How do we balance partisanship with nonpartisan opportunities?

Katherine Tyson

How do we balance partisanship with nonpartisan opportunities?

Politics is not partisanship

So you care about your community and want to take action in making it a better place? Many people will direct you towards charities, volunteer opportunities with NGOs, or ways to start up your own foundation. You may have already done it all, but one constant keeps coming up: government. Law, regulation, and advocacy all meet in the corridors of power. Seems like a simple solution – to make change you can get involved in politics to have influence. You enter into the realm of politics, join a political party and start being called “partisan”.

Let’s be honest, to be considered partisan is a quick way to close doors for your future, but we need people to be involved in politics, to be active within our institutions, especially low-income, minority and female members of our community. So, how do we balance partisanship with nonpartisan opportunities?

First, we need to understand what partisanship is: by definition it has two parts 1) joining a political party; and 2) strongly support their party’s policies and are reluctant to compromise with their political opponents. You can avoid being considered partisan by not fulfilling number one, but is that really a solution considering how our democracy is set up based on civic participation? I don’t think that avoidance is the right path forward.

What we can control is what makes partisanship so polarizing:

a) party policies vs independent thought;

b) uncompromising vs engaging; and

c) opportunism vs integrity.

Approaching how you interact with politics will allow you to enter into party politics without being seen as a partisan “hack”.

The first thing that you will notice about getting involved in politics is that it is all about face to face interaction at events, on the campaign trail, and at the door step. This takes politics from being cerebral – on facebook, over coffee with, or rebuking TV pundits in the privacy of your own home – into the physical. The bubble disappears and ownership of your actions starts. Like all face to face interaction the pressure to conform will creep in. In any competitive environment there will be peer and senior political party members who interact with the political party with complete devotion, interacting with the institution as the savior and all other political parties as the instigator of every evil imaginable.

Fight this.

If you start to view your involvement in a us vs them framework you will be lost in the partisan pitfall that will limit your nonpartisan opportunities. Some in a party, particularly volunteer coordinators, will want you to become a surrogate for them, and if you are paid then there is a certain expectation to stay on message. However, that’s a type of professionalism that you find in all jobs. This expectation does not mean that you need to compromise your own independent thought at the bar, on your private facebook, or in your family. If you’re a volunteer with no official position then the party has no contract with you to control your independent thought, and you are not in a place of professionalism to lose your own agency. At this point nuance is your friend, and you don’t need to be the talking piece for party positions.

A great tip for transitioning from caring cerebrally about issues to attending political events is to take ownership of how you present yourself and to reflect what you are, or are not, willing to participate in. When you attend events you will be networking with many people, and someone will try to have you commit to action immediately. It’s the job of campaign staff to engage and find commitment from potential volunteers – entire weekends are dedicated to party loyalists to train them on the art of finding and securing volunteers. There’s nothing nefarious in such an interaction, and it makes sense from a party operations perspective to be constantly seeking out new people. However, you can be swept along by an engaging and eager political staffer if you say yes to the first, or multiple, volunteer opportunities.

A good rule of thumb is to get the contact information from the person offering you an opportunity, quickly jot down what the position entails, and then get back to them when you’ve had time to think it over (or sober up in case there is alcohol at an event). This allows you to reflect on what you are agreeing to, take control about how and when you are going to be involved, and in what capacity.

The key to being political without being partisan is being able to get involved personally in political events while still being able to go back to the more cerebral world of friends, polite discussion, and interaction with others who disagree. This leads to chances of compromise with those who engage in partisan politics outside of your party circles, or with ideas that are in contradiction to what is propelling your party’s platform, and with those who don’t engage or care about the political bubble you have entered into. How you handle opposition will determine how those outside view you, and so how you are labelled.

Policy for Dinner

Let’s say you’ve been able to keep a wide group of diverse political friendships after getting involved (huzzah!), you’re at dinner, and they start a conversation against one of your party policies – what do you do? Listen and engage, or defend and be uncompromising? If you want to keep a reputation that isn’t that you’re a “hack” then during these conversations keep your ears open and mouth shut to allow your friends or acquaintances to explain their positions. This may seem like common sense before getting involved, but many people get lost in defending the honour of their party at the expense of maintaining the honour of those that they are talking to. Most people have at least some good points that will improve your own position as long as you’re open to them. Respect the time of those you disagree with and they will likely respect you in return.

If you can keep open your social circle to diverse perspectives and bring your own agency to your political party, you will be someone who is gradually known as having integrity. Be that person. There are draw backs to having integrity though: partisans who belittle those not on their side exist, and will not as easily accept you, and may even question your commitment to the political party. Expect those type of people to talk behind your back. Just because you’re involved in politics with intention and independence doesn’t mean that others will be.

This is where the idea of needing a “tough skin” comes into politics. You could fall into the cycle of retribution for perceived slights, but how you handle such a situation could improve or diminish the respect that others looking in have for you. My best advice is to let people waste their time and energy and for you to keep moving forward. Keeping your focus will increase the pleasure of being involved, improve how people perceive your involvement, and leave you with more time and energy to get things done. Perhaps you will make political enemies for not being one of the “team”, and you may limit some political opportunities, but you’ll keep open a plethora of other opportunities inside and outside of politics. It’s fine to choose to be an opportunist who puts all their eggs in the political party basket, but don’t be shocked or offended when the label of partisan is rightfully given to you.

In essence, if you want to be involved in politics while keeping open outside options don’t become that person who everyone rolls their eyes at, and if you do become that person apologize to your friends, family, and non-partisan (not non-political) coworkers and carry on with integrity.

If you’ve asked how to balance partisan and non-partisan opportunities than you’re exactly who I think is needed to be involved in politics. Don’t let partisanship in Canada (or anywhere else) turn into what we’re seeing in America where political polarization is so bad that parents wouldn’t want their children marrying someone of a different political party . Don’t turn the institution of party politics into a defining characteristic of your identity, or allow it to be a defining characteristic of how you view someone else. Judgement and scorn is something that is natural to avoid, and with all the negative talk about politics recently it’s easy to understand not wanting to get involved, but remember politics is not partisanship.