Politics in Two Dimensions

Posted January 25, 2011
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If you don't know about the Alberta Party, they are now Alberta's fourth opposition party in the Legislature, after former Liberal Dave Taylor crossed the floor to become their first sitting MLA. They define themselves as a centrist party, 'picking-and-choosing' the best policy of the political spectrum, attracting members from all occupations and of all political stripes, and reaching out to young and disenfranchised Albertans, while no longer playing politics-as-usual. Sounds good doesn't it? It does and it doesn't. Their ability to reach out to Albertans who have never involved themselves in politics is fantastic, but the Alberta Party has marketed themselves as a party that is 'post-partisan', as if they are somehow above the banging-your-head-against-the-wall political game that the other parties engage in. As we've seen today with Dave Taylor's floor crossing, that rosy message is already starting to wilt after one day of the party having an active MLA.


Dave Taylor has said that "if I were to make a decision that I thought I would want to run as a member of some other party, then I would wait until the next election or resign and go through a by-election", yet there is no by-election, no waiting until the next election, and Dave Taylor is now a member of another party. Even though the Alberta Party's established process to accept Dave Taylor as MLA for Calgary-Currie is far more open and democratic than other parties, the Alberta Party is receiving flak as it begins to fall short of the lofty perceptions they've created.

Just like Barack Obama's difficult presidency, If the Alberta Party continues to position themselves as a party that is everything to everyone, it will be a constant uphill battle as they learn they cannot. However, their feel-good position on the Alberta political scene isn't entirely their own doing.

An over-simplification of the political spectrum

The interpretation that the Alberta Party doesn't fit political lines is largely fueled by a media and electorate that constantly defines them in the simplest way possible. Here is the political spectrum as envisioned by a countless army of journalists, bloggers, politicians:

one dimensional politics

No wonder so many verbally assault each other as a 'liberal' or 'conservative' in derogatory terms. You really are 'with-us-or-against-us' in this model. I feel sorry for those who interpret the political reality around them so one-dimensionally.  Let's look at a policy of supporting oil-sands development: Where on the line would you put it? Generally pro-oil sands policy is considered right-wing, but is it really that simple? Here is the political spectrum defined in a slightly more realistic way:

one dimensional politics

Yes, two dimensions! Look at all that room. While it still leaves the political spectrum not as three-dimensional as the people we all are, it gets us one more ever-important axis closer. Yet seldom do we discuss politics this way. Where would you put a 'pro-oil sands' policy now? It's generally considered right wing due to it's inherent pro-business nature, but what about government subsidies to oil producers? Starting to sound a little left wing to me. This model can support that conversation, and our discussion is now resembling something a little closer to thoughtful debate rather than just 'left' or 'right'. This is how the Alberta Party appears to want to have the discussion, and it's how the discussion should be had. All the parties fit more accurately on this model, yet most refuse to have the political conversation held in a two-dimensional light. This is a key factor for why the Alberta Party appears to be 'post-partisan'. They would rather talk about politics in two-dimensions, even when many only respond to one.


An over-simplification of their message

Whether being burdened with the unattainable label of being a  'post-partisan party' was intentional, it stands that so far they have benefited from this identity, despite the heat they are now beginning to face. The message sounds great, and they've indulged in it accordingly. We all hate the mindless partisan banter we read about in the news (and it only gets exponentially worse at the Federal level). The message of being above the vitriol would resonate a lot with people, especially those who stray away from politics often for that very reason, which is of course the very demographic the Alberta Party would like to target. But the label, however nice, is insurmountable.

The Alberta Party will be in the partisan political game, and not above it, and as long as they carry a 'holier-than-thou' attitude to the other parties, they will receive a disproportionately large amount of flak for any of their actions that resemble politics-as-usual. As evidenced already with Dave Taylor's stance on crossing the floor, they will break some promises and they will contradict themselves. They will dive into partisan attacks - Dave Taylor was quick to point out on the Rutherford Show, "There's a lot of bitterness and negativity from more established parties'. The parties he referenced would certainly disagree with that statement. Let the partisan games begin.


The party's message is at the mercy of it's followers

Today's political conversation is increasingly social-media driven, and a party's political stance is becoming less defined by official statements and far more defined by the interpretation of those statements by it's followers. This point is particularly true of the Alberta Party, who by a completely unscientific count, appear to dominate their opponents in numbers over social media. Many are willing to engage people on twitter about their party, and yet may not be familiar with the actual positions of the party. This can lead to many of the party's supporters shaping the views of the party to their own specific principles, even when those principles might run counter to what is officially stated.

The propensity for many individuals to mention the Alberta Party's style of 'post-partisan' politics has very much defined how the party is now contentiously viewed, despite a lack of the term any where to be found on the party's official website. I've met some members of the party who reject the 'post-partisan' label outright, and others who swear by it. So as that label begins to hurt the party, it may be difficult to shed it.


Rising above the labels

I write this not as a scathing critique of the Alberta Party, but as a letter of encouragement. The Alberta Party is exciting. When they set their sights on Alberta's political deficit - that 60% of Albertans aren't engaged enough to vote - their message is exactly on target. There is very strong demand for more engagement in Alberta politics: more listening, more reaching out, and more discussion. The fact they've centered their party around this ideology and received very warm support from a segment of the population that's never talked politics before is an early victory for the party that all Albertans should take notice of.

But as evidenced by the questions Dave Taylor's floor crossing raised, it is time to get real. The rose-coloured glasses need to come off, and the Alberta Party needs to emerge with focused policy, a continuing effort to engage disenfranchised Albertans, and steer away from the misguided and misused feel-good statements that many have come to associate the party with. The Alberta Party can play the political game with integrity, and at a level higher than we currently see in the legislature no doubt, but it still has to be played and any illusions that the party is above the game entirely are just that.

For as many people that flocked to the Alberta Party on the impression of 'post-partisan' politics, there are as many like me, on the side lines, waiting for the party to show their true dimensions. I can't wait, best of luck!