The Punditocracy, my awful prof, and winning elections (a how-to guide from an amateur)

28 Jan

As we’re on the cusp of two elections – federal  and provincial – I’ve been thinking a lot about what it takes to win, who has the power, and what well-run campaigns have in common.  What caused NB’s Tory sweep?  Not just electricity issues.  Political organization and election readiness.  But was there more to it?  I haven’t figured it all out yet, I guess.  But with talking heads chomping at the bit for stories in slow-news January, election predictions have me thinking about pundits.  Are the people who write scathing editorials actually ruling public opinion?

On Tuesday night, I sat through a grating Public Policy class at UPEI.

“I hate Harper,” said the prof, “…he’s a dictator! People have said that he’s a dictator!  He has all the power and can do anything he wants.”  I grimaced instinctively because she sounded like a 2003-Bush-Basher.  Nine times out of ten, the Bush Basher was fairly correct in their bashing, but were unclear exactly what Bush did wrong.  I’m not a great Harper fan myself.  I didn’t vote for him, though I will next election because I support Donna Profit.  But, without sounding  like a self-righteous twat, I was kind of shocked by how this ‘educated’ woman was more or less repeating Liberal talking points.  Of course Harper’s not just going to wantonly run the country on his own personal agenda.  Of course he has advisors and a party and public opinion to be concerned about.  Her arguments sounded like the abysmal first-year Global Issues papers I used to mark.  Her politics were pretty self-evident throughout the class, which is fine, but I got the distinct sense she only half knew what she was talking about.  I might be judging too harshly, but Liberal talking points are free on the internet and I’m paying money to take that course..  Anyway, I left annoyed but vowed to stick with it so I can effin graduate, finally.

Not thinking much of it, a couple days later, my mind wandered back to a Summer day in Opposition Office with The Director.  We were talking about Federal politics and what it would take for Islanders to like Harper. It’ll never happen, he said, the Liberals were really successful in branding him as evil.   And he was so right.  The Libs had the longest party dynasty and very successfully used it to their advantage to negatively brand Harper in a long-lasting way that especially resonated in Atlantic Canada*.  But how much of that was the Liberal’s fault, and how much could be attributed to parroting talking heads?  As Rick Mercer says in this video(feat. the best Canadian attack ad spoof ever made), the Liberals built a political dynasty that was one of the longest in Canadian history.  They successfully branded themselves as ‘the’ patriotic party during a period of weak opposition. It was great politics.  And without diminishing the cleverness of pundits, the Liberal talking points paved the way for hundreds of articles on how Harper acts unilaterally, when, in fact, there is some evidence of this – but it’s wildly blown out of proportion.   There are so few ideological cleavages between the federal Liberals and minority Conservatives.   Anyone who argues differently works for a party or lives in Alberta (which is, more or less, working for a party.)

This Summer I was at a McKenna function trying to cajole my large extended family into voting for Olive at the Tory leadership.  Eventually, most did**.  But this particular week, Paul MacNeill of the Graphic fame had written something scathing about Olive, or her chances of winning, or why she ought not win.  I forget now, but it wasn’t complimentary.  I was in the middle of my Olive pitch, and one of my uncles said, “Lookit, Paul MacNeill might have a point! He knows this stuff inside and out!”   And then whatever I said was worth less because I had an agenda and he didn’t.  Which is fair.  I’m not debating the merits of Paul MacNeill, whom I’ve admired from my Semantic/Cadre days. I’ve strongly agreed and disagreed with  him(and not just on partisan stuff) throughout the few years I’ve been reading.  In this case, I’m more interested in the importance of Paul as a pundit.  As this Vanity Fair article highlights, news has lost.  Opinion has won.  Most days I check the National Post before the Globe because their opinion stuff is better.  If you can sway the pundits, then you can sway the masses  – especially, it seems, on PEI.  Anyone in the middle of an election will tell you that momentum matters.  Seeing the Liberal caucus out dining last Summer, video camera in tow, was a blow to the gut because that sort of stuff is invaluable to election time.  And impossible for opposition caucuses who don’t have full shadow cabinets.  Talking Heads aren’t oblivious.  Even without platforms or candidates, public opinion suggests that the tories have lost already – which I will indubitably be discussing later!

Why do pundits cause momentum?  I’ll propose two answers. One is the most commonly used: constituents want to vote for whoever will be in government so that their roads are more likely to be paved.  The other reason, I think, is that people want to feel like they’re informed.  You can read the news and absorb it.  You don’t necessarily form an opinion on it.  I’ve read every article on the Eastern School Board and have no idea what the right decision is.  But if someone tells me what to think, then forming an argument is easy.  That sounds condescending to the electorate, but think about it: you can swallow up news daily, every hour, or you can read a weekly column and, depending on the pundit, get relevant information and a solution or problem with it.  No wonder pundits have sway.  They’re impartial and tell you what to think.  They’re not looking for your vote.  Which is why it is kind of scary that PEI has so few, because – ironically – the pundits who preach that too much power is in the hands of too few are actually the people with the power.  But think critically: even if pundits aren’t biased, the people who inform them are. I’ve been a pundit, I’ve been the person who’s informed pundits, and I’ve listened to pundits to help form my opinion.  I’ve also listened to pundits in dismay as they get stuff wrong often.  But good communications people in politics can have a heavy hand in convincing commentators what to say, particularly when there’s a looming deadline.  So please don’t just repeat what you heard on CBC or read in the NationalPost.

