Sometimes I come across an opinion column about politics
that’s so nonsensical, I feel compelled to write a response to it as soon as
Usually what happens is I procrastinate until the urge to
undertake the actual drudgery of composing articulate thoughts and writing them
down slowly fades away.
Yet, for some strange reason the passage of time did not
dull my desire to offer a critique of a Bruce Anderson column
which appeared in
the Globe and Mail
, way back at the end of January.
You’ve probably heard of Anderson
; he’s a well-known pollster, he
appears regularly on CBC's The National’s “At Issue” panel, and he is the
Globe’s “digital columnist.”
At any rate, the first thing you need to know about Anderson
’s column is that
you can make anything sound cool and “cutting edge” simply by modifying it with
the word “digital.”
“Hey Joe, hand me that digital monkey wrench” or “The floor looks much cleaner now that I'm using a digital mop.”
The second thing you need to know about Anderson’s column is
that it passionately decries the nastiness of the Conservative Party, a
nastiness which he argues stems from Prime Minister Stephen Harper getting
“lousy advice” from the “cynical and jaded.”
This advice, wrote Anderson
has “coarsened our politics, driven away good potential candidates, and caused
a steady decline in turnout at elections.”
Although to be fair, Anderson
actually offers zero proof that “coarsened” politics is driving away “good”
potential candidates or that it’s causing a steady decline in voter turnout.
But let’s set aside that itty bitty objection.
What really struck me about Anderson
’s arguments is that they come across
as a tad simplistic, and by a “tad simplistic” I mean incredibly, insanely,
To show you what I mean, let’s take apart Anderson
’s digital Globe column, digit by
To prove his point about the coarseness of modern politics, Anderson
offers us an
anecdote from Question Period.
He notes that in answering a question from NDP leader Thomas
Mulcair about Canada
mission in Iraq
Harper said, “I know the opposition thinks it’s a terrible thing that we’re
actually standing up to jihadists. I know they think it’s a terrible thing that
some of these jihadists got killed when they fired on the Canadian military.”
This response, says Anderson
was “appalling” and “beneath the office of the Prime Minister.”
recounts about how, after dinging Mulcair, Harper tried to hit Liberal leader
Justin Trudeau “below the belt”.
What was Harper’s underhanded blow?
Well, writes Anderson
while responding to a question about his proposed income splitting plan, Harper
commented, “on the fact that Mr. Trudeau inherited money when his father passed
Oh the horror! Poor Justin, can you imagine such a terrible
… wait, really? That’s it? Harper just made an offhand comment about Justin
being a rich kid.
Heck, my wife is tougher than that on me when I forget to
bring out the garbage.
As he put it, “It’s as though the Conservative Party
considers receiving an inheritance some sort of character handicap, and that
anyone on the receiving end of a bequest should just shut up and let others
Now, I’m not privy to the Conservative Party’s communication
strategy or anything, but I strongly suspect that Harper’s comments to Mulcair
and Trudeau on that day in the House of Commons were more about tactics than
about simple rudeness.
But before I get to that, let’s carry on with our examination.
After detailing the chamber of horrors that was Question Period,
forward his reasons as to why we can’t “turn things around” and make our public
discourse more respectable so that it’s less likely to make Justin Trudeau cry
like a baby.
One “newish reason” says Anderson
“is the bad chemistry that happens
when you mix rabid partisanship and a social media platform like Twitter.”
To make his point, Anderson
put its in bone-chilling terms:
But when it comes to
politics, Twitter can also create some pretty nasty neighbourhoods. Places
where the ultra-cynical come to spit and spew, often hiding behind fake names,
making juvenile arguments, and indulging in pathetic name-calling. There are
lots who hate Liberals, or New Democrats, and many who hate Conservatives. Some
loathe the media.
If you wander into
this neighbourhood, you’ll find a seething, stinking place. And it’s getting
worse. For people who get up in the morning hoping to insult others, success is
about shock value and provocation. Ignore them and they come back with a worse
insult. Reveal annoyance and they’ll double down, overjoyed at the thought
they’ve drawn blood.
Wow! For a guy who wants to upgrade the quality of debate in
this country, Anderson
sure knows how to pile up steaming heaps of derogatory rhetoric!
But did Anderson
really think social media platforms would be a haven for legions of would be
Aristotles and Voltaires? It’s the wild, wild west of commentary!
does have a valid point. Twitter is a place where partisans go mainly to
reinforce their own belief and to attack the other side.
But so what? How does the rabidly partisan nature of Twitter
impact the greater political world and make it more difficult to “turn things
never backs up his proposition with any logical argument.
So I am forced to surmise that his argument goes something
like this: political parties must cater and pander to their partisan bases,
which thanks to the ungodly powers of social media are now made up of spitting
and spewing mobs of wild-eyed, crazed, fanatics who demand blood!
