What Is Politics About? (and Two Things I Want From The Sask NDP’s New Leader)

A couple weeks back, I attended the Federal NDP’s full day workshop on their “Prairie Initiative“.  This is an effort by the federal party to lay the groundwork for a similar breakthrough on the Prairies to the one they had in Quebec during the last election.

The day was filled with speakers, presentations and break-out groups but perhaps the most useful (yet unintended) purpose for the day was in providing a neutral ground for supporters of various candidates in the Sask NDP’s recent leadership race to come together and be reminded that we’re all on the same team in a way that wasn’t really possible at the “Unity Party” after the leadership race with the results still being so fresh and there being at least one dejected face for every smiling one.  (To be fair, I was one of the smiling faces – although that was mostly due to the copious amounts of beer I drank!) 😉

If providing a neutral ground was perhaps the most useful part of the day, the most interesting part was hearing the two afternoon speakers – Aaron Genest from Team Meili and John Tzupa from Team Broten – give insight into their respective campaign strategies and techniques.

Those two presenters reminded me of an article I recently came across on Reddit which contends that all political activity happens along a continuum from “naive” to “cynical”.

The author describes the “naive” approach thusly:

Politics is about policy. Groups of like-minded people coalesce around a set of ideas about how the world should work. This group is called a party. The party puts forth a platform of policies that will put those ideas into action. The role of the party then is to serve as the interface, or point of friction, where ideas become policies. To gain power, the party promotes and sells these policies to the public as better than those of their opponents…The model naïve politician is someone like Pierre Trudeau, or Jack Layton.

…and the “cynical” approach as this:

Politics has nothing to do with policy, it is about power. Joining a political party is not like joining a faculty club, and is more like joining a tribe or a gang. Their overriding function is to gain power and relative status for their group at the expense of people of other tribes and gangs…The model cynical politicians are men like Jean Chrétien, or George W. Bush.

Although I don’t like the negative connotations of either “naive” or “cynical”, I think these two approaches perfectly capture what happened in the Sask NDP leadership race where Broten ended up “winning a tie” with Meili who represented exactly half (minus <1%) of a perfectly divided party (and I mean “divided” in regards to two very different views about how the Sask NDP should *do* politics, not necessarily in regards to literally being split or torn apart…at least so far):

In fact, the most significant political divide in Canada, and perhaps other polities, is not between left and right, but between those who are cynical and those who are naïve about politics.

It was clear from Genest’s presentation that Meili’s campaign wasn’t just about winning but also about so much more – trying new things, being bold and innovative, creating the best, most original policy and so on.  It was equally clear from Tzupa’s presentation that their campaign was very focused on winning as the ultimate goal with the “other stuff” often being a distraction or waste of resources.  For example, Tzupa said that strategic decisions were made by Broten’s campaign to focus only on selling new memberships in areas where they already knew they had profile – Saskatoon and with new immigrants since Broten was Critic for this area – rather than trying to reach people more broadly like Meili did.  Tzupa also said they decided to completely cede the social media arena to Team Meili rather than try their own initiatives and experiments.

(In many ways, this difference of approach is symbolized, at least for me, in the decision by Team Meili to release not one but two smartphone apps.  Did this decision gain us even a single vote?  Maybe or maybe not but I don’t know too many members of Team Meili who would say it was the wrong decision whereas I suspect many members of Team Broten would say “Why are you bothering with that?  How is that going to help you win?”  Again, two very different approaches.)

I also want to be clear that I’m not saying the Meili campaign was 100% “Naive” or that the Broten campaign was 100% “Cynical” (to use the author’s categories).  Each was perhaps 65-35 one way or the other which is also indicated by how close the result was.  Candidates who are close to 100% Naive will never get close to winning no matter how often their purity of principle leads them to try (I think of someone like Dennis Kucinich running for President in the US) and candidates who are 100% Cynical might win the big one but always seem to lose in the end (perhaps epitomized by someone like Richard Nixon?)

