Thursday, March 06, 2008

Alberta InDecision '08: The Long and Short of Negative Campaigning

May be little wonder why Albertans didn't vote

In a recent post at his new blog, Bruce Stewart seems to have formulated what is at least a partial explanation for why so few voters (41% in 2008) bother reporting to the ballot box.

"All the incessant posturing, pre-electioneering, shouting, etc. that is modern politics in the age of the twenty-four hour news cycle, the spinmeisters, political consultants, and so on — all of which is focused on hard, fast, negative sound-bites — has alienated the electorate. The parallel to this, for those of us who have worked in and around the computer industry, was the late 1980s, when then “no one ever got fired for buying” giant IBM was almost universally disliked, mistrusted, yet (when a decision needed to be made) rewarded, for lack of an alternative. Alternatives are not a substitution of one company for another; they are a shift in the paradigm of use. When it came — with LANs, Windows 3.1, and the client/server computing model in and around 1992 — an earthquake occurred. IBM was rocked and spent years reinventing itself. (There are those who think this is about to happen to Microsoft in turn. We shall see.)

What this means is that the problem with politics has practically nothing to do with who the leaders are! The Liberals, for instance, will see no real gain by dumping St├ęphane Dion for another leadership choice. Alberta PCs may be led by a less than stellar leader in Ed Stelmach — I expect the negative comments about him and his actions to begin again immediately — but that’s not the point.When the problem is the way we handle politics in the public arena, leaders are irrelevant.
While it seems counter-intuitive (in fact, Canadian politics seem to be obsessed with party leaders) a quick overview of recent Canadian political history actually demonstrates precisely the opposite.

Consider, in particular, the federal Conservative party. Then consider the criticisms directed at Preston Manning when he was leader of the Reform party, and Stockwell Day when he was leader of the Canadian Alliance. The criticisms directed against the three are essentially the same: "too right-wing, too religious, racist, sexist, homophobic, anti-French and will dismantle our cherished social programs".

This despite the fact that Harper and Day both speak fluent French, all three led the most diverse caucuses in Parliament of their time, and Preston Manning once paid for an African immigrant's wedding -- after helping him find his plane to Edmonton (he almost accidentally boarded a plane to Winnipeg instead).

Yet none of that mattered. Racism, sexism, homophobia and religion (there are still a number of ideologues about who throw a shit fit if Stephen Harper so much as says "god bless Canada") remain the tired old predictable epithets hurled at conservative leaders in Canada.

During this week's elections in Alberta, the predictable negative campaigning model was predictably at the forefront.

Albertan opposition groups have refined negative campaigning down to an art. Consider the following ads:

The idea, apparently, is that the now-defunct Albertans for Change spoke to every Albertan in the province, and found that none of them trust Ed Stelmach.

And if you believe that, the same people probably have a house in Fort McMurray they'd like to sell you -- a real bargain, too.

Likewise, it's funny that a group calling itself "Albertans for Change" would criticize Stelmach's plan for wanting to change too much. They really should have called themselves "Albertans for Change... not so much".

Previous ads for the group (seemingly no longer available via YouTube) actually went a step even further and seemed to suggest that oil and gas royalties were not merely uncollected, but had "gone missing" (read: were stolen).

Add all of this to the ludicrous episode in which a former U of A Student's Union executive misappropriated Stelmach's name in order to promote his blog, and the prevalence of negative political campaigning and political stunting in Alberta becomes prevalent.

But then compare that to the criticisms of Stelmach's predecessor, Ralph Klein: he, too, was accused of having no plan.

Different leaders, same criticism. Then again, having invested so much time and effort in formulating these criticisms in the first place, why would these individuals want to go back to the drawing board?

But the inherent laziness of these individuals does more than simply save them the trouble of matching a new criticism to a new leader. It also results in stale politics, wherein the same old, same old campaign is continually trotted out, just with some new window dressing.

Maybe Albertans aren't voting out of sheer boredom with the process.

Clearly, something new is needed. Bruce Stewart elaborates:

"I sometimes think the Green Party has it precisely backward (and I speak of them here because Green is as much a movement beyond normal politics as it is an attempt to enter the fray in the chambers of government). It’s not that we need another party. Instead we need a new politics. Part of the mania for Barack Obama that we see south of the border — and the original Tony Blair in Britain — and recently, Nicholas Sarkozy in France — and ever (malheursement) Pierre Trudeau in 1968 — is that they didn’t need to campaign from the sound-bite, negative, “my opponent est un gros enmerdement” point of view. They could strike out positively and say nothing about their opponents. (”Vote for us because of a, b & c” is so much more appealing than “Vote for us because we’re not those lying, cheating, stealing cretins”. So is treating the electorate as thinking, rational adults who are capable of responding to a sense of history, of vision and of direction rather than scaring them into taking action to avoid their fate.) That’s not to say that at various points in the campaign the experts didn’t create negative views, and the sniping didn’t begin — clearly it has — nor that the public is fooled with the leader keeping to high road while his or her entourage gets down in the mud (it is not; merde can be smelled even when the front-man’s shoes don’t stink)."
Of course, a lot of this helps dispel a myth regarding politics: that once upon a time politics was about ideas, and that voters were treated as adults. Politicians campaigned based on ideas, principles and policy, and refrained from smearing their opponents.

