I recently ran for Member of Parliament in the by-election in my riding of
Fort McMurray - Athabasca. One year ago I would have scoffed at anyone
who predicted that I would be involved in politics let alone running in an
election. In my mind politics was at worst the antithesis to every good thing
in the world and at best a necessary evil required for peaceful individuals to
produce good in the world. Fast-forward to present day where I now find myself
the leader of a rapidly growing federal political party preparing to sweep Canada off its
feet and change the face of federal politics.
How did I get here? It has been a surreal roller coaster ride. Within weeks of being convinced that perhaps I should consider running in the 2015 Federal election our MP resigned. I consulted with my supporters and my family and decided that it would be a good learning experience to run in the by-election. Within a couple weeks of announcing my candidacy our team created a meme that circulated the world, CNN called me for an interview, I appeared on Fox Business, I was lampooned on ThisHour Has 22 Minutes and Gawker, was highlighted on Reason Magazines blog and made appearances on numerous radio programs. Shortly after that I was nominated and subsequently elected Leader of the Libertarian Party of Canada. Unfortunately the popularity and acclaim I seemed to achieve in certain circles didn't translate to many people in my riding knowing much of anything about me or my party and I finished with a disappointing 3% of the vote.
While I'm still trying to figure out whether I'm becoming everything I hate in this world, let me share with you some of the lessons I learned during my short time in the political arena.
1) People Are Afraid
Fear is everywhere in the political process and informs almost every decision. People vote for a particular political party because they are afraid that their sacred issues won't be addressed otherwise. If you're afraid about what will happen to poor people or the environment you tend to vote left and if you're afraid of external threats and the ability to gather resources you tend to vote right.
I had many people from both sides of the political spectrum secretly support me and tell me they agree with me but they had to remain in the closet politically for fear of what would happen to them socially if they came out. If you achieve a certain amount of success and prestige in a group I suppose there may be a price to pay socially for challenging the narrative of that group. I had open and ardent supporters who flipped at the last minute because, as much as they wanted me to win, they wanted another party to lose more...if the bad party won it would be their worst fears realized.
2) Politicians are Incentivized to Foment Fear
Telling people everything is probably going to be alright, the world is getting better, and pointing out at all the beauty everywhere is not likely to get you any votes. When you run for office you are presenting yourself as a solution to a problem. The more horrendous the problem appears and the more afraid people are of that problem the more appealing you look when you present yourself as the solution. I continuously found myself tempted to point out all the ways my opponents policies would result in catastrophe, even though I knew it probably wouldn't really make any real difference who won the election.
3) Politicians are Incentivized to Deliver Meaningless Platitudes
Each party and political movement seems to have their own catch phrases and jargon that are essentially sentiments devoid of any real meaning. On the left if you say the word "sustainable" you evoke a positive emotional response even though everybody has a different standard, definition, and vision of what that word actually means. On the right if you say the words "National Security" it evokes a positive emotional response that is similarly devoid of any meaning. If you try and flesh out idea's and opinions in concrete rational terms you face immediate criticism, its best to just make meaningless appeals to emotion.
At one debate I attended I tried to flesh out some concrete ideas about how to improve healthcare. A prominent figure stepped up to the open mic and in dramatic Charlton Heston-esque fashion said, "You can pry MY universal healthcare from my COLD...DEAD...HANDS!!" Boom...drops the mic...requisite audience applause for the grand-standing. I thought about going through a reasoned response that tried to address his statement, that was itself devoid of any discernable content, and deliver a nuanced outline of a plan moving forward, but in the end I looked at the audience and said stupidly, "I'm a paramedic, I deliver healthcare I don't take it away." To which audience members nodded their agreement, I had won them back...without saying anything meaningful.
4) Politicians are Incentivized to be Fake
Politicians, almost by definition, are required to not have any personal opinions and to completely erase themselves and take on the aggregate personality of their constituents in order to win votes and get elected. This means that rationally in order to win an election you must value power and prestige more than integrity, you can't have any compunction about deception, you have to tell people what they want to hear, and sympathy for your political victims will be a handicap. Sociopaths have a decided advantage in the political arena. Popularity is everything if you want to get elected. and if you are trying to change the status quo then you have to say unpopular things.
One example I faced is that I'm a secular person and at times it would have been much more comfortable for me to outright lie, or dodge questions about this and talk about my theological training in Bible College to make people think I'm religious without actually lying and thus be more attractive to more people that would vote for me. I could go on and on about the many times I was tempted to erase myself in order to garner popularity and avoid discomfort. I promised myself and my family that I wouldn't do that. My end game is to create a better world for my kids not win a popularity contest.
Then again it would be a lot easier to change the world if I was the king of it...hmmm...
5) People Project Themselves onto Politicians
I was asked over variations of the same question over and over again; "This is my problem, how are your going to fix it?" People that come to public forums and make pleas to politicians all seem to share a common feeling of powerlessness. People want us to be a saviour who is there for them and cares deeply for them and we are more than happy to accept their complete dependency on us to solve their problems, that's kinda how we get the job. We talk as if we know how to solve their problems. We suddenly become experts at road building, administering healthcare, and food production.
It was actually very disturbing to me on a visceral level the degree to which people projected both their powerlessness and their hopes and dreams onto me as I would stand in front of them. Something about it felt wrong. It was as if they saw me as something other than human. If people liked me I became an infallible hero who carried all their hopes and dreams, if I worried them I became a treacherous super villain capable of destroying everything they hold dear. Politicians seem to be demi-gods in the mind of many people.
