“Hope never abandons you, you abandon it.” - George Weinberg
Why are so few people involved in the political process? It's a question often asked and rarely answered in any satisfactory way.
Common indicators like voter turn out show that not only are relatively few people involved in the political process, the number of people who are involved is declining. From the Wiki on “voter turnout”,
Over the last 40 years, voter turnout has been steadily declining in the established democracies. This trend has been significant in the United States, Western Europe, Japan and Latin America. It has been a matter of concern and controversy among political scientists for several decades. During this same period, other forms of political participation have also declined, such as voluntary participation in political parties and the attendance of observers at town meetings.
The story in my home country of Canada bears this out. In 2008, we saw the lowest federal voter turnout in the country's history, clocking in at 59.1%. That was only slightly lower than the previous record just four years prior at 60.9% and the historical data shows a downward trend since roughly the mid-1980s.
Pollster and political strategist Allan Gregg notes that, following a similar trend, the state of our politics has also hit an all time low, "Negative advertising, unsubstantiated allegations and character innuendo have not only become the norm in politics today, these tactics are now considered the most effective way of gaining political ground on your opponents."
These dynamics are hardly limited to Canadian politics. Indeed, the sorts of tactics described are nearly yesterday's news in the United States. And politics in any number of European countries can get every bit, if not decisively more nasty than anything going on in Canada.
It's no wonder then, as I noted in a piece about the SOPA Blackouts , that trust in our traditional institutions is a flagging commodity. Who wouldn't be skeptical and leery in the face of all that?
Maybe this all for the best, then? If our institutions are so calcified in their dysfunction, maybe the only sensible thing to do is walk away.
It's a tempting option. And it would appear that no small number of people are giving in to that temptation. But walking away, as tempting as it might be, is ultimately an unsatisfactory answer.
Trust in our governments might be hitting all time lows, but those governments and the political parties that run them aren't going anywhere. Indeed, as we move further and further into the technological landscape of the information age, those governments are becoming more integrated into our daily lives, not less.
No, like it or not, our fate is tied to that of our politics. And the rot that eats away at the hull of those politics threatens to take us under water with them. If we are to stay afloat, perhaps even set sail for better shores, we must find a way to repair and transform those politics.
The question is: how? How do we get more people engaged and involved in the exercise of righting our collective ship?
“I still believe in a place called hope.” - Bill Clinton
Getting involved in a political campaign is a gut level decision for me. That goes double for a campaign in a leadership race. I've been involved in two such campaigns over the past year and neither would have provided me with the wealth of experiences they did had I made my decisions any other way.
The specifics of each campaign are remarkably similar.
Both campaigns involved candidates who were relatively unknown in their respective scenes (provincial and federal politics) prior to the race. The candidates involved were loosely termed “populists” -- which in the imprecision of modern political analysis means being a non-establishment candidate and a bit of an outsider.
Both campaigns employed a strong social media outreach and engagement component, which is where I was involved. In the first instance I was primarily responsible for carrying out pre-existing strategies around finding and engaging supporters on Twitter. The second and most recent time around, I actually created many of the strategies we used, as well as deploying them in the final two months of the campaign.
Despite their slow starts, both campaigns built considerable momentum over time, soliciting the subsequent label “dark horse”. Neither candidate won, but both came considerably closer to winning than anyone ever predicted they would.
And both campaigns had one golden rule: no going negative.
In truth, the decision not to spend any time tearing down our opponents was probably equal parts integrity and strategy in both instances. Both candidates were pretty upbeat and positive guys and so they honestly didn't believe in attacking their competition. At the same time, such attacks would have seemed entirely out of character for both candidates and so would have come across as hollow, insincere, and ineffectual if we'd tried to employ them.
I didn't get involved in either campaign because I thought the candidate was likely to win. But by the end of both campaigns, I thought each candidate stood a real chance of winning, though it was an outside chance.
Both races were for leadership of the New Democratic Party (NDP), the first in British Columbia where I worked on John Horgan's campaign and the second federally where I worked on Nathan Cullen's campaign.
The NDP is Canada's social democratic or left-most mainstream political party. Generally speaking, social democrats have a collectivist streak to them (as opposed to an individualist streak) and believe in using government to generate greater equity in society, sometimes – though not always -- at the expense of individual gain. New Democrats are like the liberal wing of the Democratic Party in the US.
