Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Shallow Politics: Canadian Politics and Media

In the back of my mind on Tuesdays I am always thinking about what I am going to write. Sometimes the news of the day just doesn’t provide me with the materials I want to work with. Today I saw these tweets on Twitter from a Toronto-based journalist:

You can follow Ms. Csandy at @AshleyCsanady. I highly recommend it.

Over the last couple of weeks I have been pleased with our media, on balance. They have done a good job at holding our dysfunctional politics to some form of account. At least the grubs under the rock are being exposed and we have to deal with it.

However, our media and politics, one must admit, are burdened with an incredible shallowness. Before I take both out behind the metaphorical woodshed, I should add that the public may be largely to blame in this. Politicians and media are serving us, they do not perform this twisted theatre for their own amusement.

Media outlets are hungry for eyeballs, and politicians live and die on their ability to draw attention. These (should be) self-evident truths, but both groups have learned an important lesson in the modern era: emotion is more valuable than reason. I should probably couch that claim in that it is as old as the Age of Reason itself. Ironically we are re-learning it with disastrous consequences for public life.

I recently finished reading Sasha Issenberg’s book The Victory Lab. One of the key discoveries is that people seem to be rarely swayed from their political positions. Political campaigners used to believe that with the correct policies voters could be won over. From my understanding this was particularly prominent problem among the Democrats. However, people are not interested in marginal tax rates and infrastructure programs, they are interested in values. It is a more complicated concept than I explain in a paragraph, but basically emotional factors and whether or not a voter feels connected to a candidate has far more to do with a candidate’s likelihood of success than policy. Policy can reflect this values, but it seems the latter informs the former, rather than vice versa. This was famously captured in the “who would you rather have a beer with?” question. With fundamentally different approaches to foreign policy and the world voters were often more split on a question of personal comfort.

Combine this with realities of new (and old) media and you start to get a rather unsettling picture of what our public discourse may one day become. Consider Ms. Csanady’s tweets. If evening news programs decided to lead with the recently introduced Conservative crime omnibus bill and framed it as a dispassionate discussion of the impact of criminal charges to cable thieves (or another nail in our parliament’s coffin) I sincerely doubt many outside the hardest of political junkies would have stayed tuned in.

Justin Trudeau (LPC – Papineau, QC) is a strong embodiment of this problem to my opinion. His strong name recognition and (inexplicable to me) public appeal means that any story that features him would attract disproportionate part of the political-news audience. By invoking the name Jack Layton, a politician that many Canadians have at least a passing affection for, and setting Trudeau loyalists against New Democrats you have set the stage for meaningless conflict that has great appeal.

The Rob Ford saga presents a similar problem. Often elements of the story that were more salacious made headlines and grabbed attention. The lewd comment Ford made regarding an alleged incident of sexual harassment is a perfect example. In the very same interview Ford confessed to drinking and driving. A crime that most Canadians take very seriously, but because sex and the embarrassment of his wife was involved that was buried. It returned in the later coverage, but it is still an important symbol of what is valued in the current culture.

I sincerely doubt that the politicians from years gone by who we praise could survive in such an environment. The inability for only the most cursory of labels of issues to permeate and the inability for sustained discourse on issues of importance means that our public life is facing a breakdown. Democracy is dependent upon an informed electorate, yet our electorate cannot (or will not) make decisions based upon information. Post-modernists would point out that this fantasy of the rational citizen never really existed. Everyone is burdened with their own peculiar set of bias and dispositions; there is no dispassionate evaluation of policy choices.

Debates and elections are no longer battles of ideas, but battles of personality. In such a shallow measure it should not be surprising that those with more persona than sense rise to the top and those bookish politicians who prefer to concentrate languish in obscurity. As a trend it is hard to imagine it changing any time soon, if at all. There is rarely great thoughtfulness or eloquence in 140 characters or a 10 second sound-bite. In a system where power is often bestowed to he/she who can hold the spotlight longest is it any surprise things begin to look more and more like a circus? 

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