Tuesday, December 08, 2015

Good News Stories and Federal Elections: The Fate of Negative Advertising

What does this federal election tell us about Canada? In a too previous blog I indicated that there were several under-reported stories. The story is a sea change, of some sort, with regard to environmental politics and the jobs versus the environment trade discourse. I argued that this discourse no longer worked for an increasingly large section of the Canadian population and thus Tory attacks on provincial NDP in Alberta, efforts to tar the federal NDP with the Stefan Dion brush after the McQuaig "oil in the ground" comment ... just no longer worked with the constituency to whom they were appealing.

The second thing that happened is that negative campaign advertising didn't work. Years ago I wrote a blog about how the federal Tories took a page from the Karl Rove book and tried to use a combination of low voter turnout and negative advertising and fear mongering to win elections. Negative advertising, at least as I am using the term here, is not saying "my opponent is incorrect." All parties do that in all elections. It might more better be called attack ads. Ads that paint your opponent as a bad person who will endanger others through immaturity or bad ideas. It is not disagreeing with your opponent because that is, after all, why they are your opponent and why we have elections. It is the effort to win elections by using thinly veiled lies and attack one's opponent on a personal level. Thus, when someone says "Stephen Harper's environmental policies are bad" ... that is not an attack ad or negative advertising. When someone says "Stephen Harper is immature or clueless" that would be an attack ad. So would splicing comments of your opponent together from different contexts to give a misleading impression of his or her ideas or saying something that was not true or that fear mongered or that played to people's worst instincts.

The Tories made a lot of use of negative advertising. I did not see a lot of NDP adverts this election, in part I suspect because I live a region of the country where the NDP won ... well ... nothing ....  so I can't speak to them. But, in the past, the Conservative attacks on Ignatieff and Dion were negative advertising and attack adverts. They had little or nothing to do with public policy and played on people's worst thoughts and fears while distorting their positions. Likewise the anti-Justin Trudeau adverts of various stripes were horribly negative because they focused on things like his hair and looks (immaturity), without addressing the substance of the Liberal platform.

I am not, I hasten to add, a Liberal supporter. I did not vote Liberal in this election or the last one or the one before that or the one before or that ... you get the picture. My interest here lies in diagnosing or explaining a process; not in taking sides.

What can we say about negative advertising? Several things. It may make a comeback -- in fact, I think it lurks on the margins of democratic politics for reasons that might be worth exploring some time -- but outside of the true believers -- the hardcore Conservatives -- it had little play in this election. Again, the mainstream media was slow to pick up on this. I read a story on CBC or in The Globe or somewhere that said something to the effect -- about a month into the campaign -- that the Tories negative attack adverts were finally working. What we can say now is that they weren't and they didn't. They got no traction out of the adverts at all.  The Liberals weathered their storm, Canadians tended, I think, to ignore them, and the Liberals ended up being able to make some hay be mocking them as the election date drew closer.

True to form, however, Tory adverts got nastier and nastier as the election date loomed. It was as if they had nothing else in their election toolbox. And, it is difficult, in some ways, to blame them. After all, from their perspective, they had gotten a good run out of negative advertising, taking down Dion and Ignatieff, reducing the Liberals to a rump caucus and securing a majority government for themselves. What they missed -- and what I am trying to point out in this blog -- is that the story changed. It changed, I think, for two reasons.

First, negative advertising is more difficult to use when you are the government. You can use it. But, attacking the opposition with it when you have to defend your own record is, in effect, saying "I don't stand by my record. I think you should vote for me because my opponent is an idiot." Second, I think -- again -- there has been a change. The Canadian electorate seemed less receptive to negative advertising this time round, more interested in discussing issues (which the Tories outside of energy and niqabs seemed to avoid), less willing to accept personalized attacks as legitimate. Moreover, that trend seemed to amplify as the election went along. The Conservatives ended the election campaign about where they began. The Liberals -- the subject of most of the attacks -- did not. They managed to dramatically increase their share of the vote. The more the attacks went on ... the more the Liberals vote increased.

The second storyline, then, is again optimistic. It points away from a lowest common denominator politics, where majorities are built around opposition or, in the case of the bond forged by attack ads, shared dislike. Instead, it points to a desire on the part of a large section of the Canadian voting population for something else. Whether or not the Liberals are this something else is not at all clear but they are doing their best to continue to occupy that position. The increased voter participation rate might be another example of this. Undoubtedly, a certain percentage of this increase occurred because people wanted to get rid of Harper and the Tories, but that does not tell the whole stories. Indeed, there is actually no reason people who disliked Harper and Crew had to vote. They could have just not voted, opting out of the process because they were completely disillusioned with it. The fact that they did not suggests, as I intimated before, that there is something other than disillusionment going on. Instead, the appears to be a desire for two things:

  • a focus on different issues (addressing the environment, First Nations issues, Canada's role in world affairs, etc.) 
  • a desire for a more upbeat, less angry, more progressive type of politics where people can disagree with each other without accusing each other of having destroyed the country, or threatened national security, etc. Heck, even Rona Ambrose -- admittedly in the wake of the election -- got in on the act by reversing the Tories traditional opposition to addressing the grave problem of MMIW and promising that she would be a happier more upbeat leader of the opposition

Now, as I said, I don't think that negative electioneering and negative discourses have gone away. In a future blog, I'll explore this a bit and try to go a bit beyond the Karl Rove election politics of the Tories to address the prevalence of negativity in Canadian public life. In short, I don't think its just a manifestation of Conservative electioneering. The question, one supposes, is how long it will last and whether or not this shift is permanent.

I honestly don't know but ... for now at least I am going to enjoy this shift and the less vicious tones coming from the state and from the public.
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