Losing Touch With The Grassroots
Perhaps it’s just a nostalgic swirl in my mind’s eye, but I used to think of political parties as being a lot more engaging. Engaging as in...the parties come to the people and engage, not the other way around. Where are the relationships? Where are the events? Where is the face-to-face communication?
Back in the day, political parties were made up of volunteers and organizers who had a stake in their communities and were politically motivated as a result. I grew up in Saskatchewan, one the hottest ideological environments for politics in Canada. In the early days of the NDP, Tommy Douglas travelled the province winning over hearts and minds. He squared off against staunch conservatives, culminating in the famous Mossbank debate, in which a thousand people showed up to watch the battle of ideology unfold. My Grandfather was a conservative and was good friends with Martin Pederson, the leader of the Progressive Conservative Party of Saskatchewan. What started as shared interests, led to a long-term relationship pushing forth the conservative cause. In the good old days of politics, ordinary people could show up to picnics, rallies, volunteer nights, lectures, debates, information sessions etc.etc.etc. The idea was to get involved and have your say...and build some friendships along the way.
Belonging to a political party is like being accosted by homeless people. They want raw cash and you matter not after it’s been given. Some anecdotes?
A friend of mine was interested in Alberta’s Wildrose Party. I was already a member and didn’t think much of it, so I was wondering why he was hesitating to join. When he finally took out a membership he announced it to me with great acclaim. He noted that they hadn’t contacted him yet, but he was ready. I later followed up with him about the party and he spoke with disdain. He was a high achieving oil industry executive and had international experience overseas. He was anticipating constant phone calls asking him to come to meetings and organize and volunteer and provide input. Instead....crickets. Nothing. They just junk mailed him for more cash.
I read an anecdote about small time NDP supporters making a modest donation to the party and then watching over time as the mailouts begging for more cash essentially ate up the amount that they donated. They stopped contributing what they had.
My parents volunteered for The Saskatchewan Party and, after the election, the only interest the party had in my parents was a regular phone call asking for cash. They give nothing now.
“During the just passed season of giving and filial love, you may have observed that no potential giftee was more prominent in your in-box, hand figuratively extended, than your favourite political party. Their begging letters, once an occasional intrusion, are now ubiquitous. It’s as though they’re desperate, focused to the exclusion of all else on emptying your wallet. Surely a political party should have something beyond money - the greater good, say, or a just society - warm the cockles of its heart?”
--Michael Den Tandt
There are three main reasons for this cultural change.
As political parties have developed over the years they’ve moved more and more towards the model of a corporation. Corporations deal with marketing, metrics, tactics, test audiences etc.etc.etc. The PTA model of engagement isn’t savvy enough or reliable enough in the 21st century. A party staffed with M.B.A’s and political science grads working full time is going to get better results than volunteer farmers and housewives.
#2. Fundraising limits
When Jean Chretien left his poison pill in the form of campaign finance reforms for Paul Martin in 2003, he created a new culture of hungry fundraising. No longer would parties get massive donations from one person or one corporation. Provinces also have restrictions, some of which have become quite strident. This has led to the era of scarcity amongst all parties. When parties face scarcity, they hustle for what they need...which is cash.
#3. The Rise of Think Tanks
Think tanks aren’t as plentiful in Canada as they are in the United States, but there are more and more all the time. By compartmentalizing policy and research, political parties are able to exclusively focus on winning power. As a result, there is less opportunity for laymen to develop ideas under the umbrella of a political party.
-- Bill Bradley
Okay, so...leave politics to the professionals, they do it better and money is all that matters, right?
The problem with this attitude is that Canadian citizens aren’t just “vote customers”. We have a stake in who governs this country and how they govern and we’re paying for all of it to happen. Political parties need to show more respect for their involved base or else they will pay the price with escalating indifference and drifting allegiances.
Let’s take a quick look at the websites of the three major federal parties.
Here’s the NDP website. They are supposed to be the party of the people, right? How about the website for the Conservatives? They are the grassroots conservative populism party, right? Now look at the Liberal website. They are the out of touch, third party elitists, right?
Take a closer look at the Liberal site. Notice something different? Prominently featured on their front page is an “events page”. Look at this events page. Loads and loads of events for people to check out. These events offer people the ability to mingle and network and create the sorts of connections that help to reinvigorate political parties over the long run. This also allows for a strong ground game come election time. The Liberals are doing what they failed to do ten years ago when they took massive majorities as an inherent Liberal right. They are reaching out to people and cultivating a welcoming political party.
Why does this matter?
When political parties lose sight of the individuals who support them, they begin to falter. This is what happened to the Liberal Party after three easy Chretien majorities. People began to disengage and a domino effect took place in which voters stopped caring and the Liberals started failing. They’ve learned their lesson and they’re rebuilding from scratch...and it's working.
Politics is about more than the art of selling a pizza or branding an automobile. If political parties want to make major inroads towards winning and maintaining power, they need to remember that people are more than vote customers. What’s required is building and cultivating relationships based on values, interests and aspirations. Canada’s political parties are professional and slick, but they need to get back to their roots and start involving the people they serve, or they’ll end up joining the list of defunct has-beens from years gone by.