Of course, a brief study of history reveals the precise opposite. Politics used to be even dirtier than they are today. Giving voters free whiskey was once perfectly acceptable.

The old politics, however, are often mythologized as more refined and more mature, and the new politics as dirty, vicious affairs wrought with muckraking.

So what it turns out that what we really have is a bizarre vicious cycle in which the old politics masquerading as the new politics, making us long idealistically for the old politics.

Stewart is precisely right: what we really need is newer politics which, ironically, would finally be the new politics.

Politicians who deliver us this new political paradigm should almost certainly be rewarded -- if the electorate still cares enough to reward them when they finally come along.

And in Canada, we need this rather badly. The Alberta election may just turn out to be the greatest evidence of we have seen of this in a long time:

"Periodically institutions need reform. This is because, as Thomas Langan showed in his book Tradition and Authenticity in the Search for Ecumenic Wisdom, the institution takes on a life of its own separate from the tradition that gave it life. The faith yields the Church, and by so doing people in charge of the churches have interests in their roles separate from those required of them by the faith. The desire for societal self-government yields parliaments and assemblies, and those who sit in them have interests (for their factions, as the first American President, George Washington, noted) that diverge from what the process of governance requires of them. So it goes, everywhere.

Our political institutions are in advanced decay. They have been subordinated to parties, and those who cling to the apron-strings of power these represent.

What this electorate — and I care little whether we speak of your municipal government, your provincial government or institutional Ottawa — is most waiting for is the person who will come to politics to reform the system. Reform, in this sense, need not mean “a new political faction”: it could come just as easily by working within an existing party. But it would be a reform, indeed, of how politics is conducted. They would take the Kinsellas with their “ass-kicking”, and the Carvilles and Morrises with their “triangulation” and “it’s (just) the economy, stupids”, and others of their kind and boot them overboard. They would stop playing to the polls, or even worrying about them — pollsters need not apply for work here. They would treat their counter-parts with respect and speak firmly but quietly about matters of import rather than seizing upon the “issue of the day” or seek to blow up the scandal du jour (really, what’s the difference between that and the pumping and dumping which our Securities Laws say is illegal around the stock market?) in their place. They would assume in everything they do that their potential voters are capable of following complex issues with complex argumentation and rational (i.e. not simplistic) solutions on offer.

They would, in other words, offer an adult in place of the schoolyard bullies we must listen to today.
Unfortunately, even those who have the acumen to offer us such change can all too often go astray. As, sadly, was the case with Preston Manning:

"Would they win at first? Oh, heavens, no! — for staying the course is part of proving that this is reform and not merely a dash of lipstick on the same old street-walking. But there comes a tipping point, and then the whole structure from before comes tumbling down. When they do, it will wipe much of the past out of existence.

This is what Preston Manning didn’t know and lost sight of (and why I could not support his Reform Party). This is what is yet to be born. This is why Albertans told pollsters they wanted change and then voted for more of the same. This is why Federal politics remains deadlocked; why BC’s politics are frozen almost to the point where Gordon Campbell could do anything and not fear returning to the other side of the House; why Dalton McGuinty exists in the face of Caledonia, incredibly bad economic management and the destruction of a province and why, in the face of everything, Vancouver will probably return Sam Sullivan and Toronto David Miller to continue their reigns of error.
Manning, with his demotic political philosophy -- the belief that all disagreements can be amicably resolved if only the common sense of the common people is trusted -- was willing to offer a bridge between left-wing and right-wing ideologies in Canada. He offered precisely the kind of alternative that Canadian politics desperately needs.

But in time, the carrot and stick of Canadian politics, power, and the ability to enact his agenda turned Manning away from this path. At the end of the day, Manning all too often appeared to be an ordinary run-of-the-mill politician.

Bruce Stewart is precisely right: when Canadians are finally provided an alternative to the old-as-new politics, the results will be undeniable.

Alberta could prove to be an ideal testing ground for such an alternative, but the question remains: is anybody willing to take the risk of offering it?

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