In the climax of Ayn Rand’s cult classic The Fountainhead, the hero Howard Roark, an architect, dynamites a building of his own creation because its design had been subverted by a scheming partner. Embodied in Roark, and other of Rand’s literary characters, are the characteristics that inspired and reinforced the myth of the virtuous individual and the evils of “big” government. As Margaret Thatcher, a powerful devotee of the credo infamously noted in a 1982 speech, “There is no society.”
Closer to home, the “rugged individual” was the epicentre of the Klein revolution; the mythical westerner shaping the “Alberta Advantage” by virtue of his or her own will and effort to achieve wealth and prosperity. Those failing to take advantage of the “Advantage,” as Klein notoriously demonstrated time after time, had only themselves to blame. Small government, “free” markets, low taxes, individual property rights and low levels of social services are all policies stemming from Rand’s self-adoring ideology.
“We,” said Rand bluntly “is the word by which the depraved steal the virtue of the good, by which the weak steal the might of the strong, by which the fools steal the wisdom of the sages.”
“I am done with the monster of ‘We,’ the word of serfdom, of plunder, of misery, falsehood and shame.”
In its place, she concluded, was a “...god who will grant them joy and peace and pride. This god, this one word: ‘I.’”
A particularly vicious breed of this ideology infused Kleinism and seeps out today through Alberta’s radical conservative rump, a.k.a. the Wildrose Party. But, make no mistake, though it seems Alison Redford is crafting a more progressive approach, the same ideology is still prevalent within the PCs.
As last week’s election demonstrated, the starkest difference in values is between inner cities (we) and suburbs (I), particularly in Calgary and Edmonton. Despite the strategic flight to the right by many otherwise progressive voters — scared to death of the prospect of a Wildrose government — the NDs and Liberals each captured nine inner-city ridings representing about a fifth of all seats in the big cities and just less than half of all inner-city seats. Not altogether unimpressive. But what accounts for this polarity?
Research by University of Toronto geographer Alan Walks has demonstrated that this phenomenon — progressive inner-city voting and conservative suburban voting — carries across Canada. The research also delved into why such patterns are occurring. He found that suburban voters tended to believe that government is too big, taxes are too high, and the economy should be left to business. In broad strokes, suburbanites live a privatized consumption-oriented lifestyle characterized by car-dominated transport, big-box mall shopping and the desire for private space in big suburban homes. They tend not to see a political dimension to that lifestyle; it is natural. Inner-city dwellers, by contrast, seem to be much more deliberate in aligning their politics with their lifestyle and housing choices. They choose the inner city for its perceived sense of community, they support public transit and they trade off larger homes and yards for easier access to public spaces, from plazas to art galleries, museums and theatre.
Walks also observed that these voting patterns began emerging in the early 1980s, coinciding precisely to the era in which Rand enthusiasts — including Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, Brian Mulroney in Canada, Alan Greenspan (a primary architect of the 2008 financial meltdown and once the world’s most powerful central banker), and Paul Wolfowitz, Dick Cheney and others who drove America to war in Iraq — began retooling society towards Rand’s vision.
Rand and her disciples made careers from demonizing “we,” but logic and evidence tell us reality is different. As Canadians and Calgarians our most successful endeavours — our legal system, our education system, our health system, our inherent inclination towards social justice and equality of opportunity and, most dearly, our open form of democracy — all came about by people of vision in the service of a greater good. Our individual successes are, in large measure, a consequence of these community investments.
It’s crucial because contemporary urban research shows that the successful, sustainable urban places of the future will be those which best leverage the power of community to overcome mounting social and environmental challenges. Wherever great urban developments are happening you can be assured there is a community of “we” (enlightened, engaged and mostly unselfish individuals) behind it.
The reasons inner-city voters vote the way they do are complex and not necessarily tied to selflessness, but whatever the reason, they have it right and Rand had it wrong.
There is a political sweet spot out there where “I” and “we” are not opposites. It’s important that it be found because, in the end, “we” is much more resilient than “I.”
Geoff Ghitter teaches urban studies at the University of Calgary. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Noel Keough is an assistant professor in the faculty of environmental design at the university, and is co-founder of Sustainable Calgary Society. He can be reached at email@example.com.