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VIEW: How election coverage shapes our understanding of politics

[Editor's note: The Tyee received this opinion piece from Shane Gunster, an associate professor in Simon Fraser University's School of Communications, and we offer it to you for your consideration. It's based on his presentation to an April 30 panel at the University of Victoria on the subject of what's not being discussed in the B.C. election, but should be. During the election season, we're posting various perspectives on The Tyee's Election Hook, labelled clearly as "VIEW."]

"What is not being discussed in the B.C. election that should be?"

Well, lots of things: climate change, growing levels of inequality, the relationship between taxes and public services, what kind of energy future we want for our province, etc. Rather than zero in on any particular topic, however, I'd like to ask how election coverage shapes how we understand and feel about politics itself.

Many of you are probably quite familiar with the claim that the news media does a poor job of reporting on the science of climate change -- not giving it the attention it deserves, not telling us enough about its impact on British Columbia, giving too much time and space to so-called "climate deniers" and so on. These are important arguments, but I think the bigger problem with such reporting is how it represents climate politics -- that is, the question of what we, collectively, through our political institutions, could and should be doing to address this problem.

Public opinion research tells us that there are significant segments of the population which are keen to have this conversation, and which believe that governments need to take much bolder action on climate. Between 2006 and 2009, the "issue public" for climate change grew significantly in both size and intensity, with surveys regularly identifying climate change as a top political priority for more and more people. And there were some encouraging political signs -- in 2007 and 2008, our provincial government, for example, took some important first steps in this area, including the introduction of the carbon tax.

And then, in December 2009, this emerging optimism all but disappeared in the wake of the spectacular collapse of the COP 15 negotiations in Copenhagen. Many experts will tell you that this was a predictable outcome, and it was more than a little naive to expect a diverse group of national governments (with contradictory and competing interests) to reach an agreement. True enough -- but the broader message crystallized in the failure at Copenhagen is that our governments are both unwilling and unable to address climate change in any meaningful way. And, over the last three years, this deeply pessimistic storyline has largely frozen our political imagination around climate, leaving many with a sense of helplessness.

At one level, criticism of government failures and shortcomings on this issue is a good thing, and in an age when our news media has been largely eviscerated, we can always use more critical journalism which exposes the limits and deficiencies in public policy (of all kinds). There is a danger, however, that if all we ever hear about are the failures and broken promises, we start to believe that this is all that climate politics could ever be.

One antidote to political cynicism is to ensure a balance between the stories of failure on the one hand, and stories of success on the other. And there is no shortage of the latter, examples of countries and governments which have taken action, which have implemented laws and policies which are actually reducing emissions and shifting the economy in a more sustainable direction. These kinds of real, concrete success stories are more compelling and persuasive than more abstract discussions of policy -- the modest success of our own carbon tax, for example, has done more to energize the global conversation about carbon taxes than a thousand policy papers on the topic.

But even more important than discussing laws and policies are stories of political activism and public engagement which describe how so-called "ordinary citizens" are mobilizing in a thousand different ways to demand that their governments take strong action. One of the best ways of drawing people into politics is to tell us stories about how people just like us are involved in politics. Weaving together stories of policy and activism could provide a much more optimistic account of how climate politics can help solve (rather than exacerbate) the problem of climate change.

But, with the odd exception, you won't find those kinds of stories in mainstream media. Instead, in those rare moments when climate politics does make it to the front page (such as during the Copenhagen summit), cynicism is the order of the day, with climate politics framed as a futile, irrelevant and even hypocritical exercise. Needless to say, such cynicism is utterly toxic when it comes to getting people engaged on climate, or even getting them to pay attention to the issue.

So what does any of that have to do with elections? Well, I suspect that you could probably tell similar stories about virtually any of the bigger problems which we face as a society -- rising levels of inequality, the persistence of child poverty, homelessness, what have you. In a democracy, election campaigns should be a period of intense political discussion, a time when we engage each other in "big picture" conversations about these kinds of problems, when we talk about what type of a society we want to have, and what core values we believe should guide our political institutions, laws and policies.

And yet when it comes to elections, inspirational stories of political activism or innovative experiments in deliberative democracy are few and far between. Instead, we generally get a very different perspective. On the one hand, the public is represented as consumers. Framed with the language of rational choice, we are invited to engage in a cost-benefit analysis to assess the impact of party X or policy Y on our bottom line, and choose according to which option will maximize our self-interest. Just as the savvy shopper looks past the seductive but false promises of Madison Avenue, so too are we counselled to harden ourselves against the aspirational qualities of political discourse in favour of a pragmatic assessment of what's in it for me.

We're also often addressed as spectators, and politics appears as a kind of entertaining spectacle, a game played by others which we can criticize from a position of cynical detachment. Often described as "horse-race journalism," this frame takes the measure of every word, event or idea based solely upon its impact on the campaign, dismissing as irrelevant (and naive) any broader engagement with the virtue, truth or morality of any particular proposal.

The most corrosive impact of these frames is not that we begin to think of ourselves only as consumers or cynical spectators, but that we come to think of everybody else that way. When our media cultivates such perceptions of political isolation, our democracy necessarily becomes anemic and ineffectual. But if and when our political culture allows us to tell different stories about ourselves, perhaps we'll be able to call a different kind of public into being, one in which political engagement becomes a means of taking back our government and, together, building the kind of society that we want.

Shane Gunster is an associate professor in the SFU School of Communications.

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