American Idol Not a Good Model for Politics

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The Article

I have no idea who will win the federal Liberal leadership race.

But here’s one thing I do know: the winner will be the person who convinces Liberal delegates that he or she can beat Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

On the surface that might sound like an obvious statement. Isn’t that what politics is supposed to be all about – beating your opponent?

Well actually it shouldn’t be.

Politics should be more than just a politicized version of American Idol.

Elections, after all, aren’t popularity contests. They determine who will govern our society.

Ideally then, politics should be about debating ideas and putting forward new visions and enacting policies that will benefit the Canadian people.

But today these things don’t seem to matter.

Today all that matters is winning.

Michael Ignatieff, for instance, is currently conceded to be the front-runner in the Liberal leadership race.


Is it because of his policies or because of his stands on key issues?


It’s because he’s seen as a “winner”.

As National Post columnist John Ivison recently wrote, “Ignatieff is liked, if not well-liked, by a large proportion of the Liberal caucus because they think he can beat Stephen Harper and help them win back the best job they are ever likely to have.”

The problem with this strategy is that perceived “winners” don’t always win.

Former Liberal leader John Turner, for instance, was a winner who didn’t win. So was former Ontario Progressive Conservative leader Ernie Eves.

And more recently there was Paul Martin.

Martin was supposed to be a winner too. In fact, soon after he took control of the Liberal Party, media pundits were predicting he would sweep to power with the largest majority in Canada’s history.

Of course, it didn’t happen.

He was ultimately defeated by Harper, a politician ironically enough many in the media had declared a political “loser”.

Harper, we were told, was too “scary” too “extreme” or too “boring.”

In fact, prior to the last federal election some panicky Conservatives were even pushing the idea of dumping Harper in favour of a more “electable” leader like Bernard Lord

So why did Harper the “loser” end up beating Martin the “winner”.


Harper and the Conservative Party managed to convince Canadian voters that he would bring about better, more honest, more accountable government.

In other words Harper won because he had a platform Canadians liked.

They didn’t care about his personality. They didn’t care about whether or not he was likable. And they didn’t care that the media didn’t think he was a winner.

Winning elections, in short, isn’t about getting people to like you; it’s about getting people to agree with you.

This is a lesson political parties of all ideological stripes should heed.

If they spent more time on developing a coherent set of popular policies and less time trying to decide who fits the winner category, they would likely be more successful at the polls.

I dare say even cranky Simon Cowell would approve.

Gerry Nicholls
Latest posts by Gerry Nicholls (see all)

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