As a side note there is an incredible temptation to start to believe ones own hype that I suspect isn't all that healthy - for anybody.
As a side note there is an incredible temptation to start to believe ones own hype that I suspect isn't all that healthy - for anybody.
6) People are Apathetic About Politics
Only about 15% of eligible voters in my riding took the time to vote in the by-election. That means 85% elected to do other things; spend time with family, watch TV, go on vacation, go to work, drink beer. Many critics deride this apathy and try and shame these individuals as everything that is wrong with this country, I disagree. I don't think people are resistant to making the world better through voting so much as they are just attracted to doing things that actually make their world better.
Almost everybody I talked to was frustrated and fed up with politics. It doesn't seem to be the case that apathetic voters don't care about what is going on in the country, they seem to care a great deal, its just that they've come to notice that voting doesn't seem to do much. People who at one point really cared about election results would campaign vehemently for their candidate and would get one of two possible results; a) their candidate loses after all that work and effort, or b) their candidate wins and through no fault of their own is unable to live up to the hype. I suspect that at a certain point people who care just decide they'd rather see what's on TV than rinse and repeat a cycle of disappointment.
Perhaps a cure for voter apathy would be to give everyone a default vote of libertarian, the only party whose goal is to use no initiatory force, that way if they want a government to initiate force on their behalf they will have to go vote...that may seem bias, and it is, but you have to admit it does make a lot of sense ;)
7) Political Debates Amount to a Family Argument
Generally speaking I've noticed that those who lean left identify more with what might be classified traditionally as maternal interests; sharing resources, keeping a clean environment, looking after those who can't look after themselves, including and accepting everybody. Those people who identify themselves on the right politically tend to identify more with paternal issues; boundary enforcement, protecting people they care about, gathering and trading resources effectively, encouraging self-sufficiency.
It seems to me that an individual's political identity has more to do with their childhood environment than it has to do with critically thinking from first principles. Whenever I hear people argue about politics all I hear is, "I want mommy in charge" or "I want daddy in charge." It is now hard for me not to view political debates as anything more than grown-up children arguing about who the best parent is.
8) Real Change Has to Come From the Fringes
Because of all the dynamics I've described, I can't imagine how political parties can do anything other than engage in popularity contests. Trudeau can't promote gun rights anymore than Harper can promote ending marijuana prohibition even if that's how they personally feel, they'd lose their jobs. Nope, they are relegated to parroting party lines that their supporters expect and that are meaningless enough not to offend their base. There is no way for an up and comer in any of these parties to go off script with innovative and completely outside the box thinking. It is hard to imagine anybody who is actually able to solve problems and provide value being attracted to a mainstream political party.
While I didn't come close to getting elected, I do have reason to believe that I made a much bigger difference to the political landscape than the numbers would reflect. Anecdotal reports I was receiving suggested that other campaigns were having to consider how to respond to my ideas and challenges. The big parties are like big cumbersome monsters that strike with slow, predictably narrow rhetoric and aren't used to having a nimble opponent exploiting weaknesses they never realized they had. It is relatively easy for a little guy like me to break away little chunks of their party than it is for them to come close to doing any damage to mine.
9) There is Hope For Humanity
A recent survey suggests that millenials identify as socially liberal and fiscally conservative which is another way of saying that they don't see the world as a power struggle between mommy and daddy. Millennials rightly reject partisan lines that would require them to sacrifice principles in the name of political expedience. You can be against gun control and against drug prohibition. You can be anti-corporatism and pro-free market. You can be a fundamentalist Christian and be against interfering with two men getting married. You can be an ardent environmentalist while rejecting the notion that big government is the best way forward. You can be pro-law & order and pro-maximum individual freedom.
More and more young people are rejecting politics as we know it. The amount of information freely available is increasing and the ability to propagandize is decreasing. Young people are skeptical of the idea that society is best organized by a group of individuals who, by virtue of winning a popularity contest, we grant a monopoly on force and ask them to use that force to solve our every problem. During my campaign I received messages from various young people who are upgrading democracy and taking personal power in their own lives in all sorts of innovative ways; using crypto-currency like Bitcoin to make central banks obsolete, developing new types of automatic contracts like Etherium with built in dispute resolution mechanisms to diminish their dependence on centralized justice systems, building and selling escape pods in Galts Gulch to people looking to find community away from a meddling state. The list of ways young people are finding solutions to make monolithic institutions irrelevant is virtually endless and it gives me hope for my kids.
10) Focusing on Collecting Votes Doesn't Change The World
The universe emerges from the bottom up. Government is an emergent property of the beliefs and actions of individuals in society. Humans pre-existed the idea of government not the other way around. The more I found myself focusing on winning votes and gaining popularity the more I hated how the words coming out of my mouth sounded and the more I found that people were being attracted to their own caricature of my message. The more I imagined change occurred from the top down the less integrity I acted with.
Change can only occur from challenging the status quo, and elections can only be won by appealing to the status quo. Research shows that societal paradigms shift when a tipping point of 10% of people adopt an unshakeable belief. I've got kids so I want a societal upgrade more than I want to be king. Other politicians can focus on getting elected. Once my party and I win 10% of hearts and minds it really doesn't matter to me which politicians get in front of the new parade. Then again maybe deep in the hearts of voters the status quo has changed and they're are just waiting for politicians to catch up.