After an election about personalities, not policies, we can and must do better
May 9, 2011

After an election about personalities, not policies, we can and must do better

We have just witness an election which while historic in many ways was not one of any significance in terms of a discussion of actual issues or policies. The political choices of all four major leaders - and we the audience who responds to them - focused largely on personalities without a single major defining policy issue that got much attention. This is to our detriment, and it is important to understand how and why this occurs in order to proceed to a more bottom up form of active democracy.

There was one quality of the 2008 Canadian election which despite the banality of just about every aspect of it stood out as a welcome breath of fresh air. Namely, Stéphane Dion made the conscious decision - against the wisdom of his advisers and to his eventual downfall - to run a campaign focused on an actual policy proposal: a system to tackle global warming. With Elizabeth May entering the national debate for the first time and advocating for essentially the same fee and dividend scheme as the Liberals, this issue became a keystone of the debate and Canada got something it rarely receives: an actual debate about policy in front of a national audience. Ultimately the ineffectiveness of Dion as a leader, the lack of interest from Canadians on this issue (perhaps due to Dion's presentation of it), and the growing worries over the economy (although Harper still denied a looming recession for Canadians at that time, a fact conveniently forgotten of him as he self promotes his economic wisdom) meant that he lost the election. Since that defeat the issue has been entirely off the table with essentially zero attention during the 2011 election campaign and no national progress made (to the embarrassment of any who might care what the world thinks of Canada).

In the 2011 election, there was no such focus on policy. Both Harper and Ignatieff relentlessly focused on attacking various aspects of each others personality. Harper won in part by more successfully (perhaps as he spent much more money) doing a character assassination of Ignatieff. The various issues that were brought up were doing in a very superficial manner. For example, Harper's issue that he focused on was the economy, and the word was mentioned endlessly but had very little elaboration on what precisely the set of policies he either had or was going to undertake or how the other parties would handle it differently. The Liberals repeated the word 'family' and had a very minor package of policy proposals that essentially tweaked the corporate tax rate by a couple percent and gave in exchange a few small tweaks in spending. Nonetheless, attacks against the Conservatives and in particular the "respect for democracy" issue got far more attention. Neither of these parties came remotely close to what I would consider a robust and genuine discussion of issues and and certainly not policies.

Layton didn't really go into much if any detail about policies either, but he did give a bit more emphasis on values. It became clear that certain egalitarian values and emphasizing priorities on education, families, seniors, and healthcare were part of the package. My impression from reading Layton's book was that I usually agreed with the underlining values he espoused even if I at times disagreed with the specific policies to accomplish these values. In some sense, agreement over values is a precursor to agreement over policies to accomplish those values. It was a small difference, but I think that nonetheless there was a difference where Layton's campaign focused slightly more on the underlying values (and a healthy dose of personality politics as well) and ultimately it proved successful for him. To see the emptiness of even using these value oriented buzz words, what with the word 'family' typically being a word associated to NDP values and with the Liberals choosing 'family' to be the comparable word to the Conservatives 'economy' which was repeated endlessly by the end even the Conservatives were using the word 'family quite a lot. You thus had three parties all saying they were going to do something - the details of that something all quite unclear - to help the 'family' as if this was a sufficient distinction to differentiate and choose between them.

Ultimately, successful politicians are going to employ successful strategies to get elected into office. The fact that the 2008 election - where the Liberals attempted to focus on a certain issue and a certain policy for addressing that issue - didn't turn out to be a successful strategy to get into office means that it is not surprising then that this approach of choosing an important issue to focus on was completely abandoned and replaced with the partisan personality game of the 2011 election. The responsibility, at the end of the day, is on us the citizenry to change the formula or political capital so that things like 30 second TV ads that consist of zero policy or issue discussion but instead represent a partisan personality attack don't have significance in affecting our voting. Given Harper's success and emphasis on this it is clear that this is a successful strategy.

I don't think successful strategies are entirely lumped where strategies that focus on issues and policies are unsuccessful and strategies that focus on personalities are successful. It isn't as black and white as this. That Layton did a bit more focus on policies than the other parties appears to be successful. That Ignatieff did as much emphasis on attacking Harper's personality as anyone didn't appear successful. But it has been made repeatedly clear that it is hard to win an election exclusively by focusing on policies and one can win an election by doing just that.