In BC, the NDP has formed government on three separate occasions, in 1972, 1991, and 1996 and is poised to form government again in 2013 after what will have been more than a decade out of power.
Federally, the NDP has never formed government and has often been relegated to fourth party status, electing fewer Members of Parliament than the Conservatives, the Liberals, and the nationalist separatist party of Quebec the Bloc Quebecois. However, in the most recent 2011 election, the Party elected more than 100 members to Parliament (the most in its history) and became the country’s Official Opposition (second in number of seats to the Conservative government).
Many now speculate that the NDP has a real shot at forming government in the upcoming 2015 federal election as the current government continues to mire itself in scandal and missteps.
The NDP recently went through leadership races both in BC and federally for different reasons. If you paid any attention to either of those races, you might remember that the biggest complaint by the media and non-members was the degree to which the candidates tended to agree with one another.
There was some truth to this complaint. While in both cases some interesting wedges and dynamics emerged, I didn't make my decisions based on specific policy positions or particular stances that set my candidates of choice apart.
Rather, I volunteered and became heavily involved in the campaigns I did because the candidates moved me on a deep emotional level. Listening to John Horgan and Nathan Cullen speak, reading something they had written, or otherwise interacting with them left me with a feeling that these were the right people to support.
I'm not unique in that regard. The role that emotion plays in politics and political decisions has been covered in detail by Dr. Drew Westen in his influential book, The Political Brain. A description of the book reveals Westen's thesis:
In politics, when reason and emotion collide, emotion invariably wins. Elections are decided in the marketplace of emotions, a marketplace filled with values, images, analogies, moral sentiments, and moving oratory, in which logic plays only a supporting role. Westen shows, through a whistle-stop journey through the evolution of the passionate brain and a bravura tour through fifty years of American presidential and national elections, why campaigns succeed and fail. The evidence is overwhelming that three things determine how people vote, in this order: their feelings toward the parties and their principles, their feelings toward the candidates, and, if they haven't decided by then, their feelings toward the candidates' policy positions.
There is, perhaps, the inclination to look at this reality with a cynical eye. It could be easy to conclude that politics as a practice of the heart means we are forever destined to fuck it up, given how unreliable our emotions can be.
But while my experience on the campaign trail largely bears out Westen's thesis, it also leads me to disagree with the above cynicism. Indeed, I found just the opposite to be true.
Messages of hope and optimism have the potential to substantially transform our politics and how we see each others' political actions in the ways we so badly need.
“And you have to give them hope.” - Harvey Milk
Leadership races are a unique sort of campaign. While candidates inevitably attempt to demonstrate in ever sharper tones why they’re better suited to lead than their opponents, the overriding tone tends to be positive. And there should be no great surprise there.
Unlike in general elections, leadership races involve preaching to the party faithful. One's audience is a group of self-selected individuals who, for a variety of reasons, have decided that this is their party. As the candidates vie to take over the reigns, their job – in essence – is to describe the shining future in store for the party under the guidance of their steady hand.
And yet, in spite of this near perfect set up, more candidates than one might think have a difficult time rising to the occasion. It’s not entirely uncommon for front-runners and campaign favourites to struggle with developing a sense of excitement about their candidacy. And more than a few winners have limped across the finish line, the final dregs of their momentum relying on name recognition and endorsements alone.
Such is the toxicity of our politics nowadays. In what should be the ultimate pep rally, some candidates have a hard time getting away from the pit-bull politics that so regularly defines their days.
Thankfully, the campaigns in which I was involved didn't suffer from this problem. Cullen and Horgan both set out not only to not go negative, but present an overtly positive message of hope. The response we received for doing so could not have been more overwhelming or definitive.
One has to be careful when recounting the responses from campaigns in which one was directly involved. It's easy to get swept up in the outcome of your own actions and challenging to look at what's transpiring around you with an objective eye.
On the other hand, being directly involved doesn't mean that excitement wasn't real and/or substantial. In both cases, as Horgan and Cullen traveled the province/country delivering their message, a very palpable momentum emerged. It was a momentum that few people saw coming. And the reason that momentum emerged is because people got genuinely excited about and committed to John Horgan and Nathan Cullen's campaigns.
