Michael Ignatieff’s failure

I’d like to suggest an alternative explanation to the emerging consensus about why Michael Ignatieff and his Liberal party are polling so poorly among Canadians. This consensus, echoed by Irshad Manji, Jeremy Keehn and countless others, is that the Conservative attack machine has successfully tarred Ignatieff as a dilettante expat elite who’s too brilliant and accomplished and (therefore) out of touch with “ordinary Canadians.” He’s “too ambitious.” We Canadians, suffering from what Manji calls “petty parochialism,” can’t stand anyone who stands out, and so we attack them as un-Canadian and cut them down.

Here’s a better explanation that doesn’t depend on warmed-over cultural and literary analysis: Michael Ignatieff, for all his achievements, is a not a very good politician.

The underlying assumption of all these cultural analyses is that anybody can be a politician, and that success in one field can translate into success into this one. Folks, it just ain’t so. You can be a brilliant economist or academic and be only an average politician. If academic and profesional smarts were enough to guarantee political success, John McCallum (former Dean of the Faculty of Arts at McGill and former Chief Economist of the Royal Bank of Canada) would be prime minister.

Being a politician is a specialized occupation that has a specific skill set: empathy, a strategic mind, and debating and speaking skills (just off the top of my head). Ignatieff does passably well at most of these, although his performance in the leaders’ debates suggests that being able to ask questions as a journalist or a professor does not necessarily translate well into a political debate.

Most of all, however, a successful politician has to understand what his or her constituents want and need, and this is where Ignatieff runs into trouble. I’m going to try to be very careful with what I say next, because it runs very close to the polemical Conservative attack on Ignatieff. Here goes:

The only way a politician can understand what his community (be it a city, riding, province or country) cares about, is to be enmeshed in the life of that community. The longer you’re immersed in your community, the easier it becomes to “read” it. Call it a type of learned intuition.

In my travels as an economist with various parliamentary committees and associations, I was always impressed by how MPs from all parties, of varying levels of ambition and capability, were always on top of the issues that they knew would be of greatest interest to their constituents. They knew how to talk about and to their constituents. We’d be at the WTO talking trade and they’d keep the conversation grounded. It’s a skill developed over years of living in their community, and years of thinking about and talking with people in the community.

I’d argue that this learned intuition is the mark of all successful politicians. With time, Michael Ignatieff has gotten better at it, good enough to be an okay retail politician. Ignatieff’s tone-deafness was clear to all in 2009 when he waded into the debate over asbestos, prefacing his comments by saying, “I’m probably walking right off the cliff into some unexpected public policy bog of which I’m unaware.” You don’t say: the asbestos lobby, as he should have known, is strong in Quebec.

While this recent campaign has been free of these type of comments that painfully demonstrated that he was not sensitive to Canadians’ political sore spots, Ignatieff’s problem is that he’s not just applying for the job of politician; he’s applying for the job of top politician in Canada. That’s simply not a job that you can parachute into and expect to do well, no matter your bona fides in other fields. You have to be at the top of the game, which is politics and is (I repeat) a specialized field.

It’s the type of job you spend a lifetime preparing for, thinking about Canada and your vision of what it should be. Rather than consider Canada – and even Canada’s place in the world – Ignatieff’s intellectual development over the past 35-40 years has focused on other issues, like human rights and international relations.

I’m not saying that Michael Ignatieff doesn’t deserve to Prime Minister because he isn’t a real Canadian, which is what Manji thinks is the main knock against him. What I’m suggesting is that you can only be a successful politician if you’ve thought long and hard about issues of interest to your community, if you’ve dedicated yourself to listening to and working within and in your community. The higher you aim, the better your skills and learned intuition better be. And Ignatieff’s skills  – his learned intuition  – are not good enough. Thomas Walkom made a similar point in 2009, comparing Ignatieff to John Turner, another guy who’d been out of the game too long.

Barack Obama’s a good example of what I’m talking about. Like Ignatieff (another smart cookie), Obama famously had very little experience in elected office before becoming president: a term as a state senator, most of a term as a U.S. senator. But as anyone who’s read his memoir, Dreams from My Father knows, Obama has spent his whole life reflecting on where he fits into U.S. society, and on the nature of that society. He worked as a community organizer. He was editor of the Harvard Law Review. These are all experiences that enmeshed Obama deeply into the political and cultural life of the United States.

Again, it’s not that Ignatieff is too ambitious and too worldly. It’s that he skipped the coursework and now wants a pass on the final exam. Even the most brilliant student can’t pull that off.

My sense, for what it’s worth, is that Canadians have picked up on Ignatieff’s lack of a politician’s understanding of Canada, which Conservatives have twisted into an accusation that Ignatieff is, somehow, not Canadian enough. As Irshad Manji notes, that’s absurd: Ignatieff is as Canadian as Stephen Harper, Jack Layton or (even!) Gilles Duceppe. But just because Ignatieff is a true Canadian doesn’t mean that he has the skills, including the learned intuition about Canada, that we should expect from someone who wants to be Prime Minister. If you don’t spend your life training for the top job in a G-8 country, why should we give it to you?

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