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Friday, 15 June 2012

A Tale of Two Leadership Conventions

2012 has been an interesting year for politics in North America - and the year has just begun. In both Canada and the United States the opposition parties will select new leaders in 2012. While both contests have been exciting and well-covered by the media, they could hardly be more dissimilar. In this post I am going to explore the differences between the NDP Leadership Convention in Canada and the race for the Republican Nomination in the United States.

In the past year a lot has happened politically in Canada at the federal level. In the 2011 General Election, Stephen Harper's Conservatives won their first majority government. They accomplished their rather unpredictable feat largely through none of their own work. The collapse of large parties in the House of Commons, the Liberals and the Bloc Quebecois, led to a greater splitting of the vote than ever. This had the duel effect of propelling the Conservatives to a majority and netting the NDP over one hundred seats in the legislature, their best ever result. The euphoria was short-lived, however, with the passing of NDP leader Jack Layton in August of 2011. In the seven months since the party has recovered from this blow and selected a new leader.

In the United States, the primaries have been going on for what seems like an eternity. In the wake of the poor performance of the Republicans (or GOP) in the 2008 election, the party has undertaken a long process of selecting someone to run this November. In the elections for Congress in 2010 the Republicans made a comeback both in the House of Representatives and in the Senate, mostly because many "Independents" felt that Obama was not moving forward with "repairing the economy". The leadership race in the United States is far from over. At this point, nearly half of US states have yet to vote, and the convention where a leader will be chosen, will not take place until the late summer.

But what exactly are the differences between these two political competitions? As best as I can tell right now, there are at least four significant differences between the NDP and GOP leadership races. Here they are below:

The most obvious difference is in terms of duration. The NDP race has been cited as taking seven months; however, the competition did not even start until November, meaning that four months would be a more appropriate characterisation of length. In the United States, meanwhile, the race for the Republican nomination has already lasted nearly a year, and the competition charges on.

The main purpose that Americans take so long to choose a candidate is generally because they want to thoroughly vet the candidates. The process of the primaries will examine if the leader has the physical and mental stamina on the one hand, and if they are electable on the other. That said, the NDP leadership candidates were well-known by the media and by delegates within the span of about four months, and the field of candidates was nearly twice as large.

Secondly, the participation in selecting the leaderships is quite different. In the United States, the vast majority of the population is participating in selecting the next leader of the GOP. While this is widely seen as more democratic, it doesn't allow the party membership, or even the party supporters, to select a leader of their choosing. Democrats in the United States are allowed to vote, and they are affecting the leadership choice significantly. In Canada, however, only the card-carrying members of the NDP participated in the selection of the leader. This process, though mired in other logistical and ideological problems, allows the party organisation and its membership more control over its future.

The third difference I see is in the degree to which the races are competitive. In the NDP, the debate was largely friendly, with the primary goal of selecting a leader who can unite progressives under the banner of the NDP. Naturally, this is rhetoric, but it is an important component. NDP supporters are not monolithic on their views on a wide variety of topics, and it is not surprising that the top three candidates happened to be a labour, a green, and a centrist. It is entirely unsurprising that Brian Topp and Thomas Mulcair ended up in the top two spaces given that they were effectively othered against one another (principled socialist versus a centrist reformer).

In the United States, however, the differences in beliefs and policies was perhaps much wider. Moreover, the way in which this often manifested itself was in personal attacks. Beyond criticising one another's platforms and performance in professional and public spheres, members of the GOP openly attacked each other on personal grounds, such as their sexual lives and their familial arrangements (neither of which, in my opinion, have anything to do with politics). This is not, in my opinion, the fault of the GOP, as this is widely part of the political discourse in the United States, and something that the general public finds interesting when it comes to politics. Republicans want to maintain media attention and Democrats want to make sure that attention is negative. The bipartisan atmosphere in the United States is certainly toxic. Regardless of where you decide to lay blame, however, the race for the nomination is hyper-competitive, to the point where the unity of the party may be seriously damaged.

Finally, there is a distinct difference in the diversity of candidate. The field in the United States was relatively narrow to start with, and it has grown narrower since Christmas. There were no serious candidates who represent any minority group: no women, no young people, no indigenous people, no non-Christians. Admittedly, there is a reasonable amount of diversity in terms of policy, from libertarian to Christian conservative.

This stands in stark contrast to the NDP's leadership race. Serious contenders for the title of leader included a Greek immigrant, a Cree, and a Sikh, not to mention to the presence of women, people of all socio-economic classes, and francophones and anglophones. Perhaps even more interestingly, candidates represented urban, rural, indigenous, and northern communities from all across the country. In Canada, where there is a entrenched regionalism, this was an imperative part of the selection process. Although the field was certainly deep, the top three candidates were all middle-aged, white, secular, heterosexual, and male.

Ultimately, both races have been interesting and set the stage for the larger political contests of the future: the 2012 elections in the United States and the 2015 General Election in Canada. With one leadership race out of the way, the other is charging on, hoping for a dramatic climax in August. Whether you love these proceedings or you have entirely checked out, this is democracy at work!

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