If that’s true, then logic dictates that banning Twitter and
YouTube, Facebook and Instagram would make our politics more civil, wouldn’t
But on the other hand, spitting and spewing mobs of
wild-eyed, crazed fanatics existed long before anyone ever invented the
In the days of Ancient Rome they used graffiti to
communicate, after the invention of the printing press they used pamphlets,
books and newspapers; in the twentieth century they used radio and TV.
And yes, each form of communication listed above, you could
argue, helped degrade political communication, making politics more of a rough
and tumble business, full of scurrilous attacks, rude language and vicious
Perhaps then the only true way to create a purer more
pristine political world, one that’s full of rainbows and lollipops and where
all politicians act like Mother Teresa, is to ban not just social media but all
forms of free communication.
They do this in other countries; I understand that politics
in North Korea
is extremely polite.
But now that I think about it, there might be a downside to
living in polite countries that lack freedom.
So maybe allowing a little rude commentary is a small price
to pay to live in a democracy.
As the great British Prime Minister Leo Durocher once said,
“Democracy is the worst form of government … say it aint so Joe?”
Besides, Anderson’s “Blame it on Twitter” thesis is actually
wrong because political parties do more than just communicate with their bases,
they must also communicate in a way that wins votes from all those Canadians
who don’t care about politics, or ideology or partisanship, which by the way is
about 99 percent of the population.
So the partisan cesspool of Twitter is largely irrelevant to
a political party’s overall communication strategy. Yes, they want to mobilize
their bases, but they must do so in a way that allows them to win over
That means for political parties, it’s the wants and dreams
and desires of the voting masses that matter.
The other reason Anderson
puts forward as to why we can’t turn things around and make politics more of a
genteel, courteous exercise is that Prime Minister Harper has consciously
chosen a dark path.
But as the politician
with the biggest podium in the country, he
(Harper) has a lot to do with setting the tone and the standard for political
discourse. He can deliver an argument with style, wit, incisiveness and impact.
But he also knows how to get the blood boiling among the angriest people in his
So “to be clear,” as
the PM likes to say, it’s a choice.
helpfully offers this tactical advice:
“But what this
Conservative Party needs to win re-election isn’t more evidence that it likes
to travel on the low road. Or that this Prime Minister is capable of insults.”
So according to Anderson, Harper has a better chance of
winning the next election if he sets a new tone, one that’s witty, stylish and
positive, and one that didn’t pander to angry Conservatives.
An interesting hypothesis. But could travelling the high
road really work for Harper?
Remember the children’s fable where the lion decides to lay
down with the lamb, and then the lamb hacks off the sleeping lion’s head off
with a rusty butcher knife?
The moral from that story is clear: if Harper unilaterally
goes positive, it doesn’t mean all his legions of enemies – opposition MPs, big
union bosses, small union bosses, left wing media, environmental groups,
feminists, Rick Mercer, the United Nations, pro-long form census advocates, the
entire country of Russia – who up until now have been doing to Harper what kids
at a birthday party do to an overstuffed piñata, would suddenly cease their
They’d more than likely continue to hammer away at Harper
with even more reckless abandon.
In a sense then, Anderson
is advising Harper to unilaterally disarm on the eve of battle.
OK, hold on, I am beginning to sound a little “jaded” and
“cynical” here, and I certainly don’t want to offend Anderson
’s delicate sensibilities, so in the
interest of reasoned debate let’s take a step back.
Instead of arguing back and forth about tactics, let’s
review Canadian political history and examine the style, wit and incisiveness
most successful prime ministers.
Let’s see how many of them traveled the high road.
John A. MacDonald – Canada
’s first prime minister and a
Father of Confederation
Once, likely in an intoxicated state, threw up
during a campaign speech.
William Lyon Mackenzie King – Canada
’s longest serving Prime
Talked to his dead mother
Louis St. Laurent --
Pierre Trudeau – Legendary prime minister and subject of CBC
Gave “The finger” to Canadian citizens.
Once spoke words resembling “fuddle duddle” in
House of Commons
Called backbench MPs “nobodies”
Desire to experiment with socialism flattened Alberta
Pirouetted behind the Queen
Invoked War Measure Act suspending the rights of
Jean Chretien – Won three majorities in a row, now
considered Wise Elder Statesman
Joked about pepper spraying protestors
Allowed staff to mock the religious beliefs of
Referred to Albertans as a different “type”.
Government linked to scandals too numerous to
Subject of a book entitled The Friendly Dictatorship
Won an election by promising to scrap the GST
(Ha, ha, ha.)
Regularly accused political opponents of
secretly wanting to close orphanages, hospitals and abortion clinics, as part
of a plan to impose an “American-style” right-wing, religious theocracy.
Engaged in vindictive feud with his own Finance
Hmmm, maybe Harper isn’t all that bad, at least
Now to be fair, we should also contrast the above list with
a list of all those Canadian politicians who acted in a respectful manner.
Day – Devout nice guy and former Leader of the Canadian Alliance – (a party
which no longer exists)
So clearly, as the historical record makes clear, the road
to political power is not paved with clever witticisms and stylish arguments.
