Sunday, March 08, 2015

Me vs. The Digital Columnist

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 humanly possible.

But that’s pretty rare.

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.

Then I watch TV.

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.”

 See what I mean?

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.”

 Sounds awful!

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, five-year-old-child simplistic.

To show you what I mean, let’s take apart Anderson’s digital Globe column, digit by digit.

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’s 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.”

Then Anderson 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 away.”

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.

But Anderson was horrified.

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 decide things?”

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, Anderson puts 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!

Still, Anderson 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 around”?

Unfortunately, Anderson 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 it?


But on the other hand, spitting and spewing mobs of wild-eyed, crazed fanatics existed long before anyone ever invented the Internet.

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 invectives.

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 non-aligned voters.

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.

He writes:

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 party.

So “to be clear,” as the PM likes to say, it’s a choice.

Then Anderson 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?

Somehow I doubt it.

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 piƱata, would suddenly cease their attacks.

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 of Canada’s most successful prime ministers.

Let’s see how many of them traveled the high road.

Here’s the list:

John A. MacDonald – Canada’s first prime minister and a Father of Confederation
·        Alcoholic
·        Possibly racist
·        Once, likely in an intoxicated state, threw up during a campaign speech.

William Lyon Mackenzie King – Canada’s longest serving Prime Minister
·        Talked to his dead mother

Louis St. Laurent  -- Who?

Pierre Trudeau – Legendary prime minister and subject of CBC bio pic
·        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’s economy
·        Pirouetted behind the Queen
·        Invoked War Measure Act suspending the rights of every Canadian.

Jean Chretien – Won three majorities in a row, now considered Wise Elder Statesman
·        Throttled protester
·        Joked about pepper spraying protestors
·        Allowed staff to mock the religious beliefs of political rival
·        Referred to Albertans as a different “type”.
·        Government linked to scandals too numerous to mention
·        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 Minister

Hmmm, maybe Harper isn’t all that bad, at least comparatively.

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.

Here’s that list:

1.      Stockwell Day – Devout nice guy and former Leader of the Canadian Alliance – (a party which no longer exists)
2.      Um, ….

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 terrorism.

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 Canadians.”

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 globe.

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! Vote Conservative.”

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’s 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 point.)

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 bet.

At any rate, that’s my “digital” opinion.