In terms of whether it’s better to tilt the balance towards naivete or cynicism, Broten supporters might say that the result proves their approach was the better one.  They won, they have power, they get to lead going forward.  But Meili supporters could say the exact same thing – they won (not in gaining the traditional form of power but in setting a high bar, learning lots about running a modern campaign, and impressing people across the province and beyond with a stylish, innovative campaign that dominated in fundraising, social media and outreach), they have as much (but again different) power than Team Broten in the energy and dedication of their diverse and young base, and they will be able to lead going forward, again in different but equally important ways – more linked to the grassroots than the traditional halls of power.

The biggest question before us is whether these two approaches are at all compatible?  Is there a way for those who are (mostly) focused on winning to mesh with those who are (mostly) focused on putting forward the best ideas?  I think this is possible since, as I said, Cam’s and Ryan’s campaigns were already a blend of both approaches.

But to me, the onus is ultimately on Broten, as the new Leader, to guide how this will (or won’t) happen.

Which leads me to my next points…

No matter who we may have supported in the Leadership race, I think all members of the NDP – whether they joined 50 years ago or 5 months ago – have an interest in seeing Cam Broten succeed.  I know the new Leader is an extremely busy man and I also know he is probably getting advice on how to handle his new responsibilities from a variety of quarters.  But I wanted to add to the chorus by listing two vitally important things I want to see from him and his team, one immediately (like yesterday, immediately!) and one in a few years’ time.

What I Want From Cam Broten As the Sask NDP’s New Leader…

1. Outreach & Legitimate, Humble Recognition of How Close the Result Was (And What That Means For Him and the Party Going Forward)
A couple weeks ago, the party sent out an e-mail saying it had been 12 days since Cam had won the Leadership and could we please donate to help broadcast commercials to help introduce him to the province?  As I write this, it’s been exactly a month since the Leadership Convention and, other than one other letter from the three defeated candidates asking for unity (and again, money!) as far as I’ve seen, there has been no real or significant outreach to members of other teams.  (I’m not just hearing this from people who were on Team Meili either.)  Again, I know Broten and the people around him are busy.  I also admit I’m not sure what I thought that outreach would be.  But I thought it would be…something.  Maybe not a personal phone call (although Tzupa mentioned that they did a call through of the entire membership as early as possible during their leadership race – again, strongly focused on the end goal – to introduce Broten to the membership.  So would it be out of the question to have their team calling supporters of other candidates to start building bridges?)  At the minimum, they could send out an e-mail (and not just one asking for money either!)  Or encourage their high profile supporters to reach out to supporters of other candidates on Facebook and elsewhere.   Maybe the best idea I heard was that they should call a meeting where team members from all camps could come together and brainstorm how our various approaches could be melded together, similar to the “Prairie Initiative” meeting I mentioned at the start of this post.  (That’s not an original idea – I stole it from someone in a different camp who said that was their candidate’s plan if they’d won.)  But yeah, something…

2. Reclaiming Lost Seats
In my final series of ten posts where I listed my #1 reason for supporting Ryan, I mentioned that, by the end of the race, I’d reached the point that I felt like if any of the other candidates won, it might end up being a case of them winning the battle but potentially losing the war as we go into the next election.  This was because I didn’t see any of them with the broad array of attributes that was perfectly suited to what the NDP needs at the current time to have a chance to beat Brad Wall (personal popularity = 60% and holding).   I was talking about this to another NDP member and she pointed out that there’s a very easy way to show whether this observation turns out to be true in terms of whether Cam could get it done or not.  “In the next election, if Cam can get us back to where we were before Dwain Lingenfelter was elected – 20 seats – from the 9 we have now, we know he’s on the right path.  Of course, he’ll say that his goal is to be the next Premier of Saskatchewan but all politicians say that.  Realistically, I’ll be happy if he can just show he’s lifting us out of the hole Link left us in.”  This made a lot of sense and I don’t think it’s an unrealistic goal either – especially for a candidate who stressed how his experience made him ready to lead on day one, it’s a very clear indicator for how Cam performs as Leader.  Especially if he’s as focused on winning as his #skndpldr campaign demonstrated, if we’re even able to get back to 20 seats in the next election, a lot of my misgivings about the party choosing someone else over Ryan will be allayed.  Of course, if we don’t reach that point, then you can expect the mother of all “I told you so!” posts the day after the next provincial election.  I hope it doesn’t come to that! 😉

Trackbacks & Pingbacks 4

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