In John Horgan's bid for leadership of the Party in BC, it wasn't uncommon to hear people say that he was one of the most genuine politicians they'd ever met. I wouldn't disagree. John's sincerity was one of the things that drew me to his campaign.
Horgan was and remains an average, everyday guy who also happens to be a talented public official. He's the sort of fellow you could imagine sitting next to on public transit and engaging in an interesting conversation. Indeed, people who commute from Langford to Victoria on the southern tip of Vancouver Island regularly do sit next to Horgan on the bus.
There was a story that emerged over the course of the race about Horgan flying home after a several week stint on the road. He was taking a cab home from the airport and it had happened to snow in Victoria recently. The cab became stuck in the snow and instead of looking at his watch and cursing his luck, Horgan hopped out of the car and helped the driver dig the car out so they could both get home.
That's just the sort of dude that John Horgan is. He took on a gruelling tour schedule to visit as many cities and towns in British Columbia as he could to meet and talk with as many people as he could. And when people met him, the vast majority of them connected with him because he didn't try to come off as anything other than what he really was: honestly one of them.
As a result, when John talked to people on the campaign trail and delivered his grounded but hopeful message, they believed him. It was a remarkable thing to watch – to see someone able to speak to people about hope and have them actually believe in what's being said.
The same could be said for Nathan Cullen, though in different ways.
Cullen is also a very plain spoken politician who cuts through spin in a way that resonates with people. People often have a hard time wrapping their heads around the fact that he's a politician when they hear him explain his concerns with oil company Enbridge's controversial Northern Gateway Pipeline in the below video.
Cullen's schedule was no less rigorous, particularly given that the leadership campaign in which he was engaged went on for almost seven months and he had to leave his twin toddlers and wife at home in Smithers, BC for much of that time.
When he started out, there was literally no one that was paying any attention to Cullen's campaign. Though, to be fair, there were relatively few people paying attention to the federal NDP leadership race until its final few months.
A story circulated amongst campaign staff and volunteers about how Cullen would have to call reporters and pundits up himself when his campaign would issue a release to try to drum up interest in the contents. But in a lot of ways, those humble beginnings came to define Nathan's campaign in a very positive fashion.
Nathan Cullen didn't benefit from some of advantages that his fellow candidates did. He didn't have the same name recognition that Peggy Nash or Paul Dewar did. He didn't come out of the gates with star-studded endorsements like Brian Topp. And he didn't have a specific strategic appeal in the way that Thomas Mulcair's Quebec roots lent his campaign.
Cullen's campaign, which campaign co-manager Jamey Heath came to dub, “the little campaign that could,” was genuinely grassroots, from beginning to end. It was a campaign to which almost anyone could relate. And those features gave us the capacity to do some things that other campaigns could not – or perhaps would not do.
The core of Cullen's message was the need to do politics differently. Doing politics “differently” is a relatively vague rallying cry. And yet the core of that message spoke to an intuition that it turns out a great many Canadians share. Additionally, Cullen took the step of offering a concrete suggestion about how to go about doing politics differently.
What Nathan proposed was to have the NDP cooperate with the other Opposition parties (the Liberals and the Greens) to run only one candidate between the three parties where they were facing a Conservative candidate who had previously been elected. Though the decision would be left up to the local members who nominated candidates for an election, even talking about the idea was risky. The proposal was not at all popular with a lot of different people, including every other candidate in the race. And it's not hard to understand why.
Not only was a leadership candidate for a federal party making cooperating with the party's direct competition a distinctive part of his platform; Cullen made the suggestion at a time when the NDP had just months earlier won more seats than ever before and become the Official Opposition for the first time in its entire history. It was a gutsy move. But the impetus for making it was compelling.
The reality, Cullen suggested, was that in the face of a Conservative majority that exhibited unheard of hubris and disdain for the democratic process, it was incumbent upon New Democrats to put, “country before party”. And for as much as the idea was controversial, Cullen's willingness to speak candidly won him more votes than it cost. Even in an event as partisan as a leadership race.