Anyway, in my opinion, one of the only ways to counteract the pundit is to have politicians own voices intertwined in the discourse.  It’s no secret that I’m a fan of social media.  It puts a face and a voice to the press releases that parties send out.  The futureof politics is going to limit the use of traditional media.  And why not?  You can edit what you say online – you have little control over what lands in the papers.  It’s an easy way to disseminate information quickly and efficiently while still being somewhat personal.  Naysayers are morons.  Listen to me.  Now that I have a blog, I’m more or less a pundit.

I’d love to hear your thoughts though!  Am I completely off in left (or right, as it were) field?

Next blog post: in which the answer will not be ‘social media fixes everything,’ I promise


*Not withstanding the PC/Reform/Death of Red  Tory sentiment that prevailed after the 2003 Merger.  Admittedly that probably had something to do with PEI’s Conservative shutout, though tradition, being a have-not province, having a lower-than-average income median – all those things didn’t help.  Talking in generalities, I guess.

** A success, since there were like, sixty of them there.  Go Team McKenna.  Catholic Conservatives since the boat ride over from Ireland.



3 Responses to “The Punditocracy, my awful prof, and winning elections (a how-to guide from an amateur)”

  1. Kirstin January 28, 2011 at 3:02 am #

    Totally right. Not that you need to build your skills, but are you coming to the workshop re using social media as campaign tool that the coalition for women in govt is having? (did u finish that paper u talked about? I think Nancy Beth said she’d like to see if there was a way to incorporate into the workshop.)

  2. Jdouglas January 28, 2011 at 4:38 am #

    Great Post Kate!

    First, glad to see that UPEI’s poli sci department is still as professional and impartial as always.

    On your point about election swings, I’m not sure it’s possible to predict all the factors needed to construct a successful campaign. Certainly political punditry has a place in the analysis, but really can we say that this is the determining element that sways popular opinion? History I think would show that in some cases it does play a significant part in changing voters’ minds (e.g. the ad campaign that mocked Jean Chretien’s speech impediment). However, as a whole do these campaigns really do anything more than reify popular in-party support and foster an increase in out of party contempt?

    While it would be nice to paint the perfect portrait of political strategy in one brush stroke, reality always tends to shine brightest and most harshly on the imperfections that are sure to be found in even the most complex and well thought out strategies. Therefore, while it’s every strategist’s dream to draft the perfect system of campaign tactics with the ability to predict and control voter tendencies, I would say that rationally, given the complexity and fluidity of modern life, this is as implausible as trying to convince your public policy professor that Harper is not chtulu in disguise.

    Anyway, you can’t beat Machiavelli’s “The Prince” and Antonio Gramsci’s “The Modern Prince” on the topic of political strategy.

    (P.S. It was not my goal starting out to write this comment as pompously and pretentiously as I could, but once I got going it was too fun to stop. Great article again Kate, I look forward to reading more while I’m away.)

  3. Leo January 28, 2011 at 8:51 am #

    I have a HUGE problem for unthinking knee jerk partisanship on all fronts including NDP – I also happen to appreciate and admire some political leaders from various federal and provincial political parties in the past whether it be Pierre Trudeau or Angus MacLean – I think some red tories truly exemplified truly “conserve” ative thoughts on environmental and other issues — even Bian Mulroney was right on taking on apartheid -he had to take on Thatcher at Commonwealth to do it -am reading recent book Harperland and do not think our current PM is in anyway shape or form a nation builder and in fact he has been contemptuous of Parliament and is a neo-con ideologue who does not believe in what we have helped create in Canada (latest billions in tax cuts serve rich while shortfall caused by bailing out economy due to unfettered/unregulated capitalism and greed of market will be paid for by rest of us by gutting social programs and public services) and think future generations will suffer while his government has not only refused to act on climate change but has actively and continually obstructed global efforts to deal with it, thinking we will be paying that price as global temperatures rise above 2 % and biofeedbacks kick in as all climatologists agree will happen at current action or should I say inaction – I think critical thought on actual policies of all parties is needed as “Steve” is no “John A.” or even a “Dief” – as for being a dictator read Harperland and remember proroguation, stuffing confidence bills with other measures that they are forcing them to pass, refusal to follow Supreme Court ruling on Khadr, parliamentary bullying on giving information parliament asked for and was entitled to be are all far away from accountability act but now we have hallmarks of “Rove” like tactics (using wedge issues like gun control laws and law and order measures that every expert says will not work and constantly polling to nuance issues -all approaches of George W. and John Howard etc) while in minority position is all troubling and do you think he would not be dictatorial with a majority? -these are more than liberal talking points and to say they are is needlessly reductionist and dismissive of very real issues -plenty of evidence before your eyes. The amazing and incredible Ursula Franklin spoke eloquently about need to protect and strengthen democracy in Canada on “The Current” six months ago or so and she spoke from experience of growing up in Germany before WWII and she is very concerned about state of Canada right now and I share her concerns – I think we need a much deeper and more engaged democracy in Canada to solve the issues we are facing – I agree that there are more similarities among corporatist Liberals (McKenna-Manley’s I call them) and Conservatives on many economic issues but do not think eiher are good for Canada and most Canadians in long run especially when faced with environmental destruction of our Planet

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