Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Generals and Foot-soldiers

Nation, with the dropping of the writ for 2 by-elections in Alberta next month, I think it especially appropriate that we take a look at the roles that people play in the political process.

Although there are countless ways in which you can be involved in an election, both partisan and non-partisan, it is of the partisan involvement that I wish to speak (since, naturally, most people are in fact partisan - if not at the start of a campaign, then certainly by the end).

I break the main categories of "politically involved persons" into 2 distinct groups: Generals (candidates and campaign insiders), and Foot-soldiers (constituency-level volunteers). Or, if you prefer, "Officers and Sailors".

Now, the metaphor isn't without its flaws. One of the most egregious of which is that, given enough time and good service, a soldier will eventually find himself promoted up the chain of command. A campaign volunteer who works the phones exceptionally well is unlikely to find herself as campaign chair the next go-round. However, I think that the similarities outweigh the discrepancies. Consider:

  • No General has ever won a battle by himself, no matter how skilled. It is impossible to win without a dedicated troop of soldiers.
  • Soldiers, as a rule, don't "hang out" with their generals, but still do what they consider to be their duty.
  • Soldiers (at least THESE days) volunteer because they believe in the cause.
  • Generals have access to tools, training and information that soldiers do not.

The list goes on and on. The bottom line, however, is that many people get involved in politics hoping to some day BE a General, and carry the party flag into an election as a candidate, or as a candidate's advisor, insider, etc... but find themselves seemingly trapped underneath a glass ceiling, as a Foot-soldier with little hope for advancement. Which, it bears repeating, is NOT a slight against the vital role that campaign volunteers play - without them, NOBODY can win. You need a Literature Dropper, Door-Knocker, Sign Delivery Person or Phone Bank Volunteer just as badly as you need an Official Agent or Media Liaison, except even MORESO... because you need just one of each of those generals, but need 50 people alone just working the phones for you. The point of the matter is, though, that those campaign volunteers should be there because they WANT to serve in that capacity, not because they wanted to be media advisors, or even candidates, and were told they had nothing to contribute in that role.

Ask yourself: How do you become a candidate for the ruling party? I imagine it's pretty easy to become a candidate for a fringe party, or for a party with little to no chance of winning in a riding - you just put your name in, and there's a decent chance you might even be acclaimed. But to run for the PC Party, in Calgary (as an example)... what schooling do you take for that career aspiration? Political Science? Law?
If you want to be a plumber, you go to trade school and take plumbing courses. What school offers "winning your hotly-contested nomination" courses?
You've got to know the right people, sell a lot of memberships, shake a lot of hands, and possibly grease a few palms along the way. What chance does an interested lay-person, truly interested in making a positive difference for their community, have of winning a nomination against an entrenched General with all the right connections, a war-chest of donations and favours owed to him left and right? Very little... and so, these aspiring Generals, with no recourse, either end up disillusioned with the process altogether and withdraw from aspiration of public service, try to carry the flag for another party (knowing they have little chance of winning against the same entrenched General that drove them from the party nomination in the first place), or end up as Foot-soldiers themselves.

I imagine that parties like the Greens have similar complaints when elections roll around - "What chance do we have running a campaign with a quarter of the volunteers, little to no media exposure, a fraction of the budget, no spot in the debates, and in an area that hasn't elected a non-Tory in decades?". This feeling of hopelessness and disenfranchisement (admittedly, not a word) eventually permeates even the most optimistic of souls, and we lose more and more people who were truly interested in making a difference to the political sidelines, where they will sit and snipe and protest and be generally bitter, but will instead of opposing the policies, will just want to strike back at the system or party that they feel betrayed them.

I have, in Alberta, met many young people who wanted to run for the PC's in a provincial election, or at least play a major inside role in a campaign, to learn "how it was done". Some were dismissed as mere "kids" and told to go man a phone, while some actually ran for the nomination before getting crushed by their 3-term sitting MLA. These youth either disengaged themselves from political life, or ran for other parties (Red Tories for the Liberals and Blue for the Alberta Alliance). I've seen the same in Federal Conservative campaigns over the years.
While this IS a democracy, and the majority rules at the end of the day, this can NOT be good for democracy, or for these Tory parties in particular, that those people MOST inclined to become active in politics are being told that they have the LEAST to offer a campaign. They're being sent the message that they can NEVER be Generals - be it that they earned the wrong degree (What was Premier Klein's degree in again? PoliSci? Law? OH... right...), they lack the necessary experience (or at least the right connections), or that there are already enough Generals in this riding, thank-you very much, here's a hammer and some lawn signs.

Again, I want to make it perfectly clean that Hannibal never won a battle by himself, and Lord Admiral Horatio Nelson didn't sink a single ship at Trafalgar... it was the common soldier or sailor, doing the TRULY hard work, that won the day. But when someone wants to be an Officer in today's military, they know where to go - West Point (U.S.), or the Royal Military College in Canada. What do we tell those who desperately want to lead the charge for parties that assume they have little to offer, for whatever reason? Where do we tell them to go?

If we're the parties in question, we tell them to go away, and let the Generals do the planning. It's the equivalent of "go sit at the kiddies' table, the grown-ups are talking about important things". That doesn't bode well for those parties... recall that a young German soldier, upset at his lack of promotion in WWI, went on to make himself a General through another avenue.

If you were the PC's, you'd hate to see one of these aspiring Generals who truly want to help your party and make a difference be pushed away to another party, and become the next Peter Lougheed. Because then that would make the PC's the Social Credit party of the 21st century - all but extinct.

- ES

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