Wednesday, December 09, 2015

Anger and Public Life: Or, Attack Ads as Cultural Artifact

I recently tried to argue that one thing that had changed in the recent Canadian federal election was the tone of public discourse. The Conservatives who -- for right or wrong -- had mastered Bush II era negative advertising techniques in Canada took a hit by not recognizing that times had changed. Even before the election had officially been called, the CPC rolled out their usual panoply of negativity -- which had been used to effect in previous elections -- but ... nothing happened. The Tories could not gain any traction and, for one reason or another, voters shifted over the Liberals -- whose leader was under near continual Conservative attack.

There could be a number of reasons why negative attack adverts did not work this time. It could be that people simply did not believe them because they held a different view of Trudeau. It could be that a significant chunk of voters were simply so interested in getting rid of Harper that they were willing to vote for whomever, regardless of public discourse, under a "lesser evil"-type of approach to public life. It could be that the adverts backfired and actually drew attention to the Liberals and their leaders. All of  these things likely played some role in the process of Conservative defeat, but in a previous blog I argued that Canadians were moving beyond negative advertising and hence, the adverts missed their market.  Should I re-think my assessment? Have I spoken too quickly? I tried to argue that Canadians moving beyond negative advertising was a "good news story" that gave us -- along with some other things -- more reasons for optimism in Canadian public life than we have had in some time. But, am I right or ... might not such an assertion require more explanation?

One thing to look at might be the character of public discourse.  "Back in the day" -- that is, when I was an undergrad, one of my profs introduced the concept of the "spirit of the age" (zeitgeist) and argued that it just was. One could recognize that culture had shifted (one way or the other) but it was impossible to explain. One could just detail that it happened but historians -- he was a history prof -- should remain silent on cause because they would not be able to find it.

Even then I did not like that explanation, the way we might say it now is like this: Canadians in the recent past responded to negative advertising because they were angry. They didn't, in 2015, because the "sunny ways" promised by the Liberals captured a more optimistic, upbeat Canada. In other words, the spirit of the age had changed and the Liberals benefit from it, in the same way that the Tories had previously benefitted from people's anger. One might not agree with this type of explanation but we have all heard explanations like this. For instance, after 9/11 "people were scared." Or, "people don't like change." Or, "people think it is time for a change." Etc.

There is, of course, a serious problem with this way of thinking, likely more than one but let's focus on one right now. There is no "spirit of the age," as it were, because culture is not a seamless whole. Instead, it is a fractured, fragmented, self-contradictory, and contested. We have, for instance, lived through a time  of remarkable technological achievement but that achievement has spawned both advocates and opponents.  In the past, the Industrial Revolution spawned Romanticism and, in Canada, the Group of Seven and back-to-the-land movements.  Equality between different ethnic groups in the US has spawned both amazing developments in mass media, athletics, the arts, etc., but also indignant disregard of Black lives. In Canada, today, respect for Original Peoples sits side-by-side with indifferent to MMIW; respect for the environment (something some might see as built into Canadian culture) is an odd bedfellow with the Tar Sands.

Thus, there is no singular spirit of the age. Canadians have not passed through an "angry age" to "sunny ways." Instead, some Canadians have been angry (and, some political figures played to this anger and perhaps inflamed it); while other Canadians are more optimistic or believe that optimism is warranted with the right approach to public life: negotiation, common cause, mutual support can replaced confrontation and antagonism if we ditch the needless confrontation and antagonism (this is, after all, 2015!).

The question, then, is -- or, was --  not an angry culture but who is angry and why? Or, to draw this back to my theme:  to whom did attack adverts appeal and why? Why did they stop appealing or to whom did they stop appealing and why?

I suspect that the number of people to whom attack adverts appealed is actually pretty low. I think those people are there, but I think their numbers were made to seem artificially inflated by the odd electoral circumstances in which Canada found itself in the federal elections of 2006, 2008 and 2011, where a significant number of middle-class suburbanites -- people who had spent most of their lives voting Liberal (or, occasionally, NDP, or very occasionally PC with an emphasis on the P) -- voted CPC. Said differently, they were disaffected Liberals who could not vote Liberal (for whatever reason) but had not dramatically shifted away from their personal or class views.  Negative advertising may have cemented their support in those elections for the Tories but it did not cement their attachment to the party or to conservatism, as an ideology.  They were swayed by negative advertising but their views had not been changed.

I also suspect that there were others, however, for whom negative advertising -- or the negative adverts that they saw -- were something other (and, more) than a political strategy.  I suspect that the views they articulated really represented deep-seated views and it is to these people, I think, that we need to turn our attention if we want to understand the negative anger of that time because these people really were, it seems to me, angry and negatively so. Who were these people? There seems to have been several distinct groups:

1. Alienated westerners: supporters of the old Social Credit, some former PCs, Reformers and member of the Canadian Alliance (or, perhaps, if we were to back far enough we might find routes in the Western Canada Concept). Western alienation is still discussed in the news  but its changed and the news, in fact, has a very poor handle on it. The  character and nature of the anger, the sense of being pillaged by the "rest of Canada," the sense of being disrespected and being outsiders in their own home, as it were, was a very real feeling that we cannot just chock up to some sort of zeitgeist. It had real roots and real causes.

