I have always been interested in politics – well, more world affairs than politics per se, but political awareness has always been part of my consciousness. My parents, though not party members, were strong supporters of the New Democratic Party. I distinctly remember my mother heaping praise on Howard Pawley our local MLA and the Premier of the province. And so the die was cast, growing up in a socially liberal, economically challenged and overtly partisan household, my political identity was shaped. I was, by default an NDP supporter.
Shaping my own Political Identity
In my final year of high school, Mr. Mitchell had our English class read Brave New World. Reading this book and participating in the class discussions had a profound impact on me. If I can point to the moment where I began to shape my political identity on my own, it was here.
I started university in engineering, my career path at the time was to lead to aeronautical engineering. As the year progressed, I found my favorite courses were English and philosophy. I spent much of my free time debating economics and social issue with a few engineering students who were of the Canadian Alliance persuasion. As the end of the year drew near, I could feel my heart pull me towards politics and I made the decision to change my studies. The next year I entered Arts and immersed myself in new thought.
My arts program was an amazing opportunity for me to expose myself to new thoughts, ideas and insights. I loved every class I took, philosophy, psychology, economics, sociology and off course, politics. As I began to take honours course, the concentration shifted from reading and taking lectures to reading and discussing the ideas in groups. Being exposed to new and different world views challenged me to look objectively at my own. In this safe space I was able to challenge my own beliefs and change them if they didn’t hold up to my new found intellectual rigour. University was like the adolescence of my political identity and the courses were the hormones spurring growth. I ran for student office, winning a seat on the University of Manitoba Student’s Union council and was appointed chair. I even participated as a regular panelist on the Political Panel student radio program. Apparently no one else wanted to represent “the left” on the show.
Becoming a Partisan
With my roots firmly in social democratic soil, I became a member and sought the federal NDP nomination in my home riding of Selkirk-Interlake in the 2000 election but lost, only to have the NDP ask me to run in Winnipeg South, the riding the University of Manitoba was situated. Running for a federal party is a strong statement of partisanship, about as strong as they come actually. At this time I wore my partisanship on my sleeve and I allowed it to serve as my political identity. That is to say, I conflated the two.
In my final year of my undergrad program, I decided to run for city council. After running federally I was hooked and thought that starting at the municipal level would help to gain the experience I needed to be an effective MP in the future. The truth is I had decided to run for council shortly after the 2000 election. I had been attending the weekly council meetings for almost two years, learning about the local issues and understanding how the council worked.
Separating Partisanship and Political Identity
At 24 and while still in university, I was elected by the people of Selkirk. Being a member of a small municipal council was, as it turned out, to be one of the most formative experiences in my life. While I entered local public life a clear partisan, it wasn’t long before I realized that there was a gap between my party affiliation and my political beliefs. The experience of having to resolve practical situations by working with people of dramatically different political views helped to clarify my own moral and ethical truths, independent of what the party policy book suggested.
Shortly after being elected I began writing op-ed pieces that appeared from time to time in the Winnipeg Free Press and once on Rabble. My Rabble piece, Did I vote? You bet I did! gives you some sense of my partisan nature but a taste of my growing political independence.
The Limits of Partisanship
My time on council taught me that you can’t tell the quality of a person, by the colour of their party card. In my time on council I got to work with people of all stripes, some of whom were overt about their party affiliation and some who were not public about it, but were card carrying members all the same. To be honest – the majority of local officials I know are affiliated in some way, they just don’t talk about it because it doesn’t serve their needs at the council table.
I found that I could work quiet easily with people so long as we focused on the issues and not motives. As time went by, I depended less on my partisanship and more on my own political identity to guide my decisions. I found that some people, despite being card-carrying conservatives, were good people and truly had the best interests of “the people” at heart.
Being a member of a political party is still an important part of our democratic process. It still provides practical value by bringing people of similar beliefs and values together to focus on a specific set of objectives. It’s an important organizational tool, providing structure and process so that many people can help shape the direction of their government. It can also be an educational tool, through which people learn about the pressing issues of the day and about potential solutions. But it also has a downside.
Partisanship can also be used as blinders, to herd people into supporting the ideas of an elite few. It can encourage ugly us-versus-them tribal tendencies or reduce our political discourse to the same level as the brand-loyalty fueled fights between which cola is better or which sports team is superiour.
In short, partisanship can both bring us together and it can divide us.
While I still have partisan preferences, I don’t limit my political views to the party policy guide. I choose to work with anyone who is willing to work with me on the pressing issues of the day. I am first a progressive democrat, committed to social equity and environmental protection, and second a party member. That means I will disagree with my party from time to time, but I accept the responsibility of working internally to correct the weakness as I see them.
It also means that I am able to see the good in other parties and the people who identify with them. There are card caring Conservatives for whom I have great respect and trust, and I have even toyed with the idea of voting Green (although I haven’t).
While I have a party card in my pocket and I am proud to be a member – I know that it alone doesn’t define me. I know that my partisanship is a tool that I can use to build a better world.
My partisanship is a part of my political identity, but it’s not the whole of it. My beliefs extend well beyond my party card, and that’s the way it should be. While I may not agree with somebody today on a particular issue, that doesn’t mean we can’t work together in areas in which we agree. And in the areas where we don’t agree – let us have a vigorous exchange of ideas and potential solutions, avoiding ad hominem attacks or superficial rhetoric, for the betterment of our community, country and the world.