Are two nontraditional campaigns harbingers of change or momentary hiccups?
I am cynical about politics. I remember a time when I believed that politicians actually made a difference and could effect social change, but the current state of affairs in Canada – the attack ads, the sound bites, the lack of substantive policy discussions, the scandals, the contempt of Parliament and the constant bickering among politicians – has made me wonder whether real change can come through formal political structures and institutions. And I am definitely not alone. Studies, polls and statistics indicate that Canadians, especially young Canadians, are disengaged. Voter turnout dropped with each successive election until the slight increase in 2011 and interest in formal politics appears to be at an all-time low. Individuals who want to effect change have largely shifted their focus to other arenas, including NGOs, social movements and protests and demonstrations.
This helps to explain why I have been intrigued by recent examples of possible change within the political sphere. The first came in 2009 during the Saskatchewan NDP leadership campaign. I normally would have paid little attention to this event, especially since I had left the province. However, a friend and colleague, Erika Dyck, worked as campaign manager for one of the candidates and sparked my interest. The candidate, Ryan Meili, a relatively unknown young family doctor, took a different approach to political engagement throughout his campaign and, despite numerous barriers, garnered 45 per cent of the vote and nearly won the leadership of a party that has the potential to win the next provincial election and form the government.
The second came the following year with the 2010 mayoral election in Calgary. Out of nowhere, the traditionally conservative city elected a political progressive, shocking political pundits across the country. Again the candidate, Naheed Nenshi, practised a different type of politics, and it appealed to the city’s population.
These events made me wonder whether something was changing in Canada. Although I am a historian and purposefully focus on the past to avoid feeling anger and frustration about the present, I decided that I had to find out what was happening and whether there might, in fact, be hope for the future of politics.
The Saskatchewan NDP
The Ryan Meili campaign was of particular interest to me, in part because I followed it closely and had a personal connection to the events, and in part because of possible similarities to earlier challenges within the NDP (such as the Waffle movement in the early 1970s) that are the focus of my current historical research.
Meili entered the leadership campaign because he was increasingly convinced that substantive change could come only through formal political structures. Social movements, he concluded, can influence public opinion, but politicians ultimately make decisions and can therefore have a greater effect on society. He also saw an opportunity for change within the Saskatchewan NDP and received unofficial support and encouragement from individuals within the party. His strongest support came from the progressive faction in the NDP, which, historically and currently, struggles against the dominant centrist faction.
Meili was unimpressed with the current state of formal politics and wanted to run a campaign that was positive, intelligent, humorous and honest. From the beginning, Meili was an underdog; even his supporters expected him to be soundly beaten by Dwain Lingenfelter, who had a long career as a cabinet minister in the Saskatchewan NDP. Meili, claims one supporter, “came from nowhere, with no money and no official support.”
Given that Meili was largely unknown and might be pigeonholed as a “young” candidate, policies and messaging were especially important. Furthermore, believing that one of the problems with the current political discourse was the lack of substantive policy discussion, Meili presented a thoughtful and sincere platform. He insisted that treating people like intelligent adults was central to the type of politics he hoped to practise.
Drawing on his experience as a family doctor and his involvement in various community health initiatives, he focused his platform, presented as video clips released to his website and YouTube, on the social determinants of health. He insisted that because health is a core desire for everyone, this issue could unite people and get beyond various points of disagreement. His slogan and theme song, “We are all in this together,” exemplifies this position. He also insisted that his policies be both exciting and realistic; behind the scenes he and his team referred to themselves as “practical idealists” and focused on how to put utopian ideals into effect. In addition, Meili refused to allow his campaign to resort to negative campaigning or messaging, regardless of the actions of other candidates or the media.
Meili also had limited financial resources and a team made up primarily of young, inexperienced volunteers. As such, they developed what one participant refers to as a “guerrilla campaign.” They initiated a “Money Bomb” to raise money, which asked individuals to contribute any small amount they could. A suggested figure was $34, Meili’s age at the time of the campaign. This was a very successful strategy, as approximately $12,000 was raised from hundreds of individual donors in one week alone. This provided money for the campaign and signalled that Meili was a strong second in the race.
