When I first saw a copy of Fire and Ashes, Michael Ignatieff’s recent book about his experience trying to become Canada’s prime minister, it seemed too decadent to actually pick it up.
It was the sort of book I’ve mostly avoided in the three-plus years since my run for city council in Seattle. It has seemed more productive to focus on other ways to contribute the community, including my new career as a Foreign Service Officer.
When I finally gave in and bought a copy of Ignatieff’s book, however, I could hardly put it down. I found myself highlighting passages every few Kindle pages and pondering each episode. It may be the best book about participating in politics since Richard Ben Cramer’s What It Takes – and a must-read for anyone thinking about running.
Ignatieff, a well-known political science intellectual, left a tenured position at Harvard after, as he puts it, being recruited to return to Toronto to run for office.
After 31 years outside Canada, the plan was to eventually become head of the storied Liberal Party and lead it to victory, becoming prime minister. Instead he led the party to its worst-ever defeat.
The book is personal, almost self-indulgent: you have to be in order to run for office. While the parallel to my experience has limits – he actually won a seat and became party leader, after all – the book is applicable for any level of politics. It hits several essential ideas:
Be clear about your reasons. Ignatieff talks about spending a career around politics but not actually “doing” it. He’s comfortable teaching Machiavelli and is versed in political thought. His elite pedigree includes a father who was one of Canada’s top diplomats and a mother who was heir to an industrial fortune. When asked to run, he admits to a mix of vanity and sense of purpose.
Though I didn’t have any pedigree and running meant risk for my young family, I was similarly eager. I’d been around politics for years and passionately believed in my issues. When a few people suggested it, I was naively game. I looked for reasons to run, rather than obstacles.
Ignatieff admits to not understanding the path to victory and to under-appreciating what he could lose. He was persuaded by his own logic rather than frankly asking himself how, exactly, his party would turn around its decline.
The idea of reviving the Liberal tradition that built a generous, socialistic Canada was seductive. But Canada wasn’t the place he thought he knew: it had drifted rightward and was more critical of government-led solutions.
I found something similar. I ran on creating a more urban Seattle with dense, livable neighborhoods and great transit. I also strongly favored investing in downtown instead of the disastrous megaproject to replace the Seattle’s waterfront viaduct with a tunnel. As a native who had lived in great world cities, I thought my ideas would be convincing on their face. But I didn’t understand how conservative Seattle’s establishment really is. Opposition to the tunnel froze me out of powerful circles.
Be honest about costs. Ignatieff tells painful stories about being correct on policy but getting outfoxed and frustrated. At one point he’s exhausted and his wife tells him he doesn’t want it bad enough. Ouch!
Though I worked at my campaign every day for 10 months, I remember taking time to hang out with my family and sometimes choosing to polish blog posts on policy ideas rather than dial for dollars. The reality is there’s no shortcut and you're never doing enough.
Politics eventually starts to change your personality, too. You become totally dependent on daily affirmations in person, at events and in the media. A Sunday-morning trip to Lowe’s for light bulbs or ordering a falafel at a neighborhood spot becomes a political opportunity. You can never turn it off.
While Ignatieff’s five years in politics cost him friendships, he was lucky enough to be offered work within weeks of ultimately losing his seat. “If you didn’t understand that you could lose everything, you didn’t understand what politics truly was,” he writes.
It’s about money and image. This is worth repeating: politics is about money.
Your record and ideas are never the issue; it’s how they are perceived. And you can’t be outspent (handily in the case of Canada’s Liberals, five-to-one in mine) and still be taken seriously.
Having good ideas and being convinced that you’re the most worthy candidate isn’t enough. “If you think standing is an entitlement, you are bound to lose,” Ignatieff notes. “You have to go out and earn it, face to face, doorstep by doorstep, phone call by phone call.”
Near his conclusion, Ignatieff says he doesn’t mean to discourage people from running, just to make sure prospective candidates know what they’re getting into. Politics is an exclusive club, something you can’t really appreciate it until you’ve done it yourself.
Politics is often seen as a game but, as Ignatieff writes, it’s too important for that. It's about making the world a better place and serving people, especially those who can’t help themselves. It’s a form of worthwhile public service that requires intense self-discovery and preparation. Reading this book is an excellent way to start.