Canada’s recent election shows our politics are at risk of becoming a type of showbiz.
“Rise up, Canada!” declared Michael Ignatieff during the recent federal election campaign, no doubt trying to engineer some Trudeau-like mania for a Liberal party in decline. A calm mind might ask, “From what, to what?” Did Professor Ignatieff want us all to become taller? How would that help the country? I’m confused, as was the rest of the electorate.
The election offers us a chance to reflect on the role of truth-telling in our media-saturated democratic process. Cynics will tell us that all politicians are liars, thus excusing their need to trudge to the polls instead of staying at home to update their Facebook pages. But the cynics are wrong, though in a way they probably didn’t anticipate.
Most of the time politicians aren’t liars at all, since they avoid making the sort of clear factual statements that can later be called out as lies. A lie involves either saying something that is contradicted by something you’ve already said or which is at odds with facts one knows to be true.
Instead, in most speeches and interviews, political leaders stick rigidly to talking points scripted by party insiders – e.g. Stephen Harper’s endless fear-mongering about a Liberal-NDP-Bloc coalition of evil (despite the fact that all minority governments require some support from opposition parties) or Gilles Duceppe’s pronouncements that only his party can stand up for the rights of les Québecois. Sure, each party has a list of specific policies available on their websites. But these aren’t what we hear about in the media, and these aren’t what won them seats in Parliament.
If politicians make truth claims, they run the risk of putting themselves in the position of lying. It’s far smarter not to make such claims at all, to make performative statements like NDP Leader Jack Layton’s “together we can do this!” or Ignatieff’s “rise up!” – to echo Barack Obama’s call for “hope” and “change.” Who can be opposed to hope and change? Unless, of course, he tells us what changes he has in mind. The dismal failure of Obama’s attempt to implement a full system of public health care in the U.S. shows us how it’s much easier to talk about change than to actually accomplish it.
Though they usually don’t lie, politicians do engage in a version of what philosopher Harry Frankfurt calls “bullshit” – the use of fancy rhetoric to impress an audience without caring about the truth of what is being said. A good example of bullshit, which is seen more clearly in American politics than north of the border, is the small-C conservative call to cut taxes. Well, nudge nudge, wink wink, they don’t really mean cutting taxes across the board: If cutting taxes means reducing social programs, then yes; if it means reducing defence spending, then no. Even in times of peace, the military is the sacred cow of conservative policies.
This is illustrated by the Conservatives’ plans to spend $29.3 billion on the F-35 stealth fighter, despite the fact that the Cold War is long over and the sort of war Canadian troops would expect to fight in the next few decades is far more likely to involve militias armed with AK-47s and homemade bombs than high-tech air superiority fighters or sophisticated anti-aircraft missiles. And the anti-big-government tea party in the U.S. criticizes Obama for being a free-spending liberal, but simply ignores the tax cuts he’s made for the middle and lower classes.
What often happens when a party such as the New Democrats or the Greens achieves a measure of electoral success is that its formerly clear policy platforms become fuzzy guidelines rarely discussed in media appearances by the leader. The problem with all of those annoying specific policies such as “let’s implement a carbon tax” or “let’s increase taxes 10 per cent to pay off the deficit” is that each one risks alienating a specific segment of the electorate. And not always the same segment; they overlap, like circles in a Venn diagram. The more specific policy statements made, the more voters alienated.
In his 1985 book Amusing Ourselves to Death, American media theorist Neil Postman argued that all of American public life – from religion and academics to journalism and politics – was in danger of becoming a form of show business where images dominate ideas. Postman’s prophecy has come true with a vengeance – that’s why there are so many pretty faces on cable news and why political leaders on both sides of the border always have perfect haircuts. Presidents and prime ministers rise and fall on their media-massaged images.
How do we explain the rise of the NDP in popularity and its winning 102 seats in Parliament? Did millions of Canadians sit at home in the last few days of the campaign and read through the party’s policy papers, deciding that yes, indeed, a social democratic opposition might not be such a bad thing? Highly unlikely. It’s far more likely that voters tired of the whininess of Ignatieff’s vague attacks on Harper and Duceppe’s tired pleas for Quebec sovereignty.
Jack Layton’s cane-inspired gravitas and confident public image count for more than any of the NDP’s policies ever did, despite the ham-fisted smear campaign performed on the NDP by the inexperienced masseurs at Sun News. That’s why the late campaign TV ads for the party made absolutely no policy claims at all.
At the end of Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life, Michael Palin offers a simple answer to the question implied in the film’s title: Try to be nice to people, read a good book every now and then, avoid fatty foods, and try to live in peace and harmony with people of all creeds and nations. As Canada’s election has made crystal clear, the answer to the question, “How does one win the game of electoral politics?” is also quite simple: Exude confidence, don’t tell bald-faced lies, and look good on TV. Telling the truth has nothing to do with it.
Photo courtesy of Reuters.