In an interview with the CBC, Nathan went so far as to say,
I think the party system is actually sometimes a throwback, it gets in the way of progress[.] Politics somehow thinks it's special, and it's not. We should reflect Canadian values and I think it's a Canadian value to cooperate[.] I think Canadians like it when parties work together to get something done. And I think the future of politics is actually a less partisan future[.]
When was the last time you heard any politician say something like that? Let alone one who at the time was running to be leader of their party.
If asked what beyond cooperation Cullen meant by “doing politics differently,” I would respond that what he was really saying is that we can do better. The fundamental appeal of Nathan's campaign was to people's belief that we can do better in our politics and that every single one of us has a role to play in making that happen.
The response to that appeal was overwhelming. Once Cullen's natural speaking skills and un-tameable sense of humour began turning heads during all-candidates debates, the momentum of that message – as much as Nathan himself – took on a life of its own.
That momentum took a candidate who began the race calling reporters to get coverage on his campaign releases to a third place finish in which he actually beat the winner in live voting. During the build up of that momentum, I regularly encountered messages from supporters that said flatly, “You have renewed my faith in Canadian politics.”
Proximity to those kinds of dynamics was intoxicating, inspiring, and I remain humbled and honoured to have been a part of them.
“Hope begins in the dark, the stubborn hope that if you just show up and try to do the right thing, the dawn will come.” - Anne Lamott
What my experiences in both of those campaigns solidified for me is that people are much more responsive to a political message of hope than the tone of our politics may lead us to believe. In fact, not only are people responsive to such a message, they're willing to be activated in tangible ways on that message.
This is to say that emotional appeals to hope and optimism aren't just a flash in the political pan, bursting with feeling but lacking in action. Real political organizing can take place as a result of such appeals.
In particular, Cullen's campaign demonstrated that attaching specific ideas to those appeals, even ideas with which a broad cross-section of people might disagree, doesn't necessarily act as an energetic ground to the excitement generated. You don't need to stay vague in order to build momentum around a message of hope. While getting into specifics will inevitably turn some people off via disagreement, doing so can generate overall growth in your efforts and momentum.
Further, my experience demonstrated to me that emotional appeals to things like hope don't preclude critical analysis about the quality of ideas presented. Though the underlying appeal might be emotional, that doesn't immediately short-circuit the more rationally focused exercise of weighing the pros and cons of specific public policy.
In other words, getting emotional about your politics doesn't mean you cease to be rational. The two can, in fact, act in a remarkably complementary fashion.
But there is, I think, a deeper realization also at play here.
Hope about the prospects for the future and the ability for political decisions to affect the outcome of that future is an incredibly strong political motivator. And that is not just true of New Democratic or left-leaning voters. Indeed, it doesn't seem unreasonable to me to extrapolate that conclusion across the political spectrum to a variety of political parties, even one's mortal enemies.
And where we allow that even those with whom we vehemently disagree are, by and large, motivated by a sense of hope about the impacts their political decisions will have, we are forced to re-evaluate the basis for our interaction with those people. Because while you may disagree with their proposed course of action, you become far more generous when you assume they're acting out of a sense of hope rather than some more malicious or unfaithful intention.
Nathan articulated this move eloquently in a video that I posted here at Beams and Struts in the midst of the campaign.
If you want to be reflected in your government, we must find ways to cooperate, we must find ways to be more generous. And that means putting down our guns from time to time and finding a path where we get things done.
However, a few qualifiers immediately present themselves.
I'm most comfortable applying the above conclusion when talking about members of the general public and the political decisions they make. The experience and interactions upon which the conclusion is based were almost entirely with average – albeit partisan – voters, not politicians.
The life and experiences of almost any politician are embedded in a particular network of power relations that don't generally beset the average individual. And there's ample evidence to suggest the corrupting influences of those dynamics.
It is, of course, not impossible nor even unlikely that politicians are at least initially motivated by the same sorts of hopeful intentions as the average individual. Such a denial leads to a sort of de-humanizing that is itself disconcerting.
And while my experiences were a direct result of working with two politicians, I remain as skeptical as anyone else about the end integrity of those intentions where the specific dynamics of political office are at play. As I referenced Cullen (and to a lesser degree, Horgan) saying earlier, the party system can at times, “get in the way of progress.”