As an example, take the Liberal ads which tried to portray Harper and Layton as two sides of the same coin - as in they didn't respect democracy or Canadian voters - which was the kind of personality insinuation which is just a partisan attack for the point of partisan attack. Any thinking person immediately recognizes that in the political spectrum, such as it is, the Liberals are in between the NDP and the Conservatives and given how most Canadians have a distaste for politics in general they accomplish nothing with this ad to separate themselves or identify a meaningful distinction. Ultimately, this is just a poor ad that isn't going to resonate at the personality level. Global warming also didn't resonate at the policies level. What matters - from the perspective of political strategies - is that the emphasis whether personality or policy is effective at resonating with the population. In principle, either way can be effective. What we need to do as citizens is to try and prioritize policies over personalities so that personality politics just doesn't resonate with us as a meaningful indicator of how to vote and that it is policies that matter most.

Another component to this puzzle - perhaps even the largest component - is that there is legitimately not that much difference in policies between the parties. They are far closer than the partisan politics might suggest. The Liberals, for instance, on almost every single issue both brought up by them or that we might imagine, are either right beside the Conservatives, right beside the NDP, or both. When there is not a large gap in proposed policies, it is very difficult to make an election about policy differences. It is quite natural that the end result is going to be about personality differences. This is to our detriment, since it robs us of a robust discussion about policies especially when there are significant asymmetries between the policies proposed by the political class and that which is endorsed by the public.

This issue of a small policy gap gets exacerbated during minority governments. Due to reasons of realpolitik, the Conservatives have had to propose budgets and policies that are constrained within the need to get the Liberals or the NDP to support them. While most simply don't pay attention, the Conservatives can't advocate for a budget filled with policies radically different during the campaign then what they advocated for a month earlier during parliamentary session. Thus what they are running on gets slightly more tied to the center (as defined by the existing parties, not by some larger measure) and so there is less policy differences and inevitably more emphasis on personalities.

Very often elections get discussed within the context and framing of the issues raised from that specific election. However, there is a larger question about the state of democracy that individual elections should be measured against. In a truly functioning bottom up democracy that had significant civic participation, engagement, and focused on values and policies, things would look considerably different. Community groups would have organized together to figure out the issues that they cared most about an representatives of parties would be invited to come to community meetings and could try and encourage us that they would be most likely to follow through on the agenda the community set. These representatives would in turn band together and set the agenda for what the party leaders could try and convince the representatives they would be best at following. Instead, we experience the reverse. The party leaders set the agenda and then the representatives repeat much of the same agenda to meetings they largely set and organize in the communities where they espouse the agendas and people vote on whose agenda most fits their own. It is top down opposed to bottom up. For example, Stéphane Dion's choice to run on a global warming platform was largely his choice to prioritize that issue and not one forced by the people or his party; indeed, it was the reverse. Or take my criticisms of Peggy Nash, the Parkdale-Highpark successful NDP candidate who essentially repeated the top down message as established by the NDP. This isn't an institutional problem, politics can absolutely be bottom up within our institutional democratic system, but it takes effort and organizing among the people. 

Thoughts on this post? Comment below!

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ohoh said...

Correct - minimal issues,buzzwords, personality, not much difference anyway.

But, it is an institutional problem with a lazy, co-opted media having dominance.

Bottom up change will have to be directed towards the medias' approach as well as the political system.

I don't know how we're going to get bottom up change from a dumbed down populace.

bazie said...

Ya the media is certainly a huge problem at entrenching apathy, ignorance and civic disengagement. When I say institutional I was meaning the basic idea of a parliamentary style representative democracy. Building community movements, independent and decentralized media, seeding political engagement and the like are all possible within this institutional structure. Of course, none of that is easy and there are many forces that work against this kind of engagement but absolutely it is possible. One issue that occurs is that when we think these problems are insurmountable, it tends to breed a reinforcing sense of apathy and that there is little point trying to work against it.

ohoh said...

Agreed, there's a circle, a self-defeating loop.

And I agree with what you say is possible within our political system.

What I'm suggesting is that there are TWO complex inter-locking systems.

Look at your post. How much does the shadow of Media hover about what you've said ?

I'm not trying to be a jerk. I'm saying there are two battles.

"Building...independent and decentralized media..." - that actually reach more folks than the thumb generation and have a significance and impact enough to balance the MSM - well, that's as big an endeavour as grassroots democracy.

I suppose I'm saying that I hope the latter can trump the need to accomplish the former.

Because the only way I can think of to de-empower corporate media is to withdraw my dollars from them and their advertisers and to let them know why.

Anyway, thanks for your long and thoughtful post and your response to my comment.

bazie said...

Ya I completely agree. Actually the mere fact that you and I are having this conversation on a totally independent political blog is a (admittedly very very small) first step away from the centralized and homogenized MSM. While it is probably places like that are far more likely to result in wide success, political engagement outside of standard channels is really important.

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