Assume Nothing About the Electorate

Delightful though the new polls may be (or, depending upon your politics, horrid — I can’t rightly say that I care all that much at the moment) I think that, between last night’s Alberta election result returning very solid results to the Alberta PC Government of Ed Stelmach and the inability of either Federal party to capture the public’s imagination we have entered into a realm of waiting that will be resolved, eventually, by an earthquake.

Let me explain. All the incessant posturing, pre-electioneering, shouting, etc. that is modern politics in the age of the twenty-four hour news cycle, the spinmeisters, political consultants, and so on — all of which is focused on hard, fast, negative sound-bites — has alienated the electorate. The parallel to this, for those of us who have worked in and around the computer industry, was the late 1980s, when then “no one ever got fired for buying” giant IBM was almost universally disliked, mistrusted, yet (when a decision needed to be made) rewarded, for lack of an alternative. Alternatives are not a substitution of one company for another; they are a shift in the paradigm of use. When it came — with LANs, Windows 3.1, and the client/server computing model in and around 1992 — an earthquake occurred. IBM was rocked and spent years reinventing itself. (There are those who think this is about to happen to Microsoft in turn. We shall see.)

What this means is that the problem with politics has practically nothing to do with who the leaders are! The Liberals, for instance, will see no real gain by dumping Stéphane Dion for another leadership choice. Alberta PCs may be led by a less than stellar leader in Ed Stelmach — I expect the negative comments about him and his actions to begin again immediately — but that’s not the point.When the problem is the way we handle politics in the public arena, leaders are irrelevant.

I sometimes think the Green Party has it precisely backward (and I speak of them here because Green is as much a movement beyond normal politics as it is an attempt to enter the fray in the chambers of government). It’s not that we need another party. Instead we need a new politics. Part of the mania for Barack Obama that we see south of the border — and the original Tony Blair in Britain — and recently, Nicholas Sarkozy in France — and ever (malheursement) Pierre Trudeau in 1968 — is that they didn’t need to campaign from the sound-bite, negative, “my opponent est un gros enmerdement” point of view. They could strike out positively and say nothing about their opponents. (“Vote for us because of a, b & c” is so much more appealing than “Vote for us because we’re not those lying, cheating, stealing cretins”. So is treating the electorate as thinking, rational adults who are capable of responding to a sense of history, of vision and of direction rather than scaring them into taking action to avoid their fate.) That’s not to say that at various points in the campaign the experts didn’t create negative views, and the sniping didn’t begin — clearly it has — nor that the public is fooled with the leader keeping to high road while his or her entourage gets down in the mud (it is not; merde can be smelled even when the front-man’s shoes don’t stink).

Periodically institutions need reform. This is because, as Thomas Langan showed in his book Tradition and Authenticity in the Search for Ecumenic Wisdom, the institution takes on a life of its own separate from the tradition that gave it life. The faith yields the Church, and by so doing people in charge of the churches have interests in their roles separate from those required of them by the faith. The desire for societal self-government yields parliaments and assemblies, and those who sit in them have interests (for their factions, as the first American President, George Washington, noted) that diverge from what the process of governance requires of them. So it goes, everywhere.

Our political institutions are in advanced decay. They have been subordinated to parties, and those who cling to the apron-strings of power these represent.

What this electorate — and I care little whether we speak of your municipal government, your provincial government or institutional Ottawa — is most waiting for is the person who will come to politics to reform the system. Reform, in this sense, need not mean “a new political faction”: it could come just as easily by working within an existing party. But it would be a reform, indeed, of how politics is conducted. They would take the Kinsellas with their “ass-kicking”, and the Carvilles and Morrises with their “triangulation” and “it’s (just) the economy, stupids”, and others of their kind and boot them overboard. They would stop playing to the polls, or even worrying about them — pollsters need not apply for work here. They would treat their counter-parts with respect and speak firmly but quietly about matters of import rather than seizing upon the “issue of the day” or seek to blow up the scandal du jour (really, what’s the difference between that and the pumping and dumping which our Securities Laws say is illegal around the stock market?) in their place. They would assume in everything they do that their potential voters are capable of following complex issues with complex argumentation and rational (i.e. not simplistic) solutions on offer.

They would, in other words, offer an adult in place of the schoolyard bullies we must listen to today.

Would they win at first? Oh, heavens, no! — for staying the course is part of proving that this is reform and not merely a dash of lipstick on the same old street-walking. But there comes a tipping point, and then the whole structure from before comes tumbling down. When they do, it will wipe much of the past out of existence.

This is what Preston Manning didn’t know and lost sight of (and why I could not support his Reform Party). This is what is yet to be born. This is why Albertans told pollsters they wanted change and then voted for more of the same. This is why Federal politics remains deadlocked; why BC’s politics are frozen almost to the point where Gordon Campbell could do anything and not fear returning to the other side of the House; why Dalton McGuinty exists in the face of Caledonia, incredibly bad economic management and the destruction of a province and why, in the face of everything, Vancouver will probably return Sam Sullivan and Toronto David Miller to continue their reigns of error.

We don’t want what’s on offer, but the alternative hasn’t been placed before us. When it is, watch out. The earthquake will be a sight to behold.

One response to “Assume Nothing About the Electorate

  1. You took the words right out of my mouth, Bruce.

    The sad fact is that what we believe the old politics were are politics we’ve never really had before.

    It’s clearly time for a change.

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