Opinion

Sutcliffe: A salute to the candidates in this messy, wonderful thing we call democracy

“Let’s be grateful for the dozens of people who have agreed to this largely thankless, unglamorous undertaking.”

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It seems like a curious and risky endeavour, running for office. At least from where I’m standing.

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At the podium from which I’ve moderated eight local riding debates this year (and more than a hundred others in the last decade), I can’t help but feel a mixture of admiration, gratitude, respect, and sympathy for the candidates across from me.

Venturing into federal politics is basically a bad bet. For every six or seven candidates who step forward, only one will take office. There are a few dozen incumbents and star candidates in safe ridings. But the vast majority have, at best, a tiny hope of succeeding; many have none at all.

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This you would never know from their effort on the campaign trail and in the debates. They exude passion about the issues and the community. They fight for every last point. They defend their party’s positions. They challenge the records of those in power and the proposals of those striving to achieve it.

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For all the glory and power attached to politics, there is unquestionably a humbling element to the mechanics of being a local candidate. You go door-to-door like a 1960s encyclopaedia salesman. You surrender to events well beyond your control, including the whims and foibles of national leaders. You subject yourself to the likely prospect of rejection, like a high school student asking someone to dance.

And yet dozens of people in our community set aside their lives and careers and enter the most unusual of competitions, more like a bizarre reality television show than a job interview. They do this, I presume, out of a mixture of ambition and duty, hoping either to win or advance an important cause, to give people a choice and do their part for this fun, messy, wonderful thing we call democracy.

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Each candidate has travelled a different path to their debate, with lived experience and accumulated knowledge informing their world view and specific prescription for the future. The variations in style and substance are as wide as the differences in policy. But they are mostly arrived at honestly and should be respected rather than dismissed. I didn’t see many people who were trying to wreck the country.

Even for the biggest of idealists, it’s not an easy path. No matter how much you may intend to bring a fresh voice to politics and to do things differently, you are inevitably drawn into the powerful vortex of partisan candidature. You are stuck with a script, forced sometimes to answer for the contradictions and missteps of leaders, and argue vehemently for a platform that might be close to, but not perfectly in line with, your own thinking.

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You must walk a dangerously fine line between respect and ferocity, all at once demonstrating how you will be the kind of representative who can work with absolutely everyone while talking over your fellow candidates and dismissing them as dangerous. You may not fully mean it, but you didn’t write the screenplay; you’re merely playing your part. And there are few rewards in politics for being a kind wallflower.

Every career trajectory is driven in part by luck. But in no other pursuit does fortune’s hand interfere as it does in political campaigns. Timing, national trends, and riding demographics play a much greater role than the merit of individual contenders. Hence, there are exceptional candidates who will never come close to winning; likewise, deeply flawed and inexperienced applicants who will secure easy wins.

All the more reason to be perplexed by the many people who are willing to roll the dice in this political crapshoot. But without them, we would have no democracy. So as we make our choices from among them, let’s be grateful for the dozens of people who have agreed to this largely thankless, unglamorous undertaking.

From the safety of the moderator’s podium, I salute every one of you.

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