The team also turned to new technologies such as blogs, Internet videos and social media. As Dr. Chanchal Bhattacharya explained,
The Meili campaign is different because it’s exploiting the full potential of the Internet as a campaign tool … Despite very limited resources, Meili is effectively using Web 2.0 social media like YouTube and Facebook to reach new voters and energize existing ones. It’s a 21st-century Saskatchewan campaign.1
Moreover, the team was decentralized and democratic. “Honeycomb cells” were established that were entirely autonomous, and supporters were encouraged to make decisions and draw on their strengths. For example, one team member used his skills to produce high-quality YouTube videos. This was, according to Meili supporter and − at the time of writing − federal NDP candidate Noah Evanchuk, a new model: “If you have an idea do it.” This approach was successful in that it helped empower people; supporters could tap into their own skills and contribute to the team.
These tactics were important since the team was made up primarily of young people who had little experience with political organizing. While youth are often essential to political campaigns, according to Erika Dyck, the difference in the Meili campaign “was not that we had young people supporting Ryan … we had young people … running the campaign and were empowered to play a whole variety of roles that played to their strengths … People came in and played the roles they could based on their skills, not based on their age.”
They could also communicate through nontraditional means, especially the Internet, and could mobilize new constituencies and first-time voters. Many involved in the campaign attempted to put a young face on the Meili campaign, but people with varying levels of experience in politics and in the New Democratic Party participated. According to Evanchuk, this was the first campaign to include different generations and approaches to politics.
The campaign successfully excited and inspired voters. Meili has the ability to connect with people and motivate them to engage in politics. He was the “first politician,” Noah Evanchuk explains, “to speak to me in my language … I was blown away … He is a guy with depth passion.” Another key organizer, Brendan Pyle, says that Meili was the “smartest guy around.” In an era when most politicians are “plastic and fake,” Meili’s “presence … gave a spark and a life to everything … and you felt like you were with a real person.” Meili even had me, a hardened political cynic, almost convinced to run for office after only half an hour of conversation. Given Meili’s personality and approach, the campaign became fun and exciting. More than one supporter referred to the campaign as “political heroin,” exhilarating and addictive.Given Meili’s personality and approach, the campaign became fun and exciting. More than one supporter referred to the campaign as “political heroin,” exhilarating and addictive.
Meili had tremendous momentum entering the leadership convention in June 2009. It was clear that he could now challenge Lingenfelter, whose victory initially appeared certain. Meili had developed impressive speaking skills and his video presentation, including an emotional introduction by a young supporter, was the most professional. On the first ballot, Lingenfelter received 45 per cent of the vote, Meili 25 per cent and the other two candidates, Deb Higgins and Yens Pederson, 13 per cent each. Higgins was removed from the ballot and Pederson conceded, throwing his support behind Meili. On the second ballot, 70 per cent of delegates at the convention voted for Meili. However, Lingenfelter secured the votes necessary to win from the large number of mail-in ballots. The final tally was 55 per cent to 45 per cent for Lingenfelter.
Nevertheless, members of the Meili campaign interpreted the result as a success. “It felt like a win in any event,” says Evanchuck. “It was a moral victory, a victory of ideas.” Lingenfelter is a “titan of Saskatchewan politics” and for Meili to come close to defeating him was a tremendous achievement. As one blogger explained,
Remember that it was just last year that the NDP faced a real fear that Lingenfelter’s ascent to the leadership was a foregone coronation and that nobody would even bother seriously challenging him. From that starting point, many members would likely have been thrilled with the prospect that Lingenfelter would instead win a close second-ballot victory against a well-organized opponent. And if the actual result is still somewhat of a disappointment when something even better seemed well within reach, that’s a positive sign as to how far the progressive faction within the NDP has come.2
For many supporters, the result signalled a change not only within the New Democratic Party, but also within politics more broadly.