2. Oddly ... self-identifying evangelical Christians. Not all, but there were an oddly large number (of a much smaller group in Canada than in the US) who were angry. The character and nature of this anger, I suspect, has little to do with Christianity. But, there are Christians who clearly have felt outside the loop, a sense that the world is not unfolding the way they think it should, and that if not their position than that of their religion is in trouble. They are angry at women's rights, equality for gays and lesbians, Sunday shopping, increased respect for non-Christian religions combined with decreased respect for Christianity, and any number of other things.

3. Professional anger mongers. These are far more common in the US, where there is -- apparently -- a lot of money to be made by being angry. The Fox-News continually angry talk-show hosts cum semi-sort-of-journalist crew ... does not really exist in Canada. In fact, those right wing Canadians who want to be this kind of person might be better off heading south of the border after the failure of Sun TV, or whatever it was called, last year (I think). Professional anger mongers sell a product: righteous indignation. They also sell a political messages: moderates, liberals, leftists ... heck, anyone but conservatives, are rotten hypocrites who irrationally hate the nation. Said differently, this is anger directed to political purpose. It is designed to discredit particular political perspectives and serves to reinforce that discrediting by increasing the level of emotion. I'm not certain if professional anger mongers are really angry or they are putting on an act. I suspect, its 50/50; some are and some are not. The key, however, is that these are people who are already angry. Anger is their "go to" position.

4. But ... this is a small group. To whom are they speaking? And, this is where I start to run into trouble because, it turns out, that group number 3 does have a bit an audience and that audience are also people who seem to be ready to be angry. What are they angry at? Well, all matter of things. If western alienation could be mobilized against Stefan Dion's carbon tax; anger at Muslims -- and, particularly women who wear Niqabs -- is another question. This is anger that is not regionalized. Indeed, this is one of the things that we might note as a "take away" from the last election, the "Harper Government's" war on those who oppose the Tar Sands failed. It might have, ultimately, secured a few votes in AB and SK, but even here the CPC fortress was shaking. The message -- mobilize anger against premiers who oppose Keystone -- fell flat except with those who were already pre-disposed to it. There were no new votes to be won here.

Likewise, I don't think the Tories scooped up any new votes with their attacks on Muslim women. It possible it got them a few extra votes here and there but the polls don't suggest that because most people who were pre-disposed to this message were already voting Tory. Same too with the anti-terrorism thing.

This does not, of course, answer the question. But, it helps a bit. The anger that the Tories mobilized seemed to be hit its mark (even though that mark was far more limited than they thought) when they went after visible signs of diversity. My guess is that this anger was primarily working class, overwhelmingly white, and largely -- but not exclusively -- male. When I did have the opportunity to talk to some of these people, I asked them directly "why are you angry?" Their answers were pretty consistent: person X (Muslim woman) is trying to get something for nothing, disrespecting "our" traditions, illustrating that they are not "loyal" to Canada, etc. In other words, their anger was animated by a sense that the world they knew was being undone and that someone else -- someone who they identified as an outsider -- was getting preferential treatment.

Now, I hasten to add that I am not agreeing with any of this. There is clearly much more than an implicit racism in these contentions. They lack historical perspective, claim the right to define the nation, are empirically problematic, fail to reflect on white privilege, among other things.

I will also confess that I still find this anger -- this vindictive -- odd. It can be so harsh, so powerful, so immune to reason that it becomes the antithesis of reason and discussion. It is about reinforcing views that were already held; not defending or explaining those views.  It struck me in talking to people who held these views that their minds were made up. They did not want to discuss. If I disagreed with them -- if I said a good word about Niqab or spoke of women's right to determine their own dress -- I was almost instantly subjected to the same anger. How could I say such things ... ? Didn't I know that ... ?   I must be a ... (liberal was the usual word that was used here)! It struck me in these not-conversations that these people -- at least the ones to whom I spoke -- had been angry for some time. They were rehearsing statements they had made many times, heard others make, and that had received support from their friends and family.  Anger -- at least at diversity -- had become a "go to" position for them that was unquestioned.

There is more to this, but I'll leave off this discussion now because it is already too long. I might return to it because there are unaddressed issues but I still maintain my optimism. Yes, there is a lot of anger "out there" but ... it did not rule the day and, right now at least, likely cannot. Some of that anger in the past reflected real processes -- regional marginalization -- and should be treated seriously. Others, well ... they represent the odd conjuncture of political opportunism, the consumerism of anger (its transformation into a commodity), and race-based class politics.
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