The Audacity (and Idiocy) of Hope

Political memoir, like history, is written by the victor. Gloriously, not this one.

What was Noah Richler thinking, running for the federal NDP in the Toronto-St Paul’s riding, an affluent Liberal stronghold held by Carolyn Bennett for the past 18 years? Richler is a confident and capable radio producer, journalist and writer (although someone should permanently disable his comma key, forcing him to write tighter sentences). And as he himself observes, writers are not a natural fit for politics because they think for themselves and tend to shoot from the hip. Getting elected involves a completely different set of skills from floating policy ideas and offering unsolicited commentary on the political flap du jour. Even the people who find Richler’s Oxford-educated, John Donne–­quoting ways endearing cautioned him. “Don’t be too clever … You use far too many words when you speak,” intoned Margaret Atwood at dim sum after he announced his candidacy.

So why did he do it? Why does anyone think they can raise a quick $50,000, round up 200 volunteers and run a candidacy up the flag pole? Writerly types generally disdain the jejune impulse to “make a difference,” preferring the liberating effects of the armchair and curmudgeon-strength espresso. But as the winds of change gathered strength in the spring of 2015, anything seemed possible. And Richler got swept up in it.

Like millions of Canadians, Richler says, he dreamed of a return to form for Canada as a kinder, less divisive domestic and international presence. His father, Mordecai, was a lifelong Liberal, which would have made fundraising a breeze, but the son had come to loathe the Grits as interested only in power and “hopelessly and chronically entitled.” He writes of being disgusted by the party’s calculated handling of Bill C-51, its dalliance with floor-­crossing Conservative member of Parliament Eve Adams and its acceptance of G20 mass arrest overseer and former Toronto police chief Bill Blair, all of which he sees as evidence of this power-mad entitlement. He speaks with his mother, who gives her blessing to his run, and asks, “Did you tell them what ministry you’d like?” Fisheries and Oceans, in case you are curious. Noah explains he has spent some time in Nova Scotia, been out on a lobster boat with a local, and, “I figured Heritage was taken—and besides, too predictable a fit.” Audacity of hope or a sense of entitlement—you be the judge.

Being Noah Richler, he may also have had an inkling that if he did not have an office in the Centre Block by November 2015, this whole election caper would be a book in the making. Judging from the level of detail and the conversations he had time to capture verbatim along the campaign trail, that could not have been far from his mind.

But even without a fallback plan, the idea of getting up from the armchair is seductive. It was for me, when I ran for Toronto City Council in 2014 against an entrenched incumbent and got trounced in the process. I’d helped on a few provincial and federal campaigns over the years, both Liberal and NDP, and at a point, you get tired of talking. So I threw my hat in the municipal ring. As an independent I did not have to squirm to fit into someone else’s policies and approaches, but other than that, Noah and I seemed to face the same challenges: raising money, preparing for debates and interviews, figuring out how to communicate what is different about your policies and approach, sparkling while taking out your garbage. Politics is hard work, you discover—humbling and inspiring. This coincides with the bleak, cruel and clarifying realization that you do not have the right timing or, worse, the right stuff.

Richler chose the NDP for its youthful diversity and progressive bent, combined with the political experience of leader Thomas Mulcair. He felt Canada needed a third option, and the numbers pitch was tantalizing—as the NDP framed it, the party only needed to win in 64 more ridings to get a majority. Enter a few life-long campaigners and perennial misfits and the Bad News Bears secret sauce, and Richler was fully engaged. “You could see right away we had only a slim chance in hell of winning anything, but this was the team of my choosing and I loved them already,” he writes.

Off he goes, down the rabbit hole of door knocking, burger flipping, donor meet-and-greets, pub nights, debates and video making. He frets about the ethics of putting a sign on the lawn of a man with Down Syndrome (“Am I being patronizing? Is it not his choice?”). He writes about canvassing in high-rise hallways; the door opens and “a wall of dead, used air comes at you in all its fetid, ­de‑­oxygenated saturation … These apartments smell of loneliness, but their residents open their front doors and treat us with grace.” I, too, can attest to the surreal experience of meeting Canadians who speak seven ­languages, live with their extended family in cramped quarters, and are raising precocious children who hang at the doorstep and announce their wish to become doctors or MPs. As Richler writes, “the happiness is infectious,” and canvassing brings you back to the reason you got into this in the first place.

To both his credit and ultimate downfall, Richler embraces the notion that politics is about ideas, the thrust and parry of democratic deliberation: “I believed that candidates had their own thoughtful contributions to make, beyond being simple party pushers at the door.” He struggles to toe the party line:

Things I said at the door that I did not altogether believe:
– That we were in a recession
– That we should categorically pull out of the fight against ISIL
– That we need to fully restore postal service
– That we did not need to cancel the existing child benefit

His campaign manager, the legendary Toronto-Danforth organizer Janet Solberg, Stephen Lewis’s sister, is a steadying hand as Richler faces the reality of being a party candidate: follow orders, salute the leader, and try not to say anything controversial on Facebook or Twitter. You can see where this is going, going, gone.

Most books about elections are written by the strategy folks or journos who worked the campaigns, the Tom Flanagans, John Duffys, Susan Delacourts and John Laschingers. They tell a compelling story, about the pugilism, the smoke-filled back rooms, the sense of destiny. But a book like Richler’s is important for the details it shares about not having the right stuff, for the glimpse of contemporary party politics—central control, toadyism and all—seen with an insouciant freshness. NDP supporters watched their party let the Liberals take page after page from their progressive playbook in the last election: reintroducing the long-form census, running deficits, meeting with the premiers, introducing child care and affordable housing. Richler pulls back the curtain on how some of that played out for the candidates.

A few days after the “devastation,” Richler sits down with Davenport’s ousted NDP MP, Andrew Cash, to hash out the agony of forgetting to win. “There’s a slightly out-of-body sensation to being walloped as we had been, and the two of us were like a couple of rehab vets languishing in the anonymity of a city knowing nothing of our pain,” he writes. “We talked futures, the TPP [Trans-Pacific Partnership], the arts. ‘They made the better offer,’ Andrew said.” This book would never have been published without a marquee name on the cover, and it will not be the last of its kind. But it is Noah’s gonzo candour that makes this guided tour of the loathsome political sausage factory a worthy read. No matter what the motivation, or how long the odds, democracy depends on us deluded, determined malcontents to get out there every four years and hit the hustings.