How cybertools can improve politics
Conventional wisdom has it that the Internet is dumbing us down and making politics more partisan. Sound bites are more effective than substance. The punditocracy that shapes these truisms is, needless to say, pretty certain they apply most powerfully to people in the hinterland, especially those with a history of voting for the right.
That is why the election of Naheed Nenshi, a 39-year-old former business school professor, as mayor of Calgary, was a watershed event that should be of interest far beyond Canada, where he has already become a political superstar.
When Mr. Nenshi earned his upset victory last October, the first flutter of outside enthusiasm was about the fact that an Ismaili Muslim son of South Asian immigrants who moved to Canada from Tanzania had been chosen to lead the capital of the country’s conservative heartland.
The next wave of excitement was inspired by his campaign’s sophisticated use of social media to overturn Calgary’s old-boy political establishment. This Twitter revolution, with which we are now so familiar thanks to the oil states of North Africa, made a splash in the land of the blue-eyed sheiks thanks to clever tactics like a funny YouTube video of people struggling with Mr. Nenshi’s name.
But when I spoke to Mr. Nenshi recently in the elegant sandstone building that houses the mayor’s office, he told me that outsiders are missing the point. The real significance of his election, he said, is that it proves voters care deeply about big ideas and will elect the leaders who take the trouble to engage them. This is true, he insisted, even outside political and business centers such as New York, London or Toronto.
“We called it politics in full sentences,” said Mr. Nenshi, who has the energy and gregariousness of a born politician. “We called it the ‘better ideas’ campaign.” Those ideas were serious, and against the current of what many had assumed to be the cultural propensities of Calgarians. Mr. Nenshi is an evangelist of high-density living and of public transit, revolutionary notions in a city that is spread across as many acres as New York, but houses just a 10th as many people.
Calgarians love their cars – that’s how more than two-thirds of them get to work – and they are bullish on the oil industry that not only puts gas in their tanks but also is the lifeblood of their economy. Yet these same Calgarians embraced a geeky, Harvard-educated former McKinsey consultant, who loves technocratic solutions to urban problems such as “spot intensification” and containing sprawl by charging developers more to build on the outskirts of town.
Calgary is a “city of ideas,” Mr. Nenshi said. “Calgarians were really interested in having a conversation about the future of their city.” But the province of Alberta is the closest Canada comes to a one-party state, and until Mr. Nenshi and his pals came along, no one had really bothered to bring people in to that discussion.
This engagement with the community is the second important lesson of his win. In 1995, Robert Putnam told us that Americans had started to bowl alone. And many of us worry that the advances in technology in the subsequent 15 years have served mostly to alienate us further from our real-life neighbors as we retreat ever deeper into virtual communities of the like-minded.
What Mr. Nenshi found in Calgary was a passionate desire to be involved in the real, physical life of the city – and one that could be most effectively tapped by using cybertools. He said he adapted the classic marketing and political adage that you have to “go to people where they live” to the Internet Age. “One of the things we discussed is that a lot of people live online,” Mr. Nenshi said, including the 600,000 Calgarians, in a city of 1.3 million, who are on Facebook. “Social media was the tool that enabled our philosophy.”
He said that when he first moved back home to Calgary after professional stints in Toronto and New York, his East Coast friends were baffled: “The New York people and the Harvard people were like, ‘Naheed, why are you in the middle of the Canadian Prairies?’ ” But he thinks the “Four Seasons hotel tribe” of globe-trotting elites may be missing the fact that they inhabit a world that is rather provincial itself.
“This so-called borderless world has become more insular … I am very happy to let the Four Seasons tribe do their work on global prosperity,” Mr. Nenshi said. “I’ll do my work on local prosperity.”