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(Anthony Jenkins/The Globe and Mail)
(Anthony Jenkins/The Globe and Mail)

Tom Flanagan

An election is war by other means Add to ...

The middle of a national political campaign is a good time to reflect about the nature of campaigning. Every organized society must have a way of selecting its rulers. If you rule out the hereditary principle, you are left with two options: force (war) and persuasion (election). Political campaigns are the peaceful alternative to bloody civil war.

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Indeed, political campaigns have much in common with war. The very word "campaign" is a military term - taking the "field." Campaigns are directed from a "war room," and they involve both a "ground war" (contacting voters in person) and an "air war" (persuasion through the mass media). They demand "message discipline" as rigid as military discipline.

High-minded intellectuals and pundits like to pretend that campaigns should be about policy, but a moment's reflection shows the fallacy. Campaigns result in the choice of people to fill positions, not ideas to be implemented. Policies are props - useful to demonstrate the worthiness of people and parties, but useless on their own.

If you want intellectual authority for this position, go back to Aristotle, who said that persuasion in the public forum consists of a mixture of ethos (character), pathos (emotion) and logos (ideas). Other great philosophers have also commented on the secondary role of ideas in campaigns. Prime minister Kim Campbell said, "Elections are the worst time to talk about the future of our social programs." Alberta premier Ralph Klein said his health-care reform plans were "too complicated" to talk about during the campaign.

Almost everything uttered by every candidate and campaign team is incomplete and one-sided, when it is not completely false. Plausibility, not truth, is the test. We love to point out these defects in our opponents but are blind to them on our own side. Why? Because we are not engaged in rational discussion of issues but gathering support for our team. Words, ideas and policies become weapons to wound the other team and defend our own side.

This also explains the negative character of campaigning, about which there is so much hand-wringing. But there is no war without attack. As Cicero's brother said 2,000 years ago, in the first campaign manual: "See that your competitors are smeared with an evil reputation - which fits their characters - for crime, vice or bribery."

In fact, negative ads usually have a higher intellectual content than positive ads. Go to any party's website and look at the campaign ads. I guarantee you will learn more from the negative than the positive ads. Negative ads may be overstated and only partially true, but positive ads are usually vacuous and unsourced.

For example, it is true that Michael Ignatieff chose to live outside Canada for more than 30 years but came back after some admirers promised to help him become prime minister. Some people think he says "I'' too much, and comes across as self-centred. Some people think that Stephen Harper is secretive, domineering, and plays the political game exceptionally hard. But none of this would disqualify either man from holding office, because both are extremely intelligent, well educated, experienced and dedicated to public service.

The leader's supporters are happy to tell you about the bright side, but opponents will give you other perspectives. As a voter, you need all this information when you ponder which of two gifted but inevitably imperfect human beings would make the better prime minister. Those negative ads are public service announcements.

A campaign is a war of words to determine who governs. It is much more than a battle of ideas, because human beings are much more than thinking machines. And it is a marvellous substitute for the horrors of real war.

Tom Flanagan is professor of political science at the University of Calgary and a former Conservative campaign manager.

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