Calgary’s mayoral campaign the following year is perhaps another sign of change within Canadian politics. Much of what characterized the Meili campaign and made it a success was also key to Naheed Nenshi’s victory. Nenshi was unknown at the beginning of the race and was up against political heavyweight Ric McIver and well-known media personality Barb Higgins. As such, Nenshi had to embrace nontraditional tactics to succeed. Like Meili, he developed a grassroots campaign that relied heavily on volunteers, many of them young, and used YouTube and social media such as Facebook and Twitter quite successfully. “We really sought not just to use Twitter and Facebook as kind of a press release mechanism,” he explained after the election, “but an opportunity to engage in really authentic two-way dialogue with people.”3
Nenshi also released lengthy policy statements in an effort to explain his positions and platform intelligently, what he referred to as “politics in full sentences,” and avoided resorting to negative campaigning. Furthermore, he appealed to young people and new voters; voter turnout increased from 33 per cent in the previous municipal election to 53 per cent in 2010, which many attributed to Nenshi’s get-out-the-vote campaign. In the same way as Meili, Nenshi created a tremendous sense of excitement about politics and inspired people to engage in the process. In the end, Nenshi’s support increased from 8 per cent early in the race to over 40 per cent on election day.
Something needs to change
These campaigns might indicate that something is changing, and that Canadians may be reengaging in the system. In particular, both campaigns embraced a different way of doing politics. They relied on substantial policy discussions rather than attack ads and sound bites. They drew on the strengths of their team members and empowered supporters by encouraging them to contribute their skills. They drew on new technologies, especially social media, to get their message out in a relatively unmediated manner, which enabled individuals who might not otherwise participate in politics to become aware of the issues and engage in the process. They showed people working outside of formal political structures that real change can be achieved through official channels, and Meili sought to make direct connections between formal politics and social movements by hosting a discussion in Saskatoon titled “Connecting Social Movements and Electoral Politics.” Both campaigns successfully convinced many people who were disconnected from politics to enter the political arena.
Yet despite these two examples, the hope for change in Canadian politics does not appear to have been realized. We are currently in the midst of another federal election campaign and it is business as usual. Voters are bombarded with attack ads and fearmongering, and there has been little substantive discussion of policy issues and platforms. Cynicism has reached record levels and voter turnouts reflect disengagement from the system.
In addition, amid rumours of behind-the-scenes machinations designed to force him out, Ryan Meili has since withdrawn from politics. It became difficult, if not impossible, for him to continue to practise politics in the way he had hoped. It is also unclear what Meili could have accomplished as leader of the NDP. Would he have remained a “practical idealist” or, as is the case with many politicians, would he have adapted to the system and become increasingly cynical? As well, would the party actually have supported his reform agenda? In the 1990s, another progressive doctor, John Savage, was forced to resign as leader of the Nova Scotia Liberals when the party refused to support his policies. Would the same have happened to Meili if he had succeeded in his leadership bid?
The question of what this means for the future of politics remains. Meili and Nenshi achieved varying levels of success by employing a nontraditional approach to politics. On the one hand, perhaps this is the beginning of a transformation and − despite the apparent continuation of old approaches to politics − further change will occur over time. At a recent discussion about the 2011 federal election held at Massey Hall in Toronto, some people insisted this was the case:
No one in the group held out much hope of a breakthrough in this election. But some members − especially the younger ones − envisaged a rebirth of democracy. Once Canadians grasp the power they have at their fingertips through the social media, they’ll start linking up with people who share their goals, building coalitions, spreading their message and demanding change, the optimists predicted.4
On the other hand, perhaps the campaigns were momentary hiccups, politicians will continue to operate as they have done and citizens will continue to disengage from the formal structures and processes. Maybe Meili is ultimately correct when he claims that it is the responsibility of citizens to find a common focus and common goal and “insist that actually be honest and positive.” No matter what, I, like many Canadians, believe that something needs to change if our democracy is to survive.