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Federal Politics

'Shopping For Votes': A New Manual for Power Seekers

Susan Delacourt chronicles the turn of Canada's political leaders into panderers.

Crawford Kilian 7 Oct

Crawford Kilian is a contributing editor of The Tyee.

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Harper's Conservatives found success designing attack ads and talking points for largely apolitical Canadian consumers who like Tim Hortons and hockey. Photo by photoswebpm, Creative Commons licensed.

Early in her new book, Susan Delacourt, a senior political writer for the Toronto Star, mentions several Canadian backroom boys who got into politics clutching dog-eared copies of The Making of the President, 1960, Theodore White's classic account of John F. Kennedy's rise to the presidency. White had been among the first to see how the art of politics was changing, and generations of politicians have studied it.

Delacourt's Shopping for Votes: How Politicians Choose Us and We Choose Them is likely to become the new manual for power-seekers. And while its focus is on Canada, it shows how we, Australia, Britain and the United States have borrowed from one another to create the present political situation.

The book begins with social history: the emergence of a prosperous Canada in the 1950s, which signalled the decline of the citizen-voter and the rise of the consumer-taxpayer -- a very different kind of political animal.

Though she doesn't spell it out, Delacourt points to the effect of postwar social-democratic measures: better access to education and mortgages, for example, let veterans and their families move into better jobs and suburban homes, where television promoted ever more consumer goods. Baby-bonus cheques gave young mothers extra purchasing power.

The same government that supplied these subsidies was locked in the Cold War and happy to promote the idea that consumption was the measure of freedom -- especially compared to those miserable people in the communist countries, struggling to find razor blades and fresh fruit. If older Canadians still had a horror of debt learned in the Depression, their kids learned that they could borrow their way to instant consumer gratification.

Delacourt then shifts from social to political history -- better said, to social history as seen by the politicians trying to understand this new kind of consumer-oriented Canadian. Among the first was John Diefenbaker, who listened to smart young ad men like Allister Grosart and Dalton Camp; they helped get him elected in 1957, using ad gimmicks that the incumbent Liberals couldn't match.

From Playboy to databases

The race was then on, with Liberals and Progressive Conservatives looking for new ways to gauge the market and sell themselves in it. A series of pollsters and ad men became critical to both parties' election strategies; each had its own increasingly sophisticated approach. At one point, access to the subscription list of Playboy was a breakthrough in voter identification; now parties have vast databases of known and potential supporters.

The first half of Delacourt's book is a lively and very readable account of the half-century between the rise of Diefenbaker and that of Harper. She shows how the ad men shaped the parties' successive election campaigns, using techniques developed to sell soap and canned tomatoes. Then the ad men began to shape the parties themselves, tuning them to appeal to tightly-defined segments rather than remain big-tent organizations.

This was of course going on while Margaret Thatcher in the United Kingdom and Ronald Reagan in the U.S. were marketing themselves into solid electoral success. Canadians studied those achievements, invited their authors to share their secrets, and honed their skills at slicing and dicing the electorate.

By the time Thatcher famously said "There is no such thing as society," she was pretty much on the mark. She may have misrepresented people's needs for government services, but consumer-taxpayers were glad to hear they wouldn't have to pay more taxes to meet those needs. Taxes, after all, keep the cocooned, individual consumer from consuming more stuff.

The branding of political parties

By the 1990s, Canadian parties were trying to brand (or rebrand) themselves. The Liberals' brand as the Natural Governing Party was getting shopworn. The Progressive Conservatives, however, were branded as hopeless losers, the political equivalent of BlackBerry. Right wing consumer-taxpayers started shopping around among the no-name brands like Reform.

The Liberals effectively finished themselves off with the 1995 Quebec referendum; they had run a low-key federalist campaign, and the PQ lost by only a handful of votes. Clearly shocked, Jean Chrétien launched an old-fashioned flag-waving ad campaign for Canada that did nothing for national unity but spilled enough money to cause the sponsorship scandal and the eventual rise to power of the merged and rebranded Conservatives.

Delacourt devotes almost half her book to that rise and the Conservatives' consolidation in office. By now, she says, "...increasingly it looked like the sole job of the government was to supply services to its taxpaying citizens.... What had happened to the idea of the federal government as a generator of ideas or bold national projects?"

Well, this federal government generated ideas like the debatability of climate change, and bold national projects like junking the long-form census. Those measures might scandalize the media and politically-involved Canadians, just as they are enraged by Conservatives' parroting of talking points.

But they're missing the point: Harper's Conservatives don't care about them -- they're talking to the largely apolitical Canadians who like Tim Hortons and hockey.

Full credit for listening

Harper and his team deserve full credit for this. In a political world driven by marketing, the voter-customer is always right. The Conservatives didn't waste time trying to persuade voters with reasoned arguments and accepted statistics. But they listened carefully to those apolitical Canadian consumers, which was clearly more than the Liberals and New Democrats were doing. And then they designed their attack ads and talking points for the consumers, not for the media or the other parties' supporters.

The architect of this approach was Patrick Muttart, whom Delacourt calls "the vice-president of marketing for Harper's Conservative party." He argued that the only effective ways to reach apolitical Canadians was with 30-second TV commercials no longer than 82 words, and direct-mail postcards that recipients would read or reject in three seconds.

Another key step was a speech to Conservative leaders by U.S. Republican strategist Frank Luntz in 2006. Luntz further sensitized them to having an ear for apolitical Canadians; he also encouraged them to promote hockey as a non-political Canadian symbol, and argued that images are remembered more than words.

Is this the inevitable future of Canadian politics, to be just another consumer choice? Delacourt doesn't entirely think so. She points out in her conclusion that fewer than one-third of Canadians now believe political ads. She notes that the attack ad on Justin Trudeau, on his first day as leader of the Liberals, backfired. (Conservatives might argue that voters will still remember the image of him doffing his shirt; Liberals might respond with memories of Trudeau clobbering then-Conservative Senator Patrick Brazeau in the boxing ring.)

Pols into panderers

Delacourt says: "The old adage 'the customer is always right'... turns political leaders into panderers. Customers may always be right, but citizens are not. Sometimes the most intractable political problems need to be solved with education or building bridges between solitudes in the population, divided by language, culture, age, income or simple geography. That more noble feat of governance is difficult to accomplish if citizens constantly need to be told they're right -- that their views don't need to change."

She warns that Patrick Muttart's approach, speaking to the 10 per cent who don't pay attention to politics, "threatens to debase the currency altogether.... Little wonder, then, that large swaths of the voting public have checked out, preferring to offer their loyalty to doughnut shops or beer brands than to the political system. That migration is a stinging verdict on the success of political marketing. Instead of turning consumers into citizens, it has accomplished the reverse. Canadian politics went shopping for votes, and the voters went shopping."

It's hard to imagine what could break the momentum of 60 years of consumerism: an environmental disaster, a mega-depression? Both are implicit in the trends Delacourt describes. Certainly Muttart's 10 per cent will never read this book. Some power-seeking readers will study it as a how-to-manual for more political pandering. But other power seekers, we can hope, will read it as a guide to getting our country back.  [Tyee]

Read more: Federal Politics

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