But even limiting our generosity strictly to average voters, it may not be fair or even sensible to apply that conclusion across the board. People do regularly misrepresent their true intentions and act out of concealed malice. Failing to take that fact into consideration would be both unrealistic and irresponsible.
So instead, let's be relatively conservative in our approach. Let's say we assume that, at best, 50% of people with whom we disagree make their political decisions based on an honest hope about the potential impacts of those decisions. It seems fair to conclude that even this modest shift in perceptions about our political opponents stands to have a substantial impact on the way we conduct ourselves.
That said, we need to be clear about what that generosity does and does not entail.
Most importantly, a greater sense of generosity to our political activity doesn't entail the ceding of political debate to a spineless, circle of can't-we-all-just-get-along-ness. There does and will continue to exist sharp divisions about the appropriateness and likely outcome of different political decisions. Just because someone hopes that their chosen political proposals will have beneficial impacts doesn't make them correct.
What that generosity does entail is the jettisoning of precisely the sorts of practices that Allan Gregg described as plaguing our political system: unsubstantiated allegations, character innuendo, mud-slinging and smearing. If we take seriously the conclusion about most (or even half of) people's political motivations, all of those things must go by the wayside if we are to remain honest political brokers ourselves.
And even if that shift occurs just in the electorate and not amongst politicians, we still stand to realize an important value. Ask any politician why they decided to run a salaciously negative ad and the answer is invariably, “Because they work.”
The onus, then, is on us as the general public to no longer succumb to this sort of political manoeuvring. If, as it seems, we want a political system with greater integrity, we must take it upon ourselves to demand that system in both word and deed. And if salaciously negative advertising ceases to “work”, there will be a corresponding downward pressure on the inclination to use it.
As a result, what's left is not the elimination of a fight, but a clean fight. Political pugilism comes to resemble more a martial arts tournament than the barroom brawl we currently face. And we stand to reintroduce a sense of honour into our politics, which I think we can all agree is sorely needed.
“We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope.” - Martin Luther King Jr.
Of course, no discussion about hope and politics is complete without some sort of reference to Barack Obama. If any campaign in recent memory effectively harnessed peoples' deep feelings of hope and desire for a better future, it was the American President's 2008 campaign.
Opinions diverge wildly about the effect of all of Obama's momentum once he was delivered to office. Some people describe Obama as one of the most successful US presidents since Franklin Delano Roosevelt, introducing badly needed health care and financial reform and successfully steering the country clear of complete economic collapse. Indeed, as economic indicators continue to improve, so too do the President's approval ratings and his prospects for the upcoming election.
And yet, deep seated doubts have emerged amongst some of Obama's strongest 2008 supporters. It seems undeniable that the momentum behind Obama has waned to a greater degree than one might reasonably expect post-campaign. And it was not so very long ago that stories abounded about one of the Obama's key constituencies – younger voters – feeling “disenchanted” with the President's performance in office.
Drew Westen offered his own analysis on Obama's challenges in a widely read and quoted article for the New York Times. In the piece, Westen notes,
When Barack Obama rose to the lectern on Inauguration Day, the nation was in tatters. Americans were scared and angry. The economy was spinning in reverse. Three-quarters of a million people lost their jobs that month. Many had lost their homes, and with them the only nest eggs they had. Even the usually impervious upper middle class had seen a decade of stagnant or declining investment, with the stock market dropping in value with no end in sight. Hope was as scarce as credit.
In that context, Americans needed their president to tell them a story that made sense of what they had just been through, what caused it, and how it was going to end. They needed to hear that he understood what they were feeling, that he would track down those responsible for their pain and suffering, and that he would restore order and safety...
But there was no story — and there has been none since.
Westen goes on to say,
When Barack Obama stepped into the Oval Office, he stepped into a cycle of American history, best exemplified by F.D.R. and his distant cousin, Teddy. After a great technological revolution or a major economic transition, as when America changed from a nation of farmers to an urban industrial one, there is often a period of great concentration of wealth, and with it, a concentration of power in the wealthy. That’s what we saw in 1928, and that’s what we see today. At some point that power is exercised so injudiciously, and the lives of so many become so unbearable, that a period of reform ensues — and a charismatic reformer emerges to lead that renewal. In that sense, Teddy Roosevelt started the cycle of reform his cousin picked up 30 years later, as he began efforts to bust the trusts and regulate the railroads, exercise federal power over the banks and the nation’s food supply, and protect America’s land and wildlife, creating the modern environmental movement.
