negativityOver two years out from the next federal election but the campaign has already begun, as the party leaderships are now clearly in place.  It didn’t commence when the Writ was dropped or the government fell, but by that first action that now seems to signal the coming electoral conflict in the post-democratic era – the negative ad.

We continue to hear that they are used because they work.  Even certain political pundits seem to kind of relish this battle of the combative airwaves, as if admiring the tactic.  They are smart writers and observers, and they know well enough that the goal is to suppress voter turnout, yet they continue to take a certain morbid delight in their use. They mused enough about the cause; now they should write about the effect.  It’s like the gladiators in the Roman Colosseum – a kind of bloody entertainment that actually said more about the decline of the empire than it did the ghoulish tastes of the spectators.  

The use of these most recent ads against Justin Trudeau is all about retaining power, not expanding democracy.  It’s the PM’s way of saying that we’re stupid.  He knows that by airing them that he fans his base, brings in tons of cash from supporters, and gets to spend the next two years framing his opponent.  The stupidity doesn’t come from the fact that we tolerate them as much as it results in moderate and progressive voters turning off and refusing to go to the polls.  He was correct on this in the past, but what it says about the head elected official of the land’s willingness to “dumb-down” the citizenry is more than just a bit troubling to consider.

One of the recent ads is about Trudeau’s being “in over his head.”  It surfaced a mere few hours after the leadership was decided.  This is an all-out war campaign, to be stretched out for 24 months, to convince Canadians that he’s too young to lead.  It troubles me a bit to do this, but let’s use that same litmus test on the Prime Minister himself.

Somehow, a year before this past recession began, he lost a $12 billion dollar surplus that was vitally needed for the upcoming economic downturn.  Under his watch, Canada lost its chance at a Security Council seat.  We lost our vaunted place in international rankings on everything from child poverty to food security.  The Prime Minister lost all of the momentum and goodwill that had been generated from the public apology to the aboriginal people.  He lost the battle against poverty.  We lost Kyoto and we lost any real opportunity for the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) to break out of the political traps and lift this country’s international reputation by putting the poor ahead of the Canadian corporate interest.

Then there has been the cost to politics itself.  Stephen Harper lost the confidence of the House twice and was found in contempt for the first time in our history.  He somehow lost a 250-page handbook on how Conservatives were to undermine parliamentary committees so that nothing could get accomplished – an embarrassing revelation.  The House of Commons has lost the ability to compromise under his watch.  We have misplaced democracy, lost trust, lost confidence, and in the process we have lost ourselves for a time as Canadians..

So, I’m kind of wondering about who really isn’t up for the job?  How could someone with such a record like that above, established over six years, dish the dirt on someone who only became a party leader not even a week ago?  Shouldn’t the barrels be turned in the opposite direction?

My personal answer to that last question is no.  Should Justin Trudeau ask me whether he should take such negative ads to Stephen Harper, I would say don’t do it.  It’s not because I’m a pie-in-the-sky ideologue.  It’s simple, hardl reality, and all parties do it. The more of these things we send out on the airwaves or in print, or the Internet, the more quickly we hasten our demise.  “Democracy never lasts long,” American founder John Adams said.  “It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself.  There was never a democracy that did not commit suicide.”

The realistic facts of the case are that democracy is “murdered” by the countless character assassinations that precede any undermining of moral and popular authority.  Parties and their leaders have every right to run ads revealing the flaws in their opponent’s policy and practices.  Yet it is done most often not as a democratic duty, but as a way of winning an election.  What happens if we hold an election and nobody came?  We are now closer to that reality than at any other time in our history, and it’s not just because citizens are distracted or governments are inept; it’s because political parties have taken to the use of negative ads to suppress voter turnout, thereby robbing democracy of its true owners.

Any leader that supports such a strategy that belittles citizens instead of elevating them should hardly use the “over his head” slogan to describe another when he has been unable to manage the complexities of a robust democracy that we are clearly at risk of losing.