Monday, November 04, 2013

Spin in Politics: How does it work

This CBC news story provides an interesting take on the Senate scandal and Conservative politics:

Senate expense scandal: The Harper brand of politics - Politics - CBC News:

It is interesting in the sense that it precisely conveys -- with the normal bit of  journalistic analysis -- precisely the talking point Conservative spin doctors wanted to get out.  What was that point: it is contained in the first paragraph: Stephen Harper doesn't flinch.

Let's leave the merits of "flinching" to one side for a second and think about what is important in this one-sentence opening paragraph. First, it is important because most people only read the first paragraph or two. Thus we learn, right away, that Harper does not flinch, that he will "hit back" as "critics" and that he has been consistent in what he is saying.

This type of stuff plays well with Conservatives and with some Canadians. How so? Well, first we have nameless critics. These are, presumably, just about any critic one wants to imagine. And, they can be because they are nameless. Conservatives can imagine them to be those evil "special interests," "liberals," entitled civil servants, feminists, or whomever. If we had to actually name the critics that makes the Conservative spin doctor's job harder because we might find out that those critics (as is intimated later in the article) are actually ordinary Canadians (who are remarkably skeptical both about Harper and about his claims to innocence in the Senate scandal). Without naming them, however, the journalist does the spin doctor's job for them because, after all, it would be difficult in a democratic society for a Prime Minister not to "flinch" if the people in whose interest he governed might want him to. In that case, he would not be defying nameless critics but subverting democracy.

Second, we have a situation where leadership is about not flinching. Don't back down. Be tough. This kind of political theory appeals to those who, frankly, don't understand how modern governance operates and who are not too concerned with democracy. Government might require that one be tough now and then but it is usually about making logical arguments, being consistent with one's own values, and articulating visions of where the country should be going. Politics is not a street right, except for those pundits and party officials who make their living off making it a street fight. I fully expect, for instance, someone who writes regularly on politics and makes their living from it to tell me I am wrong here because ...  well ... if I am right, they would be out of a job. What I want to say is that whatever politics might be about in practice, it should be about something other than staring down one's opponents.  It should be about institutional change, developing consensus around important issues (what a tough job, create a real environmental policy for Canada), addressing serious social problems in constructive ways.  Moreover, I think this is what Canadians want. The staring down critics is another page from the US Republican Karl Rove handbook. It is about creating divisions within a country to maximize vote. In other words, its a form of politics that puts personal gain (as in power) ahead of the country's good. Was this discussed? Was this evening mentioned in the news article ....?

Third, finally, we have a discussion later in the piece of the problems with the Liberals, particularly Liberal Senators. This goes unchecked. We are left with the simple statement that Liberal Senators are to blame. The journalist never provides any empirical analysis of this claim; they simply report it. Perhaps that is their job: simply saying whatever some political figure tells them to say. That would, after all, be reporting. I think journalists like to think of themselves as getting to the truth, rather than behaving like photocopy machines but ... I suppose it is possible to defend one's self by saying "I am just a mouthpiece and not all that interested in the truth." One could say this because if one were interested in the truth, one would note that Harper's argument is shaky. The problem, right now, is not Liberal Senators. The CPC has an overwhelming majority in the Senate. The problem is the constitutionality of Harper's proposed Senate reforms, something that is not mentioned.

Why should this be discussed? (1) Because its true. (2) Because it raises the more important issue: should a PM and his government be allowed to change the constitution of Canada at their whim? I'd argue not. The new story does not even recognize this as an important question.

So ... what do we learn. We learn that I have some serious problems with this news story, but more importantly we learn how a spin happens. Political spin is actually a lot more sophisticated than simply saying "it was those guys fault." All leaders say that, but they also know that only their hard core supporters actually believe that. Instead, spin takes other forms. Rather than appealing over the head of journalism, for instance, it works through journalism by promoting a message that, ideally, appeals beyond their core base. This new story is an example. It tells us that Harper is tough (a message the CPC always wants to get out), it faults nameless critics (so these critics can be anyone who you or I happen to not like), and propagates the idea that politics is a street fight (something it should not be). At the same time, it manages to distract attention for an important issue: the PM wants to change the constitution as if the constitution were unimportant and should be subject to changes whenever the government in power wants.

Thus, we get spin without anyone actually having to say "Harper is great." I am, I should add, no fan of Harper but that is not the point. What we should be learning here is not something about Harper (even if we can) but about how spin operates. This piece, just provides a good case study.

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