If it was, the Harvard educated, successful author and all
around intellectual, Michael Ingatieff would be our prime minister.
The fact is in political messaging, simplicity and
directness work. If you try to get too complicated and clever and witty you
only alienate voters.
So no one should be shocked or surprised that Harper is
using simple and direct methods to define the Liberal and NDP leaders before
they can define themselves.
When Harper went after Muclair in Question Period on the
jihadism issue, he was defining the NDP leader as a guy who is soft on
And when he made that crack about Trudeau’s inheritance,
Harper was basically saying to Canadians, “Trudeau is a privileged rich kid,
who can’t possibly understand the concerns and fears of average middle class
Anderson might find such a defining tactic as “coarse” and
appalling and beneath the dignity of a prime minister; and he might believe
it’s based on “lousy” advice, but all the same, it’s an extremely effective
ploy, one that has worked on innumerable occasions in elections all over the
One of those occasions was in 2011, when the Conservatives
won a majority government after they successfully defined then Liberal leader
Michael Ignatieff as an out of touch academic.
And if you think only nasty Conservatives use this approach,
allow me to direct your attention to south of border where everybody’s favorite
progressively sensitive politician, Barack “Hope and Change” Obama, used
devastatingly effective attack ads in the 2012 presidential election to define
his Republican opponent Mitt Romney as a cross between Thurston Howell III,
Ebenezer Scrooge and Darth Vader.
Other examples: the British Columbia Liberals defined the
NDP as Marxist radicals, the Alberta PCs defined Wild Rosers as Bible-thumping
crazies, the Ontario Liberals (or more specifically their union allies)
skewered the PCs as heartless, right-wing monsters.
These sorts of attacks work because unlike clever witticisms
or intellectual arguments, they resonate on an emotional level and it’s our emotions,
not our intellects, which motivate us to vote for a certain party.
What’s more, due to a quirk of human nature, negative
emotions make a much greater impact on our minds than positive emotions. This
is why traumatic events – such as visits to the dentist – stick in our memories
for so long.
Keep in mind in too, Harper has all the warmth and
cuddliness of Genghis Khan with a hangover, making it difficult if not
impossible for him to campaign as Mr. Nice. (Anybody remember those horrendous
TV ads where a smiling, sweater-wearing Harper tried to come across as some
sort of Mr. Rogers figure?)
So the Conservative political equation is pretty
straightforward. Since Harper can’t make himself more likable, his only option
is to make Mulcair and especially Trudeau less likable.
And please, don’t tell me Trudeau’s Care Bear persona
somehow makes him invincible to attack.
Even the Liberals don’t believe that.
I’m pretty sure, for instance, that it was fear of
Conservative attack ads that caused Trudeau (who once believed we could solve
the terrorist problem by inviting ISIS to sit around a campfire and sing
kumbaya) to support the government’s controversial anti-terrorism bill, and to
rethink his opposition to the military mission in Iraq.
The Liberals don’t want to see TV ads airing during the next
election that feature a deep-voiced narrator saying something along the lines
of: “Justin Trudeau opposed the war on ISIS
he opposed Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s anti-terrorism bill. He cares more
about protecting the rights of terrorist scum than he does about protecting
you. Vote for a strong and safe Canada
So yeah, just the fear of potential Tory TV attack ads
pushed the Liberals to try change Trudeau’s image from adorable puppy to
snarling Doberman Pinscher.
By the way, speaking of the Liberals, up until now their
marketing plan was to avoid talking about issues and policies and platforms,
hoping Canadians would vote for Trudeau solely based on his winning
personality, charming smile and famous last name.
Some people (not me) might consider such an “idealess”
strategy “cynical” and “jaded.”
Oh and I should note that if
Tory attacks on Trudeau do start to erode his support in the polls, the
Liberals will drop their “Our leader is a boy scout” routine faster than you
can say “drama teacher” and strike back with attacks of their own.
They’d have no choice; as one time manager of the Brooklyn
Dodgers, Winston Churchill, once said, “Nice guys who don’t respond in kind to
effective TV attack ads finish last or else alligators eat them last.”
This is not to say, of course, that Harper’s aggressive
communications approach doesn’t entail risks or that it’s guaranteed to work.
My only point is this: in the context of real world
politics, as opposed to Anderson
make believe world of fairies, unicorns and gumdrop lanes, Harper’s tough guy
approach makes strategic sense.
Despite what Anderson
writes, Harper is not attacking Trudeau and Mulcair because of the nastiness of
social media or because he’s by nature a rude person or because of jaded
cynical advisors. (OK they might be jaded and cynical but that’s beside the
Harper has simply adopted a strategy that offers his party
its best chance of winning.
To paraphrase a guy who was paraphrasing the Bible, election
victories don’t always go the side with the best attacks, but that’s the way to
At any rate, that’s my “digital” opinion.