It hasn’t been the best of times for the NDP. It’s a party obliterated in British Columbia, slowly recovering from government in Ontario and teetering at the edge of survival on the federal scene. The latest polls put the NDP in third place federally, at 13.5 per cent.

To listen to the best and brightest of the mainstream media, the answer to the NDP’s woes is clear — attract more voters by moving to the centre. Now, why didn’t the party think of that?

If it were so simple, of course, it might already have happened. In today’s Globe and Mail, Jeffrey Simpson cites the Saskatchewan and Manitoba NDP as shining examples for the federal party to follow in embracing centrist politics. He conveniently forgets that in those provinces there is no viable Liberal party holding the centre.

But then, why should Jeffrey Simpson have the best interests of the party at heart? He complains that the NDP leadership race is boring because all the candidates agree, then says the NDP isn’t “innovative” enough to agree with him, and all the other political parties in Canada, that there is only one way forward, only one version of the future to choose: the future of the market triumphant.

I’ll take the boredom of principle over the boredom of capitulation any day.

The mainstream media has never been known for its political astuteness or innovation in the realm of ideas. Far from being ahead of the trend, the chatterati mostly lag far behind political realities in their thinking. The market convictions of the Thomas Friedmans of the world sprouted long after Thatcher and Reagan had sown their oats.

Despite the media’s obsession with its own importance, media play is not the whole of politics. Over and over again, mainstream commentators have harped on the need for the NDP’s new leader to get out in the media. It’s true that getting media attention is crucial to political success today. But media attention without the capacity to follow through on it is not a recipe for party-building or political power; it’s a recipe for disappointment and political self-destruction.

Much more crucial for a new leader will be helping to build the power of the Canadian left, by actively supporting the labour and social movements in their organizing, and by starting strategic training programs that will prepare party activists to assume positions in government — not only in Parliament, but in ministries and government agencies as well. That would show a commitment to forming a credible government and building the power of the party.

When you have power, it doesn’t matter how entertaining you are, the media will listen to you.

The Jeffrey Simpsons of the world ignore the obvious: the left isn’t taken seriously because it doesn’t have the clout to match that of business and media power-holders, whose clout comes, not from their share of the popular vote, but from their control of the economy and the distribution of information. There is nuance and variety in business and the private media, but, on the whole, it is idle fantasy to imagine winning them to the left’s cause. Ordinary people must organize to build the power to challenge money and media, and compel them to listen. That is the task of the Canadian left, including the NDP; but the NDP can’t do it alone.

The media prescription to move to the centre expresses contempt for voters, treating them like a static lump whose choices are given, who can’t be engaged by political education and campaigning. Good politics moves the “centre” to where you are, not the other way around. It’s not like Canadians are passionately devoted to the Liberal Party’s opportunistic centrism. They’re not passionately devoted to any political project. That’s the real crisis that the mainstream media has missed: the crisis in liberal democracy.

Social democracy has failed to control capital, and free market euphoria has crumbled before our eyes. Right and left, no one has a clear answer to the malaise of our times. Whoever can build something for people to believe in will do more than just win an election.

The solution to the problems of democracy, as John Dewey said, is more democracy. What would this look like? There are inklings of it in Brazil, in its experiments in participatory democracy and empowered social movements. But we must forge our own vision in the smithy of our soul. As New Democrats choose their new leader this weekend, the whole world won’t be watching. But that’s okay. The road ahead is long enough.