Those were the shoes — that was the historic role — that Americans elected Barack Obama to fill.
Westen's analysis isn't foolproof, there are gaps. But there is also a deep truth to what he says of the President to which it is worth paying attention.
Obama rode into office on the wave of perhaps one of the most enormous narratives of our modern day politics. After the deep cynicism that defined previous decades, finally someone with a story of hope broke through our collective awareness and forced us to believe that better things were possible.
And then, for all intents and purposes, that story just stopped. As Westen notes earlier in his piece, we both need stories as a vital means of making sense of the world and we expect them to have a certain structure (at the very least a beginning and an ending).
To some degree, the decline of Obama's momentum once in office simply proves the point around an emotional appeal in politics. Just because we are captured emotionally, doesn't mean we set our critical faculties aside.
Barack Obama promised to change Washington and many of his supporters can't see how that has happened. Indeed, it may even be less that they can't see how Washington has changed and more that they can't see how their candidate ever truly attempted to fulfil his promise to change it.
It isn't that Barack Obama hasn't been a good president, or even a great president. It's rather that he hasn't been the president he promised to be. And broken promises, whether the circumstances surrounding them are fair or not, have consequences.
“My friends, love is better than anger. Hope is better than fear. Optimism is better than despair. So let us be loving, hopeful and optimistic. And we’ll change the world.” - Jack Layton
With those words, the late Jack Layton captured the heart of a nation, left this world, and precipitated the leadership race that caused me to write this essay.
Layton was the federal leader of the NDP from 2003 to 2011. In addition to becoming known for his unrelenting commitment to making politics “work”, Layton was also one of the most positive politicians the country has ever seen. That positivity earned Layton the nickname, “le bon Jack” and a place of affection amongst friends and foes alike.
It was under Layton's leadership that the NDP realized its historic gains. And then, less than four months after the election in which those gains were made, he was gone, taken by a battle with cancer he was unable to win.
I still cry when I read the final paragraph of Jack's letter to the country. I can't help it. Layton's words pierce like the gentle blade of a dear friend's voice.
Literally on his deathbed, the former leader cut to an essential truth that affected nearly everyone who read it. And I don't take it to be coincidental that the race caused by Layton's passing demonstrated the truth of his words in my experiences.
Who could honestly argue that love isn't better than anger? That hope isn't better than fear? That optimism isn't better than despair? In our heart of hearts, no reasonable person would disagree with Layton's missive because there is simply a truth to it that's near impossible to avoid.
It's true in the same way that I believe if we watch each other on the battlefield of politics, if we lay down our weapons as Nathan Cullen suggests, only for a second, we will see that most of us are coming from the same place of hope. And in that acknowledgement, in the generosity that flows from that moment of recognition, we enter a shared space -- a space that contains a connection that ultimately transcends politics.
But doing so isn't easy. Opening yourself to seeing people for who they are and being open enough to let people see you for who you are, it sounds like fluff, but it isn't. It keeps us up at night and destroys relationships. It's the stuff of deep psychological angst and terror. Wars are started on our inability to see each other. It is, perhaps, the hardest thing in the world to do.
When did we see each other face-to-face? Not until you saw into my cracks and I saw into yours. Before that, we were just looking at ideas of each other, like looking at your window shade but never seeing inside. But once the vessel cracks, the light can get in. The light can get out.”
Layton saw the light. And in the thick of my experiences, I believe that I saw the same light.
For me, that light is part of something else I felt in my gut starting many years ago and boils down to nothing more complicated than this: people want to be hopeful. People want to be as good as you want to believe that they are. And if you have the courage to give them a chance – a real chance – they'll prove you right.
Then we really will change the world.
“They will say to you that to be hopeful is to be naive and feeble and silly. I tell you, though, these are the words of cowards. Hope is the single most ferocious gesture of an open heart.” - Anon
Edited by TJ Dawe