-Year-Old Socialist

A funny thing happened on the way to political paradise.

By 9.1.10

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"I pass the test that says a man who isn't a socialist at twenty has no heart, and a man who is a socialist at forty has no head."
-- William Casey, Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, 1981-1987 

The sentiments of President Reagan's man at the CIA have been previously uttered by the likes of Disraeli, Clemenceau, and Churchill. The ages of the young men varied as did whether the young men in question were socialists or liberals. But the one thing that remained constant is that if they remained socialists or liberals as older men they were doomed to a life of naïveté.

In my own case, I signed up as a card-carrying member of the socialist Ontario New Democratic Party (NDP) in March 1988 at the age of 15 while growing up in Thunder Bay. Although my mother had been active in the NDP for many years, joining the party was entirely my idea. I joined shortly after my tenth-grade history class had partaken in a Model Parliament where I became, by default, leader of the NDP. Subsequently, I would join the Port Arthur NDP provincial riding association as its youth representative.

Let's jump forward to the summer of the 1990. In late July, Ontario Premier David Peterson called a snap election set for September 6. Peterson's Liberal Party had won 95 out of 130 seats in the Ontario legislature less than three years earlier. Legally, Peterson did not need to call an election for another two years. (Elections in Ontario are now held the first Thursday in October every four years. Ontarians are due to vote on October 6, 2011). However, Peterson was popular and Liberal re-election appeared certain.

But a funny thing happened on the way to that Liberal re-election. Voters in Canada's largest province didn't like having their summer respite so rudely interrupted and they took that anger out on Peterson and the Liberals. Under normal circumstances Ontario voters would have turned to the Progressive Conservatives. After all, before electing Peterson in 1985, the Tories had governed Ontario for 42 years earning the nickname "The Big Blue Machine." But Brian Mulroney was leading such an extremely unpopular Tory government in Ottawa that a mere three years later they would be reduced to two seats in the House of Commons.

So voters did the unthinkable and elected 74 New Democrats to Queen's Park, making Ontario NDP leader Bob Rae the new Premier of Ontario. Among the group of 74 elected that night was Shelley Wark-Martyn, a 27-year-old registered nurse with no previous electoral experience. Not only was Wark-Martyn suddenly representing the people of Port Arthur, Rae would appoint her to his cabinet as Minister of Revenue. Among those who had helped elect Wark-Martyn was a 17-year-old high school student who had just grown his first beard. I did everything possible during that campaign to ensure an NDP victory except to vote, as the election took place ten days before my 18th birthday.

For those unfamiliar with Canadian politics, the idea that the people of Ontario would ever elect an NDP government was about as likely to happen as, say, the people of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts electing a Republican to succeed Ted Kennedy. Needless to say, I along with NDP activists all over Canada became euphoric. A new day had come to Ontario. A socialist paradise was within reach.

But a funny thing happened on the way to that socialist paradise. Call it having to live in the real world. What seemed so easy in opposition suddenly became complicated in power. Things were complicated by a very deep recession. That recession would become further complicated when Rae's Minister of Finance, Floyd Laughren, introduced a provincial budget in the spring of 1991 with a deficit of $9.7 billion, earning Laughren the nickname "Pink Floyd." Not surprisingly, Ontario's business community was not amused. Conrad Black would describe Rae as a "millionaire-baiting, anti-corporate agitator." For Rae's part, he often described Ontario's economic situation as "the worst recession since the 1930s." Is this beginning to sound familiar?t;/span>

The NDP government also managed to alienate its allies, including its core support amongst trade unions. First, it backed off implementing public automobile insurance, a program that had been implemented by NDP governments in Saskatchewan, Manitoba and British Columbia. Later, it would open up and unilaterally rewrite public sector collective bargaining agreements. Taking his cue from Rousseau, Rae called it the "Social Contract." Although it would save public sector jobs, among its most unpopular features was the new regulation requiring unpaid days of leave which would become known derisively as "Rae Days." I can remember when Rae was booed when he took the floor of the 1994 Ontario NDP Convention in Hamilton.

The following spring, the Ontario electorate unceremoniously tossed out the NDP in favor of Mike Harris and the Progressive Conservatives (with Wark-Martyn one of the casualties.) The Tories would be re-elected in 1999 before the Liberals were returned to power in 2003 under Dalton McGuinty where they remain to this day. The Ontario NDP has never come close to replicating its triumph of twenty years ago.

I would not disavow the NDP until after the events of September 11, 2001. But the seed of doubt was surely planted in me while the NDP ruled Ontario. No doubt it was planted in Rae who has himself moved rightward (somewhat) and is now a Liberal MP (Member of Parliament). Whether President Obama, who has alienated both adversary and ally alike, will be out after one term remains to be seen. But I have no doubt that a seed of doubt has been planted in many a young man who at 17 helped to elect President Obama. The only question now is when that seed will germinate.

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About the Author
Aaron Goldstein writes from Boston, Massachusetts.