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Don’t talk down to us

in To Each Their Own by

Well, the federal election highlight came and went this past week. No, not the visit of the federal party leaders, although that happened too.

But it was Peter Mansbridge’s visit to the island which for many provided the highlight of the election. His arrival was anticipated with bated breath; his every movement tracked on social media; the buzz on every street-corner: “Have you seen Peter Mansbridge yet?”

The message was clear: this veteran CBC journalist, in town to host an edition of The National direct from St. John’s, was far more of a celebrity than either of the three party leaders. If he’d been running, he could probably have swept all of the province’s seven seats with a wave of his hand and an uptick of that sage eyebrow.

The program itself left a little more to be desired, cleaving to well-worn clichés and stereotypes. There was a moment with Alan Hawco. A joke with Buddy Wasisname. A song from Alan Doyle. The lineup of white male celebrities; the carefully curated collection of accents and fiddles playing in the background could have easily been culled from footage of any of the previous half dozen elections in the province.

Don’t get me wrong — it was a beautifully-produced program, and I’m sure plenty of us were proud to see our shores reflected across the country through Mansbridge’s kindly gaze. But as a reflection of the province’s broiling contemporary reality it reflected little more than well-worn stereotypes. To the average viewer on the mainland, it would seem Newfoundland (and Labrador, omitted though it was) remains a haven for resilient, long-suffering Irishmen who swallow their sufferings with silent stoicism and a sad song by the seashore.

Cute. But hardly an accurate or complete depiction of our present state.

Those who appeared on the program, representing the province, did a fine job of course. But the program was distinguished as much by what it chose to omit, as by what it chose to include.

Where were the burgeoning populations of migrant workers, struggling to eke out a living at pay rates too low for locals to deign to work? Where was Labrador, the other half of our province — the great hope of the province’s future which has been struggling to keep its own voice amid the thundering roar of billions in loans from the overseas energy industry? Sure, it’s logistically easier to fly in to St. John’s and host a program from the quaint coves of Quidi Vidi. But it would have been far more accurate and representative of our bicameral province to host half the show from the capital and the other half from Labrador.

And although there were concerned, laid-off oil patch workers, where were the poor from urban and rural communities alike who’ve been forced out of house and home as their traditional neighbourhoods gentrified and fancified and were sold out to absentee corporate landlords from the very industries that are now packing up and laughing their goodbyes?

A relief was the selection of young Clara Decan as the featured “Voter of Canada”. The Venezuelan immigrant offered an eloquent and stirring salute to the diversity that characterizes our province today as never before.

But there could have been more. So much more.

A voice of reason

There was one piercing truth in the program. In a segment focusing on youth voters (a tokenized and trivialized voter segment if ever there was one) one eloquent young woman suggested that one reason more young people don’t vote is that they see through the message boxes and tight scripts of the politicians, and it discourages them from even participating. It’s a point well worth considering.

After all, it’s not hard to see that election time is here. All the usual suspects are pouring out into the streets and the community mailboxes, filling up HuffPo advertorials and sponsoring Facebook ads. Candidates, political parties, advocacy groups on the right, the left, and those that don’t really seem to know where they are on the spectrum.

It should be an exciting time. Every street corner should be full of intense discussion, every bar table animated with enthusiasm. The grocery store lineups should be abuzz with debate. So why does the arrival of a new flyer, the unveiling of a new website, the announcement of a new electoral promise, always fill us with a profound sense of ennui? Why are the most interesting things about an election the things that go wrong, instead of the things that go right?

As someone who’s volunteered for (and supported) political parties on every end of the spectrum, and worked with advocacy and activist groups of every stripe under the rainbow, there’s a disturbing commonality I’ve observed in their outreach to the public. And that is the increasing ‘professionalization’ of how campaigns are unrolled.

It’s also why, inevitably, many of them fail. Or are ignored by a significant proportion—often the majority—of the electorate.

Moments of political possibility like elections are supposed to be exciting spaces of debate, argument, revelation and fervent discussion. Instead, they become prisons of message boxes and key points, lashed into confinement by ‘experts’ and ‘strategists’.

Simplifying the message into oblivion

Take the average election flyer, whether it comes from a candidate or an activist. When a party—or an advocacy group—simplifies their arguments and beliefs into three or four short lines, or into point-form on a rave card, it’s often justified with arguments such as, ‘People are too busy to read complex ideas,’ ‘You’ll lose their interest,’ ‘People don’t care about issues that don’t affect them.’

Such ideas betray a deep cynicism with democratic politics.

If people are too busy to read an in-depth explanation about what you want to tell them, then quite frankly your ideas are probably not worth it in the first place and you ought to pack it in. If not even you believe your ideas are worth hearing in detail, then why in the world are your ideas worth pushing at all? If you think you’ll lose people’s interest, then there’s a problem with what you’re saying. And if you think people will ignore your materials if they don’t affect them, then the problem isn’t your materials but the fact that you haven’t figured out for yourself how your ideas affect the broader public.

The fact is—and here’s where the ‘experts’ get it all wrong—people are intelligent. People do care. And if you give people a reason—be it conviction, self-interest, or the empathetic plea to help others—then they will give you their time. History offers no shortage of examples.

In this day and age, above all, the booming of social media, the overwhelming popularity of documentary films, the steady growth in blogs and books and other forms of discourse all demonstrate that the public’s interest in genuine, authentic communication and engagement, in exchanging ideas and developing new ones, is stronger than ever.

For a political strategist, there is one statistic, and one statistic only that should matter: the 39 per cent of registered Canadian electors who did not vote in the last federal election.

What this statistic demonstrates is that all the expertise, strategies, and wisdom in the world are all for nothing. Out of 24 million eligible voters, only 5.8 million voted for the winning party. Over 9 million did not vote at all. The largest single bloc has decided to disengage with the political process, and its decision to do so does not reflect that they are busy, or uninterested, or lazy. It reflects the failure of the candidates, parties, advocacy groups, and ‘experts’ whose ideas and strategies appeal only to the smaller blocs of voters who actually do vote.

A few basic lessons

There are a few basic precepts any candidate, party, or advocacy group ought to keep in mind:

People have brains, and they’re not afraid to use them. Don’t be afraid to challenge voters, to throw complex ideas at them and see what they have to say. Most people, given the chance, will surprise you. It’s because you don’t give them the chance that they don’t bother giving you one either.

Offer complex ideas. Simple ideas appeal to people who want simple answers. Fortunately for humanity (and unfortunately for marketing agents), that describes an ever-shrinking proportion of people. Our recent history demonstrates clearly and forcefully a growing awareness of the complexity of the issues we grapple with as a society and the answers they call for. Complexity is something we are no longer afraid to acknowledge and engage with. And what this means is when we are offered simple answers, we automatically suspect and reject them. This is why election flyers are tossed in the garbage, why election ads produce more memes than votes, and why voter turnout is steadily declining in many jurisdictions. We are a complex people and we expect our representatives to be willing to engage us on a complex level.

Ditch the message box. There was a time when message boxes were effective, when, given a cacophony of chaotic voices, people opted for the simple and consistent messaging of a single line repeated over and over. Today’s era has become precisely the opposite. Today, we are surrounded by a media landscape that is blanketed by simplistic messages enrobed in iron-clad message boxes. Most of us have learned to recognize a message box when we hear one, and our reaction is one of immediate distrust and skepticism. Hiding behind a message box conveys the idea that the person speaking either has something to hide, or lacks the conviction to offer an authentic argument in response to a question. Neither scenario induces confidence. In today’s world, it is the politician or advocate who discards the message box, and has the courage and sincerity to engage a question on its own terms, who will win the hearts of voters. Simply witness U.S. Republican candidate Donald Trump’s strong showing of support, even among so-called liberals and former Obama supporters. For many of them, it’s not his policies they support — it’s the fact he’s not afraid to say what he thinks.

Being non-partisan kills democracy. There is nothing more self-defeating than advocacy groups that run around saying they are non-partisan and simply want to encourage or educate people about voting. The entire purpose of democracy is to be partisan — to have opinions and perspectives, to share them and test them against the opinions and perspectives of others. To say you can promote democracy without being partisan is like saying you can be a music promoter without liking music. It’s nonsense. If you want to promote democracy and political engagement, then do it by example. Be partisan.

It’s not just candidates and political parties that are at risk from the usurpation of democratic politics by professionals. Professionalization has been the death knell of progressive movements. Witness the labour movement.

At a time when labour unions are investing more money than ever into slick marketing campaigns, into hiring public relations experts, professional lobbying and promotional strategies, they continue to lose ground at an accelerating pace. Victories become defined by incremental shifts in opinion polls, or by how long a regressive government bill is delayed. The gains of the labour movement were not, and never will be, won through marketing campaigns or social media ads. They were won through honest, old-fashioned methods: members talking to members in straightforward heart-to-heart fashion. Arguments, debate, and difficult questions were not avoided — they were embraced as the only way to build trust and solidarity. Honesty, not message boxes, and the fearless, collective direct action which honesty and trust made possible—strikes, occupations, collective action to strike down laws that oppressed communities and exploited workers—is how labour achieved its gains. And it’s the only way they’ll hold on to them today.

Democracy is a messy process. That’s what makes it so great. It means that anything is possible.

The same goes for other advocacy groups. Why is it that environmentalism seemed an unstoppable force until it went professional? Today’s effective environmentalism—in Canada at least—is being led by Indigenous groups that are willing to blockade tankers and shut down pipelines, not by the slick PR machines of #SaveThePlanet.Inc.

Democracy is a messy process. That’s what makes it so great. It means that anything is possible. But when you attempt to make it predictable, expectable, and even understandable, you remove the very core of what makes it work. Nobody cares to waste their time on doing something when they think they know what the outcome will be. They will, however, invest their time when they think they have an honest chance at shaping the outcome.

Obviously, this is a partial critique. There will always be people who vote, no matter how cynical they are about the broader system — thank goodness. But it is what our society loses in the process that we should be concerned about.

We lose the voices we most need to hear: the poor and disenfranchised, who need leaders that are willing to put their interests over and above the economic interests that have disenfranchised them and made them poor; the workers, who need leaders willing to go to jail to fight to preserve labour rights, not leaders who attend courses in social media; and above all, the nation, which needs leaders who are willing and able to lead through honest engagement with the public, not through layers of PR agents and communications strategies.

It’s time to reclaim democratic politics from the political scientists, pollsters, and professionals who are killing it. There’s no easy way to do this. But on behalf of the majority whose silence is a deafening rejection of the status quo, it’s our responsibility to try.

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