It remains one of the three great lessons I learned in my time in politics and it’s even more pertinent now, some four years later. Though it was referred to in one of my earlier blogs, it stands repeating here, especially if anyone reading these words is thinking about entering politics.
Seated on a lengthy plane ride with a government minister, we fell into talking of my discouragement with Question Period and especially the negative advertising that appeared to be a permanent part of the political landscape. He was immediately sympathetic, nodding in the affirmative, and at times even seeming to agree with my conclusions. It was then that he dropped the bombshell that forever changed my view of present-day Ottawa.
“Glen, you’re such a well-meaning guy – just like most Canadians, I think. But you miss the point: negative advertising works.” Well, that wasn’t news to me, but what he went on to share definitely caught my attention. He felt that most Canadians were moderates, mildly interested in politics, somewhat progressive in outlook. “But they’re easily turned off,” he added. He reminded me that it wasn’t so much the messages in the negative ads that worked but the negativity itself. “Canadians turn off of that stuff.”
I still wasn’t quite getting it. Then he drove it home. Heavy partisans are going to believe in their stand, no matter what, he continued. But political party loyalties are on the decline. The majority of Canadians – those decent, compromising, tolerant citizens – now form the critical mass of voters. “The secret to acquiring power is not to win their vote but to turn them off altogether so that voting isn’t really an option for them – it’s easier to accomplish than winning them. With the absence of those votes, it then becomes a battle as to how can get out the most partisans for their party. Those same ads that turn off more tolerant folks fan the flames for our base. They come out in greater numbers and we win.”
Welcome to the world of voter suppression. The realization of what the minister had just told me caused me to sit back in my seat and ponder the implications. He was exactly right, and it worked. It worked for the base, the party, and for the government itself. Sadly, it didn’t do anything for democracy, citizen participation, the democratic franchise, or the decline of political respectability in the country. But if what you want is power, then those long-term implications are hardly significant.
To be clear, negative advertising has been used by various parties, repeatedly. I still recall being a Liberal candidate when the ad came out against Stephen Harper and reminding folks that troops might have to be called into Quebec. I condemned it then, even though it was a Liberal ad, and I condemn it now. But those days are now in the past. These past six years have seen the development of the permanent campaign and the use of negative ads between elections. We expect such shenanigans during election campaigns, but it is the consistent use of them, based on the rationale that minister told me about, that has driven Canadians away from politics in droves. Of course it works for the government; it’s foolish to deny the reality of it. Most of us don’t like negative people and tend to avoid them. Well, the same is true of the ballot box for many Canadians – make politics negative and they’ll just bypass their democratic franchise.
I was never taught this tactic in school or in subsequent years. I know advertisers occasionally meander down this negative path, but its implications on voters in these last few years had been overlooked by me somehow – until that plane flight. We witness its full expression and devastating consequences in the recent American campaigns, such as the one we are witnessing now. We now have our own version, and for Canadians it is a caustic reminder of how far we have fallen.
How could we let ourselves come to accept this ongoing preservation of neglect, this great turning away of citizens from that one place where they can recapture their own future – the ballot box? It is the neglect of timely repairs to a nation that make major reconstruction inevitable. This new approach to power is not so much to kill democracy as to let it die from neglect due to abhorrence of the political domain. It is the collective living out of Tryon Edwards observation that, “Hell is truth seen too late, of duty neglected in its season.”
Following a period of prolonged silence, I asked the minister, “Why would anyone purposefully set up such a system if it meant the democratic decline of our country?” That’s when he nodded his agreement. “But it’s the quickest way to power,” he concluded. Well, so is skirting the law, denying the rights of others, or the illegal use of force, but we don’t condone those.
If you are thinking of running for office, then get your head around this. Your job will not be to mimic this practice but to run in such a way as to get people back into the process through the manifestation of ideas and the nobility of public service. Establish your campaign on ending the neglect and you might not only have a chance at success, you might just change the country in the process.