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Analysis

Steve Jobs's lessons for Ontario politicians Add to ...

Don a hairshirt! It’s been yet another uninspiring political campaign with dismal, record-low levels of voter turnout.

Or let’s mine the life of Steve Jobs to the solutions for political apathy.

In a provocative blog post, New York Times Magazine writer Matt Bai writes about a “governing culture that feels dated and stifling.”

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“It’s staggering to contemplate just how little of Steve Jobs’s genius ever permeated the nation’s politics, and how much he understood about modern America that those who govern it still don’t.”

Mr. Bai describes Mr. Jobs’ ability to create and market the previously unimagined.

“While Mr. Jobs tried to understand the problems that technology could solve for his buyer, he wasn’t going to rely on the buyer to demand specific solutions, just so he could avoid ever having to take a risk. This is what’s commonly known as leading ...”

Sound familiar, and missing, in a political world where every utterance sounds focus-group tested and every platform pledge feels micro-targeted?

Now you can’t necessarily blame political parties for market testing their messages. After all, creating wedges, drawing distinctions, even if unpopular, is a successful way to design an electoral strategy. Find the combination that yields 40 per cent of the votes, no matter the turnout, and – given our multi-party, first-past-the-post system – step up and claim your majority.

You could argue that there was some leading and risk-taking in this campaign, especially by Dalton McGuinty, who worked to turn a policy with many loud skeptics – Green Energy – into the ballot question, because he personally believed in it.

But that doesn’t justify the general dullness of the campaign, or let the parties off the hook for the sub-50-per-cent turnout that resulted.

For some, the solution to apathy at or away from the ballot box is institutional change – a government solution, in a sense. Ontario actually tried that in 2007, with a referendum on an alternate electoral system. It was defeated, and Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty isn’t interested in revisiting it.

And some bend political realities to create a new world: Witness Jack Layton’s work that culminated in a Quebec breakthrough; Preston Manning’s re-imagination of Western power that made Stephen Harper’s rise possible, and Mr. Harper’s own coalition-building and marginalization of his opponents in the last decade.

But while our leaders have spent time re-imagining the content of policies and politics, they've spent very little time on the form – a form that is producing lower levels of voter participation. And that's where Mr. Jobs could be useful to us. Here's Mr. Bai again:

“In our political debate, there is no compatibility between the notions of customization and community, the twin pillars of the digital age. It’s always one or the other.”

In other words, for its connective elements, for all its opportunity to let us put the Me into We, our politics does a poor job of engaging us.

And perhaps, perversely, no other political moment does that more than a campaign, with media air wars predominating, and with parties creating very few inviting opportunities to be part of the action.

So let’s think of some Jobs-like solutions.

For instance, can we re-design the political rally?

The set pieces we get today – campaign music, flag backdrop, cheers, heroic entrance, short remarks lightly tweaked for references to local sports team, favourite local delicacy, local candidate and message of the day, then some hand shakes, a kissed baby, and exit – are tired. Maybe they still work to present the appropriate TV images that translate into votes, but with all parties using the same template, at best a well-designed rally just doesn't lose you votes.

Here are three ideas:

Bring customization and community together by creating events in which we can influence, not just attend, the rallies. The “AgendaCamps” run by TVOntario, hosted by Steve Paikin are one model; attendees come together to discuss their own priorities, and then Mr. Paikin puts the top issues to the candidates the next day. A well-connected political party could run its own version of an AgendaCamp, inviting participation by all, not just the party faithful.

Or, if turnout still matters to create a sense of campaign momentum, let’s make a campaign rally actually worth attending.

Maybe we aim for simplicity, Jobs-style and double-down on the rhetoric. Federal campaigns of the past featured rallies of thousands or even tens of thousands, who would fill Toronto’s Massey Hall or Maple Leaf Gardens for haranguing sermons from the likes of Pierre Elliott Trudeau and John Diefenbaker. The bar to a good political speech – one that embraces complexity, actually builds up an argument, while tossing out sneering attacks on the opposition – is low; let's reward any politician who tries to clear it, and succeeds in entertaining us in the process. Some of Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi’s recent speeches come to mind.

Or we could turn the rally into a real show, in which the politician is just one of the acts. I remember Barack Obama’s first rally in New England in 2007; before Obama’s 25-minute off-the-cuff speech, attendees got treated to an a cappella group and a dance troupe. It was mostly organized by students, not the campaign itself. At that event, political participation was fun – neither a duty nor a chore.

Political parties today are technology laggards, finding incremental improvements to the processes they think are timeless. The field is wide open to those people who embrace a Jobs-like approach to politics, one that invites people in, and makes politics playful again.

What are your ideas for new ways of making political participation fun? Put your ideas in the comments field.

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