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Breaking the fourth wall of politics: Sticking your hand out the window to shake hands isn’t engagement

Once, I wanted to be a politician.



By Katie Stobbart (The Cascade) – Email

Print Edition: November 12, 2014


Once, I wanted to be a politician.

I went far away to do it — after all, that’s where real politics happen: in officious brick buildings with perfectly sculpted shrubbery, ornate furniture, and men in shiny shoes or wearing suits that cost more than my rent.

After the first year in Ottawa I took a plane back across the country for good, because that high-gloss, sharp-tongued, walled-in world was one I wanted no part of. I thought about the reasons I wanted to be a politician (to change things for the better, to bring power back to people, and other such ideals) and I thought, there’s no room for that to happen. There’s no room here for me.

Maybe municipal politics aren’t quite Parliament, but there is still that feel of rigidity and façade. It’s an elaborate show in which only the actors really seem to know what’s going on, and many — not all — are unwilling to share. Many candidates for office can’t or won’t give a straight answer to a question, refuse to admit when they’ve forgotten a line, and especially refuse to ‘fess up when they’ve fucked up. Instead they resort to rambling on why we should care about politics. Why we should vote for them.

They complain we’re not engaged, but are at a loss for real solutions.

In an editorial two months ago, I wondered  if students are part of student life here at UFV, lamenting the lack of engagement in campus community. A good friend reminded me this week that such plaintive missives are uncomfortably similar to what we heard from a lot of politicians.

Journalists and politicians have something in common: a concern with service of the public. Politicians govern and set societal directives; they move the plot forward. Journalists tell the story.

This month, The Cascade cleared papers and half-full coffee mugs off our old Ikea furniture and sat down in our lunchroom with candidates from all over the Fraser Valley. At the end of one of those interviews, one candidate asked me: how do we engage students?

It’s a question I’ve been asked before, and I still didn’t know how to answer.

The same friend gave me a solution.

“Clearly we need to get out of the office more,” he said.

It’s something I thought politicians needed to understand — why can’t they see how separate they are, or at least appear to be, from our everyday experience? Politicians will shake your hand at the grocery store or the movie theatre and introduce themselves, maybe even give a short speech or cut a ribbon, and then they call it an effort to engage the public.

It’s acting, not action. There’s no room for the audience — for the public — in it. Engagement happens when the people have the power; elected officials are not to be power-holders per se but act in service of the power-holders. To accomplish that, the walls have to come down. Real politics don’t happen behind a brick façade; they happen out in the open. As journalists, we need to step out of our office and engage students where the students are. Politicians need to step out of their offices and engage people where the people are. Otherwise we all risk falling out of touch with reality.

This municipal election is an opportunity for change. It’s your chance to elect people who will act in your service, and not just put on a show.

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