How to get involved in politics
Feb 27, 2014

How to get involved in politics

Politics can be a deeply disenfranchising experience for many people. For an individual, it seems like we have no power, no way of influencing what is going on. So we can grumble around the dinner table about what the politicos are doing in Ottawa and Washington, or we can ignore it all, but either way it doesn't make much of a difference. In the final consideration, of course, we live in a democracy and the average person does have enormous power to influence our society, at least in aggregate. People recognize the power that voting has and roughly 60% of us show up to exercise that lever of influence. However, voting once every four years is far from the only way our voice has influence.

In this post I want to look at some of the many mechanisms - more than just voting in major elections - by which we can influence the political progress. This largely separates into two camps, what I call "direct signalling" and "indirect signalling". Loosely, direct signalling are all the mechanisms whereby people in politics have a way of seeing the signal. They see the results of elections, but they also see the results of opinion polls, debate questions, letters written to them, party conventions speakers and policy votes, etc. The indirect signalling are mechanisms that politicians themselves don't see, but influence how other members of society feel, and thus how other members of society may directly signal. They include things like conversations with friends and family, posting links on Facebook, blogging, etc. It doesn't directly influence politicos, but it changes the relative attention and preferences in society a smidgen such that society gives a slightly different mix of direct signals.

Let's look at the direct signalling first, beginning with the most obvious.

Voting in the general election is important in the sense that it the ultimate decider about who gets into power, but it is also important for various other reasons. While winning matters most, the relative amounts by which you win by have an effect as well. For a minority situation this is most clear: a closer race is going to make the winner feel more of a need to accommodate the losing parties since they know they have less of a buffer of support, and for multiparty situations all sorts of complicated coalitions and the like can be created that crucially depend on the relative rankings. It also matters even within a single riding which really is First Past The Post. In a "safe" seat - won by a comfortable majority - that politician can feel the freedom to take stronger positions further from the middle ground, since their buffer of support is quite large. They get a bit more freedom to act their own conscience (opposed to purely the most politically calculated move at every time) and know that they can gain support by taking positions firmly in their parties camp and not at the boundary between parties. We see this all the time in the US Congress with their two year effectively constant campaigning where very risky seats the politicians thus don't take risks and aim for that banal "moderate" position while those in safer seats can take much bolder positions. So typically we want our party to win by a large margin, and opposing parties to win (if they must) by only a small margin.

Voting third party:
Voting for parties that are unlikely to win can be an excellent way of signalling and can have considerable value. I've written on this at some length, so let me just refer you to this argument on the value of voting third parties, to this specific example of that with green parties, and to this post on how deciding to vote third party or not can depend on your riding's poll numbers. In brief, high levels of votes for third parties signal to the other parties that those parties core policies are politically valuable and so increases the likelihood they move in that direction.

Voting in primaries:
In many ways, primaries are more important than general elections. In a general election, so many people are partisans that they are, say, an NDP voter and they show up on election day and vote NDP. This matters for the reasons above, but it is very hard for anyone to pick out precisely what your values and priorities are when presented with a big general election platform. Perhaps it isn't even an issue of supporting particular policies, but an expression of identity, or a measure of a politicians personability. It is an important signal, but a limited one.

In a primary, a voter gets to signal their preferences a bit more accurately. Inside of the big tent of a party, a vote for a person represents a specific location in that tent. The NDP, for instance has a range from a few die hard socialists to a large group (and current leader) of moderates. There are tensions in the NDP between, say, environmentalism and costs to the lower middle class, one can choose either local representatives in primaries or at the leadership level that fall into either of these camps. Personally, in the NDP and Liberal leadership elections I voted for Nathan Cullen and Joyce Murray respectively to try and push the idea of NDP-Liberal cooperation in a subsequent minority position. In the US, the large success of the Tea Party movement can be attributed to its ability to change the national conversation by replacing establishment and moderate Republicans with Tea Party idealogues at the primary level, which represented perhaps the most important shift in the last four years. That Obama beat McCain and Romney is important, of course, but given that outcome, it was these primary shifts that took the next level of importance.

Directly contact your representative:
Rightly or wrongly, we have a democratic system based on regional representation, and those representatives do read contact from their constituents. Send Stephen Harper a message? Unlikely to get through. But to your local MP or MPP or city councillor? Much more likely. I don't do this enough, to be honest, but it is an available signally tool that is great because it is both direct to the politician, and because it allows you to be as precise as you wish about what specific issue you care about that you are contacting them about. It helps them demonstrate the level of support for particular issues, particular more niche issues that don't make it into national polls (the way, say, Senate reform might). Your post on Facebook is never going to be read by a politician, but an email to them just might.

Asking questions (in person, or by electronic submissions) for debates helps signal that those particular issues are ones the electorate cares about. I always answer any telephone poll, particularly if it is an issues based one opposed to a voter intentions one, as these are one of the most important ways for politicians to sense the mood of the country on particular big issues of the day. Even things as mundane as following someone like, say, Elizabeth May on Twitter demonstrates to other politicians the extent of her reach and can help tilt things in her direction.

All this is just the tip of the ice burg. People can get quite a bit more involved, working in local riding associations, being delegates at conventions, working for advocacy groups, and so on. There are thousands of these roles across the country that have quite a bit more influence than the average person but still far less than an individual politician. These types of things do take effort, more than listed above, but they are more rewarding for it.

Indirect signalling:
This is the type of signalling that most of us participate in for most of our political interaction., and consists of most communication between citizens about politics. As a blogger, I do it more than most. Namely, my goal when writing blog posts isn't to get politicians to read them and thus act according to my prescriptions, much as I might love to have that kind of audience. Instead, I hope to help influence people on my particular mix of views on politics and society, and that they in turn will directly and indirectly signal given this influence, and collectively it adds up to something measurable. Anybody can do this, however, you hardly need a blog. Every Facebook post and conversation with friends has a similar kind of influence.

When you let someone else who a particular opinion of yours, and present arguments for it, it increases their tendency to think likewise, to encourage others to think likewise, and to vote and act in accordance. This doesn't mean you need to suddenly get people to change their opinion full stop, but we are social creatures and on aggregate the collective spreading of opinions and ideas in society leads to their relative rankings and preferences when it comes times to vote and make other signals.

Volunteering for campaigns:
Campaigns are always in desperate need for volunteers and this is among the most powerful way to indirectly signal out there. A campaign volunteer helps get others out to vote for their candidate, thus indirectly signalling their preference in a way stronger than just those who vote alone.

At the end of the day, there are lot of different things we can do. True, no individual will make a large difference but it is tautological that collectively we can change our society how we see fit. Thankfully, there are many tools available to us to directly and indirectly signal our intentions and it is not just election day once every four years that matters. Getting involved in these various ways makes a legitimate difference to society and, for most of us - myself included - we can, and should, do more.

Thoughts on this post? Comment below!

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