May the Best Person Win? Political Parties’ Worsening Recruiting Problem

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Did you watch the first (and maybe last for this campaign) presidential debate in the US lately? I did not. I scrolled through my twitter feed the next morning and was happy with my choice to have spent the night with friends. The videoclips I saw underlined my impression.

But since I actually want to be a more or less self-critical person, I should probably question myself and watch the next debate (if there is one). As a member of an NGO whose main goal it is to educate young people politically, this must send a wrong signal. But then again, what would be the added value? I kept asking myself and many people I talked to these last days that question and I did not hear even one convincing point.

Instead, it led me to another question. Is it not deeply worrying that so many people would choose just like me and not watch a political debate? Because not watching, for many people, means not staying tuned. And this means no actual progress in political debates that, after all, are not exclusive to the political elites but open to each and everyone of us. That is the whole point of democracy.

Even worse, it boils down to increasing the scope of two groups in societies. The ones that, when it comes to politics, do not care at all. And the ones that see their point of view strengthened no matter what. When being cynical, you could apply that to the two old man debating in front of (or with) a Fox News moderator lately. I leave it up to you to categorize who fits which label better.

Please do not get me wrong, instead of insulting some of the most powerful people in the world I aim at getting elsewhere, namely one of the root causes of the seemingly ever-deepening division of society. The cleavages in many countries’ societies become more in number and deeper in shape. And I am wondering if it should not be up to our leaders to at least try to change that.

It seems like most political parties in the democratically governed parts of the world face a serious recruiting problem. If you take the US you will find little if anybody to say “well, I will vote for this side of the isle but in case the other side wins I am okay with that, too”. Sure, in a competitive system which any democracy implicitly is you are more likely to win if you are determined. After all, typically not the most talented team wins the football world championship, but the one that combines gifted players with an irrevocable team spirit, outstanding preparation, and ultimate willpower. And, when needed, some fortune (in both meanings of the word).

These are quite some striking parallels to the political stage, right? With one major difference. Football teams, like any other sports team, accept it when they lose. Of course, the manager typically complaints about the bad quality of the turf. And the striker questions the referee’s offside decision. Oh and of course the best players were injured. Too bad!

But do you remember the days when politicians campaigning for high-rank offices did the same? They not only accepted their defeat but called for some sort of national unity. And there was no need for those that do intend to accept the results to start a process of national healing. Crazy old times.

You know, at a typical evening with friends, like the one during the presidential debates, I am having vivid and controversial debates with my friends myself. It is one of our evergreen topics to discuss whether or not capitalism is humanity’s own worst enemy and it should be abolished so we could all live happy ever after. While many of my friends and acquaintences think so, I usually argue against by asking what should replace capitalism then? No matter the answer, be it a truly gender-equal system, a post-Westphalian sort of communism, a technocracy, or whatsoever, I argue that all this is a utopia. And therefore unreachable, regardless of how badly you want to see your ideas materializing in practice. These kinds of conversations typically end on the note that I must simply lack imagination.

But in being somewhat self-aware I must admit to myself that democracy in fact is just as much of a utopia. And that is because democracy means any loser of today can be the winner of tomorrow. So, if the football world championship was a strictly democratic event, this time, say, the Faeroe Islands may lose. But next time they could win. What theoretically holds true, obviously, is an illusion. Any football fan with some sense of realism must acknowledge the Faeroe Islands will not achieve that any time soon, most probably they will not even qualify for the tournament. Too bad!

And as stupid as this comparison may appear, the same holds for politics. The party for animal welfare can participate in every election, yet it does not stand any realistic chance to ever have one of its members serve as head of government or state.

Accordingly, in democratic states we actually live in a utopia. And while I personally should more often give in to my befriended discussion partners and admit that I am just as wrong or right as they are, so should political parties in their recruiting processes and the politicians themselves. Just as the people they rule. Which is the society. Us. You and me.

Oh and before you dismiss me with rightfully objecting that considering only one state for a general statement of parties struggling with recruiting capable leaders, let me remind you that next year Germany holds federal elections. France follows the year after with a presidential election. The start of a vicious circle? It would be too bad…

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