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Don’t Be Distracted by This Populist Sideshow

Political theatre is toxic to good policy. And there are greater forces at work.

Mitchell Anderson 17 Jan

Mitchell Anderson is a freelance writer based in Vancouver and a frequent contributor to The Tyee.

Frank Zappa, one of the great philosophers of the 20th century, once observed, “Politics is just the entertainment branch of industry.” P.T. Barnum noted, “Nobody ever lost a dollar by underestimating the taste of the American public.” These two insights go a long way in explaining the irresistible, awful presidency of Donald Trump.

The Distractor in Chief rode into the White House on a $5 billion wave of free media coverage — more than all his more dignified political opponents combined. Trump remains consistently atop an obsessive news cycle.

While the media industry and Donald Trump clearly need each other, do we really need them? As politics drifts towards spectacle, is it still relevant as far more powerful forces change our world?

For instance, Trump loudly proclaimed he would bring back the U.S. coal industry. He appointed a climate change denier to head the Environmental Protection Agency. One of the first acts of his administration was to allow coal companies to dump toxic tailings into fish-bearing waters. Yet America has seen more coal plant closures under two years of Trump than in former president Barack Obama’s entire first term.

Why? Political posturing is no match for disruptive new drilling techniques that created a glut of much cheaper natural gas. The most powerful man in the world can seemingly do nothing to hold back the tides of technological change.

A similar populist sideshow plays out in Canada. Alberta United Conservative Party leader Jason Kenney, Ontario Premier Doug Ford and federal Conservative leader Andrew Scheer and other opportunists proudly posed for a Maclean’s magazine cover to champion their shared opposition to carbon pricing. But while they were being cheerleaders for the fossil fuel industry, the energy sector was the worst performing in 2018 on the S&P 500, losing 20 per cent of stock value. At the end of the age of oil, expect further erosion of decades-old cartel discipline as producers scramble to sell carbon reserves before disruptive technologies render them worthless, whether Jason Kenney likes it or not.

The political circus can’t bring back a dying industry, but it can badly damage public policy. Mark Jaccard, an economist at Simon Fraser University, recently penned a provocative op-ed suggesting that carbon taxes are wrongheaded. Not because they don’t make economic sense, but because they can be so easily weaponized for political gain.

What good is an economic tool if it becomes fatal to a progressive government up for re-election? Jaccard points out that other policies such as flexible regulation are somewhat less efficient but vastly more politically palatable because it is hard to run a negative campaign against something as esoteric as performance standards for the cement industry. Effective climate policy needs now to be inoculated against cynical political theatre.

This growing divide between what we think is important and what actually is important is becoming increasingly dangerous. The twin pillars of the 20th century — capitalism and democracy — have worked remarkably well in achieving their goals of allowing some people to make money and maintain political power. The coming century may prove both these institutions ill-suited to weather a gathering storm of disruptive forces.

For example, the market is propelling a race towards artificial intelligence and automation because there are short-term business advantages, even as these technologies threaten to upend the very society on which a functional business environment depends.

Populist politicians cannot resist railing against progressive climate policies for similarly shortsighted reasons, even as such tactics contribute to climate catastrophe. The supposedly Darwinian dogfight of endless competition becomes ever more outdated as an effective way of managing the economy, politics — and the information we consume to make sense of it all.

As important as the media is this era of misinformation, people often forget that mainstream news organizations are first and foremost competitive business ventures. Truth and profit never align exactly, and the daily diet of lucrative clickbait served up on our ubiquitous screens leaves the world woefully unprepared for a rapidly changing future.

News, as the name implies, relates to things that are novel. Yet much of what is reported as news is relentlessly repetitive. Things that are actually new and highly disruptive, such as artificial intelligence and climate change, merit mostly a skeptical footnote in most news broadcasts — unsurprising given that car companies, telecomms and computer and electronics manufacturers make up almost one-third of advertising spending in the U.S.

Alternative media now play an increasingly important role telling stories otherwise ignored by commercial outlets. Reading and supporting these platforms is a meaningful way to diversify the diet of information available to make sense of our evolving world.

What else can be done to close the gap between spectacle and substance? Ensuring lawmakers have basic scientific literacy is a start. Incredibly, the U.S. Congress has been without an official scientific advisory body since it was eliminated in 1995. This institutional ignorance was on embarrassing display last month when elected representatives wasted a public hearing asking the CEO of Google how the Internet works. There is renewed hope that the U.S. might finally reinvest in this critical capacity.

Updating our democratic institutions would go a long way to ensuring public institutions are nimble enough to meet the challenges of the future. Sadly, electoral reform of our obsolete voting system in B.C. was likely delayed another decade by the recent referendum that garnered far less interest than it deserved. Only 42 per cent of eligible voters bothered to mail in their ballots. In contrast, 65 per cent of B.C. adults can muster the effort to go to casino or buy lottery tickets — enough to total 500 tonnes of discarded paper each year.

Most importantly we can all be much more discerning about what really constitutes news. The political soap opera will be cranked up to deafening volume, while the actual agents of accelerating change conduct their quiet transformation.

By all means enjoy the political show — but recall that, in the words of Gil Scott Heron, “the revolution will not be televised”.  [Tyee